Between 1860 and 1930, Argentina was growing at such an impressive pace that it was expected to become the United States of South America. As agricultural exports to Europe took off thanks to technological advances in storage and transport, foreign capital poured in and Argentina became one of the wealthiest countries on Earth. People were making money hand over fist and European immigrants fleeing their own countries debated between whether to choose the United States or Argentina.
Much of this newly created wealth would find its way to Buenos Aires, where cattle arriving from the Pampas via rail were slaughtered and processed in the city’s large network of meat packing plants before being shipped to Europe through the city’s well-positioned port. This, in turn, led to the establishment of Buenos Aires as the financial center of this rapidly expanding economy, further increasing the amount of wealth contained in the city. Labor was in high demand and European immigrants responded by arriving in droves (predominantly from Italy and Spain). The combined expansion of wealth and population, provided both the rationale and means to invest heavily in order to rapidly transform the city’s landscape. Ambitious and well-trained architects (overwhelmingly from Europe) in search of work, found, in Buenos Aires, a blank canvass upon which to bring their architectural visions into reality.
What resulted was one of the great urban expansions in human history, producing an abundance of architectural achievements that we still benefit from today.
The timing of Buenos Aires expansion subsequently led to a proliferation of the architectural styles that were popular during the latter 19th century and early 20th century. As a result, Buenos Aires is largely dominated by the three styles of (i) neoclassical/Beaux-Arts, (ii) Art Nouveau, and (iii) Art Deco/modern. This article provides a basic introduction to these styles, with the aim of assisting you in appreciating and distinguishing between the buildings you encounter during your time in Buenos Aires. It should, therefore, be seen as a complement to the other articles on architecture provided on this site (particularly, the suggested walking tours).
Related: The Architecture of Buenos Aires: An introduction & guide
Related: Buenos Aires Architectural Walking Tour – Avenida de Mayo
Related: Buenos Aires Architectural Walking Tour – Calle Florida & Plaza San Martin
Related: Buenos Aires Architectural Walking Tour – Recoleta
Related: Buenos Aires Architectural Walking Tour – Corrientes & Santa Fe
Related: A Guide to Buenos Aires’ “Café Notables“
As a young metropolis without an indigenous architectural heritage from which to draw, the architecture of Buenos Aires is entirely rooted in European influences. Its earliest surviving architecture is colonial (mostly Spanish), though this heritage was cast aside in the late 19th century as the country sought to detach itself from its colonial past and instead align with the ideas of the French Enlightenment. The notions put forward during this period regarding what should be identified as progress and civilization, in turn, led to the adoption of an urban development plan inspired by Haussmann’s renovation of Paris. As a result, Buenos Aires saw wide scale introduction of boulevards, parks, avenues, and buildings that were in line with the Beaux-Arts tradition of France.
Rapid social and institutional changes as well as growing demographic diversity through increases in European immigration predictably led to conservative backlash and calls to preserve the Spanish roots of the country. Consequently, while the opening decades of the 20th century saw the continued proliferation of French styles, it was accompanied by the parallel development of a more “nationalistic” form of architecture that resulted in Neo-Colonial, Neo-Spanish Renaissance and Modern Catalan constructions. This combined and coincided with the emergence of modern European movements such as Art Nouveau (itself a reaction to Beaux-Arts) and, later, Art Deco and modern/international style.
With the successful military coup and ascension of Uriburu to the presidency in 1930, conservative forces were subsequently given greater institutional authority and sought to develop a national identity that could withstand the continued influx of immigration. Consequently, Argentina’s “Infamous Decade” led to a shift towards more modern forms of architecture. This continued during the 1940s under Peron’s infrastructure-centered plan for industrial development. With this, architecture became further oriented towards social welfare, giving rise to the Argentine form of early modern architecture referred to as “racionalismo”. It was only well after World War II that International Style modernism ascended as the dominant architectural style in the country.
Overall, the architecture that emerged in Buenos Aires over the late 19th and early 20th centuries can broadly be seen as resulting from several factors. Perhaps most important was the country’s economic transformation over this period, which saw it become one of the wealthiest countries in the world. As money flowed into the capital, more resources could be devoted to construction. This coincided with an influx of migrants, placing greater strain on the city’s infrastructure and leading to a need for large scale investment. Similarly, this economic growth attracted a number of skilled architects from Europe while the city’s lack of pre-existing development served to provide them with a blank canvas upon which to apply their skills.
We turn now to a brief overview of the various architectural styles found throughout Buenos Aires as well as examples of each.
