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from the April 2018 issue

Why Buenos Aires Is Not Paris

In this essay, literary and cultural critic Beatriz Sarlo takes on the longstanding myth that Buenos Aires is the Paris of South America.

Among the many commonplaces about Buenos Aires, I’ll mention but two. The first panders to the Argentinean ego and is especially inaccurate: Buenos Aires resembles Paris. The second was a criticism that could be heard for decades from the mouths of these same Argentineans who would drive themselves into a frenzy imagining themselves heirs of a certain Frenchness. Differently from that which purported a similarity to Paris, the second observation is right on the mark: Buenos Aires is a redundant and monotonous city. What’s curious is that Argentineans adhere to both verdicts, despite the fact they contradict one another. Let’s start with the first. 

Buenos Aires is not like Paris because, commonplaces aside, the projects that have shaped it since the first third of the nineteenth century fused models from distinct European origins. Naturally, it was desirable to have large avenues (which are not Paris’s private domain, by the way); some of these strongly recall those of Madrid and Barcelona. But the grand public edifices (which form veritable landmarks) are not invariably of French inspiration: their façades are neoclassical, Italianate, eclectic, art deco, even expressionist and modernist. In the thirties, the famed obelisk was built, the urban landmark that represents Buenos Aires on all the postcards.1 It is a discreetly modernist object, full of right angles, white, and devoid of even a passing resemblance to the triumphal obelisks of the French capital.

Paris was never the sole European model for Buenos Aires, though Beaux Arts architecture set the tone for the elegant mansions constructed by the elite during the waning years of the nineteenth century and the early years of the twentieth. Several ideas of what a city should be, among them the American metropolis par excellence, New York, served as models for the city on the Rio de la Plata. As modernization advances, the comparison with New York becomes an influential perspective: beneath the European imagination lies an American popular imagination. But both New York and Paris are, at their core, urban myths, in the sense that Georges Sorel used the term, which is to say, “systems of images” more than blueprints.

Le Corbusier emphasized among Buenos Aires’s unique characteristics the tiny houses erected by Italian artisans, simple little houses, that can easily be reduced to basic geometric forms. He also pointed out that, in contrast to the European cities bisected by their emblematic waterways (Rome, London, Florence, Paris, Budapest, Prague, etc.), Buenos Aires had been built such that it was nearly impossible to access the river as early as the end of the 1920s.

In reality, Buenos Aires doesn’t recall any of the cities of Europe, but rather, it is composed of fragments taken from several of them. There abound, in the richest quarters, the French-style petits-hotels, with their slate rooftiles, but these do not set the tone of the city anymore than do the Italianate Casa de Gobierno, the eclectic Teatro Colón or the Congress building, the disciplined modern style of her first skyscrapers, or the English-style flourishes found at several suburban train stations. The Buenos Aires Zoo is a miniature city that evokes the stylistic mélange of the city that hosts it: Norman pavilions, pagodas, serpentariums that take their inspiration from industrial architecture or the world fairs.


 Image: Buenos Aires's Teatro Colón in 1908, Wikimedia Commons.

Nor was the culture of the Argentinean elite entirely “made in France.” Even Victoria Ocampo, who was considered the ultimate Francophone, was the translator of Virginia Woolf, and editor of Huxley, Nabokov, T. E. Lawrence, and Tagore. She founded her magazine Sur, for decades the most prestigious on the continent, at the urging of her American friend Waldo Frank and after experiencing the shock of the New York cultural scene. No one can seriously claim that Borges was a Francophile; on the contrary, he saved his most irreverent passages for icons of French culture, such as Proust. Argentine popular culture during the twenties looked to the United States, both as a model for its large daily papers and for the development of radio and cinema. 


Buenos Aires was built according to European models applied to solving problems that were not the same as those in Europe.

Argentine culture has an inextricable relationship with translations of European work, but not just French work. The mixing of cultures is, by definitions, the mixing of diverse origins. The comparison of Buenos Aires to Paris (which, by the way, would never occur to any Frenchman, et pour cause) is an image of desire. This resulted from the political and cultural will of the elites who shaped the modern city starting in 1880. If someone had asked these men, they probably would have told him that Paris was the city they admired above all. But this practically inevitable fidelity (Paris was then the city the entire world admired) met with material limitations. Initiatives sprang forth that could not easily be reduced to copying a single model but the creation of a city that could function as a modern metropolitan center.

