M a n u a l  o f  B a b e l

borges

He showed his find to a wondering decoder who told him the lines were written in Portuguese; others said they were Yiddish. Within a century, the language was established: a Samoyedic Lithuanian dialect of Guarani, with classical Arabian infections.

Jorge Luis Borges “The Library of Babel”

prologue

Buenos Aires is not shy. A flat city without a precise limit on the coast of unstable estuary of Rio de La Plata, still permeated by the influence of the endless vastnesses of the Pampas, is a result of the imposed, spontaneous and appropriated elements of Spanish heritage, immigratory flows and import of European urban models.
But as such, the Babel-like city, that bewildering metropolis that once attracted people from the four corners of the world, in fact more country than a city, needs its own language still to be established, its dialects to be decoded, its content to be deciphered, its wildness to be tamed, its animals to be put into the manual and its breeds cataloguised.

pre-babel

Having had only the secondary status in Spanish colonial empire and lacking important native culture, there were few legends, few original creations, few pure breed creatures in Argentina. It did not inherit marvels or historic monuments like in other colonial cities in Latin America, no ancient Indian ruins or colonial baroque churches of Mexico City or Lima, but the only two archetypes of a rural country like Argentina – the Pampas and the gauchos – gave the country its wealth, they contributed to the enormous agricultural export and the cattle and foreign investment bonanza of the early 20th century that made Argentina the tenth richest country in the world and turned Buenos Aires into an immigrant boomtown (the importance and influence of the Pampas to urban context of the time can be glimpsed in a fact that in 1926 Borges published an essay with an oddly melodramatic title: “The Pampas and the Suburbs are Gods”).

At the peak of receiving its biggest immigration influx in 1914 when more than half of the city’s inhabitants were being foreigners, the Pampas financed the building of the main structure of Buenos Aires: the port – the point of exit for the huge agricultural production as well the official public buildings, mansions and palaces, governmental offices, shopping arcades, railroad stations and banks.

The mix of colonial city planning and European taste, gauchos and europhiles, pastoral totems and grand European ancestry, conservation of most of historical colonial patrimony and the extreme urban growth gave the city its hybrid appearance: buildings of most various European styles were mixed together with old houses of strictly local cast and tenements were poor immigrants were literally stacked on each other in the inflexible grid network of streets designed four centuries before by the Spanish conquistadors.

babel

The city of Buenos Aires was suffering from a reputation of being a derivate, with many languages spoken and the unity of speech broken, with many imported and reworked architectural styles at play, in which the Francophile tendencies – earning the city the epitaph “Paris of the south” – in Argentina during the 19th and 20th centuries were just one of many.

Eclecticism, reflecting the structural crisis of the country lacking its own strong identity, became the official architecture of the state. Often disguising itself, updating itself, in its own continuous evolution, it illustrated the city with examples of combinations of styles with unlimited repetition and turned it into an inbreeding mongrel.

It included all levels of structures and all variations were permitted – the mixing of diverse European styles in the same block, even in the same building was as Argentine as tango – the only thing so far that truly captured the idea of Buenos Aires, that truly expressed the spirit of Babel – the city’s signature dance that put together African and Latin rhythms with lyrics of lunfardo, a local slang made of Spanish and Italian.

As result fake styles appeared, and the copies of those, and the copies of the copies, the demonstrations, commentaries, translations and interpretations of demonstrations, commentaries, translations, interpretations – endless interpolation of every style into another style, a true babel.

Whole neighborhoods, like La Boca or San Telmo, were streight Italian offsets, whole blocks of streets in Palermo Chico and Recoleta were copies of the 13th arrondissement in Paris, and when Alan Parker needed to finish filming “Evita”, the scenes of Buenos Aires were taken in baroque part of Budapest.
The Congress building was inspired by Reichstag in Berlin but had a dome like cupolas of Turin, the Presidential Palace had French mansard roofs, grand central arch of Italian baroque and galleries of columns of Italian renaissance.
Buildings were copied from Café Maxims, Opera Garnier, Pavilion of Louvre, the Luxembourg Palace or Jaquemart Andre museum in Paris, re-mixing or more or less exactly replicating the whole chateaus or parts of chateaus like the ones at Chantilly and at Fontainebleau was common sense.

From Europe were also imported a shopping mall very alike galleria Vittorio Emanuele in Milan, a cathedral a la Pantheon in Rome, a smaller version of Vienna’s central postal building, biggest Edwardian style railway station in the world and several Flemish style offices, architectural motifs ranged all the way from German Jugendstil to Italian liberty style and to grand examples of late Victorian, Beaux-Arts and Italian Renaissance, but alltogether it remained simply an eclectic affair and Argentinean architecture was as unknown in Europe or North America as in its own region.

