As I winged my way to Buenos Aires the first time, I couldn’t wait to experience the mansard roofs and neoclassical façades of Beaux Arts architecture that had gained the city its nickname “the Paris of South America.”
I thought this would be the architectural story I would tell when I eventually wrote about my time there so imagine how surprised I was when my most important article (to date) was a survey of Modernism in the capital region of Argentina.
I landed the “City Report” assignment for Modernism magazine, which, sadly, has since ceased publication, after my third trip to the city. I spent an entire week covering so much territory on foot with the summer heat blasting forth I felt I’d been plunked down in the “ardent desert” of Jorge Luis Borges’s short story “The Immortal.”
Architecture in the Paris of South America
In retrospect, the effort was an insane idea, but my comprehensive survey of Baires Modernism remains one of my favorite clips. In celebration of the second installment of “The Emotionality of Architecture,” my column for Architizer, I thought I’d share what I learned during the Modernism research here as an AdroytLABS piece that poses the question, “Do you believe zoning laws should prevent a mash-up or architectural styles or do you believe this is the mark of all great urban landscapes?” Leave us a comment, as we’d like to know your thoughts.
So…back to Argentina: I’d hit upon the idea of writing about Baires’s modern lineage because the friend I visited a number of times lived in an International Style building, one of several designed by his father, who was a staunch devotee of modern architecture. Armed with camera and reporter’s pad, out I went into a stalwart of Neoclassical ornamentation to see what the modernists had created there since the style had gained its foothold during the 1930s. To be honest, I was quite impressed with the vision they’d had. The only piece of the puzzle that seemed out of kilter was the haphazard way the disparate styles had been melded, which left the city looking like a choc-a-block of chaos. Some sections of town held such a mix of styles shoulder-to-shoulder, they read like a cacophony of scale and materials.
I ask the question above because it was a case of non-existent zoning rules that created the disarray, which has caused quite a lengthy, and ongoing, architectural debate in the Argentine capital, peaceful protests over real estate development continuing to this day. The two sides that remain at war is a group made up of vehement supporters wishing they’d never lost a classic mansard roof or a Gothic spire to Modernism’s pared-down planes duking it out with advocates for more inclusion of modern architecture, who are just as passionate.
Modernism Comes to Buenos Aires
It was Le Corbusier who ignited the first sparks of Modernism in Argentina when he accepted an invitation from the Friends of the Arts Society to travel to Buenos Aires in 1929. He presented ten lectures covering subjects as diverse as furniture design and town planning. Anticipating his visit, Victoria Ocampo, the founder of the cultural journal SUR, asked Corb to design a modern home for her in anticipation of his visit. He did complete the drawings, but in a surprise move she chose Argentine architect Alejandro Bustillo, a classicist, to design the residence. The resulting Casa Victoria Ocampo at 2831 Rufino de Elizalde became Buenos Aires’s first modernist building in 1929.
“We might wonder why Ocampo, who represented at the time a certain avant-garde, wanted Bustillo to build her house, a ‘manifesto house’ of her ideas, since he was an architect who detested those ideas and preached a return to the most rigorous classicism,” wrote Ernesto Katzenstein in his article “Argentine Architecture of the Thirties,” which was published in Volume 18 of The Journal of Decorative and Propaganda Arts. This thought was echoed by Professor Alberto Petrina, Director General of Heritage for the City of Buenos Aires, when I interviewed him in a Baires coffee shop over a cafecito: “It is very symbolic that the first sign of Modernism in Buenos Aires was from an architect who had previously worked in a classic style. This shows that Modernism was born in Buenos Aires with great ambiguity.”
Ambivalence of even the most evolved members of the avant-garde aside, the modernists were determined to make headway so they chipped away (literally) at the Beaux Arts Academy’s buildings in town. Following Ocampo’s lead, the city’s first modernist high-rises began to climb during the 1930s and they remain some of Buenos Aires’s most important early examples of Modernism. The first, which was also the first skyscraper to be built of reinforced concrete in Latin America, was the COMEGA Building at 222 Corrientes Avenue, designed by Alfredo Joselevich and Enrique Douillet. The office building, surfaced in travertine, was completed in 1932. At 420 Corrientes Avenue, the SAFICO Building rose skyward that same year. Designed by Walter Moll, its stepped tower mimics the New York “wedding cake” style of skyscraper.
Petrina explained that the climate in which these early modern manifestations were born was fueled by Le Corbusier’s lectures and his journal L’Esprit Nouveau. An appreciation for New York City’s skyscrapers being built at the time also had a hand in the fervor, as did the respect Argentine architects had for Frank Lloyd Wright. “He caught our attention and we greatly admired his work,” remarks Petrina. “We also admired the Rockefeller Center, the Chrysler Building and the Empire State Building, and we wanted to build our own versions.” Cultural heritage organizations in Baires consider the 33-story Kavanagh Building at1065 Florida Street—designed by Gregorio Sánchez, Ernesto Lagos and Luis M. de la Torre—a legacy representation of early Modernism in South America. Completed in 1935, the building is a hybrid of German rationalism and the American Art Deco skyscraper. Financed by Corina Kavanagh, one of the wealthiest women in the country at the time, the apartment building is lauded for its adaptation to its location—a triangular plot that slopes toward Plaza San Martín and the Rio de la Plata. At its base, the building swells toward the forked intersection that defines the property’s northeastern edge like the prow of a ship.
