An Introduction to the Architecture of Buenos Aires

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When walking along the wide avenues and cobblestone streets of Buenos Airesbarrios, it’s almost impossible not to notice the fascinating array of architecture laid out before you. As a melting-pot city, Buenos Aires does not have a dominant architectural style but rather a haphazard arrangement of cosmopolitan designs. That’s why it’s quite normal to see a Parisian-style mansion adjacent to an art-nouveau tower or a renaissance palace.

To the well-traveled, or well-researched, Buenos Aires often draws comparisons to Barcelona, Paris and Madrid. This is in part due to the city’s being built on mass immigration. The European architects who arrived in the late 1800s had free reign to build on the wide, open spaces of the time. They looked to the French vision of wide boulevards, diagonals, grand buildings, parks and plazas to reinvent the city.

Many of the notable landmarks that you see today date back to the late 1800s and early 1900s, a period when the city was preparing for its centennial celebration. Among the visible styles are art deco and art nouveau, neoclassical and neo-gothic, renaissance and French-Bourbon. You may notice a dearth of colonial landmarks – somewhat surprising considering Argentina is a Spanish-founded country. This is because, after gaining independence, locals strove to reject Spanish culture and instead adopted styles from France, Italy and Greece.

Grand Architecture & Fading Grandeur

One of Buenos Aires’ grandest avenues is Avenida de Mayo, lined with Parisian-style buildings and large, overhanging trees. Start at the west end of the avenue, home to the imposing Congreso Nacional. Built in Greco-Roman style in 1906, it displays similarities to both Washington’s U.S. Capitol and the Paris Opera House. Guided tours offer peeks into the assembly halls. Nearby is the art-nouveau Confitería del Molino, a former cafe that once served as a meeting point of political figures, tango stars and other luminaries. Stroll through Plaza del Congreso and along the avenue until you see the spectacular Palacio Barolo. The building’s Italian architect, Mario Palanti, was inspired by Dante’s “Divine Comedy,” and the Palacio Barolo’s three levels represent hell, purgatory and heaven. The 328-foot-tall building displays art nouveau, Asian-Indian revival and neo-romantic styles, among others. It opened in 1923 and at the time was South America’s tallest structure; check out the views from the rooftop lighthouse. Cross Avenida 9 de Julio and continue to Plaza de Mayo, the city’s showcase square surrounded by historic monuments. Here you’ll find the colossal pink palace, Casa Rosada, which houses Argentina’s presidential offices, and the grand neoclassical Banco de La Nacional. Check out the Cabildo, parts of which date back to 1608. It’s one of the few colonial-era buildings that remain. You can take guided tours of both the Casa Rosada and Cabildo, which allow you to explore the buildings up close and discover artifacts that date back to Argentina’s War of Independence. While here, it’s also worth visiting the Buenos Aires Metropolitan Cathedral. The cathedral’s entrance boasts 12 huge Hellenic columns, which represent the 12 apostles, in addition to a rich array of Italian art.

Overlooking Plaza San Martín, in Retiro, is the looming art-deco Edificio Kavanagh, the project of Irishwoman Corina Kavanagh. It can best be compared to a mid-1900s New York skyscraper. Its 394-foot height meant that it surpassed Palacio Barolo as the continent’s tallest building. On the other side of Plaza San Martín is the glorious Palacio San Martín, a beaux arts-style palace built at the beginning of the 20th century. It serves as a ceremonial palace for the Argentine Foreign Ministry. Inside is a bevy of art by notable artists such as Argentine Antonio Berni and Chilean Roberto Matta. From here it’s a short walk to Avenida Alvear, which leads through the most opulent area of Recoleta. Look for the belle-époque French Embassy building; the Park Hyatt Hotel, housed in the neoclassical Palacio Duhau; and the belle-époque Alvear Palace Hotel building. Inside the neoclassical gates of Recoleta Cemetery, aristocratic and wealthy Argentines built ostentatious mausoleums in art-deco and neo-gothic style.

Other notable buildings include the Teatro Colón, situated at the heart of Avenida 9 de Julio. Built in 1908, it displays prominent Italian influences with hints of French decoration. In addition to its stunning architecture, the theater is considered to be one of the world’s best opera houses. Attending a show is a great way to appreciate its beauty; guided tours also offer glimpses into its grandeur. A few blocks from here is the early-1900s neoclassical Palacio de La Justicia (aka Palacio de Tribunales), the seat of the Argentine Supreme Court. A must-see but often overlooked building is the fabulous Palacio de Aguas Corrientes. Built in French-renaissance style in the late 1800s, the building covers an entire city block and its façade is covered in around 30,000 terra-cotta tiles. It’s extravagant enough to be the private residence of a king, but its original purpose was as a water-pumping station. Today you can visit a small museum that has displays of old faucets and toilets.

Also worth checking out are some of the city’s public university buildings, such as the Facultad de Derecho, on Avenida Libertador (Recoleta), and the Facultad de Ingeniería, on Paseo Colón (San Telmo). Both are huge neoclassical masterpieces fronted by grand staircases and surrounded by Greek-style columns. Meanwhile, on Avenida Las Heras (Recoleta) is another faction of the Facultad de Ingeniería, an early 20th-century neo-gothic structure that wouldn’t look out of place in The Addams Family.

Curiosities

For something completely different, visit Caminito, in La Boca, an attraction that adorns the pages of every travel guidebook about Buenos Aires. Here, a mishmash of humble and corrugated houses lines a short cobblestone street. Legend states that local residents decorated their homes with paint found discarded at the nearby docks, hence the multicolored arrangement. The street is an interesting contrast to the Parisian-style mansions of Retiro and Recoleta. Another area worth visiting is the Barrio Inglés, in the classically porteño barrio of Caballito. Spread around six blocks is a cluster of lavish Tudor-style residences, which were originally the homes of railroad workers and now hold million-dollar price tags. Hesitate for a moment and you might think you’ve been transported back to a street in 19th-century Mayfair, London. Similarly, the sub-barrio known as Barrio Parque is a spider’s web of streets lined with multi-level mansions characterized by gated gardens and French and Italian designs. Hang around long enough and you may spot television personalities and athletes.

Modern

The city has plenty of contemporary architecture, too. The Floralis Genérica, next to the Facultad de Derecho, is a prime example. It’s basically a giant steel-and-aluminum flower that dominates a leafy plaza. Supposedly, the flower’s petals open and close according to daylight – just like a real flower – but you’ll be extremely lucky to see this. Deep in the heart of Núñez is the garish, French-style Torre Chateau, a 40-story luxury apartment building with views of the Río de la Plata. Much of the modernity, however, is set on the waterfront of Puerto Madero. The centerpiece is the Puente de la Mujer (Women’s Bridge), which depicts the embrace of a couple dancing tango. The building of the Fortabat Art Collection is notable for its innovative roof, which opens to mimic the movements of the sun. On either side of the water are refurbished shipping warehouses and gleaming skyscrapers. Although perhaps not as interesting as the historical monuments, they make up part of the city’s eclectic architectural landscape.