Spanish Colonial and Neo-Colonial
Buenos Aires’ earliest buildings are in the Spanish colonial style (overwhelmingly 18th century), though few such structures remain in the city. Colonial buildings are usually simple with little color and adornment. Most of the examples found in Buenos Aires are located in the city’s earliest settlements, with the area around Plaza de Mayo having perhaps the most notable concentration. Noteworthy examples include:
- El Cabildo
- Basílica Nuestra Señora del Pilar
Colonial architecture fell out of favor following liberation from Spain, with the 19th century ushering in styles associated with the French Republic and its democratic ideals (e.g., Neoclassical/Beaux-Arts). This attitude changed somewhat following the country’s centennial (1910), however, with a minor architectural current emerging that attempted to reestablish a link with the country’s Spanish heritage. This led to the construction of several neo-Colonial buildings (as well as application of Spanish Renaissance elements to more modern forms and Modern Catalan Art Nouveau). These tend to incorporate features of Spanish colonial architecture, while complementing them with elements of Spanish Baroque and Moorish revivalism – applying more ornate decorations than traditionally found in colonial structures. Within Buenos Aires, the best examples include:
- Palacio Noel (now the Museo de Arte Hispanoamericano Isaac Fernandez Blanco)
- Casa Ricardo Rojas
- Puente Alsina
Palacio Noel | M. Noel | 1922 Casa Ricardo Rojas | A. Guido | 1927-29 Puente Alsina | J. Calixto Álvarez | 1932-38
Neoclassical architecture is an outgrowth of the neoclassical movement that dates from the mid-18th century and which coincided with the European Enlightenment. This period witnessed a significant increase in the knowledge of architectural forms used by ancient Greece and Rome due to the large number of archaeological excavations taking place in the Mediterranean at the time as well as the greater access to books arising from improved printing methods and lower costs. This enhanced knowledge led to the emergence of an architectural style that was heavily influenced by these civilizations and which was used as a response to Rococo. Characteristic features of neoclassical architecture include the simplicity of geometric forms, the use of columns and blank walls as well as layouts that emphasize hierarchies of space.
In its idealized form, then, one would be able to identify a neoclassical building as any that resembles that of ancient Greece or Rome. (Think, for example, of the Parthenon in Athens or Pantheon in Rome). It should be noted, however, that one can draw a distinction between neoclassical structures that source more heavily from Ancient Greece and those based more heavily on Ancient Rome.
Under the former, we find buildings of the so-called “Greek Revival”. Here, the main influence would typically be the Greek temple, particularly those using the Doric order (rather than, i.e., Ionic or Corinthian). As Ancient Greece was the birthplace of democracy, these structures often represent an attempt by newly emerging republics to invoke a sense of civic ideals and to embed their newly formed political system within the longer historical tradition of Western civilization. A prominent example of this approach can be found in the architecture of Washington D.C.
This is in slight contrast to the “Empire Style” which takes Roman architecture as its primary influence. Here one finds greater use of Corinthian and Ionic Orders (which had been heavily incorporated into Roman architecture) as well as greater deployment of Romanesque domes and arches. These structures are similarly designed to invoke a sense of idealism, but they also aim to link a nation or empire with the grandeur of Rome and instill a sense of authority/legitimacy in the elite and their system of governance. Importantly, both styles were also used as a means of separating a newly established republic, country or empire from that of its predecessor while signaling the lofty ideals to which it was aspiring.
So, in the case of Argentina, which was still emerging from its Spanish colonial heritage, neoclassicism represented a rejection of Spanish rule and an affirmation of its independence. It also served to align the newly formed Republic with France, which served as the ideal form of enlightened governance and Republican values at the time and which heavily influenced the country’s then-ruling elites.
The best area to view examples of neoclassical architecture in Buenos Aires is probably the center (around Avenida de Mayo). Particularly good examples include:
- Catedral Metropolitana – a mix of both styles, its simplicity invokes Greek Revivalism, while its use of Corinthian columns presents more of a blending with Empire Style.
- Facultad de Derecho (Law School of the University of Buenos Aires) – Greek revivalist with Doric columns and simple geometric shapes.
- Escuela Presidente Roca – ionic order columns and simple geometric shapes come together in this building.
- Others: Edificio Tornquist, Bank of the Argentine Nation
Catedral Metropolitana| Masella, Catelin & Benoit | 1752-1852 Facultad de Derecho | Ochoa, Chiapore & Vivent | 1949 Escuela Presidente Roca | C. Morra Mahnes | 1903
In the Italianate (Italianizante) style, heavy influence is drawn from Italian Renaissance architecture (16th century) and combined with picturesque aesthetics. In Buenos Aires, this has been applied to several significant structures to create eclectic buildings that draw on the various influences of neoclassical architecture. One notable example applying Italiante influences to neoclassicism is the National Congress. Here we find a good example of the Empire Style, with its thinner Corinthian columns and dome granting a clearly defined hierarchy of space. The very intricate designs on the cornices add a clear Italianate influence, invoking similarities with the Altare della Patria in Rome.
