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Cafebrería El Péndulo, San Ángel, Mexico City. A bookstore designed for human interaction

A ninety-year-old palm tree stands its ground as the focal point of the store at sixteen meters tall – a second home to those who indulge in a confetti of books

The origin of Cafebrería El Péndulo

Eduardo Aizenman had moved to Condesa, which had been a desired neighborhood in the Sixties and Seventies, but its buildings were old and people started to shift to a suburban life, the area started to empty. «I went back to Condesa in 1991 and despite it being one of the centers of Mexico City for the arts, there wasn’t anything worthy of a mention taking place». Aizenman had returned to Mexico after spending eight years abroad. «When we moved there – my brother in law and I, who was my partner – we rented a space where he established a design firm and began to work in architecture. We didn’t have a place to eat, read, spend time in or listen to music, we decided to create one».

Founded in 1993, The project was about developing a space with uses that could feed into each another. «We didn’t have a budget or business plan, and didn’t know anything about restaurants. We had a kitchen. This was our start». Speaking of the origin of the name of Cafebrería El Péndulo, Aizenman says that his partner used to work with a bookstore chain in Mexico, Gandhi. «We got help from Mauricio Achar, the founder, who was into Umberto Eco’s ‘Il pendolo di Foucault’. He appreciated what happens in the book, where imaginary things become real. The coming and going of life felt close to how we wanted the place to be».

Centro Cultural Helénico property in San Ángel

San Ángel, one of the recently built locations, was their first commission by a third party, a theater complex in the south of Mexico City. The property is the Centro Cultural Helénico, which includes a humanities school. On the opposite side of the bookstore lies a building; dating between Eleventh and Thirteenth century. «It is a Spanish Gothic chapel shipped and rebuilt», Aizenman notes. «We were entering a space that, despite its history, had been run over by theaters and cinemas. The site had a plinth in the middle – a platform with a shape that went around two trees, a palm tree and another tree – one of the boundaries that we had to work with».

Today, the platforms in San Ángel rotate around the fulcrum that is a ninety-year-old palm tree, which is sixteen meters tall. «We had garden in the back and on the opposite side was Avenida Revolucion – a street with an art museum, theater and the colonial-style neighborhood of San Ángel». The garden was the focus of activities for which people would sit down. Considering the issue of noise coming from the opposite end, Aizenman’s team decided to put a blind wall facing the street. With double height bookshelves: since books are paper-made, they isolate noise and heat. «That became part of a truss which functions as a structural diaphragm and helps with earthquakes».

Circulation – how people move around the space

«Our projects create routes for people to experience the building. It enables discovery». Three were the years for the process to get the signing of the contract. This gave him the chance to work on details to bring individuality to the space. The limitation of San Ángel’s range of materials confines to stone, wood, glass and steel. The structure is post and beam. Making the space feel intimate was the challenge for the team. «It wasn’t only a design challenge: it was a human relationship challenge». Being an industrial building, Aizenman notes, «we figured out how to dress it. Building the space through levels creates structures at heights, and that generates scales».

The stairs come in forms: one is a wide stair that people feel invited to walk through. The other is in a books cage, which brings you to the top level. They brought the roof down, working on it to create a trellis. The cost of wood manufacturing in Mexico matched that of aluminum, the team decided to use slabs of wood that went through the space toward the dome. «The light can be diffused or strong: that alters one’s perception of the scale». Working with light designers allowed them to make rain-like fixtures that could be hung vertically and horizontally. Among artificial light sources one finds rods, a cloud on one side and a lightning-like lattice. «We limited our language», Aizenman says.

Lampoon, Cafebrería El Péndulo
Cafebrería El Péndulo. Photography Jaime Navarro

Book selection at Cafebrería El Péndulo

«In Cafebrería El Péndulo San Ángel, Mexico City, you’re surrounded by thirty thousand books». As we speak, Aizenman mentions how the mural that decorates one of the outside walls of the first branch, in Condesa, carries the inscription Centro Cultural Cafebrería El Péndulo. «We considered ourselves a cultural centre», he says. «When we opened, ours was the commercial activity in a residential area. Then came the restaurants and bars». Every branch has its buyers, who tailor the stock to the neighborhoods. The book selection is focused on literature, philosophy, poetry and theatre, an English language section and a French section. The bookstores substituted the music section with LPs and a turntable to play them. There is a shop with design objects. One of the book exchange programs of Cafebrería El Péndulo is Libro Libre.

Bicilibrerías exchange program

«On the first Tuesday of every month, we free up a hundred books which carry a seal at the front. It says ‘This is a free book. Take it, read it. We walk around neighborhoods and leave them on benches. Otherwise we give them to people who work with us. They will leave them on the subway». Another exchange program is Bicilibrerías, through which they supplied a stock of three thousand books to be distributed on bicycles with a box in the front.

«We adapted these boxes so they flap out and set a megaphone in the center. In Mexico City you can hear the voices of street traders who exchange gas, people sharpening knives; buying and selling junk, or who are coming to collect garbage. We decided to imitate their ways by making a recording that said: ‘we sell books, old books, new books, bring them down’». Volunteers bike towards areas such as Tepito. «at first people would come down because they had nothing to do. But then they started asking when we would be coming again». The head of the municipality that helped them organize the program is the head of Senate in Mexico.

Cafebrería El Péndulo’s experience

Across the stores, human presence works as a sculptural element. Cafebrería El Péndulo’s experience draws its origins from concepts of topo geography and anthropoetics. «Every time you are building something, you are scarring the earth. That scar has to be well intended. It has to be thought out».

Poetics comes in through aspects of architecture: material, light and movement. «Architecture has to promote health. Not physical health, but spiritual health». Technologies are a risk and an opportunity for the enactment of responsibility, according to Aizenman. It is being said that technology is going to know us better than we know ourselves. On that note, he asserts: «There are going to be people who give themselves to the affirmation of technology, but it is a dangerous path. We should, as architects, go back to what can be done by people».

The advent of block technologies

In the Fifties, in rural areas of Mexico, people used to produce materials to build houses. «These structures held a sense of togetherness». With the advent of block technologies, which are cheap, «buildings remain unfinished – because you can add to them». The availability of materials does not promote dignity for the inhabitants.

What architecture does is concentrate on materials that can produce warmer buildings where people can develop a sense of belonging. «It is not about going back to nature and getting rid of technology. Openness should be the start, with dialogue. Being responsible in terms of the energy consumption. It is seductive to construct buildings, but in the end it’s not about educating architects. Educating everybody to have a critical mind. Understand that nobody has to give up their personal agenda to make someone else feel reassured».

Cafebrería El Péndulo

San Ángel, Av. Revolución 1500, Guadalupe Inn, Mexico City, Mexico

Veronica Gisondi

The writer does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article.

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