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Colección: INTERAMER
Número: 59
Año: 1999
Autor: José Luis Romero
Título: Latin America: Its Cities and Ideas

The Haussman Example

A society that was renewing itself required a renewed habitat as well. As the nineteenth century was drawing to a close, many Latin American cities began to alter their appearance. As the population grew, new areas had to be taken over for housing; developing business and industry required large tracts of land and could not be accommodated in the downtown area. New neighborhoods were springing up along access roads, around existing nuclei, and in the vicinity of magnet areas like railway stations and manufacturing zone. This natural growth very quickly became permanent, once certain services were available—water and transportation, sewer systems, street lighting—all improved living conditions for the urban pioneers.

Together with this spontaneous growth, some Latin American cities underwent a deliberate change that drew its inspiration from far away. While cities expanded and outlying areas were settled, the old center of the city had retained its traditional look. Often the center’s old beauty had faded, and people of modest means now lived in its old, rundown mansions. The new bourgeois were embarrassed by the shabbiness of whatever colonial atmosphere the center of the city still had; where they could, they tried to change it. In some cases, they did not hesitate to demolish some of the sectors laden with tradition. Demolition of the old to make room for the new was an extreme to which only a few cities resorted, but to epitomize the supreme triumph of progress. Where demolition was neither viable nor acceptable, those in charge to organize the development of areas adjacent to the traditional center, and of the new neighborhoods, according to modern principles of urban planning. The model of the transformation of Paris, conceived by Napoleon III and carried out by Baron Haussmann, had a decisive influence on the new bourgeoisie.

The bold principle of modernization of the cities was to begin by breaking up the old core, both in order to widen its streets and to establish communication with the areas that had had sprung up. A baroque leaning—a bourgeois baroque—revealed itself in a preference for monumental public buildings with broad vistas, for monuments situated in squares in prominent places, and for sumptuous private buildings with a rather lordly air. Large parks, wide avenues, and modern and efficient public services were to “leave the traveler astonished,” a phrase heard repeatedly in the early twentieth century.

Travelers were astonished, but everyone recognized the obvious influence that the Haussmann concept had on the remodeling of the cities. The Baron de Rio Branco referred to Francisco Pereira Passos, the mayor of Rio after 1902, as “the Brazilian Haussmann;” when Montevideo’s General Public Works Board recommended adoption of the urban remodeling plan that architect Norberto Maillart had presented in 1887, it based its recommendation on the fact that the plan followed the Haussmann concept. Starting in 1880, the first mayor of Buenos Aires, Torcuato de Alvear, and his successors followed the same concept, as did the mayors of São Paulo, Antonio Prado and Raimundo Duprat, who began working on the city’s urban planning in 1898. Others did the same elsewhere, but on a much smaller scale, since their intention was not to change the old city core but to organize the surrounding space.

Buenos Aires decided in favor of demolition when it became the federal capital in 1880. Torcuato de Alvear was appointed mayor shortly thereafter and began the demolition. The old market place that had once divided in two what is now the Plaza de Mayo was razed, as was much of the old colonial Cabildo, to make way for an avenue that would connect that plaza, where the old fort had stood and where the presidential residence would now be built, with the another square on which the enormous congressional building would be constructed. Within a short time, the Avenida de Mayo opened up and very quickly was completely flanked by modern buildings, in a variety of styles, including some daring examples of art nouveau. From then on it became the heart of Buenos Aires. A few years later, Latin America’s first subway began to run below the Avenida de Mayo and Rivadavia Street. Not long thereafter two major diagonals were planned that would start at the Plaza de Mayo. A wide north-south avenue, today called Nueve de Julio, was also planned. Hundreds of houses were leveled in order to execute these plans.