Palacio del Congreso | Meano & Dormal | 1898-1946 Altare della Patria (Rome) | 1885-1935
 Rococo was one of the dominant architectural forms in Europe for most of the 18th century (roughly 1700-1775), though disputes remain over whether it is a standalone architectural form or merely an extension of Baroque. Defining characteristics include: asymmetry in the main plan; curvilinear forms that resemble the letters S and C; pastel colors and playful subjects. With the age of Enlightenment, these playful motifs came to be viewed as frivolous.
 Classical Greek architecture is characterized by 3 Orders. Greek columns were heavily influenced by their Egyptian antecedents, but built on these relatively simple structures to develop a set of rules for designing buildings during the classical period. The Orders were viewed as a way to apply proportionality and clarity to structures. The 3 Orders are as follows:
- Doric: typically used for lower levels of multistory buildings because they were thicker. Smooth, rounded capitals, unadorned; the shaft is grooved and wider at the bottom.
- Ionic: more slender than other varieties and sit on a base of stacked disks. Scrolls usually appear at the top. Shafts can be fluted or plain. Typically used for upper levels.
- Corinthian: top of the column is adorned with flowers and leaves and flares outward, which gives a sense of height. The shaft is grooved. Since it was slender, it was typically used for upper levels.
Beaux-Arts (also referred to as French Academicism) was a movement that originated in Paris in the 1830s with the Académie des Beaux–Arts. Aiming to create an authentically French style of architecture, the leading scholars of the academy built on the principles developed in neoclassicism (particularly French neoclassicism), while incorporating modern building materials and elements of Gothic and Renaissance architecture.
What emerged was a style that focused on the aesthetic principles of classical design. Attempting to invoke harmony, grandeur, gravity and tradition, Beaux-Arts structures are often large, elaborate and stately, relying heavily on symmetry, sculptural decorations (based on Italian/French Rococo), columns, subtle polychromy and hierarchy of spaces (grand noble entrances shifting to smaller utilitarian spaces as you ascend the structure). Roofs are often flat and adorned with ornamental cornices, while the ground floors are often raised with exposed masonry that may be rusticated.
While the movement remained popular in Europe until the end of the 19th century/early 20th century, it achieved even greater longevity in Buenos Aires. Beaux-Arts took off in the capital in the 1880s – coinciding with the beginning of the city’s construction boom as well as the political ascension of the “Generation of ‘80” – and continued into the 1950s (well past its decline in Europe). This proliferation of Beaux-Arts buildings serves as a major reason for why Buenos Aires is often referred to as the “Paris of South America”. In certain parts of the city in particular (such as parts of Retiro and Recoleta), you can genuinely feel as though you’re strolling through Paris given the high density of such architecture.
While nearly all of these buildings add to the aesthetic appeal of the city, my general feeling is that the Beaux-Arts architecture of Buenos Aires is notably subpar in comparison to other locations. If you want to see Paris, my advice would be to go to Paris, where the Beaux-Arts architecture is vastly superior. Nevertheless, it is worthwhile exploring the Beaux-Arts scene in Buenos Aires, with notable examples listed below.
- Centro Cultural Kirchner – although renovations have added some (welcomed) modern touches to this space, the original structure is quintessentially Beaux-Arts. Note the symmetry in the design as well as the use of a hierarchy of space and columns in this grand edifice.
- Palacio San Martin – currently serving as the headquarters for the nation’s Ministry of Foreign Relations, this is a stately structure with clear hierarchies of space. Reliefs of columns add to the gravity of the structure, while the exposed, rusticated masonry of the base and flat, ornamented roof are also classic Beaux-Arts features.
- Palacio Ortiz Basualdo – currently home to the French Embassy, this is another fine example of Beaux-Arts architecture. Clear use of symmetry and subtle polychromy between the façade and the roof. Reliefs of columns again add to the elements of stateliness.
Centro Cultural Kirchner | N. Maillart |1889-1928 Palacio San Martin | A. Christopherson |1905-09 Palacio Ortiz Basualdo | P. Pater |1912-18
- Palacio Duhau – currently the Park Hyatt Buenos Aires, this building makes greater use of standard neoclassical elements. The doric columns at the entrance create clear hierarchies of space and add to the building’s weight. While the roof is in line with standard Beaux-Art forms, the triangular structure in the middle complements the columns to invoke comparisons with a Greek temple.
