Preserving history in Buenos Aires
The residential Casa de los Lirios in the neighborhood of Balvanera represents the Catalan modernism movement in Buenos Aires. (Robert Wright)
Argentina – where Spanish is spoken with Italian-like intonations and where rugby and polo are two of the most popular sports – is largely a country of immigrants. And in the capital Buenos Aires, the many Europeans that came to Argentina starting in the late 1800s had wide open spaces to make their new city look like home, fusing Baroque, Art Nouveau and Beaux Arts-styles to create an eclectic, cosmopolitan and entirely unique architectural landscape – a sort of brick and mortar exhibition that traces the city’s economic history, cultural influence and varied demographics. But while many historic landmark buildings still stand, some city residents are vocal about the dire need for concerted preservation efforts.
The diversity of the city’s architecture includes edifices such as the Palacio Barolo on Avenida de Mayo, which was commissioned in the 1920s by Luis Barolo, an Italian immigrant who made his fortune in fabrics. The building was designed to resemble the allegory of Dante’s Divine Comedy, sectioned into three levels to represent hell, purgatory and heaven.
A short walk away in Plaza San Martín stands the angular Art Deco-style Kavanagh Building, which stole Palacio Barolo’s title as the tallest building in the city when it was constructed in the 1930s. And the sprawling formal mansions in the Recoleta district – erected in the late 1800s and early 1900s when Argentina was one of the wealthiest countries in the world – stand in stark contrast to the haphazard constructions along El Caminito in the neighbourhood of La Boca, where a multicoloured collection of homes was built from leftover construction materials and paint that denizens acquired from ships in and out of the nearby port at the turn of the 20th Century
Even within the Neoclassical gates of the Recoleta Cemetery, the rows of elaborately constructed mausoleums double as a sampling of the city’s history, with Art Deco and Neo Gothic structures sitting atop plots for Argentina’s wealthy and influential, including philanthropist Amelia Lacroze de Fortabat and former president Domingo Faustino Sarmiento. And the newest architectural development in the city can be found along the shores of the River Plate in the Puerto Madero neighbourhood, where shiny skyscrapers house some of the costliest real estate in Buenos Aires. Just a few blocks away, the cobblestoned San Telmo neighbourhood is full of some of the oldest colonial-style mansions in Buenos Aires, dating back to the 1800s.
Buenos Aires is often called the “Paris of South America”, but as far as architecture is concerned, the phrase only pertains to only certain pockets of the city, such as the wide, central avenue Avenida de Mayo or certain ritzy parts of the Recoleta neighbourhood. Elsewhere in the city, the mix of cultural and architectural heritage combines to make Buenos Aires unlike any other city on Earth. “To synthesise the character of Buenos Aires architecture, the term ‘eclectic’ is generally used,” said Lucas Rentero, director and co-founder of Eternautas Historic Trips, based in Buenos Aires. “In different neighbourhoods and within the same block, the variety of times, ideas, functions and styles is superior to that of other cities which have a more homogenous image across sectors.”
“Buenos Aires has that [indescribable] feeling of being some place special, and it’s due in large part to the architecture,” said Madi Lang, who creates customised visitor itineraries through her company BA Cultural Concierge. “The cool thing is the history is so tangible and [the architecture] helps to give people an image of the city and what it was like, and why.”
According to Robert Wright, who used to operate a tour company that focused largely on architecture in the city, many of Buenos Aires’ most impressive buildings are located in the barrios (neighbourhoods) where few tourists tread, such as the industrial neighbourhood Once, where the nouveau riche commissioned many Art Nouveau homes at the turn of the 20th Century, or the residential neighbourhood of Caballito that contains a cluster of Tudor-style homes. Wright now offers a downloadable English-language walking guide of Once, as well as additional architectural guides to places such as Recoleta Cemetery.
Buenos Aires with Lonely Planet
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