Buenos Aires Reinventing Itself
Published: May 2009
By Mitchell Owens
In the wake of an economic crisis, this metropolis is looking beyond its European past and finding inspiration in its own culture. <strong>Mitchell Owens</strong> examines the comeback of the Paris of the Pampas.
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.
Since then, six presidents have come and gone, each felled by the hobbled economy, corruption, or voter disgust. In 2002, the peso, long pegged to the dollar, was abruptly adjusted and lost 300 percent of its value, and for a while kidnappings—sometimes for as little as a few hundred dollars in ransom, just enough to pay the rent or feed a family for a week—became relatively commonplace. The gross domestic product in Argentina increased by nearly 9 percent last year, but poverty (about 40 percent) and unemployment (around 15 percent) remain high. "It is the greatest collapse of any country I can think of," says Lloyd Nimetz, an American Fulbright scholar who founded HelpArgentina, a nonprofit organization that directs foreign donations to Argentinean charities.
Last spring, President Néstor Kirchner (the English-language Buenos Aires Herald invariably refers to him as K, like a character out of a Kafka novel) arm-twisted creditors and got the $80 billion foreign debt decreased by about two-thirds. This trick will boost the bottom line in the short term, but as the Washington Post recently cautioned, "It's weird to call that progress." Locals swear that corruption remains endemic and that the votes of the poor can be bought for as little as 200 pesos. Still, porteños are masters of black humor, and from the smoky downtown cafés to the polo fields of the suburb of Hurlingham, where Tudor-style mansions straight out of a Merchant Ivory film bake in the subtropical sun, they believe it all will get better. Someday. "In ten years, it will be really good here," one old-guard hostess tells me with a weary smile, as we step into the flamboyantly gilded auditorium of the Teatro Colón opera house to attend a performance by the pianist Martha Argerich. The red velvetlined opera boxes are populated by perfectly coiffed ladies wearing the latest haute couture and sparkling with gems. "Each president is a little bit less corrupt than the one before him."
The peso devaluation that took the country by surprise on January 7, 2002, has not only made everyone here poorer, but has also made the tourist dollar go further. At first, I feel guilty about taking advantage of this situation. At least until the dealers at the Sunday morning San Telmo flea market remind me of what bargains they could now offer, with a laugh that didn't seem so much rueful as it was accepting of the hand fate had dealt them. Vendors start setting up at about eight in the morning, in Plaza Dorrego, not far from a kink in the winding Río de la Plata, unloading cardboard boxes from the backs of trucks and carefully setting out their wares in the shade of gnarled old trees. The rows of stalls set up along the side streets have little more than cheap souvenirs, T-shirts, and snacks; the center of the square is where the treasures can be found. Buenos Aires's history of passion for all things European means that the heart of the market is a trove of Bohemian crystal that probably graced a glamorous table in the blue-chip residential neighborhood of Palermo Chico and of neatly tied stacks of vintage Chris-tofle silver plate, like the 14 place settings of forks, spoons, and knives I pick up for about $150.
More important, however, for the spirit of the city and its immediate future, the currency plunge had an unexpected side effect: it gave the creative sector of Buenos Aires a second wind. "You learn a lot at times like this," says Florencia Panelo de Pières, when I visit her one afternoon at the Alvear Avenue location of her hippie-chic home-and-fashion emporium, Cat Ballou. She and her business partner, Alicia Goñi, went into business soon after the flamboyant Menem was swept into power on the Perónist ticket. At Cat Ballou, the coral, pink, and sharp green dresses are filmy and lyrically embroidered, the sconces are made of rawhide, and the Nakashima-reminiscent furniture—slab-like tables, slinky chairs—is wrought in native woods like lapacho and cohiue and polished to a patent-leather gleam.
