Since its foundation, the port of Buenos Aires –showing its back to the central area, on the estuary of the River Plate– has been one of the main links of the national economy for more than four centuries, channelling the exportation of raw materials and the importation of elaborated products. Nowadays, the attempt of using that space, by appealing to its strong evocative power, and in such a way as to expand laterally the central area, has led to re-functionalizing an industrial sector no longer destined to port use and has also led to a re-ensued debate on the necessity of structural planning with a capacity of decision on the development of new centralities.
Buenos Aires is the capital city of the Argentine Republic and it is situated in the south cone of South America, on the estuary of the River Plate. It is the central district of a metropolitan conglomeration which has over thirteen million inhabitants and which is inserted globally among the non-central economic spaces.
Since its foundation in 1580, its port -showing its back to the central area- has been one of the main links of the national economy for more than four centuries, channelling the exportation of raw materials and the importation of elaborated products. Moreover, it has left its imprinting in the cultural identity as a referential landmark and defined the axis of urban growth in the region.
Nowadays, the attempt of using that space, by appealing to its strong evocative power, and in such a way as to expand laterally the central area, has led to re-functionalizing an industrial sector no longer destined to port use and has also led to a re-ensued debate on the necessity of structural planning with a capacity of decision on the development of new centralities.
A port born old…
Towards the end of the 19th century, the Argentinean National Government recognised the necessity of providing Buenos Aires with a new port capable of managing efficiently the increasing commercial flow. Even though there was no doubt as regards the modernization of port technologies, the methods of construction and, mainly, the site of location were debated. The out-coming project consisted of four docks organized linearly over the muddy banks in front of the foundational area and political-administrative centre of the country.
Once the port had been inaugurated, strong disapproval of the project gained momentum, such as the phrase: ‘the port was born old’. Therefore, in 1908 the construction of a new port was authorised, which was designed in a sequence of five docks without locks, perpendicular to the bank, and which was situated to the north of the installations of Puerto Madero. Finished in 1925 and named Puerto Nuevo, the new port quickly doubled the functioning capacity of the old Puerto Madero, thus, this one fell into disuse and hurried its vertiginous decadence.
The plan of urban development
After several decades of abandonment, in 1989 the National and the Local Governments agreed to promote the urbanization of Puerto Madero area, through the constitution of a joint-stock society called ‘Corporación Antiguo Puerto Madero’ (‘Former Puerto Madero Corporation’), in which they were both equal partners: the former contributed to this project with the lands of the area; the latter, with the urban regulations for its development; and, together, they promoted a plan for the zone and laid out the necessary infrastructure, as a way to orientate the real estate activities.
Following as a model the experience gained in the recovery of the waterfront of the London Docklands, and after an intense debate, the master plan was defined for the urbanization of the 170 hectares (approximately 18.300 million square feet) of the former port seeking to