The profile of the Buenos Aires imagined by the elites and which they managed, in part, to build, has its originality in the combination of different technological, urban, and aesthetic models. As with Argentine culture, originality is to be found in the diverse elements that come together to form a mixture—seized, transformed, and then deformed by an enormous mechanism of translation. Buenos Aires is a translation of Europe, of many conflicting languages and urban narratives, refracted by the inescapable fact of its location in America. There is as much imitation as there is bricolage and recycling.

Buenos Aires was built according to European models applied to solving problems that were not the same as those in Europe. In the first place, because, in contrast to European cities, in Buenos Aires, things began nearly from scratch. There is the immense Río de la Plata, unchanging, and, on occasion, menacing when it overflows its banks to flood nearby neighborhoods. As Le Corbusier was quick to note, the city’s relationship to the river is one of progressive estrangement. When Le Corbusier visited Buenos Aires in 1929, one could no longer see the river no matter where one stood. Facing the river, a stretch of plains with an equally unchanging and unattractive landscape. Above these plains, a handful of old buildings, lacking a strong identity or great aesthetic value: the colonial customs house, since demolished, the old market, also demolished, the viceregal hall, now missing one of its wings, a few leftover colonial houses which stood out more for their spacious courtyards than their architectural refinement, two or three churches, the considerable English warehouses of the port, the iron architecture of a few train stations.

It was in this land poor in historical buildings that Buenos Aires was invented. This lack of urban history was for years an obsession of the elite. It was discussed at length whether the primitive pyramid erected in honor of the May 1810 Revolution, the first act in the fight for independence from Spain, ought to be preserved; it was discussed whether a city that was new and lacked an identity ought to permit one of its few monuments to be dedicated to a foreign hero such as Garibaldi; it was discussed whether it was worth preserving the so-called House of the Vicereine, an old colonial structure in complete ruin in the city’s southern region. These controversies, which occupied the elite from 1890 to 1920, are not secondary matters. At a symbolic level, they indicate the historical void the city felt to be its original shortcoming.

To this historical void was added the symbolic void of the plains, which were soon to take on a geometric form according to the city’s prevailing design. European travelers and the Argentinean intellectuals who had traveled throughout Europe opined that Buenos Aires was a monotonous city. When the novelist Manuel Gálvez returned from Europe, in the second decade of the twentieth century, he felt despair at re-encountering a Buenos Aires that wanted for the picturesque urban landscapes that defined the cities and villages of Spain that he had recently visited. The modernity of Buenos Aires, a city that had been deliberately planned, seemed to him plain and featureless. His disillusionment with the city when compared with Europe proved an obstacle to recognizing that the monotonous city of the pampas was technically more European than many of those he had visited in Spain and Italy.

In fact, Buenos Aires already had by then a line of subway trains (opened in 1913), a modern port, paved streets, parks designed by landscape architects, grand public buildings, a sewer system, telephone and electric lines. Moreover, what was peculiar about Buenos Aires was that these services were distributed in a relatively equitable manner, reaching both the richest neighborhoods and the poorest.2 The layout of the streets was exasperatingly geometric; the elite had decided to preserve the checkerboard pattern from colonial times and expand it, in lieu of opting for more interesting urban designs that were less rigid and more charming. 

Streets, Streets, Streets

Each neighborhood repeats a pattern of square blocks that are formally identical to those of the city center. The one hundred-meter-long block is the platonic ideal of the modern city: the monotony of its geometry provides an abrupt separation of the city from nature. At the same time it lacks an erratic and varied landscape, the city also fails to replace it with a more attractive design that would distinguish it from the surrounding pampas. Buenos Aires begins to take form. Above the plains that surround it and reach into it, the city imposes a simple form that mirrors the meridians that stretch across the infinite landscapes. In theory, Buenos Aires is complete even though many of her streets only connect one empty lot to another. It is the geometrical orilla, or edge, of the pampas, the threshold and margin where the countryside sometimes stretches into the city, and where the city sometimes reaches the countryside. Its status as orilla (whose adjective form orillera in the Spanish of the Rio de la Plata can also mean untamed, on the margins, even criminal) can be thought of as a reflection of the Argentina built since the mid-nineteenth century, in the most remote part of America, finis terrae where European immigrants set off in search of an El Dorado that the Spanish failed to find centuries before.  Buenos Aires, at the edge of Europe.

