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.

Thursday 19 November 2015

Palermo, Boca, Jazz and more - Buenos Aires for beginners part two.

In my first post from Buenos Aires I concentrated on the San Telmo neighbourhood in the centre of the city. This post covers Palermo and Boca two very different areas, takes a brief look at the city's jazz scene and a few of it's best art nouveau buildings.

Decorated house, Palermo
In recent years, the Palermo neighbourhood has become extremely fashionable with its many cafes, restaurants, design stores and other stylish destinations. Steak restaurants are ubiquitous (and excellent) in Buenos Aires but in Palermo it is easy to find alternatives. My favourites included the design conscious Fifi Almacen at Gorrita 4812 which offers colourful salads and very fresh sandwiches and soups as well as bowls of fresh fruit salad. All nice and simple and all delicious. Of course they also have excellent patisserie and good coffee. I also enjoyed Mott Cocina de Mercado, an open fronted super stylish bar and restaurant at El Salvador 4685 which sources most of its food locally. Some good vegetarian dishes are available alongside the meat and fish choices. I enjoyed ravioli stuffed with pumpkin in hazelnut cream and sun dried tomatoes, but the dessert - banana soufflé with dulce de leche and a shot of Baileys topped the bill for me.

The best Mexican food is found in Mexico (!) but Xalapa at El Salvador 4800  has quesadillas and other standard dishes as well as a very interesting (and very strong) coffee laced with an orange liquor. And if you or your traveling partner absolutely must have steak,  La Choza at Gascon 1701 is a great choice. You are unlikely to see other tourists here. The service is attentive in an old fashioned and unobtrusive way and for those who don't want steak, grilled chicken, large salads and pasta dishes are also on offer. A nice touch is that the coffee arrives with a tiny ice cream served in a shots glass - so no need to order dessert!

Palermo also has a number of book shops. Libros de Pasaje at Thames 1762 combines a book shop where the stock is set out on a series of tables as well as on beautiful wooden shelves, with a good cafe where you can linger over the latest titles. There are a few volumes in English including translations of some of Argentina's leading writers - but it is generally quite hard to find English language books in the city. I asked about this in a couple of places and was told that there are high import duties on books from overseas so this may be the reason why.

A couple of other shops that are worth a look are Gorrion at Gurruchaga 1783 which sells bags and other accessories including colourful socks and hats and has helpful, friendly staff, and Bolivia in the same street at 1581. Bolivia stocks a wide range of t-shirts, jeans, sweaters, socks and other mid-priced casual pieces, including a few items for children. 

Apartment building, Palermo
Stained glass feature, Hotel Magnolia
Roof top terrace, Hotel Magnolia
 I chose to stay in Palermo during my visit, in a small (just eight rooms) boutique hotel - the Magnolia - in Calle Julian Alvarez. The hotel is located in two nineteenth century houses that have been knocked into one whilst retaining many original features, especially in the common areas. There is a beautiful stained glass window in the ceiling at the top of the stairs and some beautiful large scale vintage photographs in the lobby. There are also a couple of patios and a fantastic rooftop terrace with views of the Palermo skyline. My room was large and comfortable and the staff extremely friendly, helpful and able to give advice on many aspects of the city. There are a number of good cafes close to the hotel and you can walk to the Bulnes subtle (metro) station in about ten minutes.

Painted houses, La Boca

El Caminito, La Boca
Like Palermo, the La Boca district attracts many visitors, but that is where the similarity ends. In the nineteenth century La Boca was home to thousands of Spanish and Italian immigrants, many of whom arrived during the 1880's to work in the booming beef industry and were employed in meat packing plants, warehouses, processing and shipping. Still a working class area today, it is famous for its brightly coloured houses and shops which are painted in bright reds, yellows and blues as well as for its main tourist street, El Caminito. At the weekend, thousands of tourists come here, many on tour buses to shop in the small crafts fair (some stalls are better than others) and to see the tango dancers performing outside the cafes and restaurants or on street corners.  It is a photographer's paradise with its riot of colour and activity but be warned that the dancers and those who pose in fancy dress will expect a few pesos if you want to take their picture. El Caminito's most photographed feature is the narrow corner where the two main streets meet and where, at the moment, there is a mannequin of Buenos Aires born Pope Francis, welcoming visitors to the area from the window above the Havanna sweets shop..

