February 3, 2017

Buenos Aires 22 – Puerto Madero's success

A comment worth bringing forward by Alex Botta:
(In Puerto Madero) the adapted old brick warehouses and new modern buildings of a similar scale together along one side of the waterfront are very attractive indeed. I think the three elements that make this work as a great community within itself are scale, public space as public amenity on the waterfront, and a respect for heritage. Of course its connectivity to the city is also crucial externally, as Gordon mentioned.

It’s also noteworthy that the respect for heritage masonry buildings was achieved not by replicating their architecture, but by contrasting them purposefully with sleek glass and metal buildings using reflective surfaces and darker colours. As the result, the brick structures really stand out proud of their original purpose and new uses. This would not work as well if the scale of the new buildings was significantly different, in my opinion, or if everything new replicated the old red Italianate buildings ad nauseum.

Alex is right about this.  It’s one of the things that Vancouver megaprojects lack: contextually scaled mid-rise buildings that had a more horizontal balance to the forest of green-and-grey highrises.

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My resolution when I return to Buenos Aires: I’ll sign up for Ecobici (it’s free!) before I leave.

Buenos Aires looks like an intimidating city when you see it sprawled out on Google Maps.  And while the Subte connects up most neighbourhoods where a visitor is likely to venture, the distances are still significant.  Bikeshare looks like a good alternative.

The City has a ways to go (don’t they all) to make it truly bicycle friendly, but it’s on its way:

So next time, Ecobici it is if I want to feel like a real porteño.


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Can you guess from the architecture what the purpose of the building is?

(a) Hotel
(b) Pre-war co-op, New York style
(c) Government office

(a) Supreme court
(b) House of worship
(c) University department

(a) Office building
(b) Hotel
(c) Apartment building
(c) in every case.  The Libertador Building for the Ministry of Defence, the Faculty of Engineering for the University of Buenos Aries, and the Kavanagh Building.
The Kavanagh was the tallest reinforced concrete structure in the world and for many years remained the tallest building in Latin America, also the first building in Argentina with central air conditioning system.  But that’s not the best part.  Go here for “The Legend of the Kavanagh Building.”

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It seemed like, no matter the neighbourhood, there were signs of an era past:

Likely, one could guess, there was a significant streetcar system in Buenos Aries.  No kidding.

The Anglo-Argentine Tramways Company, known simply as La Anglo in Argentina, was a large transportation company which operated the vast majority of the largest network trams in Buenos Aires, which was also one of the largest in the world at the time with its 875 km (544 mi) length.

Even a casual reading of BA history reveals the turbulence of streetcar politics in civic government.  Parties campaigned on the issue of the 10 centavo fare, and the role of private companies in providing city services.  Eventually, as in North America, companies pleaded bankruptcy, were bought out, consolidated, nationalized, and then eventually scrapped, with the only evidence of their existence being some steel rail in granite-block streets.

But at its height the system was extraordinary:


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At the top of the must-check-out list for any Vancouver urbanist is the waterfront community of Puerto Madero – a development that started in 1989, almost exactly the same time as the Concord Pacific megaproject on False Creek.

In this tourism video, beginning at 0.14 secs, there are aerial shots of the project, as well as images throughout the next four minutes.

Like False Creek, PM was originally an industrial site – in this case, the first constructed port to serve a city that was otherwise dependent on the shallow Rio de la Plata.  Indeed, construction on the docks of PM started in 1887, the same year the CPR arrived in Vancouver and turned the north shore of False Creek into its freightyards.
Local businessman Eduardo Madero completed the project in 1897, having designed a sequence of basins with narrow necks, the better to control taxation, only to find that with the arrival of larger ships, the port was obsolete within a decade. Operations moved upriver to Puerto Nuevo, and PM began a half-century-long decay – right next to seat of government and downtown Buenos Aries.
After a sequence of failed proposals, an urbanization plan was realized under President Carlos Menem.  In 1989 a private corporation split between the federal government and the city of Buenos Aires was created to fund the project, which was then parceled out to private developers. It’s now the wealthiest and fastest-growing neighbourhood in the city.
Though it is about twice the size (170 ha for Puerto Madero, 90 ha for Concord Pacific), both are early examples of the megaproject-style development that became models for many other cities: a mix of uses but primarily residential towers, incorporating significant public amenity in the way of open space and waterfront walkways.

PM, though, has a continuity of sleek medium-rise office and residential blocks along the waterfront on the north side of the docks, with heritage warehouses repurposed for tech industries, restaurants and shops along the south side.

