Wednesday, March 18, 2009


Of the 1001 buildings you must see before you die (according to this book at least), only 35 are in South America (and only a handful more in Central America). As with most things Latin, there is a prejudice against Latin American architecture which is reflected in what the travel books tell you to look out for. Some colonial relics remain, of course, and plenty of garish cathedrals, but the Brasilia of Niemeyer and a few other forgotten modernists aside, it is suggested that the architectural box-ticker need waste little time in South America. Be that as it may, the three buildings on our to-do list in Buenos Aires and Rio – a library, a cathedral and a museum – testify to the need to rehabilitate the continent’s reputation.


The National Library of Argentina is a curvaceous monument of concrete, and possibly the most southerly Brutalist masterpiece in the world. In the early 1960s, when Borges was chief librarian, it was clear that the then National Library would need to move to bigger premises in order to accommodate its growing collection of books. A plot of land was identified in the affluent and leafy barrio of Recoleta, and in 1961 the young architect Clorindo Testa submitted his design of reading rooms elevated above an open plaza and an underground book depository. Testa, who had recently designed the uncompromising Banco de Londres was commissioned to fulfil the brief of building a new national library.

As it turned out, the library would not be completed for a further 31 years, as coups, juntas, economic crises and stalling all hampered its construction. But today it proves how wonderfully bare concrete and a sunny climate interact, and its transparency (the different areas for reading, administration, eating, storage etc are clearly demarcated) and functionality convey a feeling of everyday monumentality. It is a tactile, shapely (one might even say voluptuous) building, and the open-air plaza underneath the reading rooms is lined with curvy chunks of cool concrete, fingers of fleshy cement with windows set into them, concrete girders for extra gravitas, suspended platforms on which students can plan doomed revolutions (this is Buenos Aires, after all).

I’m not sure why – perhaps the heat had got to us – but DV and I didn’t actually go into the library. The reading rooms apparently offer some of the best views of the city, but we had bus tickets to buy and Quilmes to drink, so we missed these. Nevertheless, the National Library is one of those buildings that gets under your skin, about which one thinks wistful thoughts as the sun sets, thoughts of being a student again, reading political economy or continental philosophy under a vivid blue sky or cool concrete roof... Then again, my own Brutalist University library was the Edward Boyle Library, under the rather greyer skies of West Yorkshire. There are more photos (not by me) here, including some of the interior.


San Sebastian Cathedral in downtown Rio de Janeiro is utterly unlike the Baroque or Spanish Colonial cathedrals in most Latin cities. It is reminiscent of, and follows similar principles to, the more famous Metropolitan Cathedrals of Gibberd and Niemeyer in Liverpool and Brasilia, though it predates both. It is built mainly of concrete and consists of a circular nave, a low altar and high stained glass windows at each cardinal point. Detractors (i.e. guidebook writers, online travel sites, traditionalists, the entire population of Rio ... in fact, we couldn’t find anyone who had a good word to say about it) claim it looks like an upside-down bucket, that it is too bold or brash or inhuman. But I found it rather more welcoming than, for example, St Nicholas’s Church in Prague, whose style such detractors would presumably prefer, but which made me feel physically ill. I rather like the fact that San Sebastian is surrounded by a large car-park, is accessed by driving over the forbidding Avenida Paraguay fly-over in the heart of the financial district, and is faced by the rather vulgar headquarters of Petrobras, Brazil’s biggest oil producer and distributor.

Still, you can’t get away from the fact that this is a Catholic cathedral. Reliefs on either side of the altar depict (uncritically, of course) indigenous barbarians being converted by civilised colonialists – a reminder (lest we forget) of the ultimately imperialist nature of organised religion. And another gripe: the rosary that DV bought from the souvenir shop had a dodgy catch. Still, if shoddy craftsmanship was the worst sin of the Catholic church, the world would be a happier place.


The most obviously transcendent of the three buildings is the MAC-Niteroi Contemporary Art Museum in Rio, Oscar Niemeyer’s futuristic cupola by the sea. It is a classic example of a building whose pleasure derives from it overstretching itself: ostensibly a gallery and exhibition hall, its own dazzling beauty will always surpass the works of art it is supposed to house. This situation is probably not helped by the MAC’s impracticality – in order to get into the gallery, one has to enter downstairs, buy a ticket, exit via a stairwell, and then re-enter one floor above. But it doesn’t seem to matter much when so few visitors are actually bothered about going inside. The MAC’s use value is purely aesthetic, a place to admire and not to participate in (an exhibition in which people are invited to sit on circular cushions and somehow “interact” felt forced and banal).

The views across Guanabara Bay across to Sugarloaf Mountain are so spectacular that quiet awe or reactive (self-)indulgence seem the most appealing responses, in stark contrast to Buenos Aires’s deeply practical library. Indeed, Rio’s almost neurotic pursuit of pleasure is its most unappealing aspect – it proudly proclaims that no problem, no injustice, no crime is so great that it can’t be mollified with a can of beer, a game of football and two hours on a sun-lounger. Privately, cariocas are far more thoughtful, but it seems like the appearance of breezy frivolity must be kept up at all times. Buenos Aires sways the other way – moody, passive-aggressive, self-absorbed – as though no solution, no example of honesty, no good deed is so pure that it can’t be brought down by a military coup. No prizes for guessing which one I prefer.


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