In Rio, 700 houses had to be demolished in order to build the Avenida Central, later named Rio Branco, which ran from the Mauá Square to the Obelisk. The entire city core changed; two hills were leveled to make way for broad esplanades. From then on, the Largo da Carioca became the nerve center of the city, as the newly opened avenue, with its view of Sugar Loaf Mountain, was lined with new buildings. But other works also contributed to the change: Trece de Mayo Street was widened; Beira-Mar, Rodriguez Alves, Francisco Bicalho, Mem de Sá, and Salvador de Sá were all new avenues that opened up. The scale of the city, still reminiscent of the Rua do Ouvidor, changed significantly in the downtown area, just as it changed in the new outlying urban developments.

Describing the capital of the state of São Paulo in 1912, Roberto Capri wrote, “It is an almost European city, filled with magnificent, Italian-style buildings. It is crisscrossed by streets and avenues and has factories everywhere, its public buildings are opulent and it has an expansive and intense life.” The old center, known as the “triangle,” remained intact, although one could now go from there to the outlying districts via San Juan Rangel Pestana and Tiradentes avenues. Both Higienópolis and Paulista avenues began to be flanked by opulent buildings as they became main thoroughfares. On a more modest scale, Montevideo’s development was apparent in the improvements made to the roads leading out of the city, in the plan drawn for the first sections of the Rambla (a waterfront promenade running from the port to Pocitos) and in the planning and execution of Agraciada Avenue, which ran from 18 de Julio Avenue to the Legislative Palace, with its commanding view of the city.

Cities that were building new avenues could soon be proud of the many buildings, classical or French in style that displayed some ostentation and a certain taste for the monumental. The legislative buildings in Montevideo and Buenos Aires, the Palace of Fine Arts in Mexico City, the Colón Opera House in Buenos Aires, or the Municipal Building in Rio revealed the wealth and the particular taste of the bourgeois classes in the cities that were being transformed. They loved their French gardens and wide avenues. Yet even in cities that had changed little, promenades and avenues appeared: Paseo de Colón and then Avenida Arequipa in Lima, Avenida Bolivar in Caracas, Avenida Colón in Bogotá. The carriage drive was virtually a social ritual. It had been the custom for some time in the Palermo Gardens of Buenos Aires, along the Alameda in Lima and Santiago, on the Paseo de la Reforma in Mexico City. It gradually became the custom elsewhere: along Montevideo’s El Prado, in Mexico City’s Chapultepec Park, and along the Paseo de Colón in Lima. The number of squares, big and small alike, increased. Those in the upper-class neighborhoods were carefully tended. Monuments to heroes were erected in the more important squares; some were imposing, like the equestrian statues of San Martín and Bolivar in any number of cities, the equestrian statute of Alvear that Buenos Aires commissioned from Bourdelle, and the equestrian statue of Artigas in Montevideo. Some squares had a different look, like Tiradentes Square in Rio, Sarmiento Square in Buenos Aires, Juárez Square in Mexico City, or Santander Square in Bogotá.

The fate of the old core varied from one city to the other. It continued to be the administrative and business center in almost all cities, but only in a few—Rio de Janeiro and Buenos Aires in particular—was architecture modernized and prestige maintained. Most succumbed to the demographic displacements. Upper-class families—those called “the families on the square”—began to move out of the city’s center, while the working classes moved in and occupied the old residences, transforming them into tenements or slums. Those leaving the neighborhoods around the main square gravitated to the new neighborhoods away from the downtown area. In Santiago, the Alameda and then the developments that sprang up along the Avenida Providencia attracted the upper classes, as happened along El Prado in Montevideo and then in Ramírez and Pocitos; Barrio Norte in Buenos Aires; Catete and Laranjeiras in Rio de Janeiro as well as the precincts that sprang up along the waterfront drives; Roma, Juárez and then Lomas de Chapultepec in Mexico City; Chapinero in Bogotá; and in Caracas. Sabana Grande with its tendency to overflow into the Country Club and El Paraiso; Miraflores in Lima; and Higiénopolis in São Paulo. Social position was conveyed in the choice of architecture. At times, old outlying towns or cities were incorporated, thus becoming part of the larger city. The railroads and avenues and highways shortened distances, but the outlying areas continued to be thought of as separate nuclei, often with their own businesses and services. Solid architecture, often executed in good taste, gave an air of elegance to these residential; a racetrack or a fashionable tennis or golf club might be built nearby.

