Sunday, August 30, 2009
A fine city by any definition, Buenos Aires means, represents and many things to a myriad of people; amongst a few are its citizens, its non-resident workers, its visitors and just about anybody who happens to be in the city for a given moment. For some, it represents a workplace; for some, opportunity - a chance to start a new life; for some, Buenos Aires is home, while to others, it may be a vacation destination. To me it, too, represents many things, though none speak to me as much, or are as true, accurate or defining as it being the City of Faded Elegance. Upon hearing the title, especially people unfamiliar my interpretation and thinking, one may get a negative vibe, but I can assure that’s not nearly the implied connotation.
One may ask why faded elegance? Well, that’s because, uh, it is! To me, anyways, there isn’t a more fitting title to this city. The ever-telling remnants, carcasses and husks are synonymous with its stained glory, something derived from its great, painstakingly obvious fall from its once-magnificent past, which litter the city, speak for themselves.
I won’t delve into History, but I’ll leave you with a few tidbits: from 1890-1930, Argentina was a financial and economic powerhouse so mighty, it attracted 10% of all immigrants from Europe to the Americas (heavy waves of European immigrants brought more than 6.2 million Europeans from 1850 to 1950); its per-capital income and quality of life was superior to that of Spain, Italy, Sweden and Switzerland, allowing it to achieve a (purported) total wealth larger than that of France and Germany combined. With the bulk of the revenues and capital from that period having been poured into the crown jewel of nation, Buenos Aires, the ensuing master planning and riot of opulent European architecture styles that followed easily secured it the nickname the “Paris of South America”.
While this is just my opinion, if Buenos Aires is akin to any Paris, it has got to be the somewhat crude, unrefined Paris of 1910; or whichever Paris it is that lacks an all-important final layer of luster, sheen and polish. Much like it is impossible to walk down a block without seeing a building demolition underway, on the brighter side, it pretty much isn’t possible (or if it is, it requires some serious work) to walk a block without seeing a building with tremendous architectural merit. However, in a far greater abundance are buildings that are emblematic of period altogether bygone, bespeaking long-gone heroic fame and prominence that has since fallen on tough luck. The former second city of the Americas.
The thing is about these buildings in mention, is that most, if not a majority of the structures (the ones still standing, anyways) are in various stages of decay, neglect or in otherwise a less than stellar condition. When such buildings were built, the situation, air and atmosphere was different, to say the very least. Then, Buenos Aires was awash in prosperity and wealth, and in flux, being one of the world’s premier cities; the media, social and political capital of Latin America, as well as preferred haunt for the respective circles and elites those genres attract. Today, they are tangible reminders of the Buenos Aires of then; when such structures represented and stood for the utmost in ambition, hope, power, and vision. Despite my love and infatuation with grit, when I see such buildings I am almost always taken aback, a mere human amidst the former testaments and visible reminders of the ambition and hope that ushered Argentina into the ranks of the world’s best – but also because of how we’ve turned our backs on cities.
That said, Buenos Aires’ gritty authenticity, while all in your face, isn’t super imposing or scary like that of Detroit or a similar, blighted Rust Belt city. By contrast, it’s almost like that of Berlin, Detroit, or Prague; much like those cities, its quite likable, charming and almost romantic, in a sort of dirty, forbidden, almost poor but sexy way -- something very Parisian way in and of itself. To me, it is such grit and decay that differentiates the city, makes it special, and gives it character; the imperfection, lack of sterility or dullness and charm of it all, and most importantly, the fact that if a city has come down this far, the only other way left for it to go is up – an odd, strange beacon of hope.