BUENOS AIRE NOW
“Not to find one's way around a city does not mean much. But to lose one's way in a city, as one loses one's way in a forest, requires some schooling.
Walter Benjamin, “Berlin Childhood around 1900”.
I would have sworn that Benjamin’s quote was different, that it referred to childhood. Something like “in order to know a city you must have spent your childhood in it”. Or even better: “If you want to be happy in a city”. To lose one’s way in a city, as one loses one’s way in a forest… Does the German author associate knowledge to loss? Learning to lose one’s way in a labyrinth also means learning to get out of it. The labyrinth, when we know it, allows us to enjoy it without feeling nervous. If there is no uncertainty, there will be no panic.
I was born in Buenos Aires and have lived in this city for fifty years. I have lived in different neighborhoods and during different governments. I have lived in Chacarita, in Pacifico, in Barracas. I have lived in a Buenos Aires militarized, I have lived in a Buenos Aires that believed in a growing democracy, I have lived in a Buenos Aires that was in bankruptcy and splendor, in growth and in withdrawal, with social inclusion or indifferent to what happened to people. I was poor due to the economic crises, I lost my job and my house two or three times, and I also recovered and emerged from that, simple but prodigal, which at times resembled stability. I have been dozens of people throughout all these periods, but I was also myself: an architect and writer porteño (1) that, like Benjamin, thinks that in order to know a city one must learn to lose one’s way in it. The city I live in is superb for a detour.
I am talking not only about space detours, those that can be found when you turn around the corner, but also about a temporal loss in history. Buenos Aires is an overlapping of senses, in which races, towns, styles, smells and sounds are melted together. It is a city where blending prevails. And in this sense, we are probably an example to follow, since cities do not die because of an excess of conflicts and activities but primarily because of an absence of them. No city ever sinks in its own garbage, or fails because cars do not move smoothly. Cities do not die just because they are overcrowded. Indeed, they grow because of that reason. Urbanism’s main objective is to soften the impact of these conflicts, never to do away with them. That would not be possible. What is most important is to have the ability to get through a crisis, to understand new situations, to adapt and to simple switch. Speaking in boxing terms, the diversity in Buenos Aires turns the city into an out-fighter city. Buenos Aires: a place that is constantly mutating, and she expects the porteños to change with her.
Its sudden changes and its constant crises chained one after the other in the necklace of the Argentinian history, created in the porteños a muscle, an alert. Thomas Alva Edison was once asked how he managed not to get frustrated after so much failure, to which he answered that there was no failure because all his inventions that did not work were an experience from which he could learn how things “did not work”. Argentina and Latin America’s reality is full of anxiety, as in a choppy sea; however, we learn from it and we do not drown. Buenos Aires is a training school that teaches its people how to stay afloat, and reflect serenity.
That tranquility is reflected on the trees planted by architect Carlos Thays at the Palermo parks along with the flowers that grow in El Rosedal. The small tables on the bars’ sidewalks that imitate Paris, the blue sky of Montevideo, the courteous sidewalks of Rio de Janeiro, the variety of foods of New York, the exquisite wines from Santiago de Chile, the diversity of cultural activities of Barcelona, the bicycles of Amsterdam, the continuous urban day and night transportation as in the Berlin style, the architectonic variety of Madrid. We can never do it exactly the same way, but we try to resemble the best ones in each aspect. That is already an achievement. And if this were not enough, we have the most beautiful Planetarium of the world, designed by architect Enrique Jan. And the most beautiful girls. And our dulce de leche (2).
The Pirelli guide says that the porteños have an anarchic and individualistic temper; Brazilians say that we are boastful, Uruguayans say that we are hyper-kinetic and Chileans say that we are conceited. At international conventions where we meet all our Spanish-American brothers and sisters we stand out because we are the first ones to argue and the last ones to dance (feature that we share with our partners on the other side of the Andes). I prefer to say that we are proud of having been born in a place where there is a surplus of Resources. Not of money (in this case I would have written the word “resources” with lowercase). I am talking about human resources, artistic resources; I am talking about creativity at the service of time. The money is spent, it goes away, it fades away.
While some suspect that this is a city where it is not necessary to belong to be able to enjoy it, I can absolutely bet that a foreigner will soon feel comfortable in any of its alleyways and, for a moment, feel at home. Visitors to Buenos Aires find themselves at ease because local habits are not fake. The coexistence among neighborhoods does exist; it is real. China Town colorfully coexists with the sobriety of Belgrano, the tranquility of Barracas does so with the hustle of Villa 24, the hectic rhythm of Retiro with the serene nap of Recoleta. Boundaries are always vague, as is good neighbourliness.
Buenos Aires was a melting pot when all immigrants arrived: Italians, Polish, Jewish, fleeing from war. Now, it is a mirror of customs, not only from Latin America but also from the European Continent. We always knew how to be good hosts, we always boast about this. The girl turned out to be good.
