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Buenos Aires: The Biography of a City

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Buenos Aires, Argentina, recognized for its European-style architecture and lively theater scene, is a truly special place. The second-largest city in South America, it has been the home of such renowned cultural and historical figures as Jorge Luis Borges and Astor Piazzola, Che Guevara and Eva Peron. Like every truly great city, New York, London and Prague; Buenos Aires Buenos Aires, Argentina, recognized for its European-style architecture and lively theater scene, is a truly special place. The second-largest city in South America, it has been the home of such renowned cultural and historical figures as Jorge Luis Borges and Astor Piazzola, Che Guevara and Eva Peron. Like every truly great city, New York, London and Prague; Buenos Aires is its own universe, with its own center of gravity, its own scents and flavors, its own architectural signature-in short, its own way of being. From San Telmo's oak-paneled restaurants and brightly tiled apothecaries from 1900, and the phantasmagoric Beaux Arts palaces along Avenida Alvear and Plaza San Martin, to the parks of Palermo and the bustling bars and cafes along Corrientes and LaValle, Buenos Aires is steeped in exotic culture and history. In Buenos Aires, Art and culture critic James Gardner offers a colorful biography of the "Paris of the South," from its origins and time as a colonial city, through its Golden age, the rise of Peron, and the Falklands War, to the present day. With entertaining asides about art, architecture, literature, food and dance, as well as local customs and colorful personalities, this is a rich and unique historical narrative of Buenos Aires.


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Buenos Aires, Argentina, recognized for its European-style architecture and lively theater scene, is a truly special place. The second-largest city in South America, it has been the home of such renowned cultural and historical figures as Jorge Luis Borges and Astor Piazzola, Che Guevara and Eva Peron. Like every truly great city, New York, London and Prague; Buenos Aires Buenos Aires, Argentina, recognized for its European-style architecture and lively theater scene, is a truly special place. The second-largest city in South America, it has been the home of such renowned cultural and historical figures as Jorge Luis Borges and Astor Piazzola, Che Guevara and Eva Peron. Like every truly great city, New York, London and Prague; Buenos Aires is its own universe, with its own center of gravity, its own scents and flavors, its own architectural signature-in short, its own way of being. From San Telmo's oak-paneled restaurants and brightly tiled apothecaries from 1900, and the phantasmagoric Beaux Arts palaces along Avenida Alvear and Plaza San Martin, to the parks of Palermo and the bustling bars and cafes along Corrientes and LaValle, Buenos Aires is steeped in exotic culture and history. In Buenos Aires, Art and culture critic James Gardner offers a colorful biography of the "Paris of the South," from its origins and time as a colonial city, through its Golden age, the rise of Peron, and the Falklands War, to the present day. With entertaining asides about art, architecture, literature, food and dance, as well as local customs and colorful personalities, this is a rich and unique historical narrative of Buenos Aires.

30 review for Buenos Aires: The Biography of a City

  1. 5 out of 5

    J.D.

    Born in Buenos Aires, I have been reading books about the story of the city for years. This one has a different take, quite personal, both on the city and the history of the country. It’s that particular, structural angle of the author’s vision what makes this such an extraordinary read, even for a jaded Argentine. Gardner takes the point of view of an architect, looking at how the city was built the way it was, how it grew from the original village and into to the immense, monstrous metropolis Born in Buenos Aires, I have been reading books about the story of the city for years. This one has a different take, quite personal, both on the city and the history of the country. It’s that particular, structural angle of the author’s vision what makes this such an extraordinary read, even for a jaded Argentine. Gardner takes the point of view of an architect, looking at how the city was built the way it was, how it grew from the original village and into to the immense, monstrous metropolis of today. He finds what we all have suspected of every great city in the world—whether we talk about London, New York, Paris, or Istanbul—that a city is a reflection of the history of the country. He truly demonstrates this, in a book that’s both a labor of love and an incisive look at the complex natives of Buenos Aires. There’s some information here that I haven’t seen in any of the books about Buenos Aires I’ve read—I’m writing a novel set there, and so I have a very long shelf of them, having also spent quality time on Argentina’s National Library. For instance, we learned that Buenos Aires has a city grid just like New York, but which was built over 200 years earlier. Or that the country has had—not a very good thing—the first truly totalitarian government in the world, very much in the likes of North Korea, but back in the 19th Century. Gardner is also the first to explain, convincingly, why Buenos Aires is so much like Paris, something that confuses Parisians coming to visit it—or this city-born guy, the first time I’ve visited Paris. Looking at the culture from the outside, Gardner has created a deeply felt history and what could be one of the great books about a city that’s as layered as Istanbul, as beautiful (but mostly it was) as Paris, and as boastful and intense as New York. As a “porteño” (a Buenos Aires native, coming from “puerto” or harbor) I approve this history book on Argentina’s capital as one of the Top Ten I’ve ever read—and coming from a porteño, this is quite a compliment.

