Archive for the Latin America category

November 20th, 2012

Architects Who Understand


The Venice Biennale of Architecture closes this week, which has given me opportunity to think back to its opening days in late August. I was there to cover the Hong Kong exhibition, but I had a bit of time to soak up the rest of the show. It was big, unruly and dramatically uneven, but it was clear enough that this year’s curator, British architect David Chipperfield, was eager to capture the zeitgeist of grassroots urbanism and do-it-yourself architecture. The theme, “Common Ground,” was meant to reflect the importance of everyday urban environments, which are “created in collaboration with every citizen,” according to Chipperfield.

But Venice is not a city that embraces change, and neither does its biennale. Big names and established players still dominated the event. This year’s show “mostly just glides over issues like public housing and health, the environment, informal settlements, economic decline and protest,” wrote New York Times critic Michael Kimmelman. “It suggests above all an uncertainty about how to unpack, evaluate, present and tame the messy, multilayered social, political, economic and architectural processes that go into making good buildings and places today.”

Austrian architect Wolf Prix went even further than Kimmelman and savaged this year’s biennale for promoting “compromise” with authorities instead of outright resistance to the status quo. “It is no longer about lively discussion and criticism of topics in contemporary architecture, but rather about empty, conservative and perhaps populist shells that are charged with feigned meaning,” he wrote.


September 23rd, 2012

COB on Calle Florida

Posted in Latin America by Christopher Szabla

It may share a name with a certain sedated, semitropical retirement home of a state to its north, but nowhere is the raw verve of Buenos Aires more palpable than on Calle Florida. In a city of Brobdingnagian boulevards, it’s as claustrophobic as an Istanbul alley. Whereas most of Argentina’s capital is a blend of French and Spanish architectural influences, buildings in the Microcentro, the dense commercial district that the street burrows through, seem to display more than a dash of Manhattan. And then there’s the frenetic foot traffic, as close as anywhere in South America comes to Tokyo.

The pedestrian mall is thronged for most of the day by window-shoppers, street performers, and cube farmers hunting for lunch, striding past and stepping over street vendors — at least, until many were removed by the city, earlier this year — crouched on the ground, where their wares, mostly native handicrafts, are spread out, rare connections to the continent in which Buenos Aires has often been accused of acting as if it’s accidentally gone astray.

On Calle Florida, especially — in so many other ways like so many other places bundled into one — it can seem that being anywhere other than caught in the crosswinds of global commerce is just a detail to be ignored. A harried commuter, rushing home at the end of the day, might have never paused to glanced at all the unsold necklaces still laid out on the blankets that rolled, almost continuously, down the center of the street — and she might have never noticed when they were gone.


September 8th, 2012

Foreign Interventions in (Calle) Honduras

Posted in Art and Design, Latin America, Politics by Christopher Szabla

You can tell you’re in Palermo by the names of the streets: Guatemala, El Salvador, Costa Rica — every one of them running parallel to the Rio de la Plata a different Central American country. Together with the bright pastels and fluorescents of the buildings that line them, these calles give the Buenos Aires barrio a sort of carefree party vibe that transports you from sometimes grey, blustery, near-Antarctic Argentina to the tropics.

The wealthy district has also, like so many acronymed corners of New York, been subdivided by real estate neologisms: “Palermo Chico,” “Palermo Soho,” “Palermo Hollywood”. Calle Honduras runs between two of them — Palermo Hollywood, a sort of laid-back hangout for media types, and Palermo Viejo, the old heart of the neighborhood and center of its nightlife. When I wandered through in October 2010, I found signs at both ends of the street were not only plastered with an endless variety of stickers advertising local clubs and galleries, but hacked using a graffiti-like scrawl: “Honduras” (the signs omit “Calle”) had been changed to read “Honduras Resiste”.

