Bettina D'Alessandro, GPJ Argentina

Buenos Aires School Trains Specialists to Restore the City’s Centuries-Old Architectural Heritage


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A student learns to reproduce a decorative figure to restore pieces of Buenos Aires’ architectural heritage.  
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Committed to preserving Buenos Aires’ architectural heritage, the city government operates a free school that teaches restoration trades in the historic center of the city.

BUENOS AIRES, ARGENTINA – The morning light floods through the windows of an old building in the original core of Buenos Aires, Argentina’s capital. Instructors in the spacious learning center teach students skills to preserve the city’s architectural heritage. In one of the classrooms, students model clay figures of various shapes and sizes.

One of the students, Jorge Vázquez, 47, is studying ornamentation, the art of decorating statues in plazas and gardens. His specialty is one of several available to students at the Escuela Taller del Casco Histórico, a free city government school that teaches architecture and remodeling in the Casco Histórico, the city’s historic center.

Using a fine-tipped wire modeling tool, he puts the finishing touches on a series of interlaced petals and leaves he is making for his class. Bending over his work, he seems oblivious to his classmates’ comments and movements.

Vázquez is learning to model ceramic copies of figures that decorate gardens and outdoor spaces so he can restore original figures in need of repair. In learning the art of restoration, he strives to get into the skin of a project’s original creator. 

“It is not easy,” Vázquez says. “You have to get into the eyes of the person who made the original piece, adapt yourself to that, and not allow yourself to get carried away by the personal desire to create.”

Although Vázquez has made ceramic figures for more than two decades, this is the first time he has undertaken such training. A doorman at a primary school, Vázquez appreciates the free opportunity to refine the skills he uses in his avocation.

A public school with the capacity to enroll 195 students, the Escuela Taller del Casco Histórico teaches techniques for conserving and restoring the cultural heritage, which includes buildings, outdoor structures and sculptures, in Buenos Aires’ historic center. Last year, the school first offered a two-year training program through which students will graduate with the title of technical assistant at the end of 2014.

It is the only free school in the city that specializes in this type of training. It accepts anyone 18 or older who is interested in the subject.

Located in San Telmo, the city’s oldest neighborhood, the school has operated for 14 years. The Escuela Taller is under Buenos Aires’ General Directorate of the Historic Center, a Ministry of Culture office tasked with protecting and maintaining the area’s cultural identity and architectural heritage.

The Casco Histórico comprises the 222 blocks of the city’s original urban nucleus, says Vivian Fernández, an architect and coordinator of the General Directorate of the Historic Center.

During the 19th century, Argentine architects designed many finely ornamented and elegantly decorated Italian- and French-style buildings in the Casco Histórico, Fernández says. The city’s authorities, many of them European immigrants, sought to transform Buenos Aires into one of the world’s great metropolises.

The center features emblems of Argentine culture, including the Casa Rosada, the seat of the national government; the Catedral Primada de Buenos Aires, the country’s principal Catholic church; and notable palaces, cafes and bars.

“This is part of what we are as a city,” Fernández says. “Every sign of a building, every corner, is talking to us about a story. That is to say, it is the physical part of a story that can be told again. Therefore, it is heritage.”

The school formed in the midst of a construction boom in 2002, a year marked by a depression where a loss of confidence in the banking system prompted heavy investment in real estate development. That year, private developers began demolishing old buildings to make room for new ones.

That trend alarmed preservationists, says Aquilino González Podestá, an architect who specializes in the conservation and restoration of architectural heritage.

The school has functioned for more than a decade as a workshop where students could come and go, says the school’s coordinator, Marino Santa María, who specializes in plastic art.

With the new two-year training, students can graduate with a specialty in woodworking, ornamentation or sgraffito, a style of decoration where parts of a surface layer are cut away to expose a different-colored ground. They can also train to become luthiers – makers of stringed instruments. All students receive theoretical training to learn to value patrimonial assets.

Vázquez is passionate about Buenos Aires’ cultural heritage. He chose to live in the Casco Histórico because he cherishes the area’s ancient buildings.

“Those new squared buildings, they earn money for those who make them, but they take identity away from the city,” he says.

At the school, Vázquez found a place to channel his passion and to learn to conserve the heritage that is threatened by the passage of time and the hand of man, he says.

“I found just what I had been searching for, and I am going to continue in this my whole life,” he says. “Restoration is something that you cannot stop doing ever.”

The school limits participation in workshops to 10 to 15 students, says Victoria García Villegas, who is responsible for coordinating instruction. The caps ensure close monitoring and access to architecture tools.

Practicing restoration is a pillar of the training, says architect Rubén Nüremberg, who is in charge of fieldwork. The school conducts practice sessions at various institutions, including museums, associations and schools, in the Casco Histórico after the workshop teacher evaluates the work that the students will perform. Nüremberg performs a photographic survey in order to compare the original with the finished work.

One place where students of the Escuela Taller have performed restoration over the past eight years is La Casa Fernández Blanco, a Renaissance-style mansion built in the mid-1800s that now functions as a museum.

To walk through La Casa Fernández Blanco is to observe the lifestyle of the Buenos Aires aristocracy of the 20th century. The taste and habits of the mansion’s original owners are evident in the stained glass windows, the turned wood of the grand staircase, and the huge center table of the dining room.

Like laborious ants, the students leave their mark throughout the museum. They copy and reconstruct the plaster moldings, heal the insect borings in the timbers, and dig down to the original paint so they can reproduce it as faithfully as possible.

The students peeled back the 1903 wood paneling to uncover the house’s original wall. It took them a year to restore the original paint job, says Fernández, head of La Casa Fernández Blanco’s restoration.

Because the students are preserving the city’s heritage, the school urges them to wield their artistic skills in the service of history, Fernández says.

“Within the spirit of the workshop, you have to emphasize its intersection with art,” she says. “The students must be sensitized to what they are doing, of how important the link is that is being added to a building so it survives.”

For now, restoration work is part of the educational process, and students are not compensated, Nüremberg says. However, the school sometimes receives requests for restoration work from paying customers. On those occasions, the school recommends qualified alumni.

González Podestá spent his career photographing historical buildings in the city and reconstituting blueprints for demolished houses and palaces. He continues to spread his architectural research through audiovisual conferences.

González Podestá appreciates the school’s preservation of the city’s cultural heritage, he says. But, he wants to see the school more widely publicize its activities in the community. The school must underscore the importance of preserving the city’s cultural heritage to all citizens.

“This would contribute to giving [the school] the importance that it really has,” he says. “It should be valued sufficiently so that we can all become aware that the history speaks to us through the things.”

The school is increasing its engagement with the community, Santa María says. It has prepared a classroom in which advanced students will teach modeling classes to visiting primary school students. In 2014, a public art gallery in the school’s basement will display photographs, architecture and plastic arts featuring the art of restoration.

Santa María aims to create a labor exchange to connect the school’s alumni with citizens and institutions seeking restoration.

The class on ornamentation is winding up. The students review their work and return their tools to the shelves. Laughing and chatting, they share mate, a traditional Argentine tea infusion. 

“This is not done for money,” Vázquez says, caressing the figures he engraved in clay. “One does it because they like it. We are discordant with the times because this is the age of plastic, not stone or ceramic. But it is something that you cannot stop doing ever.”

GPJ translated this article from Spanish.