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Notes on the Geography of Argentina: Avenida de Mayo

About 14 million people live in an urbanized area roughly 40 miles by 20 along the shores of the Rio de la Plata. We're on foot, thank you, so we're going to stick to two core transects. The first is only a mile long, east to west, but it explores the street that was intended to make Buenos Aires the Paris of the Americas.

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Argentina's Parisian ambitions have been bumped and bruised, but a major gathering late in 2017 to celebrate the LGBT community suggests that culturally the city may not be far off its target. We're at the Plaza de Mayo, created when an arcade was demolished in the 1880s and one plaza created out of two. In the middle stands the Pyramid de Mayo, created in 1811 to celebrate the revolutionary war begun a year earlier. For a city created in 1580, 1811 may not seem very old, but the pyramid is actually one of the oldest things in the city. Behind it is the Casa Rosada, the much more recent presidential office.

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I know, you want to see it, but the police on this celebratory day are ready for anything and have set up barriers.

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They're also ready with the kind of equipment that American police departments beg for.

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We've jumped up and caught a view over the barrier. You're going to ask about the statue: it's General Belgrano, one of the many heroes from the war for independence. The Casa Rosada behind him sits on the site of a Spanish fort demolished in 1873 to make way for a post office. The post office is still there: it's the left half of the building, converted in 1898 to a government house with the addition of the right half and the triumphal connecting arch. For patchwork, it's pretty good.

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Maybe the pink color, which has many explanations, was really chosen to distract viewers from the mismatch. Does a good job of it, too.

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Here's the other side of the building. This was the intended front side, because it faces the river--or faced it, past tense--until an artificial island blocked the view.

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A changing of the guard. Funny how the lack of guns makes them seem comical.

The building behind them houses the national bank of Argentina.

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In the space between the Casa Rosada and the old riverbank, Juan de Garay gives one of those "This is the Place" gestures. An earlier Spanish settlement had been attacked by Indians and abandoned. Fifty years later, in 1580, Garay, who had recently been governor upstream at Asunción, came back and tried again. The city survived this time, though Garay didn't, not for long: he was ambushed by Indians and killed three years later, about age 55.

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There used to be a park sloping down to the shore, which looked like the open sea because the Rio de la Plata is about 30 miles wide here, but the city's proudest collection of highrises now blocks the view. They stand on the firm footing of a former building-materials dump. We'll come back to this in the folder called Puerto Madero. Everybody loves tall buildings.

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Here's what Garay's statue now looks at. The building in grand isolation is the former Central Post Office. It closed in 2003 and was converted to the Nestor Kirchner Cultural Center. It had been only completed in 1928, which is faintly ironic because it's a close copy of the rear facade of New York City's old post office, which faced City Hall Park until torn down in 1938. Well, what do you expect: nobody can keep up with the style leader.

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Facing the old post office is this unusual building from 1912. The man behind it was Nicolas Mihanovich, and though he had many financial interests the basis of his fortune was the Argentina Navigation Company. Hence the lighthouse, which once did shine over the sea.

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We've come back to the fenced-off section of the Plaza de Mayo; we're looking away from the water. You recognize Belgrano and the pyramid, but there are a couple of other prominent features here. For example, the tower. Hazard a quick guess as to its date?

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The clock is a tip off in case you were going to guess centuries back. Correct date: 1931. Welcome to the city's legislature.

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The tower peeps over the town hall of 1610, rebuilt many times, most recently in 1940 by Mario Buschiazzo, nephew of another Buschiazzo, whose fine name will pop up time and again, fittingly for the city's director of public works in its heroic age.

The lesson is this: not everything that glitters here is old.

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Look like a church to you? Me neither, but facing the old town hall this is the Metropolitan Cathedral, with a facade from the early 19th century. The architects were French and presumably repelled by the thought of yet another church. The pediment, from the 1860s, shows Joseph and his brothers, an apparent allusion to peacemaking between the parties who fought each other during Argentina's revolutionary war.

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The interior, consecrated in 1791, is churchier and, of course, older than the facade.

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A chapel houses the mausoleum of General San Martín, whose body was returned from Europe in 1880. He had died there 30 years earlier and, contrary to what you might expect of El Libertador, had lived there the last 25 years of his life.

The female figures represent Argentina, Chile, and Peru, the countries he freed from Spain.

