The invitation to give a Keynote Address at the International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions’ (IFLA) excellent President’s meeting last month, provided me with a wonderful opportunity to spend a little bit of time exploring the fascinating city of Buenos Aires. I had never been there before, and I left with many contradictory memories in my mind. I hope that the pictures and reflections below capture something of these.
My lasting memory, is of the diversity yet uniformity of the city. Laid out on its grid plan from the 19th century, blocks are dominated mostly by 6-10 storey grey buildings, in various states of dilapidation, with a wide range of different commercial uses on the ground floor. There seemed to be little attempt at commercial zoning; shoe shops were next to ones selling fruit and vegetables on one side and mobile phones on the other.
It is hard for people living in Europe or North America to appreciate that in the early 20th century Argentina was among the 10 richest countries in the world in terms of per capita income; it was richer than either France or Germany, and had outgrown Canada and Australia in population, total income, and per capita income. This huge wealth is still visible in the moumental buildings spread widely apart across the city: the theatres, mansions, and buildings of state. Yet its subsequent economic decline and political turmoil also remains all too visible.
The city’s large size, and the dispersed character of its monuments, made me feel that it had little obvious centre. Yes, people point to the Obelisco at the crossing between Av. 9 de Julho and Av. Corrientes as its centre; others emphasise the importance of the Plaza de Mayo and the Av. de Mayo leading west towards the Congreso de la Nación Argentina from the Casa Rosada. However, for me it still lacks a central throbbing heart. New growth and development is scattered apparently haphazardly through the city, in parts of Palermo or to the east by the old harbour.
It is also amazingly ethnically and culturally diverse; hugely European, yet little like Europe. Somehow there remains the sense of an indigenous undercurrent from before the Spanish conquests of the 16th century, but this has been almost completely obliterated by the waves of European settlements; mainly Spanish, Italians, and Germans. By the early 20th centry it is estimated that just under a third of the population had been born overseas. This European identity of the 19th and early 20th centuries remains very visible in the built landscape and in the culture of the city. The grand opera house, the Teatro Colon, is reputed to be one of the five best concert venues in the world in terms of acoustics. Nearby are other theatres, such as the impressive Teatro Nacional Cervantes; the Teatro Gran Splendid to the north-west opened in 1919, and a century later the bookshop that now fills its balconies has been described by National Geographic as the most beautiful in the world.
This European culture is embedded in its music; it helped me understand why the cultural evening generously laid on for us included, surprisingly for me, classical ballet and music, alongside the challenging songs of Nacha Guevara, and the stunning beauty and passion of the tango.
And the wealth of a growing middle class is increasingly visible in the plush shopping malls of the Galerias Pacifico or in the old railway arches of Distrito Arcos in Palermo; gated communities nearby enable the rich to watch out over the city, in which poor beggars sleep on the streets underneath any shelter they can find.
I have never been anywhere in the world where there have been so many people calling out “Cambio”, “Cambio”, wanting to change your money on the streets; scarcely surprising when it is so difficult to change it legally elsewhere, and the cashpoint machines charge almost 20% for transactions!
Many people like the old cemetery at Recoleta; I found it depressing, and an omnipresent reminder of the faded past of the city. But the white brightness of the adjacent Iglesia Nuestra Señora del Pilar next door was a reminder of the vital present, and the neighbouring Centro Cultural Recoleta a vibrant, colour-filled explosion of life. The lively market nearby provided me with the opportunity to purchase a much-wanted multi-coloured gaucho belt.
Thanks to all those in Buenos Aires, for this wonderful opportunity; and I haven’t even started on the huge steaks and the delicious Malbec wines…