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Buenos Aires Reinventing Itself

Martin Morrell Kicking back at El Taller in the newly chic Palermo Soho district.

Photo: Martin Morrell

The dance floor is packed at the tango hall Confitería Ideal for one of Buenos Aires's all-night milongas. In the harsh light of grimy Victorian chandeliers, gray-haired gentlemen work the floor, steering women wearing the kind of T-strap shoes seen on 1930's Hollywood chorines. Everyone is pressed hip to hip, cheek to cheek, breast to chest—matter-of-fact pairings that speak of decades of waking up in the same bed and quick kisses at the door. Couples at rickety tables puff cigarettes and chat; only a few are dressed up, one of these a matron with a bleached-blond bouffant who keeps adjusting her black net gloves. Except for the whine of the bandonion, which looks like a pint-sized accordion with buttons instead of keys, it could be a Masonic lodge in the American Midwest. The same story is played out all over town: Saturday night, slow tango dancing, nobody heading home until dawn.

But as I stand in a corner, nursing a bottle of Quilmes beer, I start to notice younger faces flitting through the crowd. A trio of beaming girls barely out of their teens go through the tango motions, one after the next, with a courtly instructor old enough to be their grandfather. One cool couple is hotdogging like Ideal is their ticket to Broadway—she's an Uma Thurman blonde with elegant footwork and a beauty-queen smile; he's surfer-dude handsome. And in the band behind them all, amid the lineup of rumpled veteran musicians, the bandonion player has the clean-cut good looks and bespoke suit of a newly minted investment banker. Actually, he was one. I later learn that a year ago he shocked his coworkers at Goldman Sachs by resigning and announcing that he was heading back to his hometown to learn to play his grandparents' music. In New York, he advised investors; in Buenos Aires, the long-troubled capital of an equally troubled country, he found something else to invest in—his own culture, his own identity.

No matter where I go in the city, from the traditional dance halls to the recently opened nightclubs, I keep recalling the question that the angry young narrator Che asked in the Lloyd Webber and Rice musical Evita: "What's new, Buenos Aires?" Judging by the looks of things now, the answer is simple: what's new is youth, vigor, and a fresh sense of self-awareness that has nothing to do with the Europe-yearning of past generations and everything to do with a recently discovered national pride. At Mark's, a popular Palermo Soho sandwich bar, all raw brick and sheets of glass, I sip café con leche and listen as Ramiro López Serrot, who co-owns a fashion boutique just up the street with his wife, marvels at how much he and his fellow thirtysomethings have evolved in just a few years. While rising to meet the drastic economic challenges of a seemingly endless recession, the current generation has come to a realization that they are further away from their European roots than their parents ever were. "My father's family is Spanish, my mother's family is French Basque, and everybody in that era looked to Europe for guidance on everything," says López Serrot. "For the first time in my life, I feel like an Argentinean."

Founded by the Spanish conquistador Pedro de Mendoza in 1536 and christened Puerto de Nuestro Señora Santa María de los Buenos Ayres, this city of more than 12 million residents on the banks of the Río de la Plata has always considered itself part of Europe, rather than of South America—more civilized than its neighbors, more cultured. Between 1895 and 1946, nearly 1.5 million Italian immigrants and almost as many Spaniards arrived in the port of this port city, then the capital of a faraway land that seemed to many newcomers like California during the gold rush. Railroads were being built, massive ranches had been established in the pampas, and an ambitious government, faced with vast empty stretches of country and anxious to fill them, actively encouraged immigration. At one point, nearly 75 percent of porteños (the standard nickname for a resident of Buenos Aires) were foreign-born. Beaux-Arts architects lined the streets with mansions modeled after the Louvre and designed formal squares planted with heroic statues of worthy citizens nobody remembers anymore.

"All anybody ever talked about was their uncle in Italy," says one local, her Spanish accent ornamented with rococo flourishes that are the legacy of those millions of Italians. By the twenties, the majestic metropolis was also a virtual outpost of the British empire, complete with polo fields and a Harrods department store. Its city fathers looked to the United States, too: the giant white obelisk at the center of Avenida 9 de Julio is a carbon copy of the Washington Monument. Small wonder a disgruntled Uruguayan writer of the day sneeringly called Buenos Aires the Patria of Plagiarism.