Near the end of the forties, Héctor A. Murena wrote a book where he lays out this idea of finis terrae. Its title is El pecado original de América (America’s Original Sin). Its argument is simple, like that of a tragedy. In Europe, men live in a land where several layers of history lie atop one another. When the plow sinks into the soil, the earth remembers its having been plowed for centuries. After generations and generations, the history of the land mingled with human history: “At my childhood home, in Asturias,” an immigrant once said to me, “is the table where my great-grandparents once ate.” For Murena, the American experience is the deprivation of this past: America is a continent cast outside history. The Europeans who arrived in America abandoned a land where it was possible to find meaning and established themselves in a void. They neither could nor wanted to construct there a community where time accumulated as history and memory. They built cities and societies overnight, dedicated entirely to the future. For this reason, the American condition is, forever, that condition of being cast out from the world.

Though they never butted heads, it’s clear that Borges did not share Murena’s radically pessimistic perspective. His idea of Buenos Aires is less tragic but more troublesome than Murena’s. It captures the contradiction between different cultural dimensions, an unresolved contradiction, and not simply a case of deprivation. For Borges, Buenos Aires is—materially and symbolically—the orilla, which is to say a space that never belongs to one side or the other, a frontier and also a margin.

But let us return to the construction of Buenos Aires. For centuries, the occupation of the plains bordering the river was a gradual process. But following the conclusion of civil wars and a genocidal operation through which the last pre-Hispanic inhabitants were cornered, eliminated, and displaced, after the defeat of traditionalist factions in the provinces and the bloody unification of national territory in the final third of the nineteenth century, Buenos Aires embarked on a period of accelerated growth theretofore unseen.

In a 1929 newspaper piece, Roberto Arlt describes the city that is taking shape:


As with theater scenery after the lights have gone out and only the backstage curtain remains, one sees homes cut in half, rooms where, by a miracle, the wrecking ball has spared a bit of goldleaf or a stamp reading “La Vie Parisienne.” Skeletons of reinforced concrete structures more beautiful than any woman. Drainpipes. Arc lamps twinkling in basements of yellow earth as the chain of the electric crane creaks. . .3


Arlt compares the city under construction with theatrical scenery because Buenos Aires was remaking itself at a furious pace, almost too quickly to erase the signs of what had been only a short time before, as with the houses cut in half, because their façade ran along one of the grand avenues. As with the theater, work was performed day and night, beneath the light of the electric arcs, this technological icon of modern illumination. The city was built in a sort of paradoxically methodical frenzy, as though everything had to be in working condition the very next day. Buenos Aires was in constant change, almost overnight, to the extent that its streets are widened or entire blocks of buildings demolished to give way to the diagonal street plans of modernist city fathers. This was the scene that was to represent the modern metropolis, as an act of urbanist zeal.

Our literature, especially that of Arlt and Oliverio Girondo, portrays this new city through use of the avant-garde collage: the city, more than a space-time continuum, is a montage of fragmented images. Between 1920 and 1930, the rupture in our experience of time, the effect of technology and modern communication systems, creates the impression that the city had no preservable past, that everything that had come before could be axed and that there was nothing but only the construction of the new would profit the city. The metropolis (that Buenos Aires longed to be) is a historical eruption.

Fifty years before the night that Arlt discovered this stagelike city, Buenos Aires was occupied by buildings only along the old south central zone, next to the customs house, the port, the Casa de Gobierno, and calle Florida. The rest was splotches of isolated houses dotting muddy expansions. But in 1929, these enormous empty spaces shrank. The city, which earlier merged with the plains that encompassed it, was already quite fully a city, and to such an extent that much of what had been built only recently was demolished to make way for streets and avenues worthy of a grand capital.

But there was precedent for the acceleration that took place in 1929. In 1918, Katherine Dreier, an American traveler who was a friend of Marcel Duchamp, discovered that in this city that so desired to be cosmopolitan, not even the best hotels rented rooms to women traveling alone. The city and the condition of women in it appeared to her the product of a conservative and traditional Hispanic culture. Buenos Aires doesn’t capture her attention as the “Paris of the South” she had heard of, for two reasons: the monotony of the rectangular grid on the one hand, and the absence of a rich and active social life in its public spaces, on the other. More than Paris, Buenos Aires reminds her of Brooklyn. Most likely, Dreier was not far off:


One beautiful avenue, called the Avenida de Mayo, extends just more than a mile long and might easily recall a Parisian boulevard, with its trees and the many cafés whose tables and chairs occupy the sidewalk. But how unlike Paris in reality! Here one rarely sees a woman and, unlike Paris, only men frequent the cafés (. . .) Buenos Aires was constantly reminding me of Brooklyn. There was only a small section that was interesting and amusing, and the rest was endless, endless vistas of streets. Sometimes with good pavement, sometimes with bad, but just streets, streets, streets.4


Also in 1918, a traveler who was already well known in Parisian and New York artistic circles, Marcel Duchamp, disembarks with the idea of spending a period in Buenos Aires. He knows no one and his visit is practically a secret, he leaves no traces nor does his stay elicit the notice of a single Argentinean. Bored by a city that he sees as nothing more than a village, Duchamp returns in 1919 to the United States. In letters he wrote during his stay, his judgments are often harsh and full of disdain. To him, Buenos Aires is nothing more than a provincial town, devoid of culture, where no one knows anything about contemporary art and where the elite lack refinement.5 Dreier forms the same impression about the artistic tastes of this same elite, who—according to her—choose to decorate their palaces with art pompier and haven’t a clue about modern architecture.