The Kavanagh was the tallest reinforced concrete building in the world when it was built and it was the first high-rise in the world to have central air conditioning. Like the Kavanagh, many of the modernist structures in Buenos Aires are apartment buildings, and a cursory look at the facades of a handful of them proves that the preservation of private residences is a sketchy matter. While some buildings are maintained perfectly, others are suffering. This is not only an economic issue but a cultural one says architect Jorge Kuperman, who left Argentina in 1981 after graduating from the University of Buenos Aires with a Masters Degree in Architecture and Urban Planning.
“In Buenos Aires, the government does not tell homeowners how to manage their properties: it simply would not be tolerated,” he said. “The Kavanagh has been designated a historic building due to its architectural significance so it is protected, but other historically important apartment buildings are not.” Kuperman, the founder of the Miami-based firm JSK Architectural Group and a past president of the Miami Chapter of the American Institute of Architects (AIA), explains that a movement toward the preservation of many of the Argentine capital’s gems is in its infancy so it will likely be a while before privately owned buildings come under scrutiny. “The SCA or Sociedad Central de Arquitectos, which is the Argentine equivalent of the AIA, is now autonomous for the first time in history,” he said during our interview in 2007, “so they are just beginning to educate the public as to the importance of preservation.”
Clorindo Testa Modern Architect
Given the number of institutional buildings in a serious state of disrepair, it’s clear the government itself needs to take the organization’s directives to heart. These include some of the country’s most important cultural gems. One in particular was designed by an Argentine architectural heavyweight, Clorindo Testa. He brought his version of Brutalism to bear on the urbanscape with his National Library (at 2502 Agüero), which he designed with Francisco Bullrich and Alicia Cazzaniga. The building is famous for the 30 years it took the government to build it. Construction, which began in 1960, was not completed until 1990 due to political and economic chaos. Most inhabitants of Buenos Aires call the National Library a white elephant because it was outmoded before it was even finished. Nevertheless, this is one of the iconic pieces of architecture that still causes Testa’s name to inspire awe in many Argentine architects working throughout the world today.
During a trip to Buenos Aires shortly before I interviewed him, Kuperman had visited Testa, who died in 2013. Watching the architect draw as they talked, he remarked, “He uses a pencil like a paintbrush. I think this explains why his architecture is as expressive as it is.” Testa’s Bank of London Building at 101 Reconquista is another Brutalist marvel. Kuperman remembers field trips to the landmark while in university. “We visited the building to study how an architect could effectively design everything—down to the counters and office chairs,” he explained. “The building was renovated in the 1970s and it was incredibly controversial, even though Testa himself was involved.”
In Kuperman’s opinion, the building lost much of its integrity during the updating due to the fact the cohesiveness of furnishings Testa had achieved initially was not maintained. Ironically, it was landmarked afterwards. Strong Brutalist statements glare at passersby through the television screen-shaped punches that pock the skin of this building and unflinchingly feign disinterest from the furled eyebrows on the National Library. In the latter Kuperman references a keen similarity to Le Corbusier’s Chapel at Ronchamp.
It’s interesting to me that Corb’s Latin American interlude made such a strong mark on the minds of architects like Testa since the former never designed a building in Buenos Aires proper. His only Argentine project was Casa Curutchet, a private residence built in La Plata. Measured against the classicism that holds court along some of Buenos Aires’s most dignified avenues, such as in buildings like the graceful Palacio Duhau, the architecture that spurred such a strong debate as to whether Corb’s influence was positive or negative continues to fuel the fire as these structures age, many not so satisfactorily. With many of the older architects I interviewed, it was the Beaux-Arts tradition that made them misty-eyed when they spoke of its heyday.
One such gentleman I had the true pleasure of sitting down with was my friend’s uncle, Roberto Boullón. He proudly showed me the journals he kept on his Wanderjahr to Europe, which he took as a young man who was still merely dreaming of being an architect at the time. As he riffled through the pages containing his sketches and notes, great nostalgia surged in him. In this moment I realized that regardless of an architect’s aesthetic leanings, it is his or her passion for the built world’s sweeping history that makes the vocation so fascinating.
I am grateful I experienced these moments of authenticity with him given he has since passed away. That’s the paradoxical thing about architecture: it stands resolute (if man allows it) while its creators pass transitorily through the earthly plane—the towering evidence of each new generation serving as proof we were here, whether history decides we handled the task of leaving a legacy gracefully or not. We at adroyt salute all modern architects working to keep the traditions set by legends like Corb, Mies van der Rohe and Gropius alive. Our founder, Saxon Henry, published Four Florida Moderns, a book filled with stunning projects that grew out of the European Modernism traditions.
Text of Paradox in the Paris of South America © Saxon Henry, all rights reserved. Saxon is an author, poet and digital strategist whose books include Anywhere But Here, Stranded on the Road to Promise and Four Florida Moderns. She also maintains The Diary of an Improvateur.