This day was all about Clorindo Testa, arguably one of the best well-known Argentinian architects (who passed away one day after I left Buenos Aires! The world has lost yet another great mind.) First, I went to visit the Banco de Londres y América del Sud and then took a metro to visit the National Library. These two buildings will stay in my memory for ever. I briefly saw the Banco a couple of days ago, at the end of my day, but I could not go inside at that time, so this was my second encounter. I remember the excitement I felt when I first saw it!
One does not actually see it well from a distance, the building only slowly reveals itself upon arrival. What appears solid and impenetrable from afar becomes porous and almost transparent when viewed up close. When finally confronted with the menacing corner overhang, the building turns from threatening to enticing within seconds.
Opaque – transparent, exterior – interior, autonomy – engagement, radicalism – pragmatism, art – capitalism, these are but some of the dialectical pairings the Banco de Londres y América del Sud in Buenos Aires is successfully straddling. Or perhaps one could say it embraces both sides simultaneously, and with such ease that the seeming differences dissolve. The building is an invader, an alien, that doesn’t quite belong, yet at the same time has managed to (somewhat roughly) assimilate into its surroundings. An autonomous object that is also contextual. A radical work of architecture, sometimes even called art, supported by British neoliberalism (the client was the Argentinian subsidiary of Lloyds Bank). But how is it so? How does one resolve such inherent contradictions?
Much of the richness and dexterity of the Banco can be attributed to the extraordinary envelope system. The porous and slightly undulating exterior is in stark contrast to the impenetrable neoclassical facades of the surrounding buildings. Neither a system of columns, nor walls, the exterior is a hybrid between the two, an innovative concrete lattice that acts as the main structure and protects the interior glass box behind it.
I actually did have a chance to go inside this time, but after managing to take a couple of pictures, I was cordially thrown out of the building by the guard. However, even the few minutes were enough to see that the building is just as sophisticated on the inside as it is on the outside. Centrally located floor ‘trays’ never actually touch the perimeter building, so they appear to be hovering in the middle.
But the most striking and unexpected features of the interior is the view outward from within. It is as if the entire curtain wall disappeared and one is left bare inside the protective skeleton, a spectator peering through the amorphous holes of the reinforced concrete; removed, yet very aware about the city and buildings around.
One of the mechanisms the Banco communicates with its context, and at the same time separates itself from it, is through the use of reflection. The glass behind the almost overpowering concrete screen, the same layer that visually ‘disappears’ from the inside and that no one pays much attention to, acts as a mirror when viewed from the outside, duplicating the adjacent context. It is subtle, yet powerful enough to make it impossible to perceive the Banco as an isolated object; it belongs to a larger system – the city. It’s ability to oscillate between autonomy and engagement is fascinating; the radicalism and sculptural quality of the pour-in-place concrete set the structure completely apart from its neighbors, whereas the regularity, transparency, and reflectivity of the curtain wall make it resonate with the buildings around (of course the contextual height lines on each street help as well).
Currently the headquarters of Banco Hipotecario, the building was constructed between 1959 and 1966 through collaborative efforts of Clorindo Testa and SEPRA. Located in the financial district, on a corner of Reconquista and Bartolome Mitre, the structure builds upon the somewhat unique local typology of chamfered urban blocks, which I already mentioned in my previous post (seehere). The entry to the Banco is actually a giant void. Differentiating itself from the adjacent buildings by this aggressive formal gesture, it also attaches and merges with the street by providing an open semi-plaza. Reminiscent of a submarine, or better yet a spaceship, the entire structure is permeated with various nooks, protrusions, and pieces of machinery painted in bright colors.
While futuristic in its detailing, there is a primordial quality the building possesses. Like a prehistoric animal, the giant overhang could be misread as a cross section through a whale with exposed ribs right above one’s head, its skeleton carefully encrusting the precious content inside. After all, it is a bank. The traditional image of strength and security is merged with a more contemporary one of openness and transparency – an excellent image for a bank’s headquarters.