Buenos Aires, Argentina – A Balance of Modernity and Antiquity

March, 2009 – The balance between preserving historical legacy and developing for present needs and future growth is a balance that each city must find on it’s own terms. Buenos Aires is a city committed to preserving it’s European architectural and cultural heritage while also remaining one of Latin America’s most modern metropolises.

I’ve lived in North America nearly my entire life so the Spanish and Italian influenced built environment of Buenos Aires immediately captured my attention. The gracefulness and the grandeur of the European style architecture was new and exciting for me.

On my first day in Buenos Aires, I walked down the Avenida de Mayo which connects the Plaza de Congreso to the famous Plaza de Mayo. The physical forms of the Old World influenced cityscape and the bustling action on the street gave me plenty to digest on my first stroll through the city. I observed the overall feel as well as the more subtle details like the delicate European balconies, colorful hanging foliage, interesting streets signs and store-front facades.

The mixed use commercial and residential streetscape of the city’s historical neighborhoods emanates a feeling of European antiquity. The small shops and local personalities are reminiscent of an older time in U.S history – a time before strip malls and big-box superstores came to dominate and shoppers had a personal relationship with the store keeper.

This European influenced commercial and residential urban wall  is broken only by the massive public parks and beautiful open plazas that maintain the magnificence of their European roots. These grand plazas are typically surrounded by classically designed government and office buildings and provide ample open space for a collection of historic statues and stately monuments that infuse a sense of grandeur and timelessness to the plazas.

While flaunting its elegant European style, Buenos Aires appears equally dedicated to staying on the edge of modern design. Buildings of European descent and modern beginnings stand harmoniously side by side. Modern structures don’t dominate the urban landscape, rather, they complement the classic yet contemporary vibe of the city.

Last weekend, some friends and I shared a bottle of wine at Milion – a European style mansion that had been retro-fitted as a modern bar. Upon entering, I was immediately swept up in the fantasy conjured by the mansion’s classic spiral stair case, elegant chandelier, delicate candle lighting, attractive terrace and spacious stone staircase that softly spilled into the delightful, vine-covered courtyard. After finishing our bottle alongside a charming fountain, we decided to explore other areas of the bar.

We visited the top two floors of the bar where a modern, lounge atmosphere replaced the classic, candle-lit imagery below. The second floor was divided into several different rooms, each playfully decorated with art work and contemporary lighting. Rather than traditional chairs and tables, there were colorful couches, cushy seating alternatives and oddly shaped table-like objects. I found it interesting how the seating arrangement effected the way people interacted. Without typical tables and chairs to separate people and act as a social barrier, people were able to maneuver these cushy seating alternatives to get closer to each other and interact more intimately. I remember one couple sitting on two boxy cushions with their legs between each others as they laughed, flirted and sipped on wine. It was fascinating to observe how the design of the seating layout had a profound effect on the level of intimacy that a bottle of wine could be shared. A couple sitting upon the typical table and chairs arrangement have a physical and conceptual barrier separating them which limits the romantic potential of the situation. Sharing a bottle of wine becomes infinitely more romantic when a couple sits leg to leg.

I tell this detailed story of my first experience at Milion because it’s a perfect microcosm of how historical and modern identities playfully interact in Buenos Aires. Buenos Aires doesn’t have the fanciest skyscraper or the most extravagant urban mega-structures, yet its modernity can be seen in the city’s innovative spaces the blend the lines between time-honored traditions and contemporary visions.

Our cities, much like our human societies, are continuously evolving organisms. Cities are in a constant state of transformation, fusing previously learned habits with the curiosity of new possibilities. Buenos Aires is an outstanding example of a city that has found a healthy balance between honoring its historical roots while also striving towards modernity.

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