In addition to the painted buildings, there is a painted wall in the centre of La Boca where a mural shows the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, mothers of some of the "disappeared" - people who were taken, often from the street, during the dictatorship of the 1970's and 80's, and who never returned. More of the mothers later. The mural is the work of artist Lucas Quinto with assistance from La Boca art students. Clearly influenced by the Mexican muralists, the women are shown with Mayan features whilst the names of some of the 30,000 plus who were "disappeared" are included in the work.

Most of the guide books advise visitors to remain in El Caminito and certainly not to stroll alone here after dark as away from the main street it can be a little rough and there is a risk of being robbed. I went during the day and felt safe enough to explore a couple of the streets away from El Caminito and to see where the locals buy their food, stand and chat with their friends and even where they go to church. There are also a number of once very grand buildings that will eventually attract the attention of either developers or wealthy people wanting to live in a more "edgy" area. Let's hope things don't change too much.

Mural by Lucas Quinto
Vintage car, La Boca
Colourful buildings, La Boca
Whenever I travel I try to find live music and in my previous post on Buenos Aires I wrote about the tango. Regular readers will know I am a jazz devotee. Buenos Aires has several venues that feature jazz as part of their programme but Club Thelonius at Calle Salguero 1884 in Palermo is the real thing with concerts by both local and international artists. Situated in a long narrow room on the first floor of a former mansion building, there are two shows most nights with a 9pm (ish) house and then another show starting at half past midnight. I managed to get to two concerts during my stay, both featuring local artists and both excellent. The first was a tribute to Dizzy Gillespie with some of his compositions being played and other tunes being performed in the style of. The second time I saw a great (great!) concert featuring several local young people performing the music of Charles Mingus. The line-up included a fantastic woman sax player and a woman vocalist who gave us some very cool interpretations of Mingus' music. Unfortunately I didn't catch their names.

Still on the subject of jazz, there is a great little music shop in Buenos Aires, Jazz 46 at Esmeralda 482 in the centre of the city where the owner recommended albums by Barbie Martinez, Paula Shocron and Ricardo Cavalli when I asked for some local jazz recordings. I bought all three - and like them all.

Rivadavia 2009 - the dome
Entrance, Rivadavia 2009
It is possible to find almost every architectural style of the last few hundred years in this city, including contemporary, art deco, modernist, classicist, a few colonial style buildings (although surprisingly very few) and lots of art nouveau. There are several buildings in the art nouveau style along Rivadavia, Buenos Aires' longest street which I am advised has building numbers up to 20,000!

Rivadavia 2009 is one of the city's best examples of the art nouveau style. Built in 1907 and designed by the architect Eduardo Rodriguez Ortega, it was originally designed as an apartment block, but fell into a poor state of repair and was semi derelict when restoration work began in 1999. The sensitive restoration included works to the fabulous glass dome - the block's crowning glory. When the sunlight catches the glass, it reflects rich, vibrant colours that can be seen from the opposite side of the road. There is also a magnificent main door to the apartment - all glass and metal and a wonderful (original?) lift cage in the lobby. The ground floor and mezzanine levels are occupied by a car dealing company and the upper floors are once again residential. On completion of the restoration and in homage to  Catalan architect Antoni Gaudi, the architects placed the phrase No hi ha somnis impossibles - Catalan for there are no impossible dreams. There are replicas of some of the decorative items from Gaudi's Casa Batllo on the front of the building at 2009 Rivadavia.

The House of Lilies
Ortega was an admirer of Antoni Gaudi and his influence can de seen in the design of both Rivadavi a2009 building and his other apartment block at Rivadavia 2031 - the House of Lilies, built between 1903 and 1905. The house takes its name from the lily stems, flowers and other botanical features on its facade. In the centre of the uppermost level there is a stone sculpture of a man's head, said to represent Poseidon and reminiscent of some of the decorative features found on Riga's art nouveau buildings. There are shops on the ground floor, with residential properties above. The House of Lilies was recognised as a national monument in 2006 and now enjoys official protection.

Still on Rivadavia, at 3216 and on the opposite side of the road to Ortega's buildings, there is a fabulous ensemble known as the House of Peacocks. Designed by Italian architect Virginio Colombo and completed in 1912, it was originally a shop selling shoes for women and children, trading under the name "Rossi Brothers". The business operated on the ground floor with residential space above. Today the building houses a gym, a bed and breakfast hotel and some private flats. I especially like the ornate, pink balconies and the riotous colours of the adjoining building which dates from the same period and which features typical art nouveau motifs with the stylised heads and decorative discs.