At the time, it was clear to what the altered signs referred. For the past year, Honduras had been in crisis. Its populist president, Manuel Zelaya, attempted to hold a referendum on amending the constitution; opponents claimed it was an attempt to extend his term limits. But siding with many members of the government and Zelaya’s own party, the Supreme Court issued an injunction against the attempt for violating the constitution itself. On June 28, 2009, soldiers raided the presidential palace, seized the president, and flew him to exile in Costa Rica. Honduras immediately erupted in protest.


August 22nd, 2012

What is Street Food?

Posted in Asia Pacific, Food, Latin America, Public Space, Society and Culture by Christopher DeWolf


Robyn Eckhardt asks a deceptively simple question today on Eating Asia: what is street food? The answer seems obvious, because street food is food that is bought and consumed on the street. Pretzels? Okay. Noodle soups? Sure. Satay? Of course. But there’s more to it. Eckhart writes that, beyond location, the essence of street food comes from three crucial elements: “immediacy, proximity and specialization.”

It’s an interesting argument because it upends traditional notions of street food. Hong Kong’s dai pai dong are generally seen as street food, but when they serve two dozen tables with a menu of 50 dishes, they fail to meet any one of Eckhardt’s criteria. They’re outdoor restaurants more than anything else. By the same token, the hawker centres of Singapore and kopi tiam of Malaysia serve street food even if they are technically off-street food courts.

Last March, I found myself in Puerto Vallarta, a town in the Mexican state of Jalisco, which is where tequila and mariachi music come from. Vallarta is a balneario — a seaside resort town — and it was little more than an obscure fishing village until tourists began arriving in the middle of the twentieth century. But it’s a surprisingly pleasant place, without too much of the spring break tackiness associated with resorts like Cancun or Cabo San Lucas. It doesn’t take much effort to stray into neighbourhoods that feel pretty normal, and this being Mexico, normal means an abundance of street food. So much of what makes Mexican cuisine great — slow-cooked meats, hand-pressed tortillas, fresh herbs and condiments — lends itself to the immediacy, proximity and specialization of street food.


May 3rd, 2012

Au Café in Buenos Aires

Posted in Latin America, Public Space by Christopher Szabla

San Telmo

La Boca



March 28th, 2012

The Other Colors of La Boca

Posted in Art and Design, History, Latin America by Christopher Szabla

The rainbow-hued streetscape squats somewhere on nearly every postcard of Buenos Aires — those, that is, it doesn’t dominate — like some psychedelic, bizarro-world version of the city, a clownish counterpart to the stately Second Empire apartment houses lining the boulevards of Retiro and Recoleta. “The Paris of South America” this isn’t — La Boca, as the neighborhood it’s located in is called, owes its architectural lineage to instead to Genoa, whose sons disembarked on the dirty banks of the Riachuelo River, south of the city center — only now being tidied up after two centuries of industrial effluence and studied neglect — during the 19th century. Throwing up wood and sheet metal tenements plastered in the paint colors left over from nearby shipyards, they promptly set out to build a distinctly different Buenos Aires.

Long before Jorge Luis Borges complained about the forced Gallicization of his native city, La Boca was a world apart from the rest of the city. As journalist José Ceppi, nom de plume Aníbal Latino, wrote in his book Argentinos y europeos, in 1888:

[C]ommunication [between La Boca and the rest of Buenos Aires] is convenient, easy, fast, continuous, by tramway and by rail, and yet [the neighborhood] has a character so different, so special, seems to be fifty miles away. Many, even in Buenos Aires, speak of La Boca as if it were out of town, not a neighborhood that is a few steps from the main square. The contrast derives from the different architecture of its houses — and more still, the nature, character, and morals of its inhabitants.

A “few steps from the main square” (the current Plaza de Mayo) was an exaggeration, but the cultural divide Ceppi noted was not. In 1882, the neighborhood had even seceded, briefly, from Argentina, raising above the neighborhood the Genovese flag. The attempt to make the rotten-smelling but riotously colorful slum the continent’s first Italian city-state had to be repressed with a show of arms.