The city was booming, the metropolis grew, but the show was an indictment of experimentation gone berserk, the foreign immigration that stylized and falsified the city created a strong absence of meaning at the same time. The city of Buenos Aires, like the country, like the nation, was lacking its own identity, its own symbol, and without that it would not have its soul, it would not be animated, it would remain deserted and voiceless, no matter the magnificent creation of Babel. It would always be almost North American, almost European, always almost-others.

almost-others

Thus clearly the vastness and the diversity of the metropolis posed a challenge – as no idea or style had been engendered yet, except tango that resembled the identity of Buenos Aires. But just like Buenos Aires even the tango, the rustic tango, the tango of guardia vieja, the old guard, born and bred in brothels with the rough spirit of the gauchos – impudence, utter shamelessness, pure joy of courage – had now being devalued, had become in the hands of many newcomers and foreigner interpreters “a cowardly sorrowful lamentation, a catalogue of failures”, complained Borges in a letter to his friend.

constructo

As much as it was about developing a culture for a young nation that could bear comparison to the cultures of other countries, Buenos Aires needed representation for the essence of the city, a symbol that would turn the city into a reality where its immigrant inhabitants would feel rooted as the old criollos gauchos had felt rooted in the Pampas. The urban realities of Buenos Aires entailed also a form of nation building; it needed a united language that would not only help to build the city, but also the nations identity.

It was time to find its root, to free itself from pre-established tendencies and become independent, to find method of its own, to find a point of departure of total freedom that allows to construct its own territory or to reinvent its own territory, that allows to conceive things from unexplored point, from the root, from where everything is possible – even the impossible task to populate that fast expanding immigrant boomtown with its own phantasms.

post-babel

In this complex stage of transculturalization to turn Argentina into modern nation, at least in appearance, in 1929 the Sociedad Amigos del Arte (Friends of the Arts Society) invited Le Corbusier to give 9 lectures in Buenos Aires.
But in spite of Le Corbusiers visit early wave of modernism in Argentina did not extend from merely applying modernism as style to really embody its principles. The accepted and official taste during the 1930’s was Beaux-Arts academy inspired, practitioners of modernism remained outsiders. Modernism became mostly the style for elite and the significant projects that were realized despite the historic trend were built outside of Buenos Aires like Casa del Puente, in Mar del Plata built in 1942 by Amando Williams, an exposed concrete arch over a river, or Maison Curuchet 1948-1954 in La Plata by Le Corbusier, probably the most known piece of modern architecture from this period in all of South America.
In Buenos Aires the first modernist landmark was to be the Kavanagh building, completed in 1936. Although an Art Deco American skyscraper combining expressionism, it was one of the worlds first reinforced concrete skyscrapers and for many years the tallest building in Latin America.

radical

Still, after the periods of colonization, sovereignty, Europeanization, immigration, expansion, growth, polarization and popular nationalism, it was finally time for rejection of all conditions and for desire to give form by quitting all that was before, quitting the conventionalisms and trust the new ones.
Putting together its past with the future, staying true to its criollo root and finding itself in brutalism and international style, post-1950 modern architecture in Argentina finally came into its own.

Thus the 1950s and 1960s, became a “heroic period” of Argentinean architecture, (and of all South American architecture) when new generation seized the moment to establish in this region a new way of life, the way to form the identity for Latin America in process and satisfy longing for monumentality and pride. (Niemeyer, Reidy, Testa, Soto y Rivarola, Bayardo, Dieste, Porro, Garatti, Gottardi, Carlos R Villanueva, Candela, Ramirez Vasquez).
The monumental civic works, some of the best in 20th century, combined style with idealistic visions for change in the economic and social conditions.
Reflected in Banco de Londres, in Biblioteca National by Clorindo Testa, the Argentinean architecture had had a clean brake with state of things, it had approved absence and dismissal of instruments, it had freed itself from its cultural background and found its original condition, it had been radical (in Latin radicalis “from or of the root”).

These buildings were not shy, not looking back; they were brutal, rooted and rational as criollos, gauchos and Pampas were, shameless, determined, free-of-others, heroic buildings that cannot be blamed for shortage of guts.

After having borrowed the best from Europe, Buenos Aires was finally ready for new identity, one that would do justice to its grandeur. Buenos Aires with its extraordinary force and intensity is certainly one of the most outstanding events of our time, or like Borges put it: “the living reality of the country, of Buenos Aires itself, is far greater than the reality of our thinking”.

/mariliis lilover bsas-nyc 2008

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