There is an interesting paradigm about Buenos Aires; that is that people see it, not for what it is, but for what it wished to be. In the late 19th Century, city leaders planned for a city of grandeur and beauty equal to its prosperity- a prosperity which had surpassed that of France & Germany. Some of the world’s best architects and engineers–imported from Italy, Germany & England–created grand boulevards & parks lined with an architecture of civic importance. Buildings, “dedicated to Galileo, da Vinci, & Verdi” were modeled after Europe’s great capitals to create the “Paris of the Americas” and resulting in the synthesis of a unique Argentine City- “this eclecticism is the City’s identity “, says the City’s preservation organization, Network of Patrimony.
However, after three coups between 1956 & 1977, building codes eased and socialist leadership led to subsequent decades of new buildings that belied the grand vision. Today, the city is a messy jumble of tired and worn disparate modern buildings with the jewels of the past sprinkled about. However, interestingly enough, that is not how people see it; they still see that vision of what Buenos Aires wished to be.
“Referred to as the ‘towering period’ between 1870 and 1910, these buildings serve as the symbols of former, fleeting glory, of an imaged perfection once achieved and now lost. The past as ideal here is emphasized without hesitation, the word “before” becoming central to one’s perception of the present. Nostalgia permeates, which encapsulates an image of Buenos Aires as it was perceived in the early twentieth century — a city with a great past, great potential unfulfilled.”
As I walk the streets at a desperate pace I attempt to capture with my camera some of the jewels of this storied past- there are simply too many to record. I ignore the many jagged holes in the city’s fabric, the Modern buildings that were put up without regard to the cultural view of the city; those buildings that were a reflection of a sole architect’s vision, now derelict with no reverence or even respect for the city as a whole. These buildings now outdated, and with their materials of glass, silicone and metal wearing badly over time, look sad among the older buildings that have withstood time with grace, elegance, and dignity, and which now strain at the corners to bind the city together.
I reach our building in Recoleta, a quiet upscale neighborhood in the central district, and quickly maneuver through a series of courtyards to our apartment, anxious to check the news back home. We had recently entered a competition for revitalizing San Antonio’s most important urban corridor, a 4 mile stretch of avenue that runs along the city’s largest park and links many of its most important museums and cultural centers. This was the most significant urban competition for the city in decades.
The young people in my office, many of which had come to San Antonio from cities like Chicago, Indianapolis, Detroit, and Minneapolis, had passionately spent many nights pulling together a comprehensive scheme for linking parks and museums with a tree-lined boulevard. They had replaced the sparse broken tooth fabric with shops, outdoor restaurants and beer garden, businesses and mid-rise housing with a few residential towers overlooking the parks, which they had linked with hiking, and bike trails. People would be able to travel by trolley (removed at the turn of the century, but now re-introduced) from downtown to the now linked parks, zoo, museums and botanical gardens.
As I read through the many projects submitted, I had hoped to see concepts that understood our city from the standpoint of a people carrying a culture and a distinctive place forward into the future; ideas that could knit a history into a cohesive city fabric. Some thoughtful entries, such as extending the park to the edge of the avenue, or creating a mixed-use urban fabric around an existing unused square park attempted such a thing; yet so many reflected a fractured and idiosyncratic future.
As San Antonio, a once beautiful and historic city grows, it strains to find a civic identity of a future that is uniquely our own. I now fear we will find ourselves like many of those lost Buenos Aires dream of becoming a great and beautiful metropolis, and begin to refer to that which was “before” as the city that “could have been”.