Neither Dreier nor Duchamp were in a position to capture what lay behind and beneath this checkerboard of arrow-straight streets whose rigid pattern is, without a doubt, singularly anti-picturesque. These straight streets, “only streets,” stretching into infinity, are the geometric machine of modern Buenos Aires, which allow it to grow at an unheard-of pace and multiply its suburbs in a few short decades. Beneath these straight streets are wastewater pipes and the tunnels of the first subway line; and on the surface, following the lines of the grid, the tramway rails, the electric and telephone lines. This, which naturally was hardly impressive to visitors from New York, was the foundation of the urban modernization upon which, a few short years later, the processes of cultural modernization were built.

The tapestry of subterranean and aerial public services and transport, which Dreier and Duchamp overlooked, formed one of the most dynamic layers of the city. They overlooked not only these technical advances but the urbanist will to design a city that was orderly, harmonious. Without a doubt, less illustrious visitors who arrived to stay, European immigrants, encountered material conditions unknown to them in their native villages. 

The Urban Vision and Immigration

Buenos Aires was a city of immigrants. The first thing that must be said is that in the cities of Latin America, people were always arriving from somewhere else: these cities are the product of enormous demographic shifts. During the Spanish colonial period, using methods that were often bloody, several thousand Spanish settlers established a colony on the lands belonging to the original Americans. Thus was founded a hispano-criollo society, with varying degrees of miscegenation. In the Rio de la Plata, the Spanish colony was poor and knew nothing like the baroque ornamentation of the great viceregal capitals of Mexico City, Lima, and Bogotá. The colonial structures that survive in Buenos Aires are inconspicuous examples of neoclassical architecture or else simple white churches. There has never been anything befitting a viceregal court or even mestizo art because there were also few great indigenous cultures in the Rio de la Plata prior to the Spanish conquest. 

Until the final third of the nineteenth century, the main characteristic of the rural economy was a social structure composed of wealthy landowners and gauchos coerced by the job market and the police to become farmhands. Buenos Aires was a muddy village, free of large buildings, lacking parks or public works, decimated from time to time by a plague that spread via the open sewers, makeshift buildings, and the slaughterhouses near the city center. Only after 1870 did the city begin to exercise cultural influence and begin to think of itself as a future cosmopolitan center. The formula devised by the modernizing elite could be summed up as urban growth plus immigration. 

The idea of the city and the idea of an enormous population shift had been intertwined since Sarmiento, for whom the sprawling plains where rural culture thrives were the ideal setting for despotism, and the port cities, hospitable to foreigners, presented an ideal space for a modern republic. Domingo Faustino Sarmiento, who was an admirer of the yeomen farmers’ republic of the United States, believed in the civilizing power of the city, where civic virtues could triumph over resistant traditionalists to civilize the pampa (yeomen farmers, schools left and right, and a strong city from which the central government would rule). For him, as for many nineteenth-century men, the city was a pedagogical entity in itself. The urban setting imparts practical lessons and ought to function as an edifying teaching mechanism. City life is etymologically and symbolically a civilizing act. Immigrants were a central piece of this project.

Between 1880 and the First World War, tens of thousands of immigrants arrived in Buenos Aires. Most were Spanish and Italians, but also Germans, Russians, Central European Jews, and Asians. The Spanish and Italian majorities did not entirely correspond to the ideal immigrant of the elite’s dreams (they had hoped for artisans and Nordic peasants who, for their part, quite sensibly chose to immigrate to the United States).

At any rate, in the early years of the twentieth century, Buenos Aires was a city of foreigners (half of its inhabitants came from somewhere else). Newspapers were published in Italian, German, Yiddish; in 1910, as the nation celebrated the centenary of its independence from Spain and underwent all the rites of national reaffirmation, in the streets of Buenos Aires could be heard these exotic languages or a Spanish with a certain Iberian accent.

