Wednesday 25 November 2015

Buenos Aires Art Deco and Modernism

Prior to visiting Buenos Aires I managed to get hold of a copy of Mimi Bohm's excellent book - Buenos Aires Art Deco Y Racionalismo. Beautifully illustrated, it is a spectacular survey of art deco and modernist architecture in Argentina's capital and although most of the text is in Spanish, there is a short section in English at the back. The book was very useful in planning my daily itinerary but be warned, some of the buildings have been lost, some of the theatres are covered in enormous billboards so it's difficult to see them and in some cases the addresses are not accurate. A further complication was that my map showed one of the streets to be in a place some distance from where it really is but more of that later!
Dramatic balconies, apartment building, Calle Julian Alvarez
Art deco and modernist architecture can be found right across the city. Its important to note that Buenos Aires is huge so careful planning might be needed if you want to see a lot of buildings. However you will see many examples of the style by simply wandering through the central areas in particular and also in the outer districts. There are hundreds if not thousands of buildings dating from the 1930's and sporting those beautiful rounded modernist balconies, usually in white cement and on the facade of apartment buildings. Buenos Aires acquired many apartment blocks during this decade as the better off citizens wanted to take advantage of modern conveniences and technology. On my first morning in the city I saw a block of flats on Calle Julian Alvarez in Palermo, almost certainly dating from the 1930's and with the most dramatic run of balconies I have ever seen. A double fronted building with two sets of balconies on the facade - one recessed. I have been unable to find further details so if anyone recognises the photograph above or the description please let me have them!

Casa Victoria Ocampo
Casa Victoria Ocampo is also located in Palermo at Rufino de Elizalde 2831. Ocampo was a wealthy Argentinian writer and intellectual, once described by Jorge Luis Borges as La mujer mas Argentina, which more or less means the quintessential Argentine woman. The house was completed in 1929 in stark modernist style without external decoration and with clean lines and white walls in complete contrast to the surrounding mansions that today house a number of embassies. Architect Alejandro Bustillo is said to have been distressed by the finished product (I can't imagine why - it's a wonderful building) and refused to put his name to it. The design was inspired by Le Corbusier who praised it for its purity of design during a trip to Buenos Aires.

Unlike the architect, Ocampo is said to have revelled in the scandal that the house caused. This is easy to believe given that she carried on a 13 year affair with her husband's cousin and entertained the likes of Stravinsky, Tagore, Malraux, de Saint Exupery and even Indira Gandhi at the villa. Graham Greene dedicated his book The Honorary Consul to her whilst her involvement in the anti-Peron movement earned her a spell in prison. She was the only Argentine to attend and observe the Nuremburg trials, having taken a anti-fascist stance during the Second World War and regularly included the work of Jewish writers in her literary magazine Sur. Quite a life. The house now serves as home to El Fondo Nacional de las Artes which stages exhibitions and other cultural activities.

Fundacio Bigatti Forner, Bethlem 443
The Ocampo house is well sign posted and easy to find. The same cannot be said of the wonderful modernist building at Bethlem 443, built in 1937 as the atelier of avant-garde artist Raquel Forner and sculptor Alfredo Bigatti. This is the place that I struggled to find on my map which shows Bethlem in a different place to its real location -  tucked away in San Telmo close to the famous Mercado. Designed by architect Alejo Martinez it today houses the Fundacion Bigatti Forner. It has large windows and a glazed facade that runs the height of the staircase, allowing light to flood into this former workplace. There is also a small balcony overlooking the plaza which the artists must have used as a place to relax. I suspect the plaza was rather less busy in the late 1930's than it is now and that there would have been far fewer cars parked there making it difficult to photograph the building! There are occasional exhibitions here including of Forner and Bugatti's work.

Edificio Kavanagh is a landmark building in Buenos Aires. At time of completion in 1936 it was not only Argentina's first skyscraper but also the tallest building in Latin America. Designed by architects Gregorio Sanchez, Ernesto Lagos and Luis Maria de la Torre, it was commissioned by Corina Kavanagh, an extremely wealthy woman of Irish descent. Kavanagh had money but was viewed as nouveau riche by Buenos Aires society and to add to her troubles, matriarch Mercedes Castellanos de Anchorena put a stop to her romance with her son and heir. There is a story that Kavanagh chose the location for the building to spite Signora de Anchorena and to spoil her view of the Basilica of the Blessed Sacrament where the Anchorenas buried their dead. There are differing views on the veracity of this story, but its a good one if its true!