He'd change his tune today, because what increasing numbers of porteños consider canchero, or "cool," is what's authentic. Some of the tango halls have gone groovy, with DJ's spinning scratchy hip-hop versions of tango ballads recorded in the 1920's and 30's by singers like Carlos Gardel, a French immigrant who remains the genre's gold standard. Women who couldn't get enough Hermès a few years ago have begun snapping up clothes created by local stylists like Cora Groppo, whose specialty is flirty cocktail dresses with a cutting edge, showing lots of leg and acres of poitrine. (The daytime look for women in this city is body-hugging flared trousers, sky-high stilettos, and a mane of shining hair out of a Pantene commercial.) "Now that doesn't mean that Vuitton doesn't sell out of the latest Murakami bag the minute it comes to town," says Dimity Giles, an international banker who moved to Buenos Aires from New York a few years ago with her husband and business partner, Horacio Milberg, scion of a prominent porteño family. "But there is a major revival of native talent."

September 2001 saw the opening of the Museo del Arte Latinoamericano de Buenos Aires (MALBA) in a $50 million building designed by three young Argentinean architects, Gastón Atelman, Martín Fourcade, and Alfredo Tapia. The angular, greige-colored stone structure houses businessman Eduardo Costantini's brilliant collection of pieces by homegrown Impressionists, Cubists, and Abstract Expressionists. Its gift shop sells products by regional talent, from furniture designer Amancio Williams to jewelry maker Perfecto Dragones. Even polo hunk Adolfito Cambiaso, the best-dressed, telegenic star of Argentina's top-ranked La Dolfina team, has jumped on the creative bandwagon. His first clothing boutique, La Dolfina Polo Lifestyle, opposite the opulent Brazilian embassy on Plazoleta Carlos Pellegrini, showcases smart white woven-cotton berets, sleek linen trousers, and wide, gaucho-inspired leather belts. Consider the look a Modernist take on the Buenos Aires of old, when suave south-of-the-border swains captivated a generation of spoiled young American heiresses.

And though Argentina's economy remains rocky after a four-year recession, the international set is showing renewed confidence in the capital once heralded as the Paris of the Pampas. The gritty port of Puerto Madero Este has been sanitized and gentrified. Its 19th-century warehouses and grain elevators are now flanked by two acknowledged clichés of global cool: a footbridge from Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava and a new hotel-and-condominium complex by French designer Philippe Starck—the stylish, though somewhat pretentious, Faena Hotel + Universe. This October, Palacio Duhau, a grand Neoclassical mansion built in 1932 in the posh Recoleta district, will reopen its doors as a Park Hyatt (though not with the blessing of the papal nuncio who lives next door and has caused countless work-stop orders with his never-ending complaints).

It was a different story when I was here on vacation in 2001. I decided one cool December morning to see the balcony where former first lady Eva Perón, dressed in Dior and dripping in diamonds, pretended to be just one of the folks as her fans swooned on the Plaza de Mayo below. A tidy square lined with Neoclassical buildings like the Catedral Metropolitana and anchored by an ornate cast-iron fountain, the plaza has for backdrop the Casa Rosada, a bright pink 19th-century mansion that serves as the office of the president. (Reputedly once painted with a pale wash of color tinted with bull's blood, the building now blushes a garish shade, courtesy of ex-President Carlos Saúl Menem, who ordered it coated with a hardwearing plasticized product whose Pepto-Bismol hue and tenacious grip have been the despair of preservationists. Yet, there's a silver lining: he only painted the most photographed side of the building.) I snapped some pictures, sat by the fountain, and played hide-and-seek with a toddler. A few days later, however, the peace of the plaza was shattered when the economy collapsed. Police lobbed tear gas at screaming rioters who were protesting a temporary government halt on bank-account withdrawals. It was the last straw for many porteños—they had finally had enough of the recession and billions of dollars in foreign debt that had pushed more than half the country below the poverty line. Bank windows were smashed; the ministry of finance was torched. The country's president, Fernando de la Rúa, fled the Casa Rosada by helicopter, but not before leaving behind a parting gift: his resignation.

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