Sometimes these districts developed when some old country property was divided up. If there were old trees on the property, an effort was made to preserve them. But by a similar movement, middle-sized properties also began to be divided up for the average-income buyer or even those of little economic means. In many cities numerous development sprung up, populated by those who had purchased their lots in monthly installments and then worked hard to build a room and a kitchen in order to begin to live in what by then had become their “own home.” The land sales sometimes looked like public festivals, organized by imaginative auctioneers who were at the same time agents working on commission, entrepreneurs, and urban developers. These men knew how to exploit the desire of the working classes to move out of the slums in the center of the city and have their own homes, however modest they might be. Some auctioneers, like Piria, in Montevideo became famous. He would round up those who had managed to save some money and transport them to the site of the auction to the strains of raucous guitar music; while the children played in the field, he used his verbal artistry to transform the subdivision plan into a reality. He pointed out where the school, the church, and the canteen would be, listing the advantages of the site and of each particular lot. It was an adventure, this expansion, as outlying rural areas became part of the city. There was no set pattern to prices. Those who wanted to own lots fell prey to speculators, because those who had not bought at the beginning got excited when they saw the first houses or grocery store go up. That was when someone who had bought land for speculative purposes made his killing. In the process, the value of land in the new subdivisions went up, just as it did in the central districts and in the new residential neighborhoods.

In the working class neighborhoods, the architecture was quite rudimentary. The cost of the land and the construction were always beyond the immediate means of someone who embarked on this venture, doubtless confident of his future ability to earn and save. These purchases focused only in the future: what mattered was getting out of the tenement to stop paying rent. The immediate priority was to put up the first four walls and a roof. These were neighborhoods without style, except for the occasional masonry or master builder’s work: a certain balance, the arrangement of doors and windows, perhaps a simple cornice might occasionally reveal the craftsmanship and taste of the one who did the work. But such detail was not the rule. Pressed for time, the property owner might build his house with his own hands, sometimes in the style of the rural farmhouse or local suburban house. And then the whole will display its hybrid and elemental quality.

The hand of a master builder, and perhaps certain pretensions on the part of the owner, might occasionally be apparent in some middle-class houses. A concern for taste might be evident in the facade, the carefully chosen interior wallpaper, the trinkets, or the curtains. As one went higher up the economic and social ladder, everything got slightly better, or perhaps somewhat more conventional and more consistent with what the better stores had to offer.

From the street, the social standing of the residents of a house was easily discernible; the observer could doubtless make such an assessment based on his own experience. A concern for style was essential in the upper-middle or upper-class neighborhoods, which required good houses, the kind that demanded an architect—preferably a foreign one—who would discuss first the style and then the floor plan. It was almost a given that the French style would be preferred, unless the owner had fallen under the influence of some revivalist movement: Gothic, Moorish, or something still more exotic. The so-called French style, which was relatively pure and always an exact imitation, was used for the fine houses of the upper bourgeoisie and especially for the lavish residences—the petits-hotels or “palaces”—of those who had reached the highest economic levels and aspired to the almost sublime position that ostentation appeared to offer. Orthodox and traditional, the French style seemed to canonize the social stature of one that cared intensely about forms. That canonization was what was most sought by the bourgeois who had acquired wealth too quickly to feel secure in the upper reaches of society,

There were, however, those who preferred other styles, perhaps because they were not properly advised about what was most suitable. Some joined in the enthusiasm for art nouveau, whose French or Catalan models seemed to express not just the novelty of the moment, but also a certain tendency toward affected opulence which was visible in the wealthy classes. Pinnacles in tortured shapes and imposing statues combined with bold cornices to create something unreal, something that seemed to defy the classical rules of architecture and conventional taste. Well executed little faces or big flowers aroused the ecstasy of the connoisseur; but it was the total effect of superfluous decoration that attracted the interest and the admiration of the majority. By contrast, the palaces for exhibitions or the railroad stations that were built in the fashion of London’s Victoria Station exposed their iron structures as if they were monuments to progress and industry.