  2. 4 out of 5

    Zeb Kantrowitz

    note: this was a free eBook from NetGalley The subtitle of this book is “the biography of a City”, and you will find that this is so much more. For Gardner this is a paean to a city that he loves and admires. But don’t be mistaken that he doesn’t see the “flaw” of his lover, he is very good at pointing out its’ flaw and warts. This is an honest review of the history of this city known as the “Paris of the South”. Buenos Aires (which means ‘faithful winds’) was originally settle in the early sixte note: this was a free eBook from NetGalley The subtitle of this book is “the biography of a City”, and you will find that this is so much more. For Gardner this is a paean to a city that he loves and admires. But don’t be mistaken that he doesn’t see the “flaw” of his lover, he is very good at pointing out its’ flaw and warts. This is an honest review of the history of this city known as the “Paris of the South”. Buenos Aires (which means ‘faithful winds’) was originally settle in the early sixteenth century only to be abandoned for fifty years. When it was finally permanently settled, it remained as a village until the nineteenth century when it became the capital of the new Republic of Argentina. Situated on the Rio de la Plata (the river of silver) there was little reason for its’ original placement. This huge estuary, surrounded the city on three sides with large mudflats, preventing it from being a true port (even though the inhabitants are called Portenos) because it didn’t have a real harbor. Being built on a prairie (The Pampas), there was no wood for building or stone to quarry. The early city was made of mud, thatch and bricks giving Buenos Aires a run-down and temporary appearance. Gardner covers the history of the city by different periods, and says that the city didn’t truly become a “City” until the twentieth century. It was only during the time that it became a great world city of boulevards, parks and memorable buildings. He writes about how the Portenos overdid it trying to become a great city and how they still have an unmentioned mindset of city of ‘strivers’. My one criticism of this book is that Gardner (though he is the author and can write with any bias he wants), spends too much time on the architecture of the city and not enough on the political history. But that’s just my bias. Zeb Kantrowitz zworstblog.blogspot.com [email protected]

  3. 4 out of 5

    Ricardo Ribeiro

    Exquisite book about a wonderful city. I started reading it before I visited Buenos Aires and finished it after. It gave me great pleasure and I learned a lot. Makes me wish to go back, which I will most probably do, armed with the notes I took from the book. A great writing style, detailed but easy to read, exciting prose, full of stories and interesting facts. Loved it!

  4. 5 out of 5

    Tarah

    I think it is certainly possible to tell the history of the city by its architecture and to understand its people better more by their space and the things they create, but this book didn’t really do either of those things for me. I get the sense that if you’re very familiar with Buenos Aires you might enjoy this book better, but for someone who is hoping to get familiar with Buenos Aires, this book doesn’t offer a particularly helpful introduction. It’s very dryly written, and doesn’t help to c I think it is certainly possible to tell the history of the city by its architecture and to understand its people better more by their space and the things they create, but this book didn’t really do either of those things for me. I get the sense that if you’re very familiar with Buenos Aires you might enjoy this book better, but for someone who is hoping to get familiar with Buenos Aires, this book doesn’t offer a particularly helpful introduction. It’s very dryly written, and doesn’t help to contextualize the city for a more casual reader.