Today’s invaders are more likely to be led by tour guides than military commanders, blithely oblivious to the crumbling destitution of most of La Boca barrio, stumbling through that postcard street — the Caminito — and packing another, Magellanes, which overflows with overpriced food and drink. Because of this incursion, there are really three Bocas: the brightly-painted, two-block tourist cloister at the neighborhood’s heart is one. Another is the greyscaled dirge of urban poverty that stretches to the barrio boundaries, encompassing burnt-out cars, homeless encampments, and streets with enough potholes to no longer qualify as “paved”. The third awkwardly straddles the chasm between them — a transitional region of slowly decaying storefronts and brightly painted tavernas alike.


March 5th, 2012

Graffiti Republic

Posted in Art and Design, Latin America, Politics, Public Space by Christopher Szabla


Before Greece erupted into riots against austerity measures, before the sit-ins that convulsed public squares across Spain, long before 2011’s tumultuous protests against world financial systems began “kicking off everywhere“, things had long since kicked off in Argentina. The 2001 protests that gripped the country during its madcap financial crisis offered a sort of preview of what was to come to Europe and — to a lesser, tamer extent — North America, ten years later. So, too, many writers have claimed, did it appear to offer lessons for the future of crisis-battered debtor nations.

The paint-splattered walls of central Buenos Aires, at least, still seem alive with the spirit of the dramatic standoffs that convulsed the Argentine capital over a decade ago, when they famously forced President Fernando de la Rúa to flee from the Casa Rosada, Argentina’s presidential palace, by helicopter. In the streets that border and radiate from the Plaza de Mayo, the country’s nexus of power, graffiti suffused with the economic themes that resonated in 2001 continues, after regular rounds of angry demonstrations, to climb the walls of even the most stately banks and government office buildings. Not even the Cabildo, a historic landmark that was the center of colonial government in the city, is spared; its freshly-restored facade is one of protest graffiti artists’ favorite targets.

Long after still-frequent demonstrations recede, the remaining graffiti renders the heart of the city redolent with palpable, present anger. The visual contrasts — incensed slogans set against the neighborhood’s slickly-suited crowds of commuters and imperious, alabaster edifices — suggest something akin to Occupy Wall Street, but the effect, particularly in its semipermanence, is far more intimidating than anything recent New York protests managed to muster. It’s as if militant slogans only slightly less charged than those that have crawled onto facades of cities linked to the uprisings of the Arab Spring had suddenly appeared in an environment that looks more like Washington or Whitehall.


February 28th, 2012

This Year in Havana

Posted in Heritage and Preservation, Latin America by Christopher DeWolf

Havana sunset

If there’s any time to visit Havana, it’s now. After a half century preserved in the formaldehyde of American sanctions and a state-controlled economy, the Cuban capital is set for a remarkable transformation. Private property was legalized last November and the government has offered construction subsidies, which could spell the end for Havana’s long era of romantic decay. The New York Times is already reporting on a “real estate fever” sparked by the reforms. Meanwhile, the United States has loosened travel restrictions for Americans with family in Cuba, and goods and money have been pouring into the country at an unprecedented rate — not tourist money, but intra-family cash that is often injected straight into home improvements, consumer goods and fledgling private enterprises.

morning run


November 7th, 2011

Photos of the Week: Shadow Life

Posted in Latin America by Christopher DeWolf

This week’s photos were taken in São Paulo by Hudson Rodrigues.


October 28th, 2011

Visualizing Globalization 2.0

Posted in Art and Design, Asia Pacific, Europe, Latin America, United States by Christopher Szabla

Top: Istanbul airlifted to the beaches of Rio de Janeiro;
Bottom: São Paulo set in Cappadocia

Imagine this: you’re walking down a side street in Midtown Manhattan and turn onto Fifth Avenue, facing uptown. But there, instead of the void of sky that usually greets the vista north toward Central Park, a massive mountain blocks the view, crowned with an uncharacteristic religious symbol. Then it strikes you: you’ve seen this rocky mass before. It looks every bit like Rio de Janeiro’s Corcorvado peak, topped with its famous statue of Christ the Redeemer. And that’s because it is Rio’s Corcorvado mountain — moved right into the heart of New York.