- Palacio Pereda – serving as the Brazilian embassy, this is a quintessential Beaux-Arts building, with perfect use of symmetry, subtle polychromy between façade and roof, exposed masonry on the base, and detailed reliefs between and around windows.
- Palacio Fernández Anchorena – housing the Vatican embassy (Nunciatura Apostólica), this is a wonderful example of Beaux-Arts architecture. All the classic elements can be found: symmetry, subtle polychromy, ornamental cornices, rusticated bases, and ornamentation around windows. The most striking feature, however, may be in the curved base on the building, which – quite fittingly – invokes sentiments of the Doric colonnade of St. Peter’s Basilica.
Palacio Duhau | C. Nordmann |1898 Palacio Pereda | Martin & Dormal | 1920-36 Palacio Anchorena | Le Monnier | 1907-09
- Edificio La Prensa – currently serving as La Casa de la Cultura, the former headquarters of the newspaper La Prensa is a Beaux-Arts structure that includes several pleasing and novel additions. Here, we again observe common Beaux-Arts elements: exposed masonry in the base and clear hierarchies of space; symmetry and subtle polychromy. Although still in line with the spirit of the style, we see heavier use of ornamentation here than in the aforementioned examples. More notable however are the metallic light posts on the ground and first floor as well as the bronze statue adorning the roof. The latter represents a monument to freedom of the press in the form of Pallas Athena, who is holding an electric lamp that is meant to connote Prometheus’ fire.
- Centro Naval – this is a highly ornate example of Beaux-Arts architecture, punctuated perhaps by the intricate bronze work of the main entrance. Drawing inspiration from the Rococo period, there is a high level of detail at each level, including in the horizontal bands at the first two levels, as well as along windows and under the balconies.
Edificio La Prensa | Agote & Ganza | 1898 Centro Naval | Dunant & Mallet | 1914
 This group included a number of great admirers of France and attempted to replicate it in a number of ways including in attempting to have Buenos Aires resemble Paris aesthetically.
Art Nouveau is a style of architecture and design that originated in Europe (with the first serious architectural outputs occurring in Brussels), which reached its height between 1890-1910. Several regional strands emerged, with influential outgrowths appearing in Belgium, France, Catalonia (Modernisme), Germany (Jugendstil), Austria (Secession), Italy (Stile Liberty) and Scotland (Glasgow School/Modern Style) in particular.
In its architectural application, Art Nouveau was predominantly a reaction and response to revivalist movements (particularly neoclassicism) and academicism (such as Beaux-Arts), with the movement instead advocating for the creation of entirely new forms of architecture that reflected modernity and explored innovative applications of traditional building materials and experimental applications of new materials and techniques. At the same time, it sought to imbue architecture and design with a degree of respect that was equivalent to that extended to traditional forms of artistic expression such as painting and sculpture; while also seeking to create a synthesis of fine arts with decorative arts. In this way, it sought to bring art into the everyday experience by incorporating it into the spaces we inhabit and frequent.
Art Nouveau drew inspiration from many sources, but principle among these was nature, which was seen as the basis from which artistic expression should be derived (this is distinct from movements such as Beaux-Arts which drew more heavily from historical forms). Societal and intellectual trends also heavily impacted Art Nouveau. During the movement’s emergence, European society was undergoing rapid industrialization and urbanization and practitioners of Art Nouveau sought to introduce natural aesthetics into urban landscapes while also attempting to harness the potential of modernity and its technological advances (rather than simply rejecting it outright). New theories from psychology were shaping how we should understand ourselves, while Darwin’s suggestion of a shared ancestral lineage with apes called into question the view that humans were somehow distinct from (and superior to) the natural world. Moreover, in Paris (which would become one of the centers of Art Nouveau at the turn of the century), Haussmann’s urban reforms were becoming seen as overly restrictive and producing a uniform architectural landscape that had citizens yearning for a break from monotony.
As a result of these influences, Art Nouveau developed a number of defining characteristics. In its earlier period, it can perhaps be most generally defined as an aesthetic movement that drew its primary inspiration from the curvilinear organic forms appearing in nature. This is perhaps best defined in the “whiplash” motif.
In architecture, this would be most commonly expressed through curved wrought iron that is often exposed externally on buildings – either on balconies or doors – and which represents the youthful energy of the movement and its desire for freedom from the rigid rules of “academic” art. Architectural structures would be adorned with a number of ornamental representations of plants, flowers, and animals (particularly birds and insects) in light of these concerns, while curvaceous women with flowing hair were also common. These are often presented in a way so as to give off a sense of movement, with ornamentation being integrated into the structure (rather than simply applied to it). Cumulatively, these manifestations can be seen as reflecting Art Nouveau’s emphasis on expressiveness through form and color and its attempt to elevate the material world into a more aesthetic, artistic experience.