In addition to the hispano-criollo population, there was now a foreign population whose members were younger and whose women gave birth to more children. In mere decades, these immigrants and their children born in Argentina outnumber those of the hispano-criollo base dating back to the viceregal court. These Europeans arrived from their tiny villages to a city that seems immense because of its swaths of surviving pampa. They were not cosmopolitan, they simply came from abroad. One Italian immigrant told of the shock produced by Buenos Aires. He’d come from a rural village perched naturally against a hill, encompassed by the work of centuries in a landscape whose rocks formed the walls of the church and of the houses. His village amounted to nothing, it was the size of a neighborhood in Buenos Aires. This immigrant, like the thousands who arrived before him, had to leave the village behind to set down roots in this city. Even though they would never lose their status as foreigners, they realized complex negotiations through which they’d begun to think that their home might be found on this edge of America.

In Buenos Aires, it was not only the elite who fused urban models: immigration led to a large-scale fusion of cultural identities. At the end of this process (and only for the children of these immigrants) political citizenship and the right to call the city their own awaited.

This overlap of cultural identities brings with it disillusionment and conflict. The hispano-criollo city did not recognize itself in the city of immigrants; the city, which before was the public domain of the elites, was converted into a space where everyone begins to circulate. The network of direct relations that characterized village life was destroyed. Buenos Aires is occupied by “strangers,” the recently arrived who don’t answer (and would not answer in any part of America) to the standard which the elite had defined as “desirable” foreigners for the consolidation of civil society and the job market. Europe’s poor, as illiterate as the gauchos, but who supposedly were to disembark bringing their customs of order and industry, crammed into the port of Buenos Aires. 


In 1910, an important historian and critic, Ricardo Rojas, rendered an alarming diagnosis of the presence of foreigners in Buenos Aires.6 He is petrified at seeing the posters in shop windows, written in Yiddish, in Polish, in Italian; the various societies founded by the Italians, who display the photo of King Umberto or of Mazzini; the daily newspapers and the patriotic celebrations of these groups; the Jews with their long coats and hats occupying certain regions of Buenos Aires and erecting there their temples. Rojas has no desire to get rid of the recently arrived, but he is worried about establishing them under a sort of guardianship of the hispano-criollo elite. He does not want them to remain in their ghettos, but quite the contrary, to force them to mix. Education, it seems to him, is the key to this assimilation. And, in fact, it was. The children of these immigrants were alphabetized and nationalized in schools that were public, secular, free, and mandatory for girls and boys, and where all cultural divisions were stamped out. The public school taught—by force—what it was to be Argentinean.

 Image credit: Dorot Jewish Division, The New York Public Library.

The Jews fascinated for their more extreme foreignness and incurred the very first waves of anti-Semitism. Even those who were not anti-Semitic describe them as exotic children:


Men who speak a language drier and rougher than desert sand (. . .) Their words crackle and pop or else grovel—guttural, nasal, and unintelligible. Sometimes these burly men play like children, pushing each other’s shoulders, run into the middle of the street, scream like dogs, and soon, once again, recover their stealth beat and carry on talking.7 


This ethnic mix changes the colors and sounds of the city. Twenty years after Ricardo Rojas and his fearful warnings, the process had imposed itself by force and had profoundly remade the public imagination, daily life, and politics. Immigrants brought with them trade unions and anarchism, too; it is these foreigners who foster the earliest socialist movements, movements whose leaders belong, on the other hand, to the university-going middle class. Political ideologies, forms of labor organization, strategies of struggle and mobilization, via unions and strikes, provide the elite still more cause for alarm. The Babel of foreign languages, changes in customs, strikes and workers movements, and the appearance of intellectuals of immigrant origin (very different phenomena nonetheless imagined to be related) are felt as threats to the nation’s cultural unity.

Public debate during the first three decades of the twentieth century revolve around the European origins of the Argentine racial mix and whether the cultural preeminence of the hispano-criollo elite ought to be preserved in the face of so much immigrant-induced disorder. What does it mean to be Argentinean? Who has the right to define the limits of this cultural field where everything is beginning to blur? Ricardo Güiraldes, Francophile and friend to Valéry Larbaud, a dandy and wealthy rural landowner, sensed the veiled threat in these questions. On the one hand, the gaucho, as national figure, had been transformed into a day laborer on large estates; the criollo virtues that had been conferred upon him were disappearing along with these mythological torch-bearers of Argentine nationality who, in reality, were used as cannon fodder during civil wars or pawns in political disputes between oligarchs. But, once the gaucho had disappeared, the foreigner could offer nothing but his foreignness. This defect formed the base upon which the future of Argentina had to be imagined.

