As we speak, Vanessa Bell is at home in Buenos Aires as the first heatwaves of summer begin to roll in. I discovered Bell several years ago when I came across his Twitter feed, where she frequently posted photos of mid-century and post-modern halls in Buenos Aires buildings that communicated benign nostalgia. I learned later that Bell had been leading tours of Buenos Aires for years, showing what she calls the “B side” of the city. Its architecture tours are aimed at design enthusiasts but over time they have grown into a local audience of people eager to learn more about the city they live in.
Bell lived for eight years in the city center, in an apartment next to the Plaza del Congreso. The apartment was surrounded by buildings designed at the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century in the eclectic style that has become emblematic of the city: a mixture of neoclassical, art nouveau and art deco. The pandemic has driven Bell out of town, in search of more green space, and allowed her to reconnect with her childhood, as she puts it, “growing up in a country village outside Oxford, wake up and hear the birds instead of shouting traffic.”
Bell left Oxford in 2010, her shared heritage – she is the daughter of an Argentinian mother and a British father – led her to write for the “TimeOut” guide to Buenos Aires. Her heritage has helped her to refine a particular point of view, colored both by nostalgia for a Buenos Aires of yesteryear, of her childhood holidays spent in Argentina, and by her own aesthetic sensibility. She wears no rose-colored glasses, admitting to the complexities and difficulties of living in a country prone to economic crisis and political volatility. As we speak, Bell laments the condition of some of those same buildings that surround his former neighborhood: “The pandemic has allowed the widespread destruction and demolition of old buildings to intensify. Various organized campaigns aim to protect period architecture in the city. Yet it often seems that financial advantages and lucrative business dealings win out, and they end up tearing down a crumbling neoclassical facade in favor of a bland tower. His deep appreciation for old Buenos Aires, combined with his flair for good design, leads him to scour the city for what can’t be found anywhere else.
During the pandemic, she shared photos of places like La Tayuela, a so-called bar de viejos (café for the elderly) that has struggled in business during the most stringent lockdowns. These bars, observes Bell, give Buenos Aires its distinctive character and deserve to be preserved – they are the parts of the city that are not made “for export”. Maintaining this particular point of view that moves away from clichés is not easy. We are used to quickly consuming images on social networks; our eyes get used to a certain homogenized aesthetic and we develop certain expectations of what a place we visit will look like. Bell goes through this, highlighting things she finds fascinating or even odd.
As we speak, she tells me a story about leading a tour of the Caballito neighborhood of Buenos Aires, after which two women who had lived in the neighborhood for decades told Bell that they gained a new understanding of the where they lived. “I had had access to this wonderful passage, to this beautiful old house, and both of them said that they had always wanted to enter this complex,” Bell tells me. “We took these back roads, and one of the women said the tour pointed out things her eye would never have landed on. It’s amazing, that I can show the neighborhood completely differently to someone who has lived there for 50 years.
In an increasingly globalized world, it would be tempting to rely on old myths, such as that according to which Buenos Aires is the “Paris of South America”, or to take visitors to the most city tourist. Bell laments the popularity of tourist parrillas, which serve traditional Argentinian asado to groups of people who rarely speak Spanish. Conversely, it would be just as easy to symbolize or give in to stereotypes. Bell does neither.
Standing firmly between his British and Argentinian identities, Bell occupies a position of one foot in, one foot out. It’s a flexible perspective that, when made accessible to others – visitors and locals alike – allows Buenos Aires and Argentina to reveal itself over time, slowly and in all its beautiful complexity.
Favorite spots in town
I like Concepción; it’s a brand new design space that opened during the pandemic led by the founders of design studio RIES. As well as exhibiting their own work, they have carefully curated a selection of beautiful decorative and functional pieces from young, emerging designers. It is housed in a converted warehouse they worked on during the lockdown. They stock the porcelain designs of hecho hecho and the beautiful hand printed fabrics of Luna Oks, two designers that I adore.
For food, I’m a big fan of El Preferido, a converted bodegón opened in 1952 by Asturians that has had a makeover and now serves contemporary Argentinian dishes. The organic tomato al medio and milanesa for two with fries or mashed potatoes is a must.
CARBONE, the new menswear brand from Matías Carbone, incorporates artisan techniques. He works with skilled artisans in various Argentine provinces to produce heritage pieces with a contemporary twist, such as woven vests and tunics. Other timeless pieces include his tailored trench coats, shirts and pants. Additionally, he runs a showroom of his collection from his apartment in Buenos Aires.
Finally, here are five thoughts on Buenos Aires
- You need a PhD in finance to understand the Argentine economy. Porteños are obsessed with talking about money, but phobic about discussing how much they earn. It does not help improve gender inequality or improve wages.
- The road markings are symbolic and the Porteño idiosyncrasy is personified behind the wheel. They either act like maniacs or aspiring Formula 1 drivers.
- My best friends are Argentinian. Once you earn their trust, they will go out of their way to help and be there for you, and when the tokens run out they will keep you company, cook for you, always eager to help and make you feel at home.
- You will no longer starve if you are a vegetarian. In the 12 years I have lived here there has been a huge change in local eating habits. These days, you’re more likely to stumble upon a new herbal opening or organic market than a new parrilla.
- The best time to visit is in November. Spring has arrived and BA’s central avenues and parks are teeming with the vibrant purple blooms of jacaranda trees.