August 29th, 2011

Looking for Life in Puerto Madero

Posted in Architecture, Latin America, Public Space, Society and Culture by Christopher Szabla

The walk from the Plaza de Mayo, the political heart of Buenos Aires, to Puerto Madero, its redeveloped waterfront, begins inauspiciously. Cars barrel down multilane boulevards devoid of people; a weed-strewn lot slated to become a monument to the country’s deeply-loved former president, Juan Perón, lies unconvincingly fallow.

Then there are the railroad tracks severing most of the city from the streets near the sea: Puerto Madero’s redevelopment was accompanied by the construction of a new light rail line, helping turn this frustrating barrier into a vital transit link. But here, in the hostile borderland between B.A.’s bustling Microcentro and the waterfront, the ominous sight of Puerto Madero Station inspires little confidence, its relatively new platform facing tracks overgrown by weeds.

The unused station was not meant to serve the light rail line, which blasts past it, but a half-built commuter rail restoration that had never entirely got off the ground. The sight of the overgrown tracks, encapsulating the miserable fate of much of Argentina’s older, conventional rail network — a once sterling, nationwide system now reduced to a few rump lines around the capital — illustrates exactly the sort of broader decline in national prestige that Puerto Madero’s rise was meant to help reverse. However ambitious those intentions, though, they hardly make it less disconcerting that Puerto Madero Station, spotless in its desertion, serves as an appropriate introduction to Buenos Aires’ newly built-up waterfront itself.

At first glance, it’s striking how closely Buenos Aires’ redeveloped docklands resemble London’s, but it should come as little surprise. Like Argentina’s railroads, the wharves and warehouses of the original port were products of the informal imperialism British commercial interests once exercised over the country. Many of the original, redbrick structures were not only built at the same time as and resemble earlier incarnations in London or Liverpool; many were, in fact, designed by the same British engineer, Sir John Hawkshaw.

The new district is a slick and glassy paean to restrained postmodernity; juxtaposed with the restoration of the buildings that once lay at the heart of the Argentina’s export economy, it seems conjured — by replicating the methods and aesthetics employed on similar waterfronts in Britain and elsewhere — to assert the claim that the country is reemerging as the competitive economic power it had been when the same docks brimmed with British merchants.

Puerto Madero has, in fact, been termed a “calling card” of Argentina’s economic aspirations. But visit, as I did, on a pleasant spring day and, despite ticking all the usual boxes on the ideal urban planning checklist — mixed-use development, al fresco cafes, quirky pieces of intriguing art and architecture (the Puente de la Mujer, a striking bridge by starchitect Santiago Calatrava, is the district’s centrepiece) — Puerto Madero’s streets seem sleepy, at best, relative to the bustle of much of the rest of the city.

Puerto Madero’s eager evocation of its first world antecedents ignores their most conspicuous failure — a universally stultifying sterility. The original Docklands can hardly match the hubbub of central London’s retail rows or street markets, no matter how many condo developments now intervene amid its once-homogeneous thicket of office towers. Boston’s Seaport District, where the neverending spread of parking lots is still as oceanic in feel as the adjacent harbor, is otherwise a cumbersome collection of empty, oversized streets and superblocks. Fearful of facing a similar fate, Hamburg took the extraordinary step of hiring psychologists to figure out how to lure people to its vast new waterfront district, HafenCity.

But Hamburg’s efforts aside, the character of these neighborhoods speaks to suppositions of what constitutes success that rarely privilege the teeming hubbub of thriving streets. Real estate development rarely requires a perfectly functional neighborhood to command high profit margins. Location, accessibility, vibe may be important, but reputation — and, significantly, symbolism — may mean more.

New neighborhoods launching fully-formed — particularly those that have “brought back to life” abandoned portlands or industrial districts, at least measured by vacancy rates or hoisted cranes — speak to a city’s economic potential and desirability. In troubled economies or ill-reputed regions in particular, glistening modernity focuses tourists’ cameras — and foreign businessmen’s eyes — away from decaying slums (or at least presents a healthy contrast to them, a function of which sterility can actually be an asset). These are the talismanic hopes, at least, in which the contrived, carbon-copy waterfront districts that have emerged around the world in the last few decades have all come wrapped.

They are also fairly uniform in their unprepossessing blandeur. And to the extent that their comatose condition isn’t merely a product of their newness, the designs of these new districts probably stem from the hope that risk-averse investors will be more likely to sign up for the familiar comforts of a standardized CBD. This is what Christopher DeWolf, critiquing the design for Hong Kong’s West Kowloon Cultural District, described as “plug-and-play urbanism,” representing “the city-as-international-airport: slick, comfortable, cosmopolitan, easy to enter and easy to leave”.

All of which means that the desire to give Buenos Aires an imprimatur of economic success has resulted in a cityscape that would be difficult to identify as anywhere particular on earth. Amble down one of Puerto Madero’s central allées — pedestrianized but deserted — and the adjacent glass buildings reflect only one another. It’s no wonder that one of the liveliest places I encountered in the neighborhood — the lobby of a chain hotel, filled with idling conventioneers — was indoors. It was a beautiful day, but, marooned in Puerto Madero (or was it HafenCity? Düsseldorf’s shimmering but lifeless “Media Harbor”? Redeveloped central Rotterdam, which sports a bridge practically indistinguishable from the Puente de la Mujer?) they appeared to see little reason to venture out.

