The fall and rise of Buenos Aires (High Life)

It’s long, long after midnight and at the Buenos Aires outpost of international megaclub Pacha a rather arresting scene is being played out: The strobe lit throng are, as the DJ breaks down the beats, lowering themselves slowly, as one, to the floor. As the next track builds and builds, they rise up again; up, up and up, as if in some slickly produced, Busby Berkeley goes techno extravaganza. Adrenalin flows. The place erupts.

La Catedral milonga 4

The people of Buenos Aires, the portenos (‘port dwellers’) as they are known, have a history of acting as a single unstoppable and passionate force. During the financial meltdown of 2001, which began with eyebrows raised at suddenly imposed ATM withdrawal limits and culminated in the devaluation of the peso, there were impromptu public protests in the streets with the distraught populace banging rhythmically on pots and pans; the so called cacerolazo. Formerly shy and retiring middle class professionals joined students in the streets, banging out a beat of ill content at what was, effectively, the ruination of just about everything they’d taken for granted.

Buenos Aires is a city that has experienced boom and bust on more than one occasion. Right now, it’s on the up and while there are still union organised protests galore and criticism aplenty aimed at President Nestor Kirchna’s nouveau Perónist policies, the city feels a lot like it must have done in the 1920s, with high style and high living a priority, even if only for the lucky few.

While the new mood is, in many ways, as decadent as anything from the early scenes of that Lloyd Webber musical, things look very different these days. Less than a mile away from the professional dog walkers and the jacaranda blossom of the vast Haussman-style avenues of the old Microcentro, a dramatic new docklands development has sprung up in Puerto Madero, right under the flight path of Kirchner’s helicopter to the Casa Rosada, recently painted a vivid, or hideous, pink, depending on who you speak to. From Santiago Calatrava’s futuristic looking pedestrian bridge to regular sightings of burnt out iconic rock legend Charlie Garcia by the pool at Starck’s fabulously escapist Manchester brick Faena Hotel + Universe, this is where the new money and much of the new mood is. The pared down modernist fonts on billboards heralding Norman Foster’s forthcoming new apartment building here are every bold black inch a part of the Puerto Madero zeitgeist. The porteno equivalent of the flashy hedge fund manager and the local Wags are falling over themselves to buy flats.

Back over the water in Recoleta, which still has all the grooming and manners of the 16th arrondissement in Paris, things are updating too. The latest hot hotel to land in a city that has, in the last few years, attracted haute boutique openings aplenty, is the Palacio Duhau Park Hyatt, an unashamedly contemporary update of the 1934 Duhau family palace next to the Vatican embassy. With its cavernous silvered Piano Nobile salons, sweeping staircases and resident ladies who lunch on mod dulce du delche truffle deserts, it’s the progressive heart of elegant BA, with electric blinds in the bedrooms and a contemporary art gallery to boot.

For a long time it was the brightly coloured corrugated houses of La Boca that represented Buenos Aires abroad, with its touristy pavement cafes, al fresco tango and souvenir shops. The area is still as colourful as ever (and unlike in equivalent areas in other capital cities, there’s great food to be had at bargain prices along with your Kodak-moment tango), but it’s Palermo, with its offbeat boutique hotels, small one off designer stores and happening bars and restaurants that has been the focal point for the media buzz around the city for the past five years. Many have compared it to New York, and there’s no denying that its cobbled streets and chic stores give it a downtown Manhattan feel, but the nickname of ‘Palermo SoHo’, along with the opening up of Diesel and Nike next to local indie operations, has had many hurling accusations of hype. Palermo Tribeca anyone? They kid you not. This is a city still finding its feet and while SoHo NYC may still conjure up images of all things hip, lest we forget that these days its all top whack Prada with not a single struggling artist to be found inhabiting any of its lofts. No one wants that here… yet, though the hunger for all things fashion is inescapably intense.

Over dinner at Sucre, a restaurant that is so much part of the see-and-be-seen-scene that the raised above-bar platform to the bathroom is nicknamed ‘the catwalk’, celebrity polo player and model Martin Barrantes gives his opinion on the rapid changes in Buenos Aires design: ‘Bruce Weber came here in 1997 and told me there was no fashion’, says Barrantes. ‘Now things are very different’. Above him, on ‘the catwalk’, a procession of Brazilian tourists walk to the bathroom and back, each giving a mid-way wiggle to applause and cheers from the dining room below.

Though the American corporates are on their way with one eye on the bigger picture, the shopping streets of Palermo are still dominated by one-offs. With the peso still effectively on its knees, portenos simply can’t afford to pay top US dollar for off the rack jeans and trainers. Designers like Jessica Trosman and Maria Cher are far more popular than their equivalent imports and their style is unique, partly because of the realities of living here and partly because of geography, climate and attitude. ‘Buenos Aires has the bohemian feeling of eastern European cities combined with the energy of southern Italian ones,’ says Trosman. Of course it’s those financial realities that have shaped industry more than anything since the turn of the century. ‘The financial crisis was the starting point for what is happening now’, says designer Cecilia Gadea, whose very graphic work embraces traditional embroidery technique along with the kind of techno fabrics more usually associated with high fashion sportswear ranges. ‘Before 2001 there was no independent movement in fashion. After the crisis we regrouped and looked for a way out ourselves.’ By working together, colonising the leafy streets of Palermo and taking control of their production by keeping it in-house, the new wave of Argentine designers are managing to create innovative short-run collections. Nadine Zlotogora’s designs for men, women and children operate in a parallel universe from the commercial concerns of the likes of American Apparel. ‘Nadineland’ is how she describes it. ‘I am inspired by medieval times, fairy tales and also workwear’, she says. Some of her work may benefit from the editing hand of a European stylist or buyer, but there’s a certain distinctive and coherent genius at the core of what she’s doing. Unsurprisingly, her leftfield style has found favour with Japanese buyers and she’s becoming well known in Tokyo as well as amongst the arty set who breakfast at Mark’s Deli in Palermo every morning. Most importantly, she’s a total original.

