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A detective's guide to Buenos Aires architecture

Buenos Aires' neighborhoods offer an impressive sampling of the city's heritage and utopian ambitions.

A French neoclassical building on Avenida Independencia in Buenos Aires. (Julia Kumari Drapkin/GlobalPost)

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.