June 2009 – The Buenos Aires urban wall is painted with a European brush and styled with a South American stroke. The more antiquate regions of the city were modeled after European architecture so parts of the city look and feel like one of Western Europe’s older metropolises. Even as 20th century modernism began influencing the Buenos Aires built environment, the city has retained its wonderful mixture of European imagery and South American vibes that gives the city an interesting urban pulse.
I took a short trip to visit my cousin in New York City just before I left for Buenos Aires. To me, Manhattan is the Great Wall of all urban walls with its long straight lines of glass, steel and brick that rise high up from the ground to contain the urban ecosystem below. The Manhattan mosaic of perpendicular lines, perfect right angles, and jagged fire escapes reminds me of an M.C Escher sketch that’s full of little details that come together to create a grand illusionary effect.
It’s interesting to observe how the magnitude of the Manhattan urban wall influences my mood and my feelings as I walk down the large crowded streets. I find myself succumbing to the fast paced action that’s buzzing beneath the colossal Manhattan walls, yet I also feel the grandeur of the city filling my walk with a step of excitement and adventure.
Our built environments have a special way of influencing how we feel about ourselves and our surrounding world. They have the power to alter our perspectives and teach us new rhythms. In this way, the built environment isn’t just about streets and buildings – it’s part of the identity of the people and a piece of the living consciousness of the city.
My experience in Buenos Aires was heavily influenced not only by the culture, the food and the people, but also by the physical built environment itself.
Upon the streets of Buenos Aires, I find myself adopting new habits and acquiring new attitudes. The European style built environment infused my trip with antiquate rhythms that I had never felt in North America. The pace, the vibe, the imagery – it was new and intriguing.
In most Buenos Aires buildings, the first floor is occupied by some form of commercial space while the levels above are reserved for residential space. This street side space is home to cafes, restaurants and a host of little retail stores. Without the ugly big box-mega stores that are commonly found in the U.S, the urban wall is painted with the plentiful signs of small specialized shops. Walking down the street, your eyes will pass by the repeating scene of small kiosks selling cigarettes and sweets, cafés, restaurants, pizza places, book stores, shoes stores, clothing stores, banks, hardware stores, pharmacies, small food markets, ice cream parlors, newsstands, electronic stores, photocopy places and internet cafes. I see these stores so often it’s as if they are permanently painted along the Buenos Aires urban wall like a giant mural.
This continuous scene of street front commercial space is broken only by the grand plazas of wide open space that emerge out from the confines for the urban wall. Plazas provide a calm and often social world away from the bustling movement of the typical urban environment.
Avenida de Mayo is a typical business district street in Buenos Aires with office buildings, restaurants, retails stores, street vendors, a subway line and commuters. Pedestrians transverse the business street with a commuter’s attitude until the Plaza de Mayo suddenly emerges from the street and transports people to the liberating world of the plaza. Plaza de Mayo is a big beautiful plaza, surrounded by a mix of modern office buildings, stately colonial government buildings, monumental statues and grand fountains. The Casa Rosada is the gorgeous home of Argentina’s president and stands as the lovely pink center piece of the Plaza de Mayo. The open plaza gives people the opportunity to relax and settle into a calmer urban rhythm. Plazas across Buenos Aires share this same ability to transform how people interact with their urban environment.
The physical textures and colors of the Buenos Aires urban wall add to the character of the city and contribute to the identity of each neighborhood. The general mosaic of the Buenos Aires urban wall is composed of the white and grey colors of cement and stone as well as colorful physical textures like balconies, columns, stores facades, street vendors and the sprawling restaurant space that reaches out onto the busy sidewalks. The imagery, the style and the physical height of the built environment varies in each neighborhood so the feel of the urban wall is different depending on the region of the city. There is no uniform shape to the Buenos Aires urban wall but its presence is a constant even through most residential neighborhoods.
When we travel, we often think of how the people and the culture will influence our journey abroad but we tend to forget that the built environment will also be an important aspect of how we experience our new home. As I interact with the Buenos Aires urban environment, I’ve observed new habits and attitudes within myself. The antiquate imagery of the European-style urban wall has fused with my new taste for café culture, wine and tango and I’ve witness myself walking smoother and more relaxed.
The built environment has the powerful ability to influence how people live and interact within a space. This City Beautiful movement is based on this thought exactly. The dirty and disgusting physical state of 19th and early 20th century industrial cities were manifesting depressing urban societies. Urbanists looked to the built environment for a solution. Led by Daniel Burnham,The City Beautiful movement aimed to replace the overcrowded and unsanitary spaces of the industrial city with the grandeur of monumental architecture in the hopes that the beautified urban environment would cultivate more civic and moral urban societies.
The built environment can be seen as a tool to influence the feel and function of our cities. Urban planners should strive to have an awareness of the varying energies pulsating from our global cities so they can better understand how to use the built environment as a tool to influence our cities.