  5. 5 out of 5

    Mandy

    An extremely interesting in-depth biography of a city I have yet to visit, and a book that I would certainly take with me if I do ever have the chance to go. Not a guidebook, and shouldn’t be judged as such, but a history and commentary, well and authoritatively written and with some great illustrations.

  6. 5 out of 5

    Jessica - How Jessica Reads

    To review for Shelf Awareness. A solid history of a city I knew little about.

  7. 4 out of 5

    Steve Sanderson

    This is a worthy book, adding substantially to the literature on Argentina. The author has real style and a sense of humor, as well as a different eye -- that of an architecture critic. Whereas, the standard treatment of Buenos Aires in the life of the Argentine nation is still Scobie's Argentina: A City and A Nation, this volume should be required reading for those interested in the subject. In particular, the historical synthesis of the 19th century is good, and welcome, since many only seem i This is a worthy book, adding substantially to the literature on Argentina. The author has real style and a sense of humor, as well as a different eye -- that of an architecture critic. Whereas, the standard treatment of Buenos Aires in the life of the Argentine nation is still Scobie's Argentina: A City and A Nation, this volume should be required reading for those interested in the subject. In particular, the historical synthesis of the 19th century is good, and welcome, since many only seem interested in Argentina after the economic expansion of the 1870s forward. In fact, the best part of the book is the first 2/3, before the 20th century analysis. Perhaps that's because of the architectural black hole of the post WWII period or the complexities of Argentine politics beginning with Yrigoyen. Nevertheless, there are some real gaps. First, the author gives short shrift to the expansion of the staple commodities economy, which coincided with similar Australian and Canadian experiences. The story of how the refrigerated beef industry -- briefly mentioned -- served to integrate the national economy and the infrastructure linkages to the interior is abbreviated. The ties to Britain in the Great Depression and their impact (negative) on Argentina beyond WWII are likewise untreated for the most part. It wasn't just political instability, but British default on Argentine loans, the inconvertibility of sterling after the war, and the obstinate defense of free trade during the Justo government (when other LA countries were embracing economic nationalism) that affected Argentina's decline from its peak in the 1910s. This is an architectural history, to be sure, but if you take the subject on, you should treat it with some real attention. More to the architectural target, though, is the author's failure to treat some important BA landmarks, such as the Palacio Unzué and the Quinta de Olivos, both remarkable presidential retreats of historical importance. Unzué is now long gone, but its history and role -- and perhaps its architectural interest -- are worthy of treatment. Olivos still exists, now as a monument to Perón. Similarly, the author refers to the villas miseries as slums, when the term "shantytowns" is far more appropriate. Villa 25 and 31 have been around a long time, and they have their own architectural vernacular, much like the favelas of Rio de Janeiro. Both have received deserved sociological attention. And, the author contends that the black population of BA was as prominent in the late 19th century as its analog in Rio de Janeiro. I'd like to see evidence of that assertion, which is both strange and undocumented in the book. Finally, I found the dismissive treatment of the Argentine indigenous populations disturbing. Argentina undertook a frontier expansion similar to that of the US, with the elimination of "savage" obstacles to development. That expansion explained the future of BA to some extent and deserved more attention. Despite these shortcomings, I liked this book and enjoyed reading it.

