In the late 19th century, a powerful group of politicians and intellectuals known as “The Generation of the Eighties” incorporated Argentina into a world economy dominated by the British Empire. The early decades of the 20th century witnessed the transformation of the social and economic foundations of the country. Administrative and educational reforms were implemented during the modernization process. Immigration and the movement of the rural population to the city generated the rapid growth of metropolitan areas. Concurrently, an ideological break with the Spanish colonial past generated a cultural identification with the ideas of the French Enlightenment. As a result of a widespread cultural debate between what was understood as civilization and progress versus barbarism and savages, the larger cities of the country, particularly Buenos Aires, were transformed by boulevards, parks, avenues, and building following the Beaux-Arts tradition.
In Argentina, modernization was implemented by conservative political powers. The ruling class was confronted with the dilemma of how to incorporate new ideas and how to deal with an unprecedented situation of quick institutional change and demographic diversity and growth. This situation generated a reaction in some sectors of society for the need to preserve the Hispanic past. Consequently, in the first two decades of the 20th century, parallel to an architectural production dominated by French-educated architects such as Alejandro Christophersen, the first attempts to generate a national style were developed.
Martin Noel adopted a neo-Colonial style in his own residence, today the Museum Fernandez Blanco of Iberoamerican Art (1924). The neo-Colonial style also produced the Cervantes Theater (1922) by Aranda and Repetto and the Bank of Boston (1924) by Paul Bell Chambers and Louis Newbery Thomas with a facade inspired by the Spanish renaissance. The search for authentic cultural roots and a national style was the first attempt to examine architectural patrimony and to systematically preserve local culture.
The first part of the 20th century was also characterized by other reactions against Beaux-Arts and academic canons. Art Nouveau appeared through varied manifestations including Catalan modernism in Rosario by Francisco Roca Simó and in Buenos Aires by Julián Garcia Nuñez with the notable Spanish Hospital (1906). Other architects who embraced Italian influences include Mario Palanti, Francisco Gianotti, and Virgilio Colombo.
The 1925 International Exhibition of Decorative Arts in Paris signaled a shift in taste identified with new materials and architectural types, such as cinemas, bars, banks, and hotels. In Buenos Aires, Alejandro Virasoro’s House of Theater (1927), Santander Bank (1929), and the Equitativa del Plata office building (1929) are key examples of this tendency. Also important is the Opera Cinema (1936) by Alberto Bourdon.
The transition between Art Deco and Argentinian rationalism is exemplified in Rosario, with La Comercial de Rosario (1939), a building for offices, a theater, and apartments by De Lorenzi, Otaola, and Rocca, and the Company of Industry and Commerce Headquarters (1939) by Arman and Todeschini.
When the military regime of Uriburu took power in 1930, conservative and authoritarian tendencies desired to build a national identity strong enough to overcome the diverse mosaic of traditions brought by immigration. Parallel to these efforts, the transformation of urban culture and new minimum standards of living marked the transition from the dominance of academic and historicist styles to rational architecture. Rationalism hence in the 1930s acquired a progressive connotation and increasingly became a formal modernist alternative adopted even by architects with a traditional academic education.
Exemplary works in this period in Buenos Aires include the Comega Building (1932) by Enrique Douillet and Alfredo Joselevich, the Safico (1934) by Walter Moll, and the Kavanah building (1936) by Sanchez, Lagos, and de la Torre. Broadly considered a masterpiece of the period, the Kavanah’s refined Art Deco interiors were influenced by Chicago’s skyscrapers but remained attentive to local characteristics, adaptation to the site, and innovative technology. Another modernist landmark is the Cinema Rex (1937) by Alberto Prebish.
In Córdoba, representative of the period is the Sudamerica Building (1938) by Jaime Roca and Vilar, Sarmiento School (1940) by Juárez Cáceres, and the Allende House (1936) by Roca.
Argentina also manifests some of the earliest critiques of modernist stylization. The Austral Group, in its manifesto Will and Act ion (1939), declared that “present architecture is in a critical moment and lacking the spirit of the initiators.” The group denounced the use of academicism and so-called narrow-minded functionalism. The Austral Group was composed of Bonet, Ferrari Hardoy, Kurchan, Le Pera, Ungar, and Zalba. Representative of the manifesto’s position are the ateliers and housing for artists (1939) in Buenos Aires by Bonet, Lopez Chas, and Vera Ramos, characterized by the use of Mediterranean vaults, rich materials, and tectonic variations.
In the 1940s, Peron initiated a plan of industrial production for Argentina. World War II promoted the industrial development of the country, and architecture became oriented toward social welfare. Public work was directed to the areas of education, housing, and health. It was only after World War II that International Style modernism gained dominance. Between 1942 and 1944, the Austral Group published three influential issues of the magazine Tecné, pursuing a modernism connected to landscape, climate, and regional construction materials. An important work of this decade was the Apartment (1942) in Virrey Del Pino, Belgrano, by Kurchan and Ferrari Hardoy, in which the architects incorporated a growing tree into the facade.