Maison St-Cyr (Brussels) | G. Strauven | 1901-03 Castel Béranger (Paris) | H. Guimard |1895-98 Castel Béranger “Dance” | Alphonse Mucha | 1898 “Der Kuß” | Peter Behrens | 1898
Another common trait of Art Nouveau is that of asymmetry – an aspect in direct response to the emphasis that revivalist styles such as Beaux-Arts placed on symmetry. (This was especially so in the early period of Art Nouveau before the Secessionists of Austria initiated a return to the latter). Given advancements in materials, other common characteristics of Art Nouveau architecture include: curved and stained glass; ceramic tiles and mosaics (particularly in Catalan Art Nouveau); exposed iron (often in whiplash shapes, hyperbolas/parabolas, and sharp lines); and polychrome exteriors.
While the Art Nouveau movement has left a profound impact on art, architecture and design – one that persists to this day – it did not maintain the longevity observed in other architectural styles. By the First World War (and certainly exacerbated by it), Art Nouveau and its highly-stylized materials had become very expensive to manufacture, leaving it impractical in the face of war and reconstruction efforts.
In Buenos Aires, a number of notable examples of Art Nouveau can be found. While not necessarily as stunning as the Art Nouveau of cities such as Brussels or Barcelona, the allure of Buenos Aires is in the diversity of styles one can find. Buildings in the Modernisme (Catalonia) and Stile Liberty (Italy) styles are not uncommon, while Jugendstil and other variations can also be observed. In addition, several eclectic structures exist within the city that make heavy use of Art Nouveau elements while blending these with other styles.
Particularly good examples of Art Nouveau architecture in Buenos Aires include:
- Casa Calise: Built in the Stile Liberty style, this lovely residential structure offers a wealth of somewhat hidden Art Nouveau elements. Peering through the main doors, you’ll notice wonderful stained glass and sculptures of curvaceous women. On the exterior, one can observe the subtle polychrome façade with curved windows and wrought iron on the balconies that contains standard Art Nouveau curves and whiplash effects. As the Italians didn’t reject neoclassicism with the same vehemence as other practitioners of Art Nouveau, we see as well some continued usage of neoclassical elements.
- Palacio de Los Lirios. Built in both the Modernisme and French/Belgian styles, the dramatic curves of this building merge with those of the exposed wrought iron of the balconies, while the façade is adorned with flowing reliefs of vines and lilies. Atop the building sits the plaster structure of an old man’s face (possibly the wind god Aeolos), whose flowing hair extends to each side of the roof in a way similar to plant tendrils. In this we see the joining of humans with nature, while the possible use of the wind god suggests the change in times and architectural styles that the building sought to represent.
Casa Calise | V. Colombo | 1911 Casa Calise Palacio de Los Lirios | E.S. Rodríguez Ortega | 1905
- Confitería del Molino: This building’s eye-catching turret steals some of the spotlight away from the neighboring Palacio del Congresso, with its curved glass windows being quintessential Art Nouveau.
- Hotel Chile: with exposed wrought iron comprised of distinct curves and asymmetry being imposed on the windows at each floor, this building invokes elements of French Art Nouveau.
Confitería del Molino | F. Gianotti | 1912-16 Hotel Chile | L. Dubois | 1904-06
- Edificio Otto Wulff: Built in the (Scandinavian) Jugendstil style (with neo-Gothic influences), this building is rife with symbolism and detail. Broadly, it consists of three parts: the granite base (taking up the first two floors); the middle, composed of reinforced concrete; and the two towers on the top. Columns in the first section are replaced with 8 human figures representing Atlanteans. The three located on the side of Avenida Belgrano represent the architect, the owner and one of the contractors, with the remaining five found on Calle Peru representing the indigenous tribes of Argentina. Typical Art Nouveau sculptures in the form of corn, grapes, condors, penguins and bears adorn the façade, similarly paying homage to the Americas. Rounded windows and exposed wrought iron reflect common Art Nouveau features, with metal work on the bottom representing spider webs (including depictions of spiders). In honor of the owners’ Austro-Hungarian heritage (and perhaps since this may have been meant to house the Austro-Hungarian embassy before its collapse in the wake of WWI), the towers are topped with a sun and moon to, respectively, represent Emperor Franz Ferdinand I and his wife, Empress Sissi.