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Two blocks south of the plaza, this is the church of St. Ignatius. There's been a church here since 1686, but Perónist mobs burned this and other churches in 1955, so what we see is a reconstruction.

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Same here, with the Basilica of San Francisco. The Franciscans got a grant of land from Garay himself, but this church was slow in construction. Consecrated in 1783, it collapsed in 1807 and was rebuilt early in the 20th century in what has been described as Bavarian Baroque. No wonder: the architect was Ernesto Sackmann (1874-1968). The central statues up top show Saint Francis flanked by Dante and Giotto and with a kneeling Columbus.

Like the church of St. Ignatius, this one was burned in 1955.

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Just north of the plaza and in a secular counterpoint to the churches to the south, there's a City in the City of London sense. Among the banks in the cluster: this one from 1940. Seems late in the day for such classicism, but it echoes the face on the opposite site of the building, from 1876.

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Here's the 1926 Banco Frances del Rio de la Plata. The bank itself, the oldest private bank in Argentina, was established in 1886 but was acquired in 1996 by Spain's Banco Bilbao Vizcaya.

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The banks attract protesters who, especially with that little pink compressed-air horn, make an amazing amount of noise.

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Somehow the people in the nearby offices carry on, for example in this charming Ministry of the Economy building from 1939. As the almost indecipherable logo says, the building now houses the federal administration of public works.

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A block away, a tired Julio Argentino Roca, Argentina's president for 12 years, makes his escape down Avenida Roca, which only makes sense. The fencing hints that someone would like to deface the monument. One contender: the descendants of the Indians Roca killed during the "Conquest of the Desert" in the 1870s.

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We haven't seen anything modern except for the towers at Puerto Madero, but here's an exception. It's the City Hotel, opened in 1931 by a Scotsman resident in Buenos Aires, David Hogg.

It's been sold more than once, and has operated since 2001 as an NH hotel, but go back to the South America Handbook for 1949. There, the City is described as "the largest and most modern hotel in South America... [with] 500 rooms, each with private bath, filtered ice water; all public rooms air-conditioned." The best bit: "The only English hotel in Buenos Aires." Some Scotsman.

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The confusion extends to the style, a cunning blend of Art Deco and Neo-Gothic. The entrance suggests a chopper ready to drop.

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We've started walking from the Plaza de Mayo west along the Avenida de Mayo, closed today for the LGBT parade. Down at the far end is the green dome of the Congreso de la Nación.

Quick version: Garay in 1580 laid out a gridded city of nine blocks by 15. Each measured 150 varas by 150, or about 130 meters square. Blocks were separated by streets measuring 11 varas or about 9.5 meters. The grid was greatly expanded in later years, but not the block size or the street width. (Remember those police vans?)

Come the late 19th century, the illustrious Torquato Alvear decided as mayor to build an avenue 30 meters wide and fit for a Paris of the Americas. It took a while, because property had to be condemned, and the street did not open until 1896, by which time Alvear had moved to a fine tomb in the Recoleta Cemetery. The street was designed by Juan Antonio Buschiazzo (1845-1917), uncle of Mario--the architect who designed the plaza's old town hall.

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The avenida was soon lined with grand buildings that might have satisfied Baron Haussmann. Here's what is now the Casa de Cultura, run by the Ministry of Culture. Up top, however, you can faintly make out part of the name La Prensa, ("The Press"), and this building was indeed the home of that conservative newspaper from 1898 until Juan Perón expropriated it in 1951.

The architects, Carolos Agote and Alberto Gainza, are said to have been inspired by Charles Garnier. Completed in 1898, the building is topped with Pallas Athena holding the sacred fire of Prometheus. Perón, like most dictators, didn't share the implied adulation of a free press.

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We've come down a couple of more blocks to the Avenida 9 de Julio. What can we say except "Hold hands, children." Look straight out a window here at your facing neighbor. Can you see him? He's 500 feet away.

Named for Argentina's Independence Day (9 July, 1816), work began on the road in 1935. Some of it opened in 1937, but the greater part only in the 1960s. Even so, the road is only two miles long.

The corner building on the right was designed by Juan Antonio Buschiazzo, the same man who engineered the Avenida de Mayo. Built in 1893 for a rancher, it's one of the oldest buildings on the street and was intended as residential apartments. It apparently contained one of the city's first elevators. It later became a hotel (and is now a hostel) but along the way has lost much of its trim, including a cupola and balustrades.