  8. 4 out of 5

    Brian

    This book presents a historical overview of Buenos Aires through the lens of its architecture and infrastructure. As someone who's never been to Argentina and is unfamiliar with the city, I learned some things about the history of Buenos Aires and Argentina. I got a general sense of the city, along with a few details that made an impression on me: for example, the unrelenting grid pattern, the prevalence of the octava at street intersections, the 20-lane width of Avenida de 9 Julio. But as a rea This book presents a historical overview of Buenos Aires through the lens of its architecture and infrastructure. As someone who's never been to Argentina and is unfamiliar with the city, I learned some things about the history of Buenos Aires and Argentina. I got a general sense of the city, along with a few details that made an impression on me: for example, the unrelenting grid pattern, the prevalence of the octava at street intersections, the 20-lane width of Avenida de 9 Julio. But as a reader with no architectural training, a lot of the building descriptions seemed dry and jargon-heavy to me and were therefore not all that interesting. This is a book that would be greatly improved by more and better photographs and maps — in color to the extent possible. Quite a few of the black and white photos of buildings (many by the author himself) are totally insufficient to illustrate the points being made about them (at least insufficient to me as a non-architect). Probably the best format would be an e-book with color photos and maps as well as links to explanations of architectural terms, more in-depth information about historical figures, and so forth. I didn't dislike the book, but it's hard for me to enthusiastically recommend it, other than maybe to architects, city planners, and those who are already familiar with Buenos Aires and want to learn more.

  9. 5 out of 5

    Dave

    The subtitle of this book, "A Biography of a City," really sums it up. It is a look at Buenos Aires itself - its streets, harbor, buildings and public spaces - by an architectural and urban planning expert. Along the way, he serves up some historical background from the second founding of the city in 1580 (the first founding didn't quite take) to the early 21st century. But a full history of the city and the nation of Argentina are not his goals. Still, we learn enough to spark our curiosity abo The subtitle of this book, "A Biography of a City," really sums it up. It is a look at Buenos Aires itself - its streets, harbor, buildings and public spaces - by an architectural and urban planning expert. Along the way, he serves up some historical background from the second founding of the city in 1580 (the first founding didn't quite take) to the early 21st century. But a full history of the city and the nation of Argentina are not his goals. Still, we learn enough to spark our curiosity about certain eras. While I am more interested in history than architecture, I still enjoyed much of the text of the book - except when he assumes his readers know as much about architecture as he does. And the photos, all black and white and often blurred, didn't help much. And the only map he includes is also a bit fuzzy. You can't make out key landmarks on it. In spite of all of this, it is a mostly interesting telling of the story of Buenos Aires, Argentina from an unusual perspective.

  10. 4 out of 5

    Wendy Jackson

    Surprisingly compelling read that tells the life story of Buenos Aires from its founding 500 years ago up to the present. Gets into politics, culture, literature, and a lot of architecture. Highly recommended to anyone who is planning on visiting the city. I was only half-through the book when I arrived, and wished I had finished reading it. I think people who have been there would enjoy it too. The focus is mainly on the 'central' parts of the city (Plaza de Mayo; Palermo; San Telmo), though th Surprisingly compelling read that tells the life story of Buenos Aires from its founding 500 years ago up to the present. Gets into politics, culture, literature, and a lot of architecture. Highly recommended to anyone who is planning on visiting the city. I was only half-through the book when I arrived, and wished I had finished reading it. I think people who have been there would enjoy it too. The focus is mainly on the 'central' parts of the city (Plaza de Mayo; Palermo; San Telmo), though there are bits and pieces about surrounding neighbourhoods (Belgrano; new Puerto Madero), and the last chapters talk about the villes. Only one minor criticism, and a warning: criticism - the book would benefit from more maps and more photos; warning - even though I just came from Buenos Aires, I want to go back specifically to explore buildings that the book discussed.

  11. 5 out of 5

    Nicholas

    Worth a read if you are visiting Buenos Aires. At times it is a a fascinating read. Specifically when he described the history of the city. At other times it is almost impossible to follow the architecture jargon that gives an uneducated reader little to understand. This is really true in the last couple of chapters. It seemed like he ran out of material and instead just filled it with stuff about random buildings.

  12. 4 out of 5

    Kenneth J Dueker

    Historical perspective with architectural emphasis Having never been to Buenos Aires the lack of maps to help understand the significance of many place names and streets was frustrating. I was unable to appreciate the locational significance of what the author was trying to convey.