Enhancing Puerto Madero’s importance as a mere symbol of success, the district has been stuffed with bulimically slim skyscrapers (so as to appear, it’s possible to infer, more soaring) whose impractical shapes better suggest prosperity than can create or sustain it. And still, business hasn’t taken root here; unlike many of the towers that populate London’s Canary Wharf, these buildings are filled with residents — at least on a part-time basis. They cater to affluent expats attracted to the city’s relative cheapness and lifestyle but who couldn’t stand for the “blaring horns and muffler-free engines” of the rest of the city. For this crowd, Puerto Madero is the perfect home away from home — sleek, clean, and new, in Buenos Aires but not of it. Like the abandoned station that bears its name, it is disconnected from many of the daily annoyances of urban Argentina.

Argentines have their own reasons to want Puerto Madero kept as a literal island of stability. Since their country’s 2001 financial crisis, Porteños have been increasingly haunted by the spectre of urban violence, and the midnight march of cartoneros — the poor attempting to make their living by sorting the garbage of dirtier districts — has long made many, especially consumers of the country’s sensationalist, “bleeds-and-leads” media, wary. Homelessness has become such a political flashpoint in Buenos Aires that, late last year, Argentina’s president, Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, accused the city’s mayor, Mauricio Macri, of setting up a highly visible squatters’ camp to embarrass her administration.

Fairly scant attention has been paid to the probable effect of this hysteria on the increasing segregation of Argentina’s capital. But its correlation with the curious remoteness of Puerto Madero is strong; despite opposition, Buenos Aires has continued debating the construction of an expressway on the strip of land between Puerto Madero and the city center, further limiting access on foot. Any talk of subway or bus extensions into the new neighborhood’s heart has been out of the question. Much as Puerto Madero itself may resemble parts of Sydney or San Francisco, its resulting isolation from the surrounding city invites comparisons Argentines would likely be less pleased to acknowledge — to, for example, the segregated, suburban business districts of Johannesburg.

I assumed that if there were any vibrant pockets to be found in Puerto Madero, they would be closest to the waterfront proper. After all, a view over the muddy channels of B.A.’s inner harbor was one thing; the vista across the Rio de la Plata, the vast estuary dividing Argentina from Uruguay, another. In a way, I was right: the life that eluded most of Puerto Madero could be found near the Rio’s salty tides. But what all the people enjoying the ambience on the district’s edge crowded along wasn’t a seawall — it was a swamp.

Much as the Reserva Ecológica Costenera Sur looks like an improbably unspoiled natural wetland, it was actually the unintended byproduct of failed real estate speculation. A 1970s scheme to develop the waterfront beyond Puerto Madero by reclaiming some of the Rio de la Plata was abandoned in 1984, but the result of the half-hearted filling that did occur was water shallow enough for plant life to begin taking hold. Within a few years, the zone began attracting animal species as well. Naturalists and bird-watchers began descending, followed by recreationists from the adjacent city — what was becoming a budding wildlife refuge was under a mile from central Buenos Aires. In 1986, it was officially given protected status.

Boardwalks enjoyed by joggers and cyclists now crisscross the reserve, which extends well beyond the original waterfront. But there, on the 19th century promenade that had lined the Rio de la Plata since Puerto Madero still serviced cargo ships, lively streetlife has endured. Part of that is undoubtedly thanks to the fact that the promenade now serves as a gateway to the reedy reserve, but, judging by the activity of most of the people along its length, at least as much credit is due to its unexpected street food scene — row after row of thronged parrillas.

The sprawling sidewalk eateries, dishing out grilled meat dishes popular in Argentina, spread out from small sheds, under awnings and clusters of umbrellas, sporting boisterous signs and multiple flags. Crowds, and music, spill from them; patrons congregate on colorful sets of tables and chairs nearby. Unlike the placeless urban masquerade presented by most of Puerto Madero, the interplay of the drippingly ornate lampposts that line the fin-de-siècle promenade and the shacks slapped together to form many of the parrillas leave little doubt where exactly in the world you are.

But it’s not only the rest of Puerto Madero to which the swampside parillas stand in contrast. Street food isn’t very common in the rest of Buenos Aires, either — it can be an elegant city, but a stuffy one as well, often immune to the charms of the rest of the country and continent. Jorge Luis Borges, perhaps the city’s most famous and yet reluctant resident, mourned the way so much of its early heritage had been swept away, in the early 20th century, in favor of architecture that has won the city praise for its “Parisian” ambiance. In this sense, Puerto Madero itself, especially considering the very literal distance it keeps from the rest of the country, is just the latest iteration of this long attempt of Buenos Aires to divorce itself from its Latin American reality.

Worldwide, multiplying, interchangeable redevelopments like Puerto Madero (like an earlier wave of imitated Paris avenues) show Buenos Aires has hardly been alone in its escapist yearning. But what life there is in Puerto Madero demonstrates that many cities’ slavish but insouciant reproductions of sterile commercial districts may help even the scales with their competitors, but ignore their much greater potential to stand out from them, on their own terms — with the help, and to the benefit, of those who actually live there. At street level, this and other urban redevelopments’ success may depend more on the release of the urban energies they’ve long sought to repress, rather than any Platonic ideal imposed from without.


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One comment

  1. Chris says:

    Been reading a lot about BA (we’re expats staying here for a few months), and this piece has more insight in it than everything else I’ve seen put together.

    December 23rd, 2011 at 8:28 pm