Tuesday 3 November 2015

Montevideo - Art Deco Capital of South America

Montevideo is a relatively small capital city, but it has one of the largest collections of art deco and modernist buildings in the world.  These architectural treasures date from a period of social and economic advancement in the 1920's and early 1930's and include many (very many) apartment blocks, cinemas, sports stadia, shops and commercial buildings in almost every corner of the city.

Detail, Palacio Lapido
The adoption of art deco and modernism fits well with wider social developments in Uruguay in the first couple of decades of the 20th century. Church and State  were separated before 1910 and the country declared secular in 1917, whilst access to education was expanded, an eight hour working day and unemployment pay introduced (in 1914!), divorce legalised and the death penalty abolished. Although some of these advances were overturned during and following the Great Depression, Uruguay was for a time, possibly the most socially advanced country in Latin America.  This is reflected in the architecture of the period.

I recently spent a few days there and was able to make contact with Marta of Arquitectura Tours Montevideo who led me on a tour of some of the city centre's art deco and modernist buildings. I saw many fine examples of the style on the tour but there are many I have yet to see. The city has many other delights too, which I have already written about here, and together with the deco almost certainly means another visit is in order! I have picked a few of my favourite buildings to write about here.

Palacio Lapido on the main boulevard, Avenida 18th July was one of the highlights of my visit.  Built in 1933 and designed by architect Juan Aubriot, this modernist building was originally the home of the People's Tribune newspaper. It ran from 1879 to 1960 and was a liberal daily promoting free trade and acceptance of different religions and minorities. Constructed from reinforced concrete and cement columns and slabs, the Palacio makes a spectacular impact from its corner location with its differing staggered heights, a fin at the apex and the  glazed "ladder"on the stairwell. Best of all are the contrasting square balconies giving on to the Avenida and the delicious curved ones at nine of its 12 floors. Designated as a National Historic Landmark in 1989, today it houses retail and office spaces.

Palacio Lapido
A short walk away, Calle Juan Carlos Gomez runs across Plaza Matriz where the city's cathedral and a popular park are located. Number 1388 was built in 1931 and designed by architects Vazquez Barriere and Rafael Ruano, in an elaborate art deco style. The main entrance to the building is extremely ornate with decorative panels above the door and to each side as well as wonderful 'sun-rays" metal detailing set into the glass of the doors themselves. You will see the doors first, but do make sure to look up and look down too. Look up to see the central part of the facade, which features decorative panels and square windows and the balconies to each side. The balustrades change as the building rises with a classical style cement balcony at the first level followed by a deco design in cement and then a series of differently designed metal rails at the upper levels. Beautiful. Look down at the pavement to see one of ten tiles to be found in the city identifying important art deco buildings and, where known, the details of the architect and the date built. The plaques were the work of Arquitectura Tours Montevido who won a competition to carry out this project and have produced a map and small booklet to help visitors and enthusiasts to find the buildings.

Entrance, Calle Juan Carlos Gomez, 1388
Look up! Calle Juan Carlos Gomez 1388.

Hall, Treinta Tres, 1334
Another building in the plaque project is Palacio Piria, an apartment block at Calle Treinta Tres 1334. Designed by Alberto Isola  it was built in 1928 with shops on the ground floor and apartments at the upper levels. It has highly decorative features in the ground floor common areas and I was lucky enough to be able to see the hall with its symmetrical arches, speed lines and fabulous stained glass windows in the side recesses. The block was built at the request of businessman Juan Fernando Piria who started life in the tailoring industry. Fittingly, the adjoining property is a tailor's shop and has a spectacular art deco floor. The shopkeeper knew Marta and was very happy for me to photograph the parts of the floor not covered with carpet. Piria was also responsible for the development of Piriapolis, a summer resort with a grand hotel.

Stained glass window, Treinta Tres, 1334
Detail, shop floor, Treinta Tres
Unfortunately, the dates and architects' details for several buildings are unknown. There are two examples of this in Sarandi, the main pedestrianised thoroughfare and shopping street in the Ciudad Vieja. Both are buildings I particularly like and are pictured below. The first, a corner building with the central curve dates from between 1930 and 1940. It was originally designed with retail on the ground floor and residential above. The building opposite with the layered windows, fins and glazed stairwells was built between 1940 and 1950 as a department store. Both require some care and attention but it is not difficult to imagine how striking these neighbours would be if repaired and cleaned up and what an impressive street this must have been in the past.

