Thursday, September 4, 2008

Buenos Aires: Los Eucaliptos Edificio

Well after a long hiatus, I've decided to get some more posts going on this blog. My lack of posts doesn't mean I've stopped traveling but more that I haven't really taken the time to compile it all. Since this past January, I've done two more design studios that were both really interesting, one in Brooklyn and another in Tijuana. I spent a week in Finland and then three wonderful weeks in Germany. I've got good stuff from all of these places but my first post back will come from South America. This is a paper I wrote on a not very well known but important project in Buenos Aires. A little lengthy, but I'll hope you find it interesting.

A Manifesto of the City of the Future

In 1947 Sigfried Gideon edited a book published by CIAM celebrating modern design called A Decade of New Architecture. In this book were 13 examples of apartment houses. The book was organized such that each project was usually allotted half a page. Some special projects were given a full page, and two projects were given two full pages of coverage. One of the projects was the Unite d’Habitation in Marseille, France by the modern movement’s champion and master Le Corbusier. The other project is the Virrey del Pino Apartments in Buenos Aires, now considered fairly obscure and designed by architects more known for the design of a chair. Corbusier’s Marsaille project was a massive 337 apartments in 12 stories. The Virrey del Pino has 9 stories but less than 40 apartments. The question this paper proposes to explore is, why did this little building receive so much attention?

To answer this question we must illustrate how radically different the Virrey del Pino Apartments were. We will do this by introducing another project that represents the local trends in Buenos Aires: this project is Jorge Sabate’s Casa de Renta. At first sight the layman would group these buildings into the same categories. They fit the same speculative apartment typology, both refer to the modern architectural language of Le Corbusier, and both were built at approximately the same time. As this paper develops however, we will point out how very different these two schemes are by exploring each buildings history, conditions and the designers’ backgrounds.

Casa de rentas is the Spanish name for a speculative apartment building. Casa de rentas were in very high demand in Buenos Aires during the 1930s and 40s. At this time, European immigrants had already flooded the country by the millions and were settling into Buenos Aires. During the time these two buildings were built, a law forbade the horizontal subdivision of property ownership; therefore rented accommodations were the driving force behind housing development. The Portenos had money to invest due to the Great Depression and World War II. These events disrupted traditional trading between Argentina and its principal European trading partners, causing few agricultural goods to be exported and even fewer manufactured goods imported. This stimulated Argentine industry as entrepreneurs established factories to manufacture those goods that they could no longer readily import. As industrial employment boomed in the metropolitan area, the middle class boomed proportionally. Housing was considered an outlet for private speculative funds and became the prime focus for experimentation. But this new wealth and development was a mixed blessing. Buenos Aires was growing at an extraordinary rate. New neighborhoods were being developed more rapidly than planners could keep up with.

To understand the similarities between Sabate’s Casa de Renta (from this point referred to simply as Casa de Renta) and the Virrey del Pino Apartments designed by Jorge Ferrari Hardoy and Juan Kurchan, we must go back a decade before these structures were built. In 1929 Le Corbusier was invited by a Buenos Aires intellectual group Amigos del Arte to lecture on the subjects of architecture and urbanism in the modern era. This visit was important for two reasons. For one, this invitation was Corbusier’s first visit to South America and was a sign that his theories were reaching if not influencing many Argentine architects and intellectuals. Secondly, Corbusier’s visit allowed him to further his study on the modern city in the context of Latin America’s largest city, Buenos Aires. Both of these reasons are important to our story. Most simply because evidence of the Corbusian five point system is visible in both the Casa de Renta and the Virrey del Pino. But more importantly because the story of Virrey del Pino is really a story of a plan for an entire city.
Beyond the five point system, the two buildings also had similar functional divisions, separating public (red), private (purple), and service areas (orange). From the entrance hall of the Casa de Renta, the public circulation space moves up the center of the building to the entrances of each of the apartment’s living spaces. The service areas, comprising of the kitchen, laundry and servants’ quarters, were laid out around the two ventilation shafts and usually had a separate entrance stemming from the shared circulation space. Similarly to the Casa de Renta, the Virrey del Pino has the same division of space: public circulation entering into living areas and service spaces surrounding the ventilation shaft. However, the difference in the Virrey del Pino is that the service space is not accessible by the public. This difference, while seemingly slight, is evidence of a trait not shared by the designers of each building.

South America still looked to Europe for many things, education being one of them. Young South American artists and architects moved to Europe to apprentice under the great masters. Chilean Painter Roberto Matta studied under Salvadore Dali. Likewise, the young argentine architects Juan Kurchan and Jorge Ferrari Hardoy went to Paris to apprentice for their great master Le Corbusier. While in Paris, they were influenced by more than just Corbusier. Highpoint II, by Russian immigrant Bernard Lupekin, was influential to these Argentine architects. They became interested in the implementation of the buildings shared service corridor; a feature which we already mentioned was incorporated into the Virrey del Pino plan.

