Buenos Aires: a City’s Power and Promise

The stylish and affordable capital of Argentina has become a big hit with growing numbers of foreigners

Buenos Aires' colorful Boca neighborhood. (Anibal Greco / WPN)
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The Escuela Mecánica de la Armada (ESMA), the most notorious of the roughly 340 detention and torture sites in Argentina during the dictatorship years, also serves as an unofficial memorial. Of the approximately 5,000 prisoners who passed through its gates, only around 200 survived. Human rights organizations are working alongside officials to turn part of the ESMA site into a museum of state-sponsored terrorism. To see the former navy school, a visitor must join a scheduled tour. It conveys the horror of the dictatorship years. There are rooms where prisoners were tortured and drugged before their "death flights," and rooms where women gave birth to babies who were then taken away and placed with families sympathetic to the military regime.

It was on his first day in the city that Wulsin, the New York City transplant, came across another notorious site—the Caseros Prison. "I had no idea what it was, but I quickly saw how the building had this really powerful effect on its surroundings," he recalls. "It spanned an entire block, rose 22 stories over a residential neighborhood where most of the buildings are two or three stories." When he learned of its sordid history—and that the building was set to be demolished—he conceived an ambitious art project. By strategically smashing the panes in the prison's large windows, he created what appeared to be 48 large faces over 18 stories. Wulsin's project now lives on in photographs and is to be featured in a documentary movie. Pablo Videla, a political activist who was imprisoned by the junta for ten years, serving two months in that building, praises Wulsin's work precisely because it symbolized how inmates were kept in the dark. The project, he says, seems to "bring out the faces of those of us who were inside."

Even popular culture has begun to probe the dictatorship years. In 2006, a prime-time TV soap opera, "Montecristo," an adaptation of Alexandre Dumas' The Count of Monte Cristo, riveted viewers with a plot that drew on the repression. "I had never seen the years of military dictatorship talked about so openly," says Maricel Lobos, a 31-year-old Argentine who watched the show. "It was exciting."

"Television doesn't open new doors," says Oberti, the activist. "These shows can only be done at a time when people are willing to talk about these issues."

Buenos Aires is, in fact, a favorite film and television locale. According to official figures, more than 1,000 commercials were shot in the city in 2007 and 2008, half for overseas markets. Richard Shpuntoff, a 44-year-old filmmaker who moved to Buenos Aires from the Bronx in 2002, works as a script translator and on-set interpreter. "The commercials allow the technical people to make a living," Shpuntoff says, "so they can then work on smaller, independent productions."

In 2008, the director Francis Ford Coppola filmed Tetro in Buenos Aires, about an Italian immigrant family in the city. A local production company built a version of Wisteria Lane just outside the city, where the Argentine, Colombian and Brazilian versions of "Desperate Housewives" were filmed. And Dutch producers found the city's landscapes so enticing they filmed a television series here—"Julia's Tango," about four Dutch women who work at a bed-and-breakfast in the Palermo neighborhood, haunt of the great Argentine writer and poet Jorge Luis Borges.

The city's speedy evolution is also evident on the culinary scene. Nicolas Vainberg, a Buenos Aires native, left the city in 1996 and lived in the United States for eight years, mostly in Hawaii and Los Angeles, working in the service industry. Then he sold his house in California and returned to put the proceeds into a restaurant and martini bar, Mosoq, which he runs with his wife, who is Peruvian. They serve what could be described as modern Peruvian cuisine—white fish sashimi marinated with passion-fruit juice, cannelloni made with purple corn. A decade ago, he recalls, "All the restaurants had pretty much the same menu." By now, he says, "the restaurant scene has changed dramatically."

As for the art world, Argentina's richest woman, María Amalia Lacroze de Fortabat, recently opened the door to her collection in a new museum in the old Puerto Madero neighborhood, where the city's most expensive condos, apartments and opulent hotels tower above riverside streets lined with pricey restaurants. The Fortabat Museum houses works by well-known international artists, such as Pieter Bruegel, J.M.W. Turner and Andy Warhol, as well as Argentine artists, including Antonio Berni and Xul Solar.

The other major, newly accessible collection, the privately owned Malba, founded by local magnate Eduardo Costantini, holds a permanent collection of Latin American works by the likes of Frida Kahlo and Fernando Botero. And then there's Appetite, a four-year-old avant-garde gallery in the San Telmo neighborhood.

Tamara Stuby is a 46-year-old artist from Poughkeepsie, New York, who moved to Buenos Aires in 1995 and married an Argentine artist with whom she runs a program called El Basilisco, which houses various artists for ten weeks. "It's a fantastic place to live and work," Stuby says of the city.


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