- La Casa de los Azulejos: this residence has a number of classic Art Nouveau features, including asymmetry, a polychrome façade, and exposed wrought iron with whiplash effects (including in the design of plant/floral motifs). Unique in comparison to most Art Nouveau structures in the capital, this building also has a large ceramic painting on the façade, depicting a bucolic scene with a man and a woman at work in the countryside. This highlights the blending between humans and nature, while its similarity to a romantic era painting highlights its influence from the Stile Liberty style of Italy.
Edificio Otto Wulff | M.F. Rönnow |1912-14 Edificio Otto Wulff Casa de los Azulejos | P. Pinzauti | 1911
 The curvilinear characteristic was more dominant in regional manifestations of Art Nouveau – particularly in Belgium, France and Spain. Rectilinear forms were more common in the Netherlands, Austria, Scotland and the United States. These latter styles continued to derive inspiration from nature, but instead emphasized the geometric basis of organic forms. Here, it is more common to find right angles and straight lines with metal often replaced with more conventional materials.
 The use of the term “whiplash” originated from a critic who noted “sudden violent curves [as if] generated by the crack of a whip.” Whiplash motifs were formed by dynamic, undulating, and flowing lines in a syncopated rhythm (similar to a snap shot of a woman’s long-hair being tossed about by a sudden jerk of the neck).
Derived from Arts Decoratifs, Art Deco originated in Paris in the early 20th century, reaching its peak of popularity in the Interwar years of the 1920s and 1930s. The movement shared Art Nouveau’s desire to create an entirely modern architectural style that was not steeped in revivalist influences as well as its dedication to craftsmanship. However, it was primarily a direct response to Art Nouveau and rejected most of its defining philosophies (such as curved lines and asymmetry). It was heavily influenced by the artistic movements that had emerged in Paris at the turn of the 20th century. From the cubism of Picasso and Braque, Art Deco adopted a greater reliance on geometric forms and incorporated the idea of using fragmented shapes to present multiple perspectives simultaneously. From the Fauvism developed by Matisse and Derain, the movement similarly sought to incorporate bright colors.
Art Deco (at least in my opinion) generally consists of two distinct periods – pre- and post-Depression – which is reflected in the characteristics we find in the architecture. During the economic boom period of the Roaring ‘20s, Art Deco reflected optimism and exuberance about modernity and the future, with its buildings representing glamour and luxury. In contrast to preceding styles, the common characteristics of Art Deco structures built during this period include an emphasis on geometric shapes, symmetry, and hard, angular lines and edges. Surfaces are typically smooth, while bold colors are used to present sharp contrasts (such as between black and white). Buildings tended to incorporate a vertical emphasis, with everything in the structure pointing upwards (particularly in skyscrapers). Surfaces displayed notable ornamentation (usually in low relief), especially at the top of the structure and above windows and doors. Geometric shapes that were commonly used include those of the pyramid, chevron, ziggurat, zigzag and lighting bolt. Figures were also often angular and usually stylized. Architects readily advocated the use of new industrial materials like stucco, concrete and stainless steel in creating these forms, while decorating structures with aluminum, opaque plate glass (vitrolite) and glass block.
Eastern Colombia Building (Los Angeles)| 1930 Bullocks Wilshire (Los Angeles) | 1929 Niagara Mohawk Building (Syracuse) | 1932 Hood Ornament Design | 1928 Stock Exchange Tower (San Francisco) | 1930
During the Depression Era of the 1930s, Art Deco retained many of its defining characteristics, but structures became less ostentatious, while new materials such as chrome plating, stainless steel, plastics and neon lighting were applied. This period also saw the emergence of the Art Deco form often referred to as Streamline Moderne. This was inspired by aerodynamic design (often found in the new forms of transportation being developed at the time), with buildings emphasizing curved forms and long horizontal lines and architects devoting even greater attention to creating streamlined structures. Vertical emphasis shifted towards a horizontal orientation, while sharp angles were replaced with rounded corners and horizontal grooves. Buildings were often white or in subdued pastels. Cylindrical forms and long horizontal windowing were far more common.
Club Moderne (1937) Coca-Cola Factory (1939) Bus Station (1939) Bus Station (1937) Church (1939) Toaster Train (1938) Cord 812 (1937)
Just as the First World War helped to usher in the end of Art Nouveau, the Second World War similarly brought an end to the dominance of Art Deco as the need to reconstruct cities destroyed by the war led to the ascension of modern architecture and its emphasis on more functional forms.
In Buenos Aires, Art Deco structures can be found in most neighborhoods; however, the greatest concentration is in Microcentro, particularly along Diagonal Norte and the theater district on Avenida Corrientes. Some notable examples in Buenos Aires include the following.