Buenos Aires in 2007 is very much about people doing it for themselves, whether through necessity or a love of invention. The anarchic sculptor Carlos Regazzoni has been working from a collection of squatted abandoned railway buildings for years. His Gato Viejo is part gallery for his inspired and energetic welded work and canvases, part Friday night nightclub and part menagerie. Donkeys and chickens run riot while he works on his latest large scale works, metal, industrial, found-component interpretations of Sancho Panza and Don Quixote. ‘Art to me is child’s play’ he says, scrawling on a piece of paper and suggesting a fee of several hundreds of American dollars for the result. He’s nuttier than he is eccentric, straight out of an early Almodovar movie perhaps, but there’s no denying he has a fantastic eye for movement and form and his studio, a stonesthrow from the gentrified poshness of Recoleta, is one of the most underrated attractions of the city.

The new spirit of Buenos Aires is one of youth as well as self motivation. Clare Bakota opened a small gallery, El Tigre Celeste, with Celeste Najt last year to showcase new and exciting talent, much of it by newcomers to the city. ‘There is a definite cultural shift coming from the porteno youth and from travellers visiting the country’, believes Clare. ‘It’s more inclusive and embracing’. At El Tigre Celeste the social scene is as important as the work on show. There are regular open-air screenings of classic movies, like Godard’s Breathless, which provide a meeting point for like minded expats and portenos alike.  ‘The idea of getting together and pooling money to open small galleries is getting popular’, says Clare. ‘It’s making for an art scene that is more inclusive and less “ivory tower”.’

As barrier breaking as the Buenos Aires arts scene is, there’s no denying that portenos are obsessed with being in the right place, at the right time, looking the right way. Where in the UK the cable TV networks would be full of debt consolidation adverts, there are instead on-a-loop sales pitches for home fitness machines and the ‘Boxer Tanagra’ for men, an alarming, stretchy piece of high waisted underwear that sucks in by force any belly or overhang. The weak of bladder may find it a challenging purchase but one imagines they sell by the van load. Vanity is a constant (this is the world’s second biggest market, outside of Brazil, for plastic surgery), but fashions move fast, and while the bar and restaurant at Palermo’s Casa Cruz, with its vast brass doors and votive candles, is still the place to be (particularly on Thursdays), it’s anyone’s guess where the next destination will be.

Even on the beach, cool young Argentina doesn’t want solitude, instead moving in well-organised and purposeful packs. ‘The first time I went to the sea here it was bizarre’, says Katharine Pottinger, a Brit who moved to Buenos Aires recently to set up the exclusive, private tour company Fueguito. ‘All of the Argentines huddle together so they can look and be looked at. I kept trying to get to an empty space of beach with my friend and we had other people pitching up right next to us, even though there were miles of space along the coast’.

It’s the Argentine way. It’s touchy feely and perhaps a little bit, well, there’s no escaping mention of it… tango.

After the financial meltdown, with foreign travel and so much imported culture priced out of the market, a whole new generation looked inwards, took the tradition of tango to its heart and reinvented it, giving the music an electronic, sometimes hip-hop twist. On most nights of the week, the Palermo milonga La Viruta Tango club buzzes with twisting, turning and La Caminata until 6am with couples, some retired, some professional but mostly teenage or early twentysomethings wearing designer sportswear and mullet haircuts that wouldn’t be out of place in London’s Shoreditch.

Buenos Aires is a city that loves to party and stay up well past any idea of a reasonable bedtime. Dinner is usually at 10pm so dancing is pretty much an all night affair. While the scene at the aforementioned Pacha, and other similar clubs, is a weekly business, it’s with the summer festival season that things really gear up. Hernan Cattaneo is the most famous Argentine DJ in the world, and has moved from playing club nights in BA to never ending world tours, returning only for mega events. Currently the biggest date on the calendar, each November, is the Argentine instalment of Creamfields, a festival which started with 15,000 clubbers and now attracts over 60,000, dwarfing the original in Liverpool. ‘Every DJ who came to play the last one said the crowd reaction was truly unbelievable’, says Hernan. ‘The musical knowledge of the crowd here is different. The scene started earlier than in other countries and it’s developed into one of the best in world.’ And of course more than mere trainspotter knowledge of what’s hot, it’s the porteno temperament that makes the party what it is: ‘80% of us come from European families’, explains Hernan. ‘But we are still Latin Americans, and it’s that cultural mix, with so much enthusiasm, that makes us what we are.’ The party is definitely back on in Buenos Aires.

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