By Julia Henríquez
Photos: Demián Colman
What if buildings could speak? What if they speak, tell stories, bear witness, scream, remember, and sometimes be a story unto themselves? There is no better way to put this theory to the test than a thoughtful stroll along the main boulevard of Buenos Aires: Avenida de Mayo. With the right guidance, it can also be a trip through time and a fascinating lesson in the history of architecture.
Argentina experienced an economic boom during the last two decades of the 19th century, when the country was considered the world’s breadbasket and a draw for immigrants from around the globe. By the time this avenue was created in 1894, two out of every three inhabitants of the city were immigrants.
The new oligarchy ―composed of wealthy Argentineans of European descent married to Europeans― wanted to bring replicate the glories of other countries, so they hired European masons, artists, architects, and engineers, and even imported materials such as marble and stone. The result is a multi-faceted mix that gave rise to the eclectic neoclassicism that characterizes Buenos Aires.
The journey finishes ten blocks to the west at the other end of the Avenue, in front of the second unforgettable example of Buenos Aires neoclassicism: the Congressional Palace, crowned by the city’s largest cupola. It features a bronze replica of The Thinker (1907), made from the original mold and signed by the artist, French sculptor Auguste Rodin.
During the 19th century, the city’s architecture was inspired by Paris, but that city’s strict regulations dictated uniform, symmetrical buildings that ended up boring the residents to the point that the regulations were changed in 1882. In contrast, the construction of Avenida de Mayo did not last long enough for people to become jaded. The properties were in private hands and architects could be more flexible, so the boulevard turned into a mosaic of styles rife with singular models that nonetheless coalesced into a harmonious ensemble.
By the time Avenida de Mayo was inaugurated on July 9, 1894, there was little evidence of Colonial style. The modern contention is that nothing endured owing to a lack of lasting building materials. This may also explain the unusual appearance of the Cathedral, begun in 1752, but modified and reworked many times over the course of a century, leaving it with clear influences of Buenos Aires Academicism.
Nevertheless, some Colonial vestiges do endure. The Town Hall, for example, which was built, rebuilt, and restored over a period of 300 years, is still noticeably Colonial. So are the “rounded street corners” ―the unusual Buenos Aires curved street corners and triangular facades― which may not be obvious at first glance, but which leap into focus with a second look.
At the beginning of the colonial period, Buenos Aires supposedly had ordinary right-angle corners, but startled pedestrians often bumped into each other on the sidewalk as they could not see around the corner. The Argentineans solved the problem by reshaping the corners in Barcelona fashion, thus opening the way for buildings with an extra facade.
The eclecticism of this boulevard is evident on the northern side of the first section of the Avenue, site of the Government Palace (built between 1891 and 1902), which is of Italian design but has a French mansard roof. The magnificent neo-baroque building was previously occupied by the newspaper La Prensa and is currently home to the House of Culture and what was once a branch of the Gath y Chaves store, with an Beaux-Arts style cupola that differs from the rest of the facade.
Argentina was part of the cultural changes that took place in the rest of the world in the early 20th century. The new art drew on nature, broke with Beaux-Arts symmetry, and made use of industrial revolution materials, such as metal. This was art nouveau, the influence of which can be seen in buildings, and particularly in gates and other decorative features, around the city.
The architectural tour continues, leading to the distinctive Barolo Palace, which was one of the two tallest buildings in South America; the other is its “twin brother,” Montevideo’s Salvo Palace, designed by the same architect.
Italian architect Mario Palanti constructed this palace at the request of textile baron Luis Barolo, even designing secondary details like door handles, lamps, and elevator cages. The building is topped by a lighthouse lit by 300,000 bulbs. The creator’s admiration for Dante Alighieri takes form in myriad references to The Divine Comedy.
Art nouveau and the artistic explosions of modernism evolved into the symmetry and Egyptian-inspired lines of French art deco. Geometry-induced constructivism blended with cubism and futurism to give us gems like the Hotel Chile (one of the few in the city in “pure” art nouveau style) and the 1936 Kavanagh Building, which was, for a time, the tallest reinforced concrete building in South America at 394 feet. Although it is not actually on Avenida de Mayo, it deserves a special mention because of its status as a UNESCO Modern World Heritage Site since 1999.
When war ravages the world, simplicity and functionalism reign in art. Following on the heels of the irresolute postwar period, Perón’s social ideals helped to disseminate rationalism, which holds that buildings should be functional, and therefore simple and inexpensive. The look was achieved in the new government buildings through the use of granite and marble and the orderly arrangement of square walls and windows. The cycle had come full circle.
From the city’s first building to the new and modern apartment buildings of Puerto Madero, every structure tells the history of not only the city, but the world itself. Wars and their economic repercussions, as well as migrations and their influence on culture, shaped this people who speak Spanish, eat homemade pasta, and drink tea.
The people represent the Buenos Aires eclecticism that lives in all types of artistic expression. A judicious glance at any example of local architecture, where modernism meets neoclassicism, is an expression of life as it is lived here.