- The former Edificio Diario Critica (Avenida de Mayo 1333). One of the first examples of Art Deco in Buenos Aires, this structure incorporates clear elements of Art Deco on the exterior: a distinct vertical orientation with strong use of sharp geometric shapes and angular decorations around the sculptures adorning the façade. The first-floor balcony is framed in sharp lines, with protruding zigzag shapes underneath.
ex. Edificio Diario Critica | Andrés & Kálnay | 1926
- Edificio Kavanagh: Clear vertical orientation with very sharp lines and emphasis on geometric shapes. Its triangular structure grants it the appearance of distinct shapes when viewed at different angles, highlighting the influence of cubism.
Edificio Kavanagh | Sánchez, Lagos & de la Torre | 1934-36
- Teatro Empire: strong vertical emphasis; note the stylized sculptures of eagles with their angular features. Inside one can find a wonderful mural in quintessential Art Deco style that was commissioned by the Labour Union La Fraternidad (representing train conductors), whose headquarters share an entrance with the theater.
- City Hotel: clear vertical orientation and sharp geometric features.
Teatro Empire | J. Sabaté | 1933-34 Mural at Teatro Empire City Hotel | M. Madero | 1931
- Citibank building (corner of San Martin and Bartolome Mitre): sleek and sophisticated design with smooth surfaces and stylized low-relief of eagles that possess angular features situated over the main door. In its design, it appears to represent a unique transitional piece between the two sub-phases of Art Deco architecture
- La Equitativa del Plata: sleek and streamlined design with smooth rounded edges but also strong usage of rectilinear shapes.
Citibank Building | Oro & Dudley | 1928-29 La Equitativa del Plata | A. Virasoro | 1927-29
- Hotel Reconquista Luxor: sharply angular building that is sleek and modern. Note the low relief above the ground floor with its equally angular depictions of human figures.
- Teatro Metropolitan: clear vertical orientation with sharp lines.
Hotel Reconquista Luxor | J.B. Hardoy | 1932 Hotel Reconquista Luxor Teatro Metropolitan | Joselevich, Ramírez & Abril | 1936
 It should be noted that this architectural style was not labeled “Art Deco” until the 1960s. Prior to this period, it had been viewed as a more ornamental phase of modernism. While some muted debate remains as to whether Art Deco should be classified as a standalone style, it is my belief that it is worthy of such a distinction.
 Indeed, it is common for many of the world’s most enduring symbols of Art Deco to be theaters since the movement coincided with the emergence of sound film.
With the onset of the Second World War, Art Deco declined in popularity and a new form of architecture emerged as the most dominant style in Europe: the modern/international style led by France’s Le Corbusier and Germany’s Mies van der Rohe. Beginning in the 1920s, these early advocates of the movement became heavily influenced by the wide scale destruction wrought by The Great War, and their architectural approaches were subsequently concerned with developing a style that would allow for mass production and easy replication. This orientation towards improving society became a guiding principle of modern/international style architecture, with architects subsequently seeking to develop new approaches for understanding the relationship between humans and their environment – particularly in light of increasing urbanization. Additionally, thinking changed and architects adopted the belief that their designs should be oriented towards all segments of society – rejecting the exclusivity of the preceding styles of Art Deco, Art Nouveau and Beaux-Arts.
As a result, the modern architectural movement readily embraced mass production and industrial materials such as iron, glass and concrete, while developing new approaches to the conception of space. A guiding principle of the movement was functionalism, with the idea that buildings should be primarily designed according to their purpose with limited regard given to aesthetics. In this sense, modern architecture espouses the principles of honesty and transparency. Buildings were designed “inside-out” with exteriors expected to reflect the functional purpose of the structure rather than as a façade that misrepresents what is housed within. As such, the exteriors of these buildings can often be aesthetically underwhelming – particularly in comparison to those from the preceding styles of architecture discussed above.
Surfaces are generally flat and smooth, with glass often used to provide functional light to inhabitants while adding to the sense of transparency. External ornamentation is often rejected and viewed as dishonest. Form is often simple (following function), balanced (more so than symmetrical) and repetitive (again following function), with emphasis on basic geometric – often rectilinear – shapes (cubes, cones, cylinders, spheres). Precedence is given to volume over mass, implying that greater emphasis is placed on developing space for inhabitants rather than with the aim of providing sturdiness. This resulted in a reduced reliance on, e.g., load-bearing walls, with the preference instead being to develop open and uncluttered interior spaces.