The House of Peacocks

Much as I love Rivadavia, my favourite art nouveau facade is at Paraguay 132. It features a stunning ceramic tiled facade depicting a pastoral scene in greens and yellows. The metal balustrades on the balconies have classic art nouveau motifs with grapes and other botanical representations. This slim building was designed by another Italian architect, B. Trivelloni and was completed in 1911.

Paraguay 132
I promised to return to the subject of the Mothers of Plaza de Mayo. I was able to visit the Plaza on Thursday afternoon and to see the elderly women arriving in a mini bus and staging their weekly march around the plaza. Each one wraps a white kerchief around her head in reference to a baby's nappy and the children they lost during what became known as the "Dirty War" during the dictatorship. Many of them do not know where their children's bodies are and some still hope to be reunited with the grandchildren, taken from those who disappeared and given to families sympathetic to the former regime. It is an extremely moving experience to see these women and one which will be a lasting memory of my time in Buenos Aires.

You can see more photographs from Buenos Aires here.

Sunday 15 November 2015

Cecile Mclorin Salvant - perfection at Cadogan Hall

I first came across Cecile McLorin Salvant a couple of months ago when I heard a track from her new album, For One To Love, being played on Jazzfm. Soon afterwards I purchased that album, her third, and the  the previous one, Woman Child. Both recordings are excellent, showcasing her vocal range, versatility across a range of styles and respect for jazz history. Delighted to discover that she was to perform at this month's London Jazz Festival,  I went to her concert at the Cadogan Hall last night and came away completely hooked.

Supremely confident at just 26 years, she led a sell out audience through gems from the great American song book, compositions of her own and re-imaginations of some of the all time classics of vocal jazz. Throughout she demonstrated her creativity and improvisational skills which also stretch to song writing and producing the artwork for her new album. Tres elegant in silver shoes and silk, she sang in French as well as English partly in acknowledgement of Friday night's terror attacks in Paris and partly because she is as comfortable in both languages. Her parents are both French speakers from Guadeloupe and Haiti and Cecile studied both law and music in France. Opening with a French song from the 1930's she also included the Monique Andree Serf song La Mal de Vivre in her programme, describing it as a song about the blues and adversity but which ends in optimism.

Cecile has been compared to some of the all time greats and her reading of Gershwin's Let's Face the Music and Dance and It Ain't Necessarily So as well as the three Cole Porter songs she gave us demonstrate why. Great phrasing by the way on It Ain't Necessarily So - "Fo' he made his home in that fishe's ab-do-men". Oh yes. She sang with the clarity and inventiveness of Ella - every word being audible and whilst closing my eyes during Porter's So In Love I found myself in 1950's Carnegie Hall listening to Sarah Vaughan's rich tones. These are some of the best songs ever written but they require sensitive handling and respect. She gave them both - demonstrated superbly on Cy Coleman and Carolyn Leigh's When In Rome - the ultimate in sophistication and understatement giving it a straight  reading. 

Serious stuff but Cecile McLorin Salvant also understands humour. There was off mic banter with pianist Aaron Diehl throughout the performance and she teased the audience mercilessly throughout the double entendre filled Bessie Smith number You've Got To Give Me Some - accompanied solely by piano. Cole Porter's less well known Gentlemen Don't Like Love raised a few laughs too. Not to mention that thing she does with the voice "falling" at the end of some lines. 

Throughout the concert, our heroine was supported by a world class trio led by Diehl and accompanied by bassist Paul Sikivie and drummer Lawrence Leathers. Diehl also arranged several of the songs. And his arrangements were something else too. I loved the live recreation of the Bacharach and David song Wives and Lovers featured on the new album with its urgent opening and piano punctuation adding impact to the "warning" of the lyrics. Also outstanding was Diehl's arrangement of the Judy Garland classic The Trolley Song - so strong that you really can feel the trolley clanging, bell dinging, motor chugging, buzzer buzzing and all the rest of it. It was her recording of this song that made me realise that Garland is another of her vocal influences, especially in the last line ".…and it was grand just to stand with his hand holding mine, to the end of the line…" where I am sure that she purposely pays tribute to dear Judy. Listen to it here to see if you agree.

Other treats included Somehow I Never Could Believe, the aria from the Kurt Weill/ Langston Hughes opera Street Scene, written in 1946 but rarely performed, her own composition Monday and another excellently re-arranged classic, Something's Coming from West Side Story. She received a standing ovation and wasn't going to get away without coming back at least once. She stunned the audience by singing another blues number unaccompanied and without mic and then left with a bow and a backwards wave 

Already the winner of a sack full of awards, Cecile McLorin Salvant is surely a megastar in the making - watch out Dianne and Dee Dee! The concert of the year for me, and I've been to some big ones. More please.