Details unknown, Sarandi
Details unkown Sarandi
Palacio Rinaldi stands in one corner of Plaza Independencia and has distinctive decorative stripes at the upper levels as well as different balconies at different levels, metal grille work and facade reliefs. There are several entrances to the building, some of them with grey marble surrounds, patterned lintels and glass and metal doors. Unfortunately some of the doors have lost their glass and in one lobby the lights no longer work. The building has nine floors and built in 1929, it was one of the country's first sky scrapers. It has competition for dominance of the square as the better known Palacio Salvo stands on the opposite corner. Salvo has some deco elements too, but is an "unusual" looking building to say the least. I find Rinaldi much more attractive although it cannot compete with Josephine Baker having once danced in the Salvo! Our friends Alberto Isola and Guillermo Armas, responsible for the Palacio Piria also designed the Rinaldi building. The Rinaldi also has one of the tiles from Marta's project.

Entrance, Palacio Rinaldi
Detail, Palacio Rinaldi
Away from the city centre, Pocitos is a lively residential, business and commercial area which looks onto the gorgeous waterfront and is sometimes referred to as Uruguay's Copacabana due to its beaches and skyscrapers. It is also home to several art deco buildings including Edificio El Mastil at Avenida Brasil 3105, designed by Vazquez Barriere and Rafael Ruano whom we met earlier. El Mastil has a definite nautical feel with those central balconies resembling a ship's prow and (for me at least) the side balconies looking like lifeboats! The main door is also special with its stylish lettering, gold coloured metalwork and wonderful porthole. Unfortunately on the day I went to Pocitos a thick fog descended from the water making my pictures darker than I would have liked. Still, it did add to the nautical illusion with El Mastil surrounded by a sea fog! 

Edificio El Mastil 
Entrance, Edificio El Mastil
Work is going on around the centre of Montevideo to regenerate the city, improve the environment and to attract more visitors from overseas. Interestingly, art deco seems to be playing a part in this. Down in the port area, a former apartment building has been turned into a hotel - Hotel Don - which at Piedras 234 faces the Mercado del Puerto (market of the port), which is filled with restaurants serving the Uruguayan speciality - grilled steaks. Built in 1938 and designed by the architect Nin, the hotel represents a real leap of faith as the port area is not deemed to be the best part of town after dark. 

Back on Avenida 18th July, the Jockey Cub is a spectacular art deco restaurant hidden inside a classicist building dating from 1932 and designed by French architect Joseph Carre.  It was declared a National Historic Landmark in 1975 but stood closed and unused for many years until the Portuguese hotel chain Pestana acquired it in 2010 and restored the restaurant to its former art deco glory. As well as offering lunches, afternoon tea and dinner, the Club also has a cultural programme with musical and literary events being held there. The next stage of redevelopment is to open a 100 rooms five star hotel in the rest of the building.  The restaurant is a must see for all art deco devotees.

Hotel Don
The Jockey Club
Lobby lights, the Jockey Club
As I noted at the beginning of this post, Montevideo has one of the largest collections of art deco and modernist buildings in the world - probably enough for another post at some point in the future. Until then, another favourite of mine to whet your appetite! This is one of several small police posts built in the 1930's opposite the waterfront in modernist, almost Bauhaus style. When I visited, there was no evidence of them being used for police purposes. They would make very nice ice cream kiosks or even small coffee and cake stands with a few external tables and chairs in the summer. Sounds like a job for me...

Police post, Rambla.
You might also like A Few Days In Montevideo

You can see more pictures from Montevideo here.

Contact Arquitectura Tours Montevideo on their Facebook page.


  1. Perfect timing. Le Corbusier, Bauhaus and Deco architecture have fascinated my blog many times. Thanks for the link: http://melbourneblogger.blogspot.com.au/2015/11/le-corbusiers-architectural-masterpieces.html

    I had not thought much about Uruguay so it comes as a surprise that it was possibly the most socially advanced country in Latin America back then. Having said that, I would fully expect that progressiveness would indeed be reflected in the architecture then. And it was. But why have some of those fab buildings not been restored and reloved?

  2. Hello Hels. I think there are two issues here - one is that the city is really only just rediscovering its wonderful architectural heritage and the other is - as ever - money. There are a few individuals working to improve things and the pavement tiles project I mention is a good example of this, but this all takes time. It is good that the two restorations I mention appear to have been done very sensitively and feature nicely in the city's efforts at regeneration. Best wishes!

  3. Great stuff Adrian. It is possible that the 2019 World Congress on Art Deco will be held in BA - if so, we will be travelling across the river for another visit to Montevideo.

  4. I'm very happy reading this page. I was born in Montevideo in 1947, and I knew the beautiful mansion that used to be along the coast line in the town of Pocitos. If you look in facebook a group called ''Montevideo de antes'' you will see original photos of this beautiful mansions, you would think you are in Europe.

    1. I cant find this page. Are you able to give any more information? Thank you!

  5. ...sorry I made a mistake, is called ''Montevideo a traves del tiempo'' and is a group in facebook that post photos of beautiful old houses in a Montevideo of a better time.

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