Güiraldes writes the final novel of the “rural cycle.” His unique mark is that he writes about the gaucho theme with “the metaphors of the then current literary circles of Montmartre,” as Borges ironically pointed out. This wildly successful novel, Don Segundo Sombra, published in 1927, takes as its characters the last literary gauchos, the final protagonists to perform rural work with the cheerful disinterest of Homeric combatants. But the novel fails almost entirely to account for the presence of those immigrants who were already extending their houses across the plain. And when a foreigner is mentioned, it’s to say that he’s sold his daughter into prostitution. 

Flaneurs and Tramps

The heirs of the hispano-criollo elite felt that the nation’s racial, cultural, and linguistic “authenticity” was under fire. “Our city is called Babel,” Borges wrote in Inquisiciones (Inquisitions). Others, such as Oliverio Girondo, a fellow traveler of Borges and Güiraldes in their avant-garde crusade, took this loss of “authenticity” and molded it into a style. In the twenties, Girondo travels throughout Europe and compiles a book of poems about his stops along the way. To these European postcard-cities (Venice, Seville, Douarnez) he adds others from Buenos Aires, in which he laments not the loss of organicism or the absence of the past but rather looks to shed light on the fragmentation of the individual and his experience in the urban setting. Girondo’s solution to the question of foreignness consists of raising the bet: Europe is every bit as fragmentary, as dull as Buenos Aires; even when some corner of Europe appears excessively weighed down by history, Girondo introduces an ironic cue: in a Duchampian gesture, he situates a Spanish virgin next to a bidet. 

Arlt—a child of immigrants and hardly a member of the hispano-criollo elite—also took note of the foreignness that, anyway, was inscribed in his very name, which he himself knew to be unpronounceable according to Spanish phonetics. Arlt writes:


Buenos Aires has four recovas,8 four recovas that are refuges from misery, a display window onto vagrancy, the museum of poverty; four recovas that are like the four cardinal points of human misery; four recovas that are the cauldron of filth, the avenue of grime, the boulevard of squalor, the valley of the ragged, the Cosmopolitan Court of Miracles for the Lice-Stricken; four recovas but a singular sadness: that of empty pockets, that of women who’d lost their way, that of immigrants without hope, that of the defeated without any refuge.9


Arlt had a keen understanding of the contradictions of the cosmopolitan city: the fragmentation of subjectivities produced by the metropolitan shock, the experiences that resist translation, the collapse of any illusion of organicism. The city, which is literally full of people as never before, is not only the flâneur’s paradise, the shop window full of goods, the voyeur or the exhibitionist’s refuge of anonymity, but also a desert: a desolate place, where the abstract relations of a triumphant capitalism impose themselves upon the most archaic forms of community. One lives in “a desert embedded in the heart of the city.”10

Those roaming the streets are not always flâneurs, the chic, dandies, or artists; in the Buenos Aires of the thirties, the unemployed, the immigrants whose dreams went unfulfilled, their children, and the new migrants that begin to arrive not from Europe but from the countryside provinces also roam the streets. In Buenos Aires, it’s possible to feel not only fascination at this shock but also the solitude of the big cities where there are flâneurs, of course, who dominate the urban cultural landscape. But there are also those who roam the streets and experience ostracism and solitude because they are marginal figures within the great urban machine whose workings are ever more abstract. Pulsing, the market embraces to later cast out. It also reshapes popular culture. 

The Masses

In these same decades, the twenties and—above all—the thirties, there occur three fundamental events in modern popular culture: the spread of football as the national sport, which is rapidly professionalized; the implantation of radio and major dailies, the morning tabloids, sensationalist evening papers, full of illustrations; and the apogee of tango, which produces not only a repertoire of songs but also films and grand theatrical spectacles. All this speaks of the new masses that materially and symbolically begin to occupy urban space.

The subject of the masses (a topic first addressed by Ortega y Gasset in Spain, then introduced in Argentina in a great success) would become an obsession in pessimistic essays about the city. Ezequiel Martínez Estrada wrote two fundamental works about modern Argentina: Radiografía de la pampa (1933) and La cabeza de Goliat (1940). The first is an essay about the country’s historic formation since the Spanish conquest; the second deals with urban culture in Río de la Plata.