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The view south along 9 de Julio. The central lanes are for buses. Think you could throw a ball across the street? Cast a line? The building deflecting the road is now the Ministry of Health but was originally the Ministry of Public Works, from 1936. The figure on the wall is supposed to be Eva Perón.

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We're looking east from a point just five minute's walk from the Av. 9 de Julio. The bubbly building in the center is the Palacio Barolo, from 1921. It's flanked by a non-entity from the 1960s and, on this side, by the Edificio la Inmobiliaria.

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The Edificio La Inmobiliaria was, as its mellifluous name says, built by a real-estate company called The Real Estate Company. Designed by Luis (Luiggi) Broggi, it opened in 1910 to celebrate the centennial of the 1810 Revolution, but it was always intended merely as office space for rent. Its familiar name was the Heinlein Palace, a droll reference to the Heinlein company, which ran a ground-floor shop selling Argentina's first toilets equipped with a siphon.

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Another view, this time including the Barolo.

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Luis Barolo, an immigrant, became a cotton grower and the first importer of cotton and wool-spinning equipment in Argentina. He commissioned Mario Palanti (1885-1979) to build the tallest office building in South America. Completed in 1923, it kept the record for about a decade. It's apparently a coded version of Dante's poem, with the upper floors representing heaven. The beacon is supposedly visible from Montevideo, where Palanti designed a twin tower.

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The splendid Galicia Norte is a residential apartment building from 1975.

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We've edged farther east still to the Plaza Lorea, a rare bit of green space in the city. The fenced monument?

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There it is. Hard to imagine that someone would want to deface something so modest.

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Here's the Palace of the Argentine National Congress, much enhanced by jacarandas, which are native to Latin America though widely planted elsewhere. The park designer was Carlos (originally Charles) Thays (1849-1934). He arrived in Argentina in 1889, became director of parks and walkways, and stayed until his death in 1934.

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The Palace of the Argentine National Congress was designed by Vittoria Meano, an architect who had arrived in Argentina in 1884 and who a decade later won a competition to design this building. Nine years later, with work well underway, he won another competition to build a legislative palace in Montevideo. Returning to Buenos Aires, he found his wife in bed with another man. A few minutes later, Meano was dead. The other man was sentenced to 17 years in prison, and Meano's wife was deported back to Italy. Work on the Congreso continued in the hands of another architect, a Belgian named Julio Dormal, who finished the building in 1906 and managed to survive its completion with years to spare.

The iron fence around the Monument to the Two Congresses hints, yet again, at protesters quick to deface celebrations of the social order.

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Notice how many people (and dogs) hang out in the park? That's because there are darned few of them. Parks, I mean. Far fewer than Paris: Ssh!

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The's dome's elongated profile is reminiscent of the dome of the Sacré Coeur Basilica, which is only a couple of decades older. Was this another nod to Paris?

Jules Lagae was the sculptor of the Monument of the Two Congresses, placed in 1914. The name alludes to the Constitutional Assembly of 1813 and the 1816 Congress of Tucuman. Both are represented by the figures reaching up to the central figure, representing a unified Argentina. At her feet lie the evil snakes she has bested.

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High above the Congreso's entrance of honor is a 20-ton quadriga, its creation the high point of the career of Victor de Pol. We'll see another of his works, a condor, when we get to the Recoleta Cemetery.

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Below the quadriga, a tent is set up by protesters objecting to the closure of a old Pepsico snacks factory in Floridak a crowded Buenos Aires suburb. Six hundred workers wanted their jobs back. "We blame the government of Mauricio Macri..." the Central Workers' Union said. (Telesur, 18 July 2017)

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Meanwhile, a protest march comes up the Avenida. "JP" is the Juventud Peronista, or Peronist Youth movement.

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The protest fell on International Women Human Rights Defender's Day. The March of the Cap is a national movement that began in Cordoba in 2007.

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Snap and run.

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Getting people to join the march doesn't seem to be a problem.

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Watching the protest: Mariano Moreno, remembered as the founder of journalism in Argentina but politically active himself at a dangerous time. Born in 1778, he died in 1811, allegedly poisoned.

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A peaceful spot? A peaceful country?


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