The Edificio has 33 floors and is 120 metres tall and differs significantly from its neoclassical and beaux arts neighbours. It also differed from its neighbours by providing modern conveniences - it was the first building to have air conditioning in the city. For me at least its charms are not immediately obvious but I do like the rocket ship summit and the starkness of the off grey colour. It was declared a national historic monument in 1999.

Edificio Kavanagh
Avenida Corrientes is Buenos Aires' Broadway with many theatres and cinemas, many of which were built in the 1930's in art deco style and still fulfil their original function although a growing number have been acquired by evangelical churches. The Gran Rex opened in July 1937 having taken just seven months to build (!) and 78 years later it is still a working cinema. It was the largest film auditorium in South America and looked directly across the street at the Cine Teatro Opera which had opened just one year earlier. Architect Alberto Prebisch, who was also responsible for the city's iconic Obelisk designed the cinema. Prebisch preferred the modernist style to art deco. As well as seating for an astounding 3,800 people, the cinema included a sweetshop (good man) and underground parking, all served by a series of ramps, stairs and lifts. Constructed almost entirely from concrete, the acoustic requirements of the cinema were met by using techniques similar to those employed in the design of the Radio City Music Hall in New York. The cinema was not open at the time I visited, but I managed to get a quick look in the foyer which is large and impressive with its metal, glass and pod details. Avenida Corrientes is clogged with traffic for much of the time and the streets would benefit from more regular sweeping but it is easy to imagine the excitement of the smartly dressed 1930's crowds arriving here for premieres and special screenings.

Gran Rex Cinema, Avenida Corrientes
Lobby, Gran Rex Cinema
Facade, former Cine Roca, Rivadavia
Sadly, the Cine Roca at Rivadavia 3755 no longer shows films and has instead been acquired by a religious organisation that has covered part of the facade with advertising. Built in 1938, it was designed by Alberto Bourdon and replaced an earlier theatre on the same site. The Roca had a seating capacity of 1800, 950 in the orchestra (or stalls) and 850 in the balcony. Its opening night sounds impossibly glamorous and featured screenings of Victoria - woman and queen, starring Anna Neagle and Hurricane featuring Dorothy Lamour and John Hall. The audience were also treated to live jazz courtesy of the Harry Roy big band who accompanied vocalist Pearl of Sarawak! Roy was born Harry Lipman in London's Stamford Hill whilst Pearl was really one Elizabeth Brooke Vidmer, daughter of an aristocrat. Well, movies are all about fantasy aren't they? All this for just over one US dollar.  Those were the days. The Roca may no longer show films but it still has a beautiful facade with those three long, seven sectioned windows above the canopy and classic symmetrical deco features at the summit. Belgian born Bourdon was responsible for a number of theatres in Buenos Aires including the iconic Opera Theatre also on Avenida Corrientes.

Former Cine Roca, Rivadavia
I have already mentioned that Buenos Aires is full of beautiful modernist apartment blocks. One of my favourites is on Calle Paraguay at number 1520. Built in 1936, it was the work of the Comini and Sasasola construction company. Made of reinforced concrete, it differs from the usual straight line of balconies with its more laddered approach and nautical feel as the rounded balconies give way to angular designs at the top of the building. I also liked Edificio Calmer on the San Telmo stretch of Avenida Belgrano. Built in 1940 and designed by Leopold Schwarz, it also features beautiful balconies as well as stylised entering over the two entrances. It was also home to Spanish writer Francisco Ayala from 1939 - 1942 during his exile following the victory of the Fascists in the Spanish Civil War. 

The modernist style lasted well into the 1950's in Argentina and I saw several examples of this during my recent visit. Examples of this include the apartment block at Avenida Libertador 2286 built in 1949 and designed by Luis Migone and the building of the General Confederation of Work (CGT) at Calle Azopardo 802. 

Calle Paraguay 1520
Edificio Calmer, Avenida Belgrano
Apartment block, Avenida Libertador 2286
CGT building, Calle Azopardo 802.
I understand that the 2019 World Congress on Art Deco may be held in Buenos Aires. That would certainly tempt me back to the city which can easily be combined with a visit to Montevideo, just across the water in Uruguay and home to many great art deco buildings. It will also, hopefully prompt the city to better document its wonderful art deco and modernist heritage and possibly even to clean up some of those facades and remove the advertising boards!

You might also like Montevideo - art deco capital of South America and Cafes, tango and a marvellous market - Buenos AIres for beginners part one

You can see more pictures from Buenos Aires here.

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