Martínez Estrada argued that Buenos Aires was the byproduct of the humus of the plains that surrounded it, that even the skyscrapers were successive layers of this clay and damp earth. As it grew, Buenos Aires disguised, through buildings that acted as masks, the pampa that was its origin and would be its destiny. Buenos Aires had swelled by superimposing, by addition, by metastasis, by filling in the empty spaces that, nonetheless, never quite fulfill their potential. A passage from Radiografía de la pampa reads:


Along the length of a single block, each building speaks a unique temporal language, of different economic cycles, different styles, which allow one to see, as in the earth’s strata, the cataclysms that it has experienced. (. . .) Next to the one-story houses, others of two stories; and between these, empty lots and skyscrapers twenty, thirty stories high that stretch skyward like the dominant ambition (. . .) A skyscraper on one block of low-rise buildings, next to lots that still retain their unspoiled grassland, is a sign of this very ambition and its opposite, a certain wreckage : the fracture in a stretch of land that is entirely developed. (. . .) Above the structure of one floor, which formed the earlier city, another city appears to have begun to be built. (. . .) In the beginning, the city was built atop the earth; today, one takes the ground floor as a foundation, and one-story homes become the empty lots for homes of two or more floors. For this reason, Buenos Aires maintains the structure of the pampa: it is the plains over which yet another plain is superimposed, as with sand or loess, over and over again.11


On these chaotic plains, the Spanish colony had been nothing more than an extended enterprise dedicated to plunder. And immigration, Martínez Estrada averred, brought its desire for profit, its unbridled ambition, its immediatist impulse, the malevolent heterogeneity of those who had lost their roots.

Stylistically and culturally, the heterogeneous city is viewed as undesirable disorder. Victoria Ocampo claimed for Buenos Aires no longer the whimsical, picturesque landscapes of European villages that other intellectuals pined for but a pattern to its houses that alternated between the same set of stylistic features. In this heterogeneous city without the historical powers to contain and give order to its diverse elements, the masses soon become even more threatening. They consist not only of European immigrants but their children, and other migrants, the criollos and mestizos arriving from the countryside provinces to settle down on the edge of the city. Whoever they are, they are always unfamiliar multitudes who put their difference on parade.

By the 1940s, Buenos Aires, which believed itself a metropolis before it actually became one, had assumed the attributes intellectuals had learned to fear in modern societies: the masses live in the city, the city is the scene of the masses, this amorphous entity, ungovernable and unsubject to rules of reason or of morality; they give a glimpse of what, just a few years later, would become the Peronist multitudes.

The city, the stage for Peronism, has all the hallmarks of its metropolitan modernity and none of the political vicissitudes of the fifties and sixties could change this. Buenos Aires the city is already predominately white, surrounded by prosperous suburbs, working-class neighborhoods, and shantytowns. Modernity has made good on some of its promises while revealing its inequities and inherent conflicts.

End of an Era 

The end of this era arrives in 1976 with the military dictatorship. During these terrible years, the military promotes a vision for Buenos Aires that is technocratic, an authoritarian modernization, which begins with the expulsion of the poor and of migrants to the outer edges of the city center and reinforcement of material inequalities that divided the rich and poor areas of the city as never before. It is at this time that the highways that practically arrived at the city center are built, leaving deep wounds in the fabric of historical neighborhoods. The technification of the city is a powerful trend that continues to gain steam; some regions of Buenos Aires have been practically rebuilt according to the model of the urban, communication, and telecommunications advances of major metropoles of the end of the century.

Nevertheless, in the cultural and artistic imagination, the city is frequently viewed as a landscape of decay. The optimism of the elites at the end of the nineteenth century has given way to market forces in an urban space converted into the scene of big business. The elites near the end of the nineteenth century sought to shape a modern city for a population that was to arrive from Europe. Their project had contributed to inclusiveness, even if their modernization came from on high, buoyed by the rationale that these immigrant masses would receive an education that would transform them into citizens. 

Capitalism, in its current form, lacks protagonists with this level of political and cultural consciousness that melds reformist impulse with authoritarianism. The urban market is not a public square. Capital doesn’t defend cities, it defends business interests in those cities.

In the face of such changes, the city that sought a homogeneous and European identity does not recognize itself in the masses of the poor—be they Argentineans or citizens of neighboring countries—who occupy the neighborhoods along its periphery and the decaying streets of the city center. Buenos Aires has been fractured in a way that reveals itself much more easily than the divide between a rich north and a poor southern region. In a memorable short story, Borges wrote that to cross into the city’s southern region was to enter another dimension in time. Today, the city’s southern region is Buenos Aires’s other face, the one shown to tourists, where locals take their foreign visitors. 

On the other hand, Borges’s never-ending orillas, which soon became shantytowns or were transformed into working-class neighborhoods, are today a no man’s land of violence and unemployment. Buenos Aires, the proud city that mixed European models, has arrived at its “South American destiny,” with gated communities that serve as refuge to the affluent, millionaire ghettoes, and a historic center that is part slum.