Welcome to the world of Ciro Miguel. The São Paulo architect spends his spare time dreaming up landscapes in which familiar urban landmarks from around the world collide. The images he’s kitbashed together are his own; most involve elements from his home country, Brazil, or New York, where he was a graduate student. Others encompass his world travels. It’s in the way Miguel’s collages represent the places and ways many travel now, in fact — reflecting trends in trade and politics driven by globalization — that they can be seen as more than mere dreamscapes, representing connections and evoking experiences that have become very real.


September 11th, 2011

September 11th Street

Posted in History, Latin America, Society and Culture by Christopher Szabla

Between Avenidas Juramento and Olazábal, Calle 11 de Setiembre — September 11th Street — is one of the most beautiful in the upscale Buenos Aires barrio of Belgrano. Its trees arch over the rooflines of multistory apartment buildings, meeting above the middle of the street to form a cavernous, emerald archway that resembles the nave of a cathedral. No wonder visitors to Buenos Aires’ tiny Chinatown, along the congested stretch of Calle Arribeños one block north, often choose to float back to the Subte station on Avenida Cabildo via this pretty street with an improbably weighty name.

The stuff of rote history lessons — caudillos, dates, and battles — makes up many Buenos Aires toponyms, but in this corner of Argentina’s capital, they seem especially heavy with historical references. The next streets south are named 3 de Febrero (the date of a victory in battle over Spanish forces during the Argentine War of Independence) and Calle O’Higgins (for Bernardo O’Higgins, liberator and national hero of Chile). Nearby Calle Cuba, a once surely neutral name, now invites little but political and historical associations. Intersecting each is Calle Franklin D. Roosevelt.

But September 11th Street stands out among them as the most pregnant with meaning. In Latin America, as critics of US foreign policy pointed out in the years after September 11, 2001, the date held sinister connotations long before the attacks: on that day in 1973, a CIA-sponsored coup toppled the elected Chilean government of Salvador Allende, ushering in Augusto Pinochet’s military dictatorship. That’s not been forgotten in neighboring Argentina, even if Buenos Aires has its own reasons to recall September 11th — a date of significance more than once in the city’s past.


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.


June 8th, 2011

Photos of the Week: Three Streets

Posted in Latin America by Christopher DeWolf

San Cristobal de Las Casas, Chiapas, Mexico.
Photo by Christopher Canning


May 1st, 2011


Posted in Europe, Latin America, South Asia, Video by Christopher Szabla
YouTube Preview Image
Megatransecting Mexico City

In 1999, American biologist J. Michael Fay set out on a project to map and survey the vegetation of Africa’s entire Congo River basin. Heavily promoted by National Geographic as “The Megatransect,” Fay’s feat involved 455 days of walking across 3,200 miles of largely untamed territory. Biologists had actually been using the term “transect” to describe such surveys since the late 19th century, but Fay’s epic-scale journey brought it widespread public recognition. In 2004 and 2005, he and Geographic extended the brand by conducting a “Megaflyover” of Africa, taking photos every 20 seconds during a 60,000 mile plus journey in a small bush plane.

Legendary as the natural surveys of explorer-biologists like Darwin and Alexander von Humboldt are, expeditions like theirs — and Fay’s — are increasingly rare now that most of “the field” has been crossed and recrossed. Geographers have turned their attention toward changes, rather than gaps, in maps of the earth’s surface — particularly those with less than natural causes. So it’s unsurprising that they have become fixated on the sites of the most intense human population growth and activity — cities. By 2008, urban centers contained, for the first time, over half the world’s people.

YouTube Preview Image
A long, long walk through London