Like so many of the goods that are being designed or manufactured by newly converted boosters of Argentinean design, Cat Ballou's products have an earthy, sexy immediacy—a refreshing rebuke to the international fashion stores that crowd the floors of Patio Bullrich, a Trump Towerlike mall in Recoleta. As far as artisanal freedom and entrepreneurial zeal goes, Buenos Aires has never been better, according to Pières, who is a Parsons School of Design alum and married to one of the country's leading polo players, Paul Pières. "Crisis," she tells me, "is good."
One place where the new Buenos Aires is very much on display is in Palermo Soho. Three years ago it was better known as Palermo Viejo, or Old Palermo, a humble working-class neighborhood where modest little houses stood alongside auto-repair shops and mom-and-pop grocery stores. Rents were cheap, as little as $50 a square foot; life was hard but simple. As in all gentrification stories, first the artists moved in—and trend seekers and assorted iconoclasts followed. Teresa de Anchorena, a former secretary of culture and a scion of a grand local family (one of their many mansions is now the Foreign Ministry), was one of the earliest to see the area's potential, having moved there more than 20 years ago. In her high-ceilinged living room, paintings by contemporary Argentinean artists like Luis Felipe Noé and Miguel D'Arienzo hang on the walls, and a 19th-century Chinese cabinet sparkling with mother-of-pearl inlay, a legacy from a grandfather, stands in a corner. "People in Buenos Aires used to never leave the neighborhood they were born in," the elegant Anchorena says over a cup of antioxidant tea. "This is amazing when you consider that this city would be nothing without its history of immigration."
Along with their food, love of bel canto, and surnames, Italian immigrants brought with them a preference for narrow, one-story homes, known here as sausage houses. This building style continues to define the architectural stock of Palermo Soho and the nearby Palermo Hollywood, which is filled with restaurants. To the district's credit, the developers have kept that reassuringly human scale intact. No building here can be more than 36 feet high, and instead of making questionable architectural statements, the shop owners here seem content to remodel and restore rather than destroy. The sneaker giant Nike set up a boutique in a sausage house, for example, and its designers sensitively preserved the walls' original peeling paint and wallpaper, which can be glimpsed behind a wire-mesh overlay.
Palermo Soho remains modest in appearance, but over the past three years, more than 90 shops and restaurants have blossomed along the shady streets, from sleek little cafés like Mark's to fashion boutiques launched by independent Argentinean designers such as Cora Groppo and Malu and Carla Ricciardi to furniture shops offering Conran-like essentials (Calma Chicha) or gaucho-inspired wares (Arte Étnico Argentino). Down the street from Cora Groppo's store is an innovative accessories shop called Humawaca, the brainchild of two porteña architects who have created a line of highly covetable leather goods, including attaché cases of cowhide and minimalist backpacks inspired by the iconic butterfly chair of college dorm fame (created by Argentinean architects Jorge Ferrari Hardoy, Antoni Bonet Castellana, and Juan Kurchan). In fact, except for that branch of Nike, visitors would be hard-pressed to find a store that isn't a celebration of a culture in the midst of discovering itself.
Across town in the Belgrano quarter, Fernando Trocca, the executive chef of the see-and-be-seen restaurant Sucre, an outpost for socialites, media types, and business tycoons, altered his menu in response to the continuing economic woes. "I couldn't afford to import foie gras and French wines anymore, so I started looking for ingredients we had right here, in this country," he says. On a busy Friday night, Trocca leads me into the brooding concrete bunker, like a Donald Judd sculpture, that sits in the center of Sucre's dining room, a warehouse-style space whose upper reaches are slashed by a midair, metal catwalk. (It leads to the restrooms.) The "bunker" is actually the wine cellar, and once the door closes, the cacophony of Buenos Aires's fête-set chowing down on dishes such as Patagonian lamb and grilled salmon tartare with green-apple foam subsides to a minor hum. In the dim light, Trocca, a crop-haired, bespectacled man who once oversaw the kitchen of the now closed Vandam in New York City, disappears behind a wooden rack and reemerges with a bottle for a client. It's an Argentinean red, and there's a lot more where it came from. Out of 10,000 bottles on hand at Sucre, the majority are regional vintages, the sort of quaffs Trocca seldom used to stock and his label-conscious clients rarely deigned to order. Elsewhere in town, champagne aficionados are bypassing Dom Pérignon for a bubbly méthode champenoise Pinot Noir and Chardonnay blend made by Catena Zapata, a century-old winery in the foothills of the Argentinean Andes that enjoys a luxe reputation here and abroad. Argentinean wine has been winning prizes beyond the country's borders for as long as anybody can remember, and now, it's canchero here.