Wednesday 11 November 2015

Jewish Buenos Aires

At least 250,000 Jews live in Argentina, making it the seventh largest community in the world and easily the largest in Latin America. The Argentine Jewish community has contributed significantly to the country and has produced many outstanding writers, artists, sportsmen and women and other prominent people. These include musicians Giora Feidman, Daniel Barenboim and Lalo Schifrin, several football players, world judo champion Daniela Krukower and world boxing champion Carolina Duer.  The vast majority of the community live in Buenos Aires and on my recent visit I took a guided tour of some of the city's historic Jewish quarters and sites.

Libertad synagogue
Accompanied by Jessica Cymerman, a native of Buenos Aires and guide for the wonderful Milk and Honey Tours, our tour began in Once. Once is a heavily Jewish area with many tailors and shops dealing in textiles and "shmatte". There is a very visible Jewish presence with a significant Orthodox community as well as shop signs in Hebrew. A theatre which once staged plays in Yiddish still stands here although it performed its last Yiddish production many years ago.  There is even a Kosher Macdonald's in the Abasto shopping centre - don't expect to get a cheeseburger there! The shopping centre occupies an art deco building and the site was the central wholesale fruit and vegetable market from 1893 to 1984. It stood empty for some time before being converted to a mall in 1999. The area also has a significant Chinese and Korean presence which is reflected, amongst other things in the sign outside the district police station which includes Hebrew script in addition to English, Spanish and Chinese. Once was immortalised in the film El Abrazo Partido (translated to Lost Embrace for English speaking audiences). Made in 2004 and directed by Daniel Burman, it follows the fortunes of a Jewish family living in this barrio, with many scenes shot in Once's streets. Well worth seeing.

Textiles shop, Once
Sign for Once police station
It is difficult to visit a synagogue or community organisation in Buenos Aires without making arrangements in advance due to strict security measures being in place which include it being forbidden to photograph the exterior of Jewish institutions. More of this later. Jessica took care of all of this in advance and we made a visit to Once's Gran Templo de Paso at Paso 42. Built in 1929 and opened in 1930 by Russian and Polish Jews it was designed in the Ashkenazi tradition and is still in use today although only attracting a large congregation during the holidays. The synagogue has a large and impressive collection of Torah scrolls - several having been added as other communities closed and integrated into the Gran Templo. I had the honour of drawing back the curtain and opening the Aron Kodesh to reveal the scrolls. Jessica explained that she has a personal connection to this synagogue as her parents were married here.

Gran Templo de Paso
Torah scrolls, Gran Templo de Paso
Gran Templo de Paso
A little history. The first Jews arrived in the country following the expulsion from Spain in 1492, and fleeing the Inquisition. Many lived as secret Jews and gradually assimilated into the wider community. More came following independence in 1810 when the Inquisition was abolished and religious freedom declared. They came to escape persecution and poverty in Europe and in 1889, 824 Russian Jews arrived by sea, purchased land and established a colony called Moiseville with the intention of becoming gauchos - Argentinian cowboys! Short of pesos they appealed to Baron Maurice de Hirsch who funded the Jewish Colonisation Association which at its height owned more than 600,000 hectares of land and housed over 200,000 Jews in co-operative ranches. Today, most of these are owned by non Jews. Perla Suez' book The Entre Rios Trilogy captures the spirit of this period as well as the many challenges and obstacles faced by the Jewish immigrants.

Whilst the gaucho story has become romanticised, the means of arrival of another group of Jews from Europe was far from romantic. Zwi Migdal was an organised crime organisation trafficking Jewish women from Eastern Europe to Argentina, having promised them marriage or employment but instead selling them into prostitution on arrival. Originally known as the Varsovia (Warsaw) Jewish Aid Society, it changed its name in 1927 following protests by the Polish Ambassador to Argentina. At its peak in the 1920's it controlled perhaps 200 brothels and several thousand women held as prisoners and forced to work as sex slaves. An embarrassment to the Jewish community who feared they would be tarnished by association, Zwi Migdal tried to buy respectability by offering funds for community buildings and charities but were largely shunned and their donations refused. In some cases members were even banned from synagogues. The organisation was eventually brought down by one Raquel Lieberman, a former prostitute, robbed by men from Zwi Migdal. Lieberman bravely involved the police and the courts, with a resultant legal case resulted in 108 criminal convictions and the end of the organisation in Argentina. Unfortunately, the activities of the Zwi Migdal provoked expressions of anti-semitism in some quarters including in neighbouring Chile.

