A detective's guide to Buenos Aires architecture

BUENOS AIRES, Argentina — Wander the neighborhoods of Buenos Aires and it's hard not to wonder about the mix of architecture. The house next door, the corner pizza parlor, even parking garages have features that tickle the curiosity.

Most are artifacts of the city's building boom from 1880 through the 1920s, when Buenos Aires was one of the world's richest, fastest growing cities. The capital was a blank canvas and its architects wanted to create their dream city at the beginning of a brand new century.

The resulting architectural styles reflect the utopian ambitions of the designers as well as their immigrant heritage. At the height of the great European migration to Argentina in 1914, 30 percent of the population was foreign born. Neighborhood architects built in their own styles flavored by their home country or that of their patron.

Take a tour of Buenos Aires with architecture detective Alejandro Machado, who rigorously documents the architectural heritage of edifices across the city. 

A guide to Buenos Aires architecture

It's not hard to be an architecture detective in Buenos Aires. Just pick a street and take a walk. While some neighborhoods are known for certain styles, most offer an impressive sampling of the city's architectural heritage.

The overall style of a neighborhood building can tell you a lot about when it was built and the people who built it. Three styles dominate the neighborhoods of Buenos Aires: neoclassical, art nouveau and art deco.

Neoclassical or neo-renaissance architecture is hard to miss in Buenos Aires. Neoclassical buildings dominated the world's major cities from the 1860s through the 1920s. You'll see it almost everywhere, on the city's landmark public buildings, schools, hospitals and banks.

Think Greek temples: columns, domes, arched windows and doors, triangular facades, and layouts that emphasize hierarchies of space.

Neoclassic architecture invokes both the idealism and authority of classical Greek and Roman buildings — Washington, D.C., is the textbook example. Famous examples of neoclassical architecture in Buenos Aires include the National Congress and its green dome, the Governor's Palace, the Teatro Colon, and the Galerias Pacifico.

Neighborhood versions of neoclassical architecture — houses, stores, corner cafes — are often a blend of both Italian "Italianizante" classical styles and eclectic French "Academic" styles made famous by the Academy of Fine Arts in Paris. You'll see the Greek temple styles with intricate sculpture and detail work featuring gods or goddesses, wreaths, laurels and cartouches. You'll also find iconic French windows, arched and pedimented doors, and buildings with grand staircases and entrances.

Many neoclassical houses are built up from cut-off street corners — called "ochavas" for their octagonal shape — which enhances the "noble entrances" of neoclassic buildings. Neoclassical architecture is everywhere, but the neighborhood of Recoleta is famous for it. You can blink your eyes there and think you're in Paris.

Art nouveau is the hallmark style that defined the turn of the 20th century in major cities across the world: Art Nouveau in France and Belgium, Tiffany in the United States, Jugendstil or "young style" in Germany, Sezessionstil or "Secession style" in Austria, or Modernismo Catalan in Spain.

Art nouveau buildings have curving natural lines and asymmetrical organization. Feminine figures, flowers, plants and animals dominate their facades. Aesthetically it was a rejection of the rigid forms that dominated classical architecture and a return to nature. Rooted in the craft traditions, it emphasized art for the masses so the style permeated a range of buildings in the city.

Famous examples of art nouveau architecture in Buenos Aires include the Palacio Barolo, a design inspired by the cosmology of Dante's "Divine Comedy," and the Molino Confectionary, the storied coffeehouse next to the Argentine National Congress.

Just nearby the Congress building, there's lots of art nouveau neighborhood architecture in Balvanera. On Rivadavia Street, the architect Eduardo Rodriguez Ortega built two awe-inspiring Gaudi-influenced masterpieces: the Palace of the Lilies and another next door, which reads "There are no impossible dreams" on the front. Balvanera is also where art nouveau master Virginio Colombo lived and worked. You'll find two of his "rent houses" facing each other on Hipolito Yrigoyen Street and farther down a beautiful shoe factory that's now a parking garage.

Art deco architecture debuted in France in 1925 and became all the rage spanning the Depression era through 1940. It glorified geometric forms and hard lines inspired by archeological discoveries being made at the time in Egypt, Syria and the Americas. Iconic New York skyscrapers, such as the Empire State building and Rockefeller Center, are classic art deco examples in the Untied States.

Prominent examples of art deco architecture in Buenos Aires include the Kavanagh Building, South America's tallest skyscraper at the time it was built, and the Abasto Market, the old immigrant fruit and vegetable market (now a shopping mall) in Carlos Gardel's old neighborhood. Art deco is mixed throughout most parts of Buenos Aires. Just look for those geometric shapes and hard lines in the building facades.

Keep your eyes peeled for signatures. It's the easiest way to identify an architect. If the architect didn't sign his building, the constructor or the engineer he worked with might have. Teams frequently collaborated on projects multiple times so finding at least one name is a big help.

Ethnic surnames names are also important clues to help identify architects. Immigrant patrons and architects tended to work and hire within their own communities. So if you find an interesting building with a German name carved in it, there's a good chance the architect was German, too.

Even if there aren't any signatures visible, signature styles usually are. Individual architects preferred using specific iconographic motifs in sculpted facades and decorative iron works. Virginio Colombo liked to put spiral conch shapes into iron railings and doors and it's a telltale way to spot his lesser-known buildings.

That's the basics to get you around the average block in Buenos Aires. There are many more specific styles, buildings and neighborhoods to marvel at in the city, but it's much better to burn some shoe leather and discover them for yourself. Happy sleuthing.


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