Saturday, January 2, 2010

Buenos Aires: some photos, some thoughts.

Perhaps it was the time of year -the Christmas week always being an odd time to visit places- but I found Buenos Aires a strangely unenjoyable place.

Architecturally, it's a grid plan, and the grid is pursued with a heartlessness- extending relentlessly for miles- in a way that I've only seen before in mid-western US cities: the effect on the walker is quite alarmingly tedious. The city turns away from the seafront, moreover, and is fairly flat so one feels bored, as if stuck in the middle of the sort of huge, worthy, but dull nineteenth century "classic" novel used to torture sixth form pupils in the better schools everywhere.

There is a good lot of grand but somehow joyless 19th century and equally doctrinaire modernist architecture. I felt at times, indeed, that the place was a composite of the dullest parts of Barcelona, New York or Paris. As so often is the case with 19th century building, the individual details (carvings, scrolls, ironwork, sculptures) detail are better than the sum of the parts- hence, Buenos Aires' cemetery cities are more delightful than the streets surrounding them (Recoleta comparing well to the best of the London seven, but less happily to leafier , more generously spaced Pere Lachaise, Paris). *

I visited a modern art museum, and although there was a permanent collection of Latin American pre-war modernism- Botero, Kahlo, Cavalcanti- the main draw of the place, supposedly, was a show of late Warhol, and this seems to confirm the lack of individuality of Buenos Aires - for it is as if every city must have a large white museum of modern art and in it a Warhol collection, an obligatory genuflection to that least lovable US artist.

Also bizarre, to me, were glimpses of Argentineans dressing with hilarious accuracy in English styles (or more precisely, given that they were generally Ralph Lauren clothes, American interpretations of them). And it was not just the clothing, but the way women had a horsey masculinity, and the men a cultivated insouciance (with jackets deliberately crumpled, I’m sure) that was so amazingly English: indeed so uncannily did their faces resemble faces I'd seen in Kensington or Fulham that I had to go up close to listen to confirm that they were indeed Argentineans- they even had the same craggy, excentric faces of the British patrician classes. I saw such types crossing on the ferry and in Palermo, very self-satisfied and grumpy looking.

In other aspects, the place has a gloomy air- the closed shops (including Harrods!), the old, battered cars, and grilled meat meat meat- that least imaginative of diets- everywhere (it convincing me of the value of vegetarianism for at least it inspires the imagination, and reinforces the truism that good cuisine comes not from an abundance of available good natural produce, but the opposite- its scarcity- so that cooks are forced to think imaginatively about how to make the few available things as tasty as possible).

The decline was particularly apparent around La Boca, where women walk up and down the filthy streets with their unwashed brats past smashed cars and bunches of shirtless men playing loud ugly music; youths shout at strangers and flinging fireworks at the hapless tourists who are effectively confined to a few metres of "tango heritage" restaurants. There is some wonderful graffiti among all this, however.

I regret to be so negative about Buenos Aires- I know that Portenos have not had an easy last half-century- and I'd emphasize how pleasant they were to deal with.

*The comparasion of cemeteries deserves a blog to itself- if readers know of one, please let me know.


  1. Buenos Aires is one of the most cosmopolitan cities in South America boasting a plethora of green spaces everywhere you look at. The architectural legacy of the 19th century should not be criticised as it tells the story of the city. I really think you have got it really wrong. You know very little about the history of Argentina not least its culture, it seems to me. You complain of Argentina's interest in foreign artistic expressions, or the way Argentines may dress like the British, or the fact that the city resembles Barcelona or Paris so much. There's one big reason for it. And I will illustrate it with an old adage: 'What is an Argentine? It's an Italian who speaks Spanish, who lives in a French house and dreams to be English'. In sum, Argentines are real mongrels, they have their routes everwhere, especially in Europe. If you ever read Borges, perhaps you would be able to appreciate a city like Buenos Aires or understand its people. I also suggest you read Cortazar, his short-stories are wonderful, all fantastic fiction, but they portrait the essence of Argentina too. Did you know that the tango music originated in La Boca? It was never and will never be a posh area. At the end of the 19th century immigrants from all ends of Europe congregated near the port. So I imagine that something of its original spirit still remains.
    I hope the next time you go to Buenos Aires you will be able to see the true spirit of the city.

  2. Thanks for your feedback.

    I'm not sure if I "complain" about the fact that some Argentinians dress like the British Upper-middle classes, or indeed that they imitate others places in architectural style. Imitation and adapatation ae a necessary part of the process of any cultural development.

    My problem is that they seem to do so with so little apparant joy or invention.


  3. I have to say that, once again, I disagree. If Buenos Aires was as joyless or lacking the invention you claim then there would be no artistic or cultural richness. There would be no tango music, no great writers such as Borges, - who has had a pervasive impact in world literature,no musical talents such as Piazzola, etc.

    You should be more respectful of cities. They are not something you can openly and denigrate as you have done here. There is too much history involved in the process, too much culture you don't know, too many people there you didn't get the chance to meet, and too many streets you didn't walk. A good observer would find faults in something, but also redeeming qualities. There was no glimmer of hope in your observations. Did you not think your comments might put a prospective traveller off? Single-minded perspectives should always be avoided.

  4. Dear Anonymous,

    I think you are misunderstanding the nature of a blog entry.

    There are plenty of tourist guides which celebrate Buenos Aires and offer the sort of general survey you seem to desire.

    It was plainly not my intention to write a definitive cultural guide to Buenos Aires. That type of survey lies outside the scope of this blog.

    Ergo, I do not mention Borges or Cortezar (though, yes, I have read and enjoyed both) because my main desire was to convey my general impressions. I did not mention Tango, nor the interesting cafes, simply because they did not strike me as forcefully as other aspects of the city- most notably the peculiar atmosphere of decline and melancholy.

    I see my duty as a blogger firstly to honestly and concisely convey my feelings, and impressions: I wrote this piece as a subjective response to the city. My piece might indeed therefore be described as "single-minded": I certainly do not pretend to represent anyone's views other than my own. I am patently not the editor of "Baedekers", and the piece is written in the first person.

    It simply is not true, moreover, that I offer no positive aspects- I mention the interesting graffiti and the pleasantness of Portenos in my final paragraph.

    If you wish to write a piece in response celebrating Buenos Aires (up to 700 words) I’ll happily publish it here (subject to possible editing).


  5. I regret that you've done the typical tourist tour, with their caps and cameras and beige short pants(wearing white elastic socks underneath)and trekking shoes.

  6. I sense sartorial snobbery there!

    I confess that I am no Beau Brummel.

    Buenos Aires is a peculiarly depressing city: whether I discovered this wearing Churches or Reeboks, white elastic socks or black silk ones, beige shorts or black breeches seems incidental to me.