  13. 4 out of 5

    Tekla

    Slightly stuffy account of the history of Buenos Aires from an 'urbanistic perspective' (meaning the buildings and streets/plan/structure), but full of an interesting balance of historical facts. It was helpful to have a map of Buenos Aires handy while reading. Slightly stuffy account of the history of Buenos Aires from an 'urbanistic perspective' (meaning the buildings and streets/plan/structure), but full of an interesting balance of historical facts. It was helpful to have a map of Buenos Aires handy while reading.

  14. 4 out of 5

    Joe

    He provides great anecdotes throughout the book, but it should have included footnotes. While the bibliography is rather extensive, it is a poor substitute for comprehensive footnotes.

  15. 4 out of 5

    Robin

    The idea of reading the history of a city in terms of a biography is intriguing—especially the city dubbed the Paris of South America, where I have several cousins. The author begins by telling us that Buenos Aires will be a general history, for the general reader, of the city itself, not the surrounding province. To this end, his first interest is the city’s great grid and the development of the city’s architecture. His second interest is the people who came to inhabit the city and how they did The idea of reading the history of a city in terms of a biography is intriguing—especially the city dubbed the Paris of South America, where I have several cousins. The author begins by telling us that Buenos Aires will be a general history, for the general reader, of the city itself, not the surrounding province. To this end, his first interest is the city’s great grid and the development of the city’s architecture. His second interest is the people who came to inhabit the city and how they did so. There is plenty about architecture throughout the book. I had a good sense of the lives of the general populace in the beginning of the book, including early explorations, settlement, and challenges in founding Buenos Aires. But towards the end of the book the people focus was mostly about political leaders and architects. The book lost the sense of the lives of everyday people. I rated this book 2.5 stars—somewhere between liking the book and finding it okay, but downgraded to 2 because of the poor illustrations. Given that the book is largely about architecture, the small black and white photos don’t do many of the subjects justice. Plus, Gardner discusses many buildings that are more beautiful and complex than some of the blockier buildings and monuments in the photos. I had to keep my browser open during the final chapters to reference most of the Beaux Arts and Art Deco buildings, which are quite lovely. A few color photos would have helped a lot. Also, the map in the book is pretty much useless for locating streets and sites to which the author refers. It’s grayscale, with tiny and faint street labels. In addition, there is no reference to the exact area of Buenos Aires that it depicts. I did locate four of the many parks and streets referenced in the text on this map, but am unsure whether the others are off the map or just illegible. Perhaps the map is intended as a reference for those who already know quite a bit about the city and its layout, but I found getting the map to jive with maps on the internet frustrating. If you’re wondering how Buenos Aires was first settled—a most unusual history, because it was settled twice—I recommend reading the first few chapters. The book’s portrayal of the relationship between Buenos Aires and other early settlements in South America is quite interesting. But feel free to abandon the book if later chapters don’t hold equal fascination for you.

  16. 4 out of 5

    Ann Green

    I have always thought that Buenos Aires, Argentina would be a fascinating place to enjoy culture, architecture and theatre. When I received this ARC free from Goodreads, I was excited to read something different from my usual fiction choices. Since the spring of 2013, Buenos Aires also become famous as the birthplace of Pope Frances, another reason to visit! In the book "Buenos Aires, Art and culture", James Gardner gives the reader a colorful biography of this former colonial city from the gold I have always thought that Buenos Aires, Argentina would be a fascinating place to enjoy culture, architecture and theatre. When I received this ARC free from Goodreads, I was excited to read something different from my usual fiction choices. Since the spring of 2013, Buenos Aires also become famous as the birthplace of Pope Frances, another reason to visit! In the book "Buenos Aires, Art and culture", James Gardner gives the reader a colorful biography of this former colonial city from the golden age to the modern day. He gives many details about the local customs in addition to the art, architecture, history, literature, food and dance of the area. His historical lessons include the personalities and lives of famous Argentines including Jorge Luis Borges, Che Guevara and Eva Peron. The best parts are the original photos taken by the author and his painstaking attempts to bring interesting and unusual historical maps and photos to our attention. It was time well spent at local historical libraries and museums! For the reader, it would help to have some background before reading. But for history buffs, the chatty and elaborate descriptions are a challenging intellectual read. For others looking for a more Fodors or Frommer view of the region, this book has a different purpose. I enjoyed it, but not with a deeper understanding of someone with roots in the area or a previous trip to the region.

