That’s how one of our tour guides described Buenos Aires’ architectural heritage. The city is a dazzling wonderland of architectural styles, and some of them – the French revival buildings, for instance – are not so much authentic (how could they be, seeing as how they’re not in France) as they are eye-poppingly, over-the-top gaudy — a kick to look at and to walk through.
Buenos Aires retains very little of its colonial heritage (one notable exception is Our Lady of Pilar church next to La Recoleta cemetery, built in the early 1700s). That’s because the city went through a
tremendous building boom in the late 1800s-early 1900s. At the time Argentina was one of the wealthiest countries in the world, and the monied aristocracy was determined to re-make BA into “The Paris of South America.” Most of the old, colonial neighborhoods were razed to make way for fabulous, overdone mansions, churches, schools, and office buildings with a strong European influence. You name the style, and there’s a landmark example: French Revival, Belle Époque, Art Nouveau, Art Deco, Italian Renaissance, and on and on.
Much of this fantastic architecture remains, and – needless to say – we were dazzled at every turn. Here are four of our favorite buildings.
The Teatro Colón
Buenos Aires’ showpiece theater, which finally opened its doors in 1908 after 20 years of construction, is rated one of the top five opera houses in the world and one of the top three for acoustics. It’s a spectacle that has to be seen to be appreciated.
El Ateneo Gran Splendid Bookstore
You may have seen this one on a list the world’s most amazing bookstores. The Teatro Gran Splendid opened about a decade after the Teatro Colón and staged many live performances, including some of the day’s most notable tango singers and dancers, before operating as a movie theater for many years. In 2000 the Gran Splendid got a new lease on life when the El Ateneo bookstore chain took over and converted it into its flagship store.
Palacio de Aguas Corrientes
In English, it’s the Palace of Flowing Waters – and there’s probably no better example of how architecture-crazed the BA aristocracy was at the turn of the last century. Mention “water pumping station,” and what probably comes to mind is a squat utilitarian building, built not for show but for purpose. But remember, this was a time when BA was striving to be the Paris of Latin America – so everything had to be a European-inspired showpiece.
Completed in 1894, the Palacio is enormous — occupying an entire city block. And it’s so, so beautiful, one of our favorite BA sites. The incredibly ornate detailing on the outside belies the mundane function of the building today. It doesn’t pump water anymore, but it is the office where downtown citizens go to pay their water bills. And it houses the wonderfully off-the-wall “Mueseo de Agua y de la Historia Sanitaria,” charting the history of BA plumbing including all of the inodoros (toilets) that have been approved by the city for residential use down through the years. The Palacio is a MUST SEE!
The Palacio Barolo
For some reason, I’m missing most of my photos of this fantastic, landmark building. But trust us – this is a must-see on any architecture tour of BA. When the Palacio Barolo was completed in 1923, it was the tallest building in South America – and the lighthouse at the top could be seen all the way in Montevideo, Uruguay, 250 km away.
The architect, Mario Palanti, was apparently a huge Dante Alighieri fan – so much so that he designed the Palacio Barolo as an allegory of Dante’s Divine Comedy. In fact, Palanti even wanted the building to house Dante’s ashes (that didn’t pan out – for some reason Italy thought he should be buried there). The basement and ground floor represent hell, complete with gargoyles and other elaborately carved creatures. The next several floors are less ornate in a representation of Purgatory, with the top dozen or so floors reaching heaven as represented by the lighthouse on top.
Fun fact: Palanti designed the Palacio Barolo and the Palacio Salvo in Montevideo at about the same time (we saw the Salvo on our visit to Montevideo but weren’t able to tour it). The buildings aren’t identical but share a lot of similar design features.
Here are just a few more buildings that made an impression on us:
Ah, Buenos Aires. There aren’t too many cities we’d say this about, but we’re definitely going back someday. And stay tuned for our next post – a special Halloween edition featuring one of our favorite sites, La Recoleta Cemetery. Unforgettable!