In the meantime, many cities significantly improved their infrastructure. Many ports were remodeled; breakwaters, docks, warehouses, cranes, rail lines were built or expanded. To combat waterborne epidemics, health services were established. Osvaldo Cruz waged a tremendous battle against yellow fever in Rio de Janeiro. Preventive medical measures were all that was needed to complete the sanitation of the major cities. Construction of sewer systems works and waterworks got underway. Rivers and streams began to be encased in pipelines; some had major avenues running over them, like Jiménez de Casada in Bogotá or Juan B. Justo in Buenos Aires.

Gas street lamps astonished those who were accustomed to oil lamps. But spectators were even more amazed by electric lighting on the day the first bulbs were lit. Horse-drawn trolleys were replaced by electric ones; buses would come later. Some cities had airfields. As the use of the telegraph and telephone spread, antennae and receivers began to go up. All these changes happened just as quickly as they did in Europe, since technical innovations were almost immediately transplanted to Latin America. Society embraced all the advances of progress, hastening to modernize itself and its cities in order to equip them with all the modern conveniences that urban planners had conceived since the Haussmann period to cope with the problems created by urban sprawl.

But how many cities followed the Haussmann example? Only a few experienced spectacular development. In others, some of them major, only some parts of a theoretical plan for the entire city were applied, but the plan as a whole did not seem to be a matter of urgency. In most cities, the colonial urban structure was preserved virtually intact. This continuity had decisive importance, because the pattern of urban growth mirrored the features of overall socioeconomic development. The handful of truly splendid cities stood in sharp contrast to the meager, slow development elsewhere, in cities on the margins of the economic system. In 1910, H. D. Sisson, a French writer who lived many years in Argentina, published a book that had some curious observations on this subject. After describing the city of Buenos Aires at length and highlighting its rapid modernization, Sisson devoted the next chapter to “the provinces” and began it, “After the capital, the provinces are like a journey back into colonial times.” Similar statements could have been made about the other Latin American countries whose capitals had taken a spectacular leap forward. Sisson elaborated upon this thought, which doubtless came from keen observation:

Since 1880 Buenos Aires has made tremendous material progress; the progress it has made in social culture is readily apparent. This, coupled with wealth, creates a desire to imitate the more refined and more civilized countries. The cosmopolitan capital, carried away by flux of comforts and pleasures, and influenced by sentiment that social exhibitionism arouses, has quickly abandoned the old customs of austerity, authority, and quiet solidity with which tradition resists seduction. The vast fortunes amassed in a few short years have enabled the people of Buenos Aires to travel abroad and even to spend some time there, and as a result they have lost their ties to their land and to the wholesome customs of the old families.

The provinces, whose capitals are anywhere from 1,000 to 2,000 kilometers from Buenos Aires, are as they were before, and will be so, at least until modern communications draw them closer to the nation’s capital; this has happened very slowly, considering the vast distances that separate them and that even prevent the exploitation of the riches that they contain. This explains why the psychological distancing between the capital and the provinces grew rapidly and will disappear very slowly.

Sisson’s observations apply with equal force to the rest of Latin America. The economic expansion generated from abroad was reflected in those centers that were constantly exposed to foreign influences; it accentuated the differences that already existed between them and the provincial cities. There were two worlds moving apart, one modern and the other colonial, but they coexisted. The last faint echoes of the Haussmann model were still infiltrating the provincial world in the form of some enormous square or a boulevard with little squares leading to the center of the city and to the new railroad station. In some places these faint echoes of the Haussmann model appeared when the economic expansion had already passed—or even when it had not yet arrived. But the Haussmann model lingered on, like some vague desire to give each provincial city something that would enable it to think of itself as a metropolis. Other urban resources and other planning models came and went, but the Haussmann ideal was still the master of all others, because it was, after all, the irreplaceable example of Paris.