The vast majority of what visitors see in Buenos Aires today was built in the explosive period between 1880 and 1910, just after the city became the capital of Argentina, and in preparation for the country's Centennial.
As a result, very little of Buenos Aires's colonial heritage exists today, save for Cabildo and Catedral Metropolitana surrounding Plaza de Mayo, both of which have been altered dramatically over time, and several churches within Monserrat and San Telmo.
Instead of Spain, it was France to which Argentina looked when re-envisioning Buenos Aires. The idea was to adopt the principles that Baron Georges-Eugène Haussmann used in Paris to create a new Argentine capital. The Parisian concepts of diagonals, grand structures, parks, and vista points found their place all over the city.
Diagonal Norte and Diagonal Sur were also built. Diagonal Norte was completed in the 1930s and, as such, its buildings represent a mix of neoclassical and Art Deco elements. Each building is capped with a corner dome, creating a sweeping skyline meant to connect the Plaza de Mayo and the Casa Rosada to the Tribunales Building in Plaza Libertad.
The sprawling design of Diagonal Norte and Avenida de Mayo was meant to provide philosophical and physical connections between the executive, judicial, and legislative branches of government. This point was lost to a degree with the erection of the Obelisco, which blocked the view of the Tribunales, in 1936, marking the 400th anniversary of the first founding of the city.
The Obelisco sits in the oval Plaza de República, which was once the site of Iglesia de San Nicolás where the Argentine flag was first displayed on August 23, 1812. Like the Eiffel Tower in Paris, the Obelisco was hated by many when it was first built but has become the most important symbol of the city.
The grand architectural plans for Diagonal Sur never came to fruition. Though it began grandly, with the City Legislature Building, over time it became lined with buildings lacking distinction, and it has no vista point.
The widest boulevard in the world, Avenida 9 de Julio, was planned in 1888, but its construction didn't begin until the 1930s. It was built in stages, beginning with the center portion that exists today, and then widened by a street block on each side. What appears to be the grand entrance of Teatro Colón
today was once the back of the structure facing what was at the time only an obscure street.
Avenida 9 de Julio is incomplete. The grand expansion of the street that created the underground portions of Teatro Colón was to extend all the way to Avenida del Libertador. Ironically, the plan to redesign Buenos Aires to look like Paris would have meant the destruction of the Belle Epoque French Embassy.
France refused to sell the structure, and today this building remains a beautiful vista point at the boulevard's northern terminus and is a reminder of the neighboring neoclassical buildings that were destroyed here. At the southern end of the boulevard, the Health
Department building was too large a structure to demolish, so the boulevard simply circumvents it. It was from this building, looking out over Avenida 9 de Julio, that Evita gave the speech in which she renounced her candidacy for the vice presidency.
From one end to the other, with the Obelisco as its fulcrum, the grand boulevard seems out of kilter, the low-rise buildings that line it out of balance with its expanse, remaining to this day a testament to ambitious plans that could never be entirely fulfilled.
As the streets were rebuilt, grand plans were announced to build what were to become the city's most iconic structures. The first of these was the Water Palace, originally designed in 1877 to provide the city with a clean water supply, in response to the yellow fever epidemic raging through San Telmo.
But as wealthy residents erected mansions adjacent to the site and the city poised itself to become the capital of the country, what had been meant merely as a structure for water pumps was transformed into an exquisite, high-Victorian-style edifice, built with more than 300,000 glazed Royal Doulton bricks shipped from Britain and interior workings from Belgium. Completed in 1887, it is the earliest example of how, for the next several decades, Buenos Aires would continue to outdo itself architecturally.
Perhaps the grandest of all was the Congreso building. Opened in 1906 after nearly 9 years of work, and built in a Greco-Roman style with strong Parisian Beaux Arts influences, Congreso is the city's most imposing building.
One of the main architects was Victor Meano, who was also involved in designing the Teatro Colón but was murdered before completion of either building. Certain elements within the structure call to mind the Argentine desire to emulate other countries.
The overall scheme of the building, with its wings and central dome, mimics the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C. The bronze ornamentation at the roofline simulates that of the Paris Opera House, and the grand entrance, capped by bronze horses, is almost a direct copy of the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin.
Though the exterior walls are made of Argentine granite, the building's interior is lavishly decorated with woods, tiles, marbles, bronzes, and other material imported from Europe.
The Teatro Colón opened in 1908 and was perhaps the grandest example of Buenos Aires's desire to compete with the capitals of Europe. It, too, is filled with exquisite imported materials. After its opening, Italy's greatest opera stars, such as Enrico Caruso, graced its stage.
Yet for all its desire to transform itself architecturally to rival Europe, Buenos Aires was more the Dubai or Beijing of its time.
The city had the wealth to pay for the massive rebuilding, but it lacked the know-how and had to import talent, labor, and materials from Europe. Buenos Aires needed the countries it competed with in order to transform itself in their image, something that to this day remains a sticking point.