Locals are aiming to protect the city’s Baroque, Art Nouveau and Beaux Arts buildings, which combine to create an eclectic, cosmopolitan and unique architectural landscape.

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.

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.