Text and Photos:Mariana Lafont
“There is more happiness in the nobility of a forest than in luxury without greenery.”
“Man, especially he who labors, needs distraction; is there anything healthier, more noble and true, when one knows how to appreciate it, than the contemplation of trees and beautiful flowers, especially when they are tastefully arranged?” That’s how Jules Charles Thays described the importance of green spaces in a city that owes a good part of its current appearance to his work. In fact, seventy parks in Buenos Aires bear his signature, including Parque Tres de Febrero, Lezama, Centenario, Plaza Francia, Plaza de Mayo, and Barrancas de Belgrano.
Thays (1849-1934), the Parisian architect, naturalist, landscape architect, urbanist, writer, and journalist arrived in the country in 1889. He came with a one-year contract to build a park, and then stayed and served as director of the Parks and Walkways of Buenos Aires from 1891 to 1913. He was selected by the Argentine elite to beautify country homes and mansions, and he also made scientific excursions to learn about native Argentine species. The landscape architect emphasized the importance of green spaces, because he maintained that in theses spaces “the spirit rests, suffering is momentarily forgotten, and the appearance of what is beautiful and pure produces an immediate effect on the heart.” He introduced the mixed garden style that combines French geometric rationality with the picturesque English garden style, accompanied by the use of water in sculptures, fountains, ponds, and lakes. A lover of beauty, he took advantage of the lovely local flora and gave Buenos Aires an urban woodland with 150,000 trees, including the Lapacho, Ceibo, Palo Borracho (Drunken Tree), and the Jacaranda and Rosewood trees that blossom alternately throughout the year. He believed parks should not be for the exclusive use of the higher classes, so he created public spaces with areas for playgrounds, sports, and recreation. He transformed the city so dramatically that the popular magazine Caras y Caretas published a caricature of him in 1901, calling him the “the nation’s gardener.”
A porteña (native of Buenos Aires) by birth, I was fortunate to grow up in a city that has something all great cities should have: many green spaces. Cities breathe through the lungs that are their parks. I have always loved the color green because of the calm I feel when I see it, the pure air I breathe under tree canopies, and the happiness I feel when I see a flower. As a girl I would frequent the nearby square to play and swing. The square was neither big nor especially tree-lined, but it was a place to see other children and get out of the apartment. If I wanted a little more green space, I would walk a few more blocks to Barrancas de Belgrano, and in a few blocks more I would come across the great lung of Buenos Aires, the Parque Tres de Febrero, also known as “Bosques de Palermo.”
Another one of my favorite parks was the Plaza San Martín, in the Retiro neighborhood, bordered by the traditional Florida Street. It is undoubtedly one of the city’s most beautiful green spaces, thanks to its landscape design and the architecture of its surroundings. I remember it seemed exquisite to me. What most fascinated me was the great slope, which inspired me break out running until I reached Libertador Avenue, where the Monumento a los Caídos de Malvinas (Monument to the Fallen of the Maldives) stands today. I loved it because in addition to seeing executives running from one side to the other, “as a treat” we always drank tea and had a delicious grilled sandwich, and then we’d visit the elegant Harrods, one of the few places with an escalator at that time. But getting back to the parks, if I had to choose, I would say that there are three that definitely should not be missed: the Japanese Garden, the Bosques de Palermo, and the Botanical Garden.
I have always been attracted to harmonious designs so I would often visit the Japanese Garden in the Bosques de Palermo. I loved crossing the steep, curved red bridge and watching the enormous, colorful carp that crowded together to devour the food I threw. The Japanese Community built this idyllic garden in 1967, in anticipation of a visit by the then Crown Prince Akihito, who is the current emperor of Japan, and his wife Michiko. Like in most Japanese gardens, all the elements are designed with harmony and balance in mind. The bridges are symbols, like the so-called Bridge of God (which has the steepest curve and is a deep red color), which represents the road to paradise. There’s also the Truncated Bridge, made of logs, which leads to the Island of the Miraculous Cures.