Back home in Argentina, both Alberto Prebisch and Antonio Vilar were responsible for the spread of the Rationalist style in Argentina. Most of the important buildings of the time were built by the government and the country’s leading citizens, but modern building production stood out especially for the large number of “well-designed and well-constructed” apartment blocks. “Rationalism,” says architectural historian Ernesto Katzenstein “satisfied the search for homogeneity of taste by adopting a neutral language, that of the reiteration of unembellished forms and a deep adhesion to function and, more precisely, to objective conditions.” If rationalism could be called the mainstream architecture of the 1930s, Jorge Sabate can be seen as a fairly conservative mainstream architect. He graduated from University of Buenos Aires in 1921 as president of the student architects association and a member of the SCA. His previous experience, before he designed the Casa de Renta was the design for a military prison and he worked as an architect for a local railway company. The Casa de Renta emulated the Rationalist forms that Prebisch and Vilar were making popular. The façade of apartment building consists of plastered calcarea stone and white cement, with railings, jambs and thresholds of polished marble, pure and simple volumes with nautical details. By contrast, the Virrey del Pino Apartments were clad in colorful ceramic tiles while the windows were obscured with wooden vertical louvers.

But material choices and plan organization was not the major difference between these buildings. Again we must go back a decade. In 1931 noted urban planner and theorist Werner Hegemann visited Buenos Aires to study the city. He wrote, “As far as I know the capital cities of the five continents, there exists today nowhere a greater wasteland of buildings with such a miniscule quantity of green oases as in the capital of Buenos Aires.” Le Corbusier had similar sentiments during his visit 2 years earlier. The Athens Charter, signed in 1933, was perhaps CIAMs most significant and controversial work and was influenced heavily by Corbusier’s views on city planning and possibly his visit to Buenos Aires. The charter declared that CIAM was in favor of “rigid functional cities, with citizens to be housed in high, widely-spaced apartment blocs. Green belts would separate each zone of the city.” This charter took the modernist from merely architect to planner of new ways of living.

When Kurchan and Hardoy arrived in Corbusier’s office, he utilized the young Argentines to begin developing that which The Athens Charter tasked: they set in motion Le Corbusier’s vision of a master plan for Buenos Aires. When the young Corbusian protégés returned from Paris, they found that Rationalism had gone mainstream in Argentina. This frustrated them because they believed that architecture should do more than strip buildings of ornament, but instead apply a new way of living. At this time Kurchan and Hardoy helped to form the Austral group. Austral was a group of young architects who were reacting against the rationalist architecture that had become popular. They wrote a manifesto, published it in one of the leading Argentine architectural journals, and went about the task of implementing the ideas they learned in Paris. Kurchan and Hardoy’s first significant construction project was the design of the Virrey del Pino Apartments.

The Virrey del Pino was to be more than just a simple speculative housing venture. In this apartment building, the two architects aimed to change the way the urban landscape was developed. The apartments were located on a tapered site 25 meters wide by 40 meters long in the sparsely developed Belgrano district. What made this building unique is that it was aligned to the extreme rear of the lot. From 1928 to 1944 building regulations were strict about facades and encouraged that they collectively join up to form the street. In order to achieve this placement with such building regulations, the architects argued that if the lot was occupied using this standard, a group of three eucalyptus trees would have to be sacrificed. It is for this reason the project is referred to as Los Eucalyptos. In contrast to the Virrey del Pino, the Casa de Renta is situated directly on the street in accordance to these building regulations. The building spanned from party wall to party wall in order to accommodate a garden space behind the building, creating the traditional pulmon de manzana.While the eucalyptus trees allowed for the variance from the city codes, it was not the sole reason for the buildings placement on the lot. The scheme was actually an attempt to implement Le Corbusier’s city plan for Buenos Aires, one building at a time in hopes that other architects would follow. “Its realization was to serve as a proof of the possibilities for the gradual change of the traditional shape of the city thanks to the renewal of urban legislation and the power of the architect’s imagination.” Unfortunately the effort to sell the Corbusier city plan of Buenos Aires was largely unsuccessful. Today the Virrey del Pino Apartments stands as an artifact of the city that Corbusier dreamed of in Buenos Aires, Kurchan and Hardoy’s effort to implement the theories of this city plan in only a single building.
But could Kurchan and Hardoy’s noble attempt to change the urban condition in Buenos Aires to fit the task put forth by The Athen’s Charter be the single reason that is was so heavily featured in CIAM’s book? Possibly, but it probably helped that Hardoy was also the head of the South American branch of CIAM.

- My thanks goes to Megan White for contributing to this post.