There was little anti-semitism in Argentina until the 1930's when as in other countries, fascist organisations and activities were prominent and although Argentina gave sanctuary to some Jews fleeing Europe, it also took in prominent Nazis at the end of the Second World War, sheltering them from detection and justice. This included Adolf Eichmann who was famously caught and kidnapped by the Israeli secret service in 1960, spirited away, tried and executed in Israel. It is interesting to note that following the kidnapping, the Argentinian government protested and sought reparations for breach of sovereignty at the United Nations. In later years Jews suffered disproportionately under the dictatorship in the 1970's and 1980's, accounting for 1,900 of the 30,000 "disappeared" constituting 12% of the victims but only 1% of the population. Some of the mothers of those who disappeared still demonstrate every Thursday afternoon in Plaza de Mayo - both Jews and non-Jews.

Commemorative window that survived the 1994 AMIA blast intact
Back to the tour. The Asociacion Mutual Israelita Argentina (AMIA), is a short walk from the synagogue. It provides a range of services to Buenos Aires' Jewish community including health and welfare support, education, cultural activities and a home for various Jewish organisations. The building is striking and modern. The original AMIA was destroyed in a major terrorist attack on July 18th 1994 when a suicide bomber drove a van containing 275 kilograms of ammonium nitrate fertiliser and fuel oil mixture into the building creating an explosion so powerful that the entire structure collapsed. The attack is known to have been masterminded and carried out by Hizbollah operatives. No-one has ever been charged with organising the attack and there is much controversy about the way in which the investigation has been handled over the years. Some of this is reflected in the various monuments to those murdered such as the ironic murals in the Pasteur Subte (metro) station just around the corner from the AMIA building, one of which shows the hunt for justice represented by a blindfolded woman being led through a maze by a tortoise. A pretty clear message I think. The AMIA bombing followed a similar attack on the Israeli Embassy in 1992 which killed 32 people.

A couple of items that survived the blast intact are displayed in the lobby of the new AMIA building, including a stained glass window given to the community in 1968 to celebrate the 20th anniversary of Israel's independence and the 75th anniversary of the AMIA. There is a memorial inside the AMIA courtyard designed by Israeli artist Yaacov Agam. It consists of nine poles, each 3.7 metres high decorated in bright colours and which form different patterns depending on where the viewer is standing. These include representations of destruction, a Chanukiah, a white Magen David, a rainbow, a menorah, a coloured Magen David and the AMIA symbol. The pillars are placed on a large platform in the shape of a Magen David, complying with the Biblical requirement that "You must not make image or any likeness of anything that is in the heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters under the earth".

The AMIA bombing was the subject of an excellent film Anita made in 2009 and which followed the experience of a young woman with Downs Syndrome whose mother is killed in the bombing and who is temporarily lost to her family and unable to explain who she is or where she lives. Directed by Marcos Carnevale, it features a wonderful central performance by Alejandra Manzo. The bombing is also referred to in a more recent Argentinian film, God's Slave, directed by Joel Novoa and made in 2013. 
Yaccov Agam's memorial in the AMIA courtyard
AMIA memorial, Pasteur Subte (metro) station
The tour concluded with a look at several other monuments, including one to Holocaust rescuer Raoul Wallenberg and a visit to the small but interesting Jewish Museum at Libertad 769. It holds temporary exhibitions and stages cultural activities as well as showing items from its permanent collection including paintings, textiles, religious objects and documents. From the museum, visitors can enter the exquisite Libertad synagogue. Built in 1932, close to the Teatro Colon, the synagogue is home to the Congregacion Israelita de la Republica de Argentina. It has a beautiful interior which includes a dome decorated in gold leaf (pictured at the top of this post), pink marble and beautiful stained glass windows.

Buenos Aires is a very big city and the tour took about four hours, but the time passed very quickly and Jessica was an excellent guide - friendly, entertaining and able to answer all of my questions - including those about non-Jewish sites in the city. Thanks Jessica and thanks Milk and Honey Tours too!

Libertad synagogue
You might also like Cafes, tango and a marvellous market - beginners guide to Buenos Aires part one.

You can see more pictures from Buenos Aires here.

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.