By Jessica Smith
This past March I journeyed down south of the border to Buenos Aires, Argentina with classmates from Pratt Institute's Historic Preservation program. Like many South American countries, colonial and traditional architecture reigns supreme in Argentina - especially in Buenos Aires. However, it was the brutalist architecture by renowned architect Corindo Testa, and the stark contrast to the surrounding architecture that his buildings incite that I found most interesting.
The trip was part of a mini course that consisted of four intensive lectures on the architectural history of Argentina that took place over a two week period before the majority of the class traveled to to Buenos Aires to see the city first-hand and learn more about the methods that are being utilized to preserve the city’s built heritage. As a city, Buenos Aires has been a melting pot from its colonization that has made the built environment an eclectic and diverse collection of colonial, traditional, and modern buildings. Because of the climate and the country’s lack of iron and steel resources, Argentina has been a pioneer of reinforced concrete construction practices, and it was incredible to walk up to a Beaux Arts building whose base looked like granite only to find it was concrete and stucco.1After learning and observing this proliferation of concrete around the city, it didn’t surprise me that Buenos Aires is home to some of the most striking Brutalist architecture in the world. However, I was curious to see how these buildings differed from the buildings I’ve visited, and find out if the people of Buenos Aires loved or hated their Brutalist architecture.
Banco de Londres (Bank of London)
The contrast of Testa’s Banco de Londres, completed in 1966, to the bank buildings that occupy the other three corners of the block was so striking, and I was delighted to see a sketch by Testa that captures this contrast in MoMA’s current exhibition Latin America in Construction. Though the building’s form is completely different than the surrounding architecture, it is still monumental, and the concrete forms of the exterior exoskeleton dwarf anyone who is standing next to them. And though I had seen photos of the interior, as we made our way inside I was still surprised to find how huge and open the space actually was. Juan Fontana, who worked with Testa for the last 24 years of his practice, said that “while Testa undoubtedly spoke the language of Brutalism, he did so with an Argentinian accent, and “the Banco de Londres is a novel, contemporary response from a Buenos Aires architect. It may be spoken in the international language of Brutalism, but the space is very much of Buenos Aires.”2
Photo (left): Sketch of the four banks by Corindo Testa featured in MoMA's exhibition: Latin America in Construction
Celebrated internationally as an outstanding example of Bruatalist architecture, the Banco de Londres unfortunately has not been held in such high regard by the residents of Buenos Aires, and underwent an intrusive renovation that altered many character defining features.3Until recently, this has been the case surrounding many of the city's historic buildings. Although Argentina has had a national law and commission dedicated to the preservation of significant monuments since 1941, it wasn’t until after the country faced financial crisis in 2001 that professionals and residents were spurred to implement more protective action to identify, restore, and preserve significant buildings around the country and in Buenos Aires. The emphasis of the national and municipal laws, however, is on preserving and saving buildings constructed prior to 1941, and so much work is left to be done in protecting the architecture of second half of the twentieth century.4 Slowly, the perceptions surrounding modern architecture is beginning to change. Thanks to work done by our instructor Fabio Grementieri and Docomomo Argentina, there is a growing recognition of the need to preserve significant modern buildings like the Banco de Londres.
Photo (above): View of the National Library also designed by Corindo Testa
1 Notes taken from lecture given by Fabio Grementieri on February 12, 2015
2 Mount, Ian. "The Legacy of Argentine architect Clorindo Testa, 1923-2013." Accessed April 14, 2015. www.zdnet.com/article/the-legacy-of-argentine-architect-clorindo-testa-1923-2013/
3 Grementieri, Fabio. "Heritage at Risk: Argentina." ICOMOS. Accessed April 14, 2015. http://international.icomos.org/risk/world_report/2000/argen_2000.htm
4Notes taken from lecture given by Fabio Grementieri on March 16, 2015