At the same time, Amancio Williams, with a rigorous and purist aesthetic, created two masterpieces: the House Over the Brook (1945) in Mar del Plata and studies for a Suspended Office Building Project (1946). In the late 1940s, the influential organic group Metron, composed of Tedeschi, Sacriste, Vivanco, Caminos, and Borgato, was created in Tucumán. Critical of the International Style for its negation of the past and regional architecture, Metron’s ideas were promulgated by Eduardo Sacriste’s site- and landscapebased works, including Barrio Jardin Elementary School (1947) and the Gómez Omil House (1951).
The most representative work of this period is the project, in 1953, for the General San Martin Theater (1960) in Buenos Aires by Mario Roberto Alvarez and Ruiz.
In the 1950s and early 1960s, institutional works were inspired by Le Corbusier’s Unite d’Habitation apartment complex in Marseilles (1952). Le Corbusier’s curtain wall, free plan, pilotis, and sculptural terraces are the dominant features of the Encotel Post Office and Auditorium (1955) in Buenos Aires by Jose Spencer and the Municipal Building (1954) in Córdoba by the group SEPRA: Sánchez Elía, Peralta Ramos, and Agostino. The Civic Center of La Pampa (1956) by Testa, Davinovic, Gaido, and Rossi shows the influence of Le Corbusier’s Parliament building in Chandigarh, India.
As an alternative to the International Style, the Church of Our Lady of Fátima (1957) in Martinez (state of Buenos Aires) by Caveri and Ellis reinterpreted regional typologies and materials.
One of the most important studios of the 1960s and 1970s is Mario Roberto Alvarez and Associates. Representatives of the professionalism of the group are the Cultural Center Buenos Aires City (1970) and SOMISA (1975), the headquarters for the steel company owned by the state. Two seminal pieces of the 1960s are the project for the National Library (project, 1961; construction, 1972–92) by Clorindo Testa and the sculptural Bank of London (1966) by Testa, Sánchez Elía, Peralta Ramos, and Agostini. This bank is considered a masterpiece of Brutalist architecture.
Since the 1960s, the application of new technology and processes of construction characterized proposals such as the Hospital (1963) in Oran, Salta, by Llauró-Urgell and Associates. This hospital creates a microclimate within a basic module, allowing for expansion and, eventually, change of functions.
The 1970s were characterized by a series of relevant competitions, including the project for the Auditorium of Buenos Aires City (1972), a complex of organic fragments, by Baudizzone, Erbin, Lestard, Varas, Díaz. Moreover, the Civic Center (1971) for San Juan by Antonini, Schon, Zemborain and Associates explored flexibility and modules. In addition, several competitions for skyscrapers were held in Catalinas Norte in Buenos Aires. The most interesting response is the Conurban building (1973) by Kocourek SRL. The facade of the building is adapted to the climate and the orientations. The building for ATC (Argentinean Color TV) by Manteola, Sánchez Gómez, Santos, Solsona, and Viñoly is considered the most relevant example of the late 1970s for its integration with the context and the resolution of complex functional requirements.
In the wake of the military government years, the 1980s were characterized by diverse tendencies, ranging from the search for a rediscovery of Latin American connections to the revalorization of the urban heritage to architecture as aesthetic experience only. However, the enriching possibilities opened by a Postmodern condition also brought frivolity and superficiality. José Ignacio Díaz contributed since the 1970s to transform and enrich the urban character of Córdoba, the second-largest city in the country. Using the characteristic brick construction material of the city, Diaz designed and built more than 120 residential buildings. In the public sector, Miguel Roca’s proposal for Córdoba’s center and neighborhoods produced cultural centers and pedestrian malls and recuperated the river.
The 1990s continued the multiplicity of architectural tendencies. The playfulness and acceptance of many influences of this period are shown by the hybrid architecture of Testa, particularly in his complex at the Recoleta Cultural Center (1994). The intention to insert new architecture without disrupting the urban was demonstrated in Córdoba by the Nuevocentro Shopping (1990) by Gramática, Guerrero, Morini, Pisani, Rampulla, and Urtubey. This group also designed the new Justice Palace of Córdoba (1998).
The 1990s was also characterized by a new care for tectonics and finesse in details, as in the work of the Studio Benadon, Berdichevsky, and Cherny, particularly in the Organon Argentina offices (1997) in Bajo Belgrano and the CAPSA, Capex, offices (1997) in Vicente Lopez.
Popular architecture, environmental issues, hybridization, identity, regionalism, and rehabilitation, all involving both practical and poetic considerations, have been the dominant elements of Argentinean architecture in the last 20 years. In a country where economic and cultural dependence is still debated, the late decades have been marked by an architecture more responsive to ecological and social concerns and the search for the appropriate use of technology with local resources. The tension between these local concerns and its universal vocation makes the architecture of the 20th century in Argentina one of the most vital and interesting in the world.
Sennott R.S. Encyclopedia of twentieth century architecture, Vol.1. Fitzroy Dearborn., 2005.