Referred to as “racionalismo” in Spanish, the earliest modern structures found in Buenos Aires date from the second half of the 1930s. This coincided with the founding of the architectural group SEPRA (link in Spanish) as well as Grupo Austral (in Spanish), which had been founded by several Argentine disciples of Le Corbusier (Jorge Ferrari Hardoy, Juan Kurchan and Conrado Sondereguer together with the Spaniard Antoni Bonet Casellana). Indeed, the “rationalist” structures of the 1930s and 1940s in Buenos Aires represent some of the most significant produced in the world over this period and greatly influenced the present profile of the city. Many of these can be viewed as transitional, reflecting the shift from art deco to the more mature period of modern/international structures found from the 1960s onwards.
Within Buenos Aires, several notable examples of “racionalismo” include:
- Teatro Gran Rex
- Edificio Comega
Teatro Gran Rex | A. Prebisch | 1937 Teatro Gran Rex Edifico Comega | Douillet & Joselevich | 1931-33
- Edificio SAFICO
- Edificio YPF
- Automóvil Club Argentino
Edifico SAFICO | W. Moll | 1932-34 Edificio YPF | 1936-38 Automóvil Club Argentino | 1941-43
 I’ve singled out these two as being the most dominant influences, but significant contributions can also be ascribed to the Dutch De Stijl school and Deutscher Werkbund as well as to Gropius (and, as such, Bauhaus). Frank Lloyd Wright’s influence in the development of this style in United States was also pronounced, while Finland’s Alvar Aalto is also credited with being a significant contributor to the movement.
In using the label of “eclectic”, I am primarily applying two broad usages of the term as it relates to the architecture of Buenos Aires. The first – and more formal – emerged in the late 20th century to refer to architecture that is closely aligned with neoclassicism, but which incorporates a number of different styles so that that the resulting structure cannot be easily categorized within a distinct school. Alternatively referred to as “historicist”, this style might incorporate neo-Gothic, neo-Romanesque, neo-Spanish and even Asian (Near- and Far-eastern) influences in addition to neoclassical.
Buenos Aires is teeming with these types of buildings. Notable examples include the following.
- Casa Rosada: here we have an eclectic blending of influences, including neoclassical columns, Italianate loggias and the French mansard roofs that were re-popularized through Beaux-Arts.
- Teatro Colon: Another eclectic blend of various styles, the Teatro Colon went through three architects, being revised slightly at each step. As a result, its initial plans incorporated more of the then-popular Italianate styles, while its revisions in the early 20th century moved toward the incorporation of Beaux-Arts influences.
- Palacio de Aguas Corrientes: One of the city’s landmarks, this building takes up an entire city block. With a framework that is clearly Beau-Arts in influence (notice in particular the mansard roof), the exterior relies heavily on brick and ceramic – which was popular in Victorian buildings at the time – making it unlike anything else in the city.
Teatro Colon | Tamburini, Meano & Dormal | 1888-1908 Teatro Colon Casa Rosada Casa Rosada | Kihlberg, Åberg & Tamburini | 1873-98 Palacio Agua Corrientes | O. Boye | 1887-94
In its second usage, I deploy “eclecticism” more broadly to include any of those buildings with an architectural style that cannot be ascribed to a single category. In these cases, I am generally referring to buildings which may incorporate a number of techniques or characteristics of 20th century styles (such as Art Nouveau, Art Deco, or modern), but which do not readily fit within a single architectural style. In the case of Buenos Aires, this reflects a period where both revivalist and early modern styles were blossoming simultaneously and which were often applied in the same structure to varying degrees. Examples include:
- Palacio Barolo. While at times classified as Art Nouveau, I find it difficult to group it within this style. This building is a masterpiece, with the architect, Mario Palanti, designing it to serve as an allegory for Dante’s Divine Comedy. To attain this goal, the building includes three levels which represent hell, purgatory and heaven as well as 9 vaults which represent the 9 initiation steps and 9 infernal hierarchies. Palanti borrows from a number styles including Art Nouveau (particularly within the interior), Beaux-Arts (as inspiration for the roofs and hierarchies of space), and even includes a dome that is inspired by the Rajarani Temple in India.
Palacio Barolo | M. Palanti | 1923
- Edificio Roccatagliata
- Edificio Miguel Bencich
Edificio Miguel Bencich | E. Le Monnnier | 1927 Edificio Miguel Bencich Edificio Roccatagliata | M. Palanti | 1920
Related: The Architecture of Buenos Aires: An introduction & guide
Related: Buenos Aires Architectural Walking Tour – Avenida de Mayo
Related: Buenos Aires Architectural Walking Tour – Calle Florida & Plaza San Martin
Related: Buenos Aires Architectural Walking Tour – Recoleta
Related: Buenos Aires Architectural Walking Tour – Corrientes & Santa Fe
Related: A Guide to Buenos Aires’ “Café Notables“