What's happening is simple, according to Teresa de Anchorena. After years of being brutalized by dictators, battered by the economy, and made to feel stagnant while other South American countries were finally getting their acts together, "Argentines are searching for a certain pride," she tells me. Anchorena came back to town in 1983, after living in Paris for more than a decade. (She'd left during the military junta, whose crackdown on dissidents resulted in the state-sponsored murders of as many as 30,000 Argentineans, euphemistically declared los desaparecidos, or "the disappeared.") Porteños are finally getting in touch with "a national feeling, roots that they never accessed before," Anchorena adds.
Argentinean art, for instance, once dismissed by fashionable porteños as having zero name-recognition and thus being bereft of bragging rights, has become an unexpected sabor del día. Daniel Maman Fine Art recently hosted a solo show for Mondongo, an art collective with an eye-popping oeuvre that includes Internet porn images translated into giant intricate mosaics composed of sliced cheese, cookies, and cold cuts encased in resin. (The Museum of Modern Art in New York and London's Tate Modern have bought Mondongos for their permanent collections.) Critical opinion of Mondongo and its young artists, Agustina Picasso, Manuel Mendanha, and Juliana Laffitte, remains uneven. "Is this a joke?" one visitor to the gallery whispers to her companion as she stands perplexed before a wall-sized panel made entirely of fluffy marabou feathers dyed various shades of blue. But the popularity of the show—the works nearly sold out within weeks of opening night—astonished many locals, given the conservative slant that has defined Buenos Aires society for more than a century.
"Rich porteños are afraid of looking foolish," says Jorge S. Helft, a pioneering collector of 20th-century Argentinean art and an organizer of art exhibitions around the world. I meet Helft one night at a cocktail party in the Palermo Chico home of Teresa Aguirre Lanari de Bulgheroni. It is the kind of evening only Buenos Aires could produce. A vivacious philanthropist who is the president of the Fundación Teatro Colón, Bulgheroni had the garden of her mansion encased by a tent and transformed into a 1940's-style salon, complete with sparkling chandeliers, white-upholstered Louis XVstyle furniture, and mirror-and-trellis walls.
"Porteños always rave about what they've seen at the Whitney and MOMA but will not buy a modern painting to hang on their wall unless one of their friends has it," Helft says. "Edgardo Antonio Vigo, one of the great Argentinean painters in history, has half a room devoted to him at Tate Modern but most Argentine collectors could not care less." Like so many people in the city, he is heartened, somewhat tentatively, by this Argentinean creative revival, however late it is in coming. But, he says, "What's important is whether this enthusiasm will last." The note of caution is understandable. But it's clear that Argentina's young movers and shakers have enough energy and ideas to keep the momentum going.
MITCHELL OWENS writes for the New York Times and Elle Décor.
Nestled between the eastern edge of the pampas and the sluggish Río de la Plata, Buenos Aires is temperate but humid year-round. In July, the dead of winter in Argentina, 60 degrees is about as chilly as it gets during the day, while in the summer month of December, temperatures can reach 90 degrees. Major U.S. carriers and Aerolineas Argentinas offer direct flights from many U.S. cities, including New York, Miami, and Chicago.