  17. 4 out of 5

    Megan

    This book bills itself as the first English-language history of Buenos Aires, and I picked it up hoping to review some history I already knew and learn a lot more. For me, the most interesting part was the sections about changes to the Rio de la Plata coastline and to the city's street grid/transportation system and how those changed the way people live in the city. The sections on the very early history of the city, its various foundings and debates over its status are also really interesting. This book bills itself as the first English-language history of Buenos Aires, and I picked it up hoping to review some history I already knew and learn a lot more. For me, the most interesting part was the sections about changes to the Rio de la Plata coastline and to the city's street grid/transportation system and how those changed the way people live in the city. The sections on the very early history of the city, its various foundings and debates over its status are also really interesting. However, in later parts, it spends more time than I was expecting on architectural criticism of buildings, many of which are not pictured and which very rarely seem, in the author's opinion, to compare favorably with those of Europe. I would also caution that it describes a lot of streets and buildings that it doesn't picture so if you've never been to BsAs, I think some of it might be kind of boring. If you are interested in the history of the city and architecture, its worth a read, but it is not the general history book it claims to be. That said, I finally know who to blame for the leaky eyesore that is the Biblioteca Nacional (looking at you, Testa), who my street is named after, and why Buenos Aires has so many ochavas! Going to be spurting out facts for weeks!

  18. 4 out of 5

    Joe

    I got this book free through Goodreads giveaways. While I enjoyed the book as a whole, I felt that it was incomplete at best. The main focus of the novel was architecture, which I didn't mind at the beginning, but it became repetitive towards the middle and end. It was always, this building was built and then torn down, or replaced; rinse and repeat. I felt that something billed as a biography of a city, should have more than just the physical details of a city. While that is important, the histo I got this book free through Goodreads giveaways. While I enjoyed the book as a whole, I felt that it was incomplete at best. The main focus of the novel was architecture, which I didn't mind at the beginning, but it became repetitive towards the middle and end. It was always, this building was built and then torn down, or replaced; rinse and repeat. I felt that something billed as a biography of a city, should have more than just the physical details of a city. While that is important, the history, the politics, the people should also be included. I felt that this book lacked those details, except for certain parts that seemed only out of place as the focus of other parts was basically solely architecture. That being said, I did like the book, and the information that it relayed. The main thing I come away from this book with is that I understand why the rest of South America don't like Argentina.

  19. 4 out of 5

    Tracy Morgan

    A great look at a fascinating city. Whether you're planning on visiting Buenos Aires or not, this book is incredibly interesting. Full of beautiful and intriguing pictures, this book only confirmed my desire to visit Buenos Aires. I highly recommend it. A great look at a fascinating city. Whether you're planning on visiting Buenos Aires or not, this book is incredibly interesting. Full of beautiful and intriguing pictures, this book only confirmed my desire to visit Buenos Aires. I highly recommend it.

  20. 4 out of 5

    Lauren

    Could really use more pictures and a map of a wider area would be super helpful!!

  21. 5 out of 5

    Warren Green

  22. 4 out of 5

    Marcin Treder

  23. 5 out of 5

    Will

  24. 5 out of 5

    Marylu

  25. 5 out of 5

    Stephen Conschafter

  26. 4 out of 5

    Debora De

  27. 4 out of 5

    TX Poppet

  28. 5 out of 5

    MaryBeth

  29. 4 out of 5

    Pat

  30. 5 out of 5

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