Preserving history in Buenos Aires
But travellers are not the only ones who might overlook some of Buenos Aires’ most beautiful architecture; locals often miss it too, which makes it difficult to protect and preserve. This unawareness could be due, in part, to the tight grid plan of the city, Wright said, since it is difficult for residents to view a building’s impressive dome from the ground. But there is also a lack of thorough architectural inventory. Much of the efforts to document and preserve the city’s historic buildings has been undertaken by grassroots initiatives, including the efforts of Alejandro Machado, who maintains a series of blogs that detail various architects’ work in the city. For example, without Machado, the work of Virginio Colombo, a highly esteemed Italian-Argentine architect from the turn of the 20th Century, would otherwise go undocumented.
Argentina’s tumultuous economic and political history is also likely related to the city’s lacklustre historical preservation. The Law of Heritage Protection, for example, which mandates the protection of buildings constructed before 1941, was not passed until 2008. “The Buenos Aires city government has unfortunately shown very specifically that the priority on its agenda is the real estate business, and that has provoked patrimonial catastrophes,” Rentero said.
Grassroots movements have had to step in where gaps exist. For example, Congress allowed the Law of Heritage Protection to expire at the end of 2011. The law is now still in effect, but only because a group of NGOs focused on architectural preservation appealed to the court to extend the law. “Fundamentally, NGOs and community associations are the entities most concerned with preserving the value of Buenos Aires’ architecture,” Rentero said. But even that law can be seen as insufficient, as many residents argue that a number of city landmarks constructed after 1941 also are in need of legal protection.
Groups like Basta de Demoler have sprung up to advocate for preservation of the city’s historic architecture, and many individual business owners see benefit in purchasing older properties and renovating them in the original style. Tourists often are drawn to Buenos Aires specifically for its impressive, hodgepodge architecture, and as such, accommodations like Magnolia Hotel on a quiet street in trendy Palermo and Hotel Boutique Racó in the working-class neighbourhood of Almagro, were mindfully preserved as far as possible when properties were reopened as boutique hotels. Argentines, though, are nostalgic; they longingly romanticise the past and when residents catch Wright photographing their homes, they often proudly invite him to photograph the artisan’s handiwork from the inside.
Still, some historic buildings are confusingly left to decay or demolition. Two of the city’s most iconic buildings stand across the street from each other at one end of Avenida de Mayo. The Neoclassical Argentine National Congress building, topped with a sea green, oxidized copper dome and adorned with intricate sculptures, is still in use today, while across the street the abandoned multi-storey Art Nouveau building Confitería del Molino rots. The confitería (pastry shop/café) was constructed in the early 1900s, complete with a windmill on the façade, (molino means “windmill”). Bakers would serve hot loaves of pan dulce (a sweet bread dotted with candied fruit) rumoured to be the best in the city, and famed cultural figures like tango stars idled away hours at the tables. Then the upkeep costs were too high for the owners. The confitería shuttered in the late 1990s and consequently began to fall into disrepair.
While the building has all but been left to squatters and looters, the structure still stands. Other landmarks, such as the former home of Argentine poet Alfonsina Storni in the Flores neighbourhood, have entirely disappeared. It was demolished just as an appeal was circulating to grant it cultural preservation status.
“There really isn’t this consciousness of architectural heritage [in Buenos Aires] as there is in Europe,” Wright said. Perhaps in that respect, Argentina should once again look to Europe.
Buenos Aires with Lonely Planet
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