WHERE TO STAY
Alvear Palace Hotel
After a major renovation, the brass trim gleams as brightly as it did when Evita used to stop by for tea in the 1940's. Doubles from $440. 1891 Avda. Alvear; 800/223-6800 or 54-11/4804-7777; www.alvearpalace.com
Faena Hotel + Universe
Be sure to request a city-view room at this new hotel in a converted grain depository. Doubles from $350. 445 Martha Salotti; 54-11/4010-9000; www.faenahotelanduniverse.com
Four Seasons Hotel Buenos Aires
On the edge of the Recoleta district, the Four Seasons combines a 158-room tower and a seven-suite mansion. Doubles from $350. 1086 Posadas; 800/332-3442 or 54-11/4321-1200; www.fourseasons.com
Hotel NH Latino
BEST VALUE A centrally located branch of the affordable NH chain. Doubles from $110. 309 Suipacha; 800/232-9860 or 54-810/222-6464; www.nh-hotels.com
Palacio Duhau, Park Hyatt Buenos Aires
When it opens, the 165-room Park Hyatt will raise the bar for luxury hotels here. Doubles from $350. 1661 Avda. Alvear; 800/223-1234 or 54-11/5171-1235; www.buenosaires.park.hyatt.com
WHERE TO EAT
A sleek spot where the food is as beautiful as the crowd. Dinner for two $28. 1572 Uriarte; 54-11/4834-6004
Bustling lunchtime favorite, with top-notch seafood. Lunch for two $28. 1016 L.N. Alem; 54-11/4311-2891
El Mirasol de la Recova
This classic steak restaurant has several locations in the city. Dinner for two $48. 1032 Posadas; 54-11/4326-7322
Orient-Express Hotels has brought Argentina's legendary steak restaurant back to life. Dinner for two $50. 1967 Rodriguez Peña; 54-11/4814-0001
A packed bistro, known for its prime cuts of beef. Dinner for two $25. 5099 Cabrera; 54-11/4831-7002
Mark's Deli & Coffeehouse
Lunch for two $10. 4701 El Salvador; 54-11/4832-6244
Nordic furnishings and Scandinavian cuisine. Dinner for two $35. 5870 Gorriti; 54-11/4776-7677
Dinner for two $48. 676 Sucre; 54-11/4782-9082
Globally influenced cuisine in a sunny bistro. Dinner for two $28. 5182 Honduras; 54-11/4831-4556
WHERE TO SHOP
Arte Étnico Argentino
4600 El Salvador; 54-11/4833-5111
4925 Calle Honduras; 54-11/4831-1818
Malu y Carla Ricciardi
2212 Malabia; 54-11/4833-5965
1702 Avda. Alvear; 54-11/4811-9792
4696 El Salvador; 54-11/4832-5877
Daniel Maman Fine Art
2475 Avda. del Libertador; 54-11/4804-3700
4692 El Salvador; 54-11/4832-2662
La Dolfina Polo Lifestyle
1315 Avda. Alvear; 54-11/4815-2698
Hip fashions by Argentinean and Brazilian designers. 1794 Borges; 54-11/4833-6558
1615 Gurruchaga; 54-11/4832-3555
Contemporary artists from B.A. and beyond. 1000 Florida; 54-11/4313-8480
WHAT TO DO
Jard&icute;n Zoológico de la Ciudad de Buenos Aires
Avdas. General Las Heras and Sarmiento; 54-11/4011-9900
Museo de Arte Latinoamericano de Buenos Aires
3415 Avda. Figueroa Alcorta; 54-11/4808-6500
Museo Nacional de Arte Decorativo
1902 Avda. del Libertador; 54-11/4802-6606
WHERE TO TANGO
Dinner and show for two $72. 299 Estados Unidos; 54-11/4362-6086
Entrance fee for two $5. 384 Suipacha; 54-11/5265-8069
These Argentina experts will flawlessly orchestrate every aspect of your trip. 54-11/4314-3390; www.mai10.com.ar