This garden is so beautiful that honeymooners and girls celebrating their quinceaños (15th birthday) often choose to have their photographs taken here. The vegetation is made up of ancient native trees like the Tipa and the Palo Borracho (Drunken Tree), in addition to a great variety of Japanese plants like the Sakura (Cherry Blossom), the Acer Palmatum (Japanese maple), and azaleas, which are a festival of colors in the springtime. During the fall, it’s worth sitting in the bar underneath the golden canopy of the Ginkgo Biloba tree. In addition to the garden, there is also a center for cultural activities and workshops, a public library, an excellent restaurant, a teahouse, and a beautiful greenhouse. All proceeds from the entrance fee support the maintenance of the garden, which is managed by the Japanese Argentine Cultural Foundation. For this reason, all the traditional festivals of Japan are celebrated here.
Bosques de Palermo and the Rose Garden
The indefatigable Thays designed the traditional Parque Tres de Febrero, a group of parks, lakes, and rose gardens occupying nearly 1,000 acres in the Palermo neighborhood. Many people come here every weekend to walk, run, skate, ride bikes, or go boating in one of its three artificial lakes. Bird watchers can observe a great variety of birds of prey, herons, parrots, and woodpeckers, among others. This park is the classic destination for students picnicking and celebrating Students’ Day, which coincides with the beginning of spring, on September 21. The Galileo Galilei Planetarium is located here, which in addition to projecting stars, planets, and galaxies, offers other astronomy-related shows and workshops.
The park was opened with great fanfare in 1875 and in the following years Thays worked on its successive modifications, with the dream of converting it into the Bois de Boulogne park of Buenos Aires. Here you will find El Rosedal, the rose garden, an exquisite and idyllic garden comprised of some 8.6 acres, including nearly 18,000 rose bushes, busts of poets and writers, a Hellenic bridge, and an Andalusian patio. One of the entrances opens to a romantic white bridge; crossing this bridge allows you to see thousands of roses in their entire splendor. Benito Carrasco, a disciple of Thays, completed the work in 1914. Six years later, an Andalusian-style garden was annexed and in 1929, the Ayuntamiento de Sevilla (Seville City Council) donated a pergola, an arbor, and a tile fountain to make it even more beautiful.
The Botanical Garden of Buenos Aires was better known as “The Garden of Cats,” because many kittens were abandoned here. A few years ago the felines were removed from the park, although some still prowl through its serene, shady paths. This urban oasis is located between two important avenues: Las Heras and Santa Fe, in front of the teeming Plaza Italia, the La Rural expo center, and the Zoo. People come here to read, chat, play the guitar, or simply admire this incredible place.
Since 1937 this lush garden has been named after Charles Thays, in honor of the great landscape architect who conceived of it. A green carpet featuring more than 5,000 species covers its 750, 000 square feet, interrupted only by delicate fountains and sculptures. In the center there is a striking English-style building made of red bricks, which houses the administrative offices, the library, and the museum where Thays lived as director of Parks and Walkways. Very near is an Art Nouveau-style greenhouse made of iron and glass. It’s the largest of the five in the garden and was awarded a prize during the 1900 Paris Expo. It houses hundreds of ferns, orchids, and palms, and it’s a special a pleasure to visit in winter because it brings visitors in out of the cold.
The garden opened in 1898 with six phytogeographical sectors: five house species from each continent and another features native Argentinean species. You can see Gingko Biloba trees and beautiful Asian camellias; acacias, eucalyptus, and Casuarina trees from Oceania; oaks, hazel nut trees, and European elms; and ferns, palms, and rubber trees from Africa. There is also an area dedicated to yerba mate; the germination process of this plant was re-discovered here, leading to its cultivation, which was lost when the Jesuits were expelled at the end of the 18th century. As always, Thays showed himself to be a tireless visionary.