These walkways continue a long tradition of riverfront promenades going back to the Costanera Sur, which started construction in 1918 and can still be found beyond the Puerto Madero towers to the north.

Once open to the river, it was wildly popular among the working-class porteños, until it went into decline in the 1950s.  The City then used the river as a dumping ground for the fill being extracted for the construction of urban motorways, until they had over 300 ha of polder – which then naturally began to diversify with grasslands, plants, birds and animals.  In 1986, it officially and ironically became the Costanera Sur Ecological Reserve, soon overlooked by the towers of PM.

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One of the must-see attractions of Buenos Aires is La Recoleta Cemetery – one of the most extraordinary in the world.  It’s a metaphor for the city: dense, extravagant, lovingly maintained in parts, decayed in others and saturated with class, politics and culture, if you know what you’re looking at.

Situated tightly in the Recoleta district, only 14 acres, it must be the most expensive real estate in BA, if not in the Americas.

It’s also an architectural petting zoo – examples of almost every style imaginable, taken to extremes.

It’s also a textbook of the famous and infamous, and both, from Argentinian history, including, of course, Eva Peron.  But you won’t have an easy time finding her grave.  They won’t actually tell you where it is.

Evita made it clear she did not want a major mausoleum in a prominent site, nor would that have gone down well considering her neighbours.  The past is still present.

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Though the viaduct described below ends after it crosses the vastness of Av Libertador (one of those multi-lane arterials which substitute for the freeways that Buenos Aires stopped from being built into its core), the rail right-of-way as it heads south into Palermo looks like it has been redesigned to provide for some of the badly needed open space that BA lacks.

Plus street furniture with flair:

As always with urban amenity, open space attracts affluence – notably new condos.

Some right out of the Vancouver playbook:

What, you are wondering, does a suite in that building cost? I’m guessing around a million American dollars – at least if the prices in high-end neighbourhoods like Puerto Madero apply here.
And from the look of the new highrises going up in middle-class Palermo, with their setbacks, security and concierges, it may be a trend.

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On an early morning run through the Palermo Woods, I came across a space that became one of my favourites in Buenos Aires – a series of storefronts and seating spaces under a railroad viaduct:

Initially I thought it was BA’s version of New York’s High Line, or more accurately Paris’s Promenade Plantee, with shops and galleries built into the arches of an abandoned railway line.
But no, as an overhead rumbling soon confirmed, this is still a main commuter line feeding into Retiro Station:

It’s also clearly a favoured hangout for runners and cyclists, moms and nannies, business people and hipsters, and, in the evening, gay and straight nighclubbers.  The viaduct houses a great collection of unique stores, brewpubs, trendy restaurants and, of course, Starbucks – which is as common in BA as it is in Vancouver.
Best of all are the seating spaces nestled into the park-like spaces on either side of the viaduct.

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Why we travel: to see those small differences in the way things are done.
Like being able to buy empanada and Argentinian staples in COTO, a supermarket chain with a massive two-storey branch on Av Santa Fe:

Or a magazine stand (they still sell magazines, folks!) on a crowded subway platform:

Or a tricycle-riding juggler busking for the backed-up traffic on Av Sarmiento:

And the musicians in the Subte, their underground rapid-transit – oh, they’re good. High culture lives below ground in BA.

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Bring it all together from a century ago – the migration, the wealth, the European influences and architectural aspirations (everyone had Paris envy), the public art, even the road widenings – and this is what you get:

There’s a big lesson here too, which came home to me quite powerfully as I was reading a history of Argentina while listening to the latest Trumpian news out of the States.  How could such a rich country as Argentina, as evident in the built legacy of Buenos Aires, decline so far, so fast?

I’m not the only one to have asked.

The economic history of Argentina is one of the most studied, owing to the “Argentine paradox“, its unique condition as a country that had achieved advanced development in the early 20th century but experienced a reversal, which inspired an enormous wealth of literature and diverse analysis on the causes of this decline.
Argentina possesses definite comparative advantages in agriculture, as the country is endowed with a vast amount of highly fertile land.[2] Between 1860 and 1930, exploitation of the rich land of the pampas strongly pushed economic growth …
Beginning in the 1930s, however, the Argentine economy deteriorated notably. The single most important factor in this decline has been political instability since 1930, when a military junta took power, ending seven decades of civilian constitutional government.
In macroeconomic terms, Argentina was one of the most stable and conservative countries until the Great Depression, after which it turned into one of the most unstable. Successive governments from the 1930s to the 1970s pursued a strategy of import substitution to achieve industrial self-sufficiency…

America First, America First.

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