The city is a historic map. Atop the optimistic blueprint of the nineteenth century, atop the monuments and public buildings of its glory days, there now appears a new system of highways and digital information networks. The new foreigners in this city are the poor—Asian immigrants, the rural dwellers expelled from their hometowns by unemployment. The Buenos Aires of the nineties is going through evident transformations: the greatest of these is the exodus from the city to the suburbs by the economic elites and those from the middle rungs who have managed to adapt to the city’s neoliberal transformation; secondly, the transformation of the city center into tourist attraction (where major international hotels now stand), the “museumification” of parts of the city chosen for their picturesque visuals, their prior inhabitants evicted by beautification projects, and areas of total decay where street vendors abound alongside the homeless and those excluded from the job market.

The city is the recipient of large-scale international investments that make use of the city’s past as decoration; along with these capitalist enterprises, the expansion of decaying regions, where urban technification and architectural postmodernism have yet to arrive. Some of the traditionally vibrant neighborhoods of Buenos Aires have entered decline: there we find hotels serving migrants from the provinces or other corners of Latin America, old houses in ruins yet to be discovered by some developer interested in recycling them, second-class city services, a lack of security. 

What has brought this cycle to a definitive end is the very idea of the city as a cruel and seductive place stimulating to all sorts of innovation. The city is no longer viewed a desirable scene. The imagination is captured by a sort of country kitsch, according to which gated communities carry names that evoke the hispano-criollo past in modest lots of two hundred square yards, or become deterritorialized amid enormous suburban shopping centers peppered along major highways. Between the country kitsch neighborhoods and the globalized camp of the shopping malls, Buenos Aires is host to a continuum of eight million inhabitants.

But no one can any longer accuse the city of imitating Paris, a city that jealously guards its status as such, in the same way Manhattan and Berlin do. The European exile has come to an end. Now, in all likelihood, the image of paradise is some American suburb. And the foreigners here today are split between Latin America’s poor and tourists crisscrossing the northern part of the city, their handy guides at the ready to inform them that Buenos Aires is America’s most European city.


1. See Adrián Gorelik and Graciela Silvestri, “El pasado como futuro. Una utopía reactiva en Buenos Aires,” in Punto de Vista #41, April 1992.

2. See Adrián Gorelik, La grilla y el parque, Bernal, Universidad Nacional de Quilmes, 1998; and Miradas sobre Buenos Aires, Buenos Aires, Siglo XXI, 2004.

3. Roberto Arlt, “Corrientes, por la noche," El Mundo, 26 de mayo de 1929, found in Aguafuertes porteñas. Buenos Aires, vida cotidiana (selection and prologue by Sylvia Saítta), Buenos Aires, Alianza, 1993, p. 33.

4. Katherine S. Dreier, Five Months in the Argentine from a Woman’s Point of View; 1918 to 1919, New York, Fredric Fairchild Sherman, 1920, p. 13.

5. See Gonzalo Aguilar, Buenos Aires ready-made (Marcel Duchamp en Argentina, 1918-1919), Buenos Aires, Ediciones del Pirata, 1996; and Marcel Duchamp, Milan, Bompiani, 1993 (Exhibition Catalog from Venice, 1993).

6. Ricardo Rojas, La restauración nacionalista, Buenos Aires, Imprenta de la Penitenciaría, 1910.

7. Roberto Arlt, “Sirio libaneses en el centro,” El Mundo, July 23, 1933, in Aguafuertes porteñas. Buenos Aires, vida cotidiana, op. cit., pp. 89-90.

8. Recovas are covered markets or storefronts situated beneath arcade walkways. They once dotted the landscape of Buenos Aires and are considered emblems of the city.

9. Roberto Arlt, “Las cuatro recovas,” El Mundo, January 17, 1929, in Aguafuertes porteñas. Buenos Aires, vida cotidiana, op. cit., p. 12.

10. Roberto Arlt, “El desierto en la ciudad,” El Mundo, January 26, 1929, in Aguafuertes porteñas. Buenos Aires, vida cotidiana, op. cit., p. 16.

11. Ezequiel Martínez Estrada, Radiografía de la pampa (ed. Leo Pollmann), Madrid, Colección Archivos, 1991 [1933], pp. 149-150.

"Buenos Aires: Exílio de Europa" © 2007 by Beatriz Sarlo. By arrangement with the publisher. Translation © 2018 by Eric M. B. Becker and Julia Tomasini. All rights reserved.

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