Because, no matter how much the tango “Mi Buenos Aires Querido” has tried to turn our city into a male, I see it very feminine. She is a beautiful girl that goes to therapy, but does not suffer from depression. Never. No matter if she has a good day or a bad day. She is used to not feeling depressed because she always looks the other way. She is given a Rio de la Plata as huge as an ocean so she can have it as her daily postcard, and she also ignores it. She is given a Seine so she can take it across the city and add beauty to it. She baptized it Riachuelo, contemptuously, and throws in it all the garbage she can find.
She is a girl that turns her back to all that is good, but she has such a precious back that we stare at her, with a foolish look in our eyes.
She is a girl that puts make up on when she is on a bus on her way to work in the morning hours of the day, and she always looks so great that she would be ready to attend an elegant wedding. She knows how to make headway in what she does.
The word “headway” has not always had the same meaning. At the beginning of the last century, in the first centenary of Buenos Aires, it meant buildings, machinery and technique. The worker mattered as long as he was a link in that endeavor that no one claimed. Nowadays, “progress” defines, paradoxically, the social success that the thrust of the growth could not – or did not want to – take into consideration at the beginning.
Current progress in the world does not have the shape of a building, of a bridge or the shape of a monument. That kind of future is already old, it looks like the one that was dreamt about a hundred years ago in magazines, with towers looking up into the skies, hanging trams and flying saucers. Urban life of the future took place in the sky, and scratched its tummy with its unattainable buildings. That future only exists today in Dubai.
My city is not a city of skyscrapers. Neither is it a flat city. Nor zen, as those cities that are made to become totally absorbed and meditate. It is a grid neatly traced, that every now and then shows an anomaly, many green areas to walk around and still enough breathable air. Buenos Aires is a city to move around, it has always been. Not to fly. The decisions here, are made while we walk. Maybe that is the problem when it comes to drawing its picture: the girl never stays quiet for long, she runs away, we see her turning round the corners. And, in order to be able to paint a portrait of her we expect her, at least, to pose. Or maybe she is impossible to portray because she is always more who she will be, than who she is today. Her buildings, her streets, her squares, her parks and her inhabitants find it difficult to bear the present; they know how to survive, but they can move forward and want to shine because adaptation is in their DNA. But everyday life gets stuck in our throat, even if we try to push it down by gulping mate (3).
“Your city is too big for me,“ told me a foreman before he went back defeated to his home province. As if Buenos Aires were a jacket that he was destined to be tried on. He purchased it on the internet, he tried it on and was too big for him. That accusation was packed with all his frustration. Many others stay here to live. Some others, simply pass by. I learnt to be happy in the city where I spent my childhood, that is why I believed in Benjamin’s fake quote. But I have also got lost here, and I always get lost, though the good thing, the really good thing and which I do not agree with Benjamin, is that we can get to know Buenos Aires without ever knowing how to get out of the city. The girl knows the exit, but she will never tell anybody. It is a secret well kept in her “dear diary”. And no matter how careful one may be while walking the city, unfold a map with its streets orthogonally drawn and apply all one personal’s memory during the trip, we will get lost anyway: no matter if you are a foreigner, or local, Argentine or from Buenos Aires, or if you have spent your childhood here or in other places.
“My city is too big for me too,” I answered to that foreman. “It is a nut with the size of a world.”
(1) people from Buenos Aires.
(2) jam made with milk and sugar.
(3) mate is a bitter tea drank with a straw.
Gustavo Nielsen nació en Buenos Aires, en 1962. Es arquitecto y escritor. Como arquitecto ha realizado obras en Capital, Buenos Aires, Córdoba, San Luis y Montevideo. Desde 2008 comparte el Galpón Estudio en el barrio de Chacarita junto a los arquitectos Ramiro Gallardo y Max Zolkwer. Ha ganado el Tercer Premio para el Parque Lineal del Sur (asociado a Max Zolkwer), el Primer Premio para el Oasis Urbano Magaldi Unamuno, Tercer Premio Cenotafio Las Heras y Mención en el Oasis Boedo (asociado a Max Zolkwer y Ramiro Gallardo), Mención en el MPAC (asociado a Sebastián Marsiglia), Mención en el Pabellón Frankfurt 2010 (asociado a Max Zolkwer y a Sebastián Marsiglia) y Primer Premio en el concurso internacional para el Monumento a las Víctimas del Holocausto Judío (también asociado a Sebastián Marsiglia). Escribe notas sobre ciudad y diseño en el suplemento Radar, de Página 12. Ha publicado “Playa quemada” (cuentos, Alfaguara), “ La flor azteca” (novela, Planeta), “El amor enfermo” (novela, Alfaguara), “Marvin”, (cuentos, Alfaguara, "Auschwitz" (novela, Alfaguara)y “Adiós, Bob” (cuentos, Klizkowsky Publisher) , “Playa quemada” (cuentos, Interzona), “La fe ciega” (cuentos, Páginas de Espuma, Madrid), “El corazón de Doli” (novela, El Ateneo) y “La otra playa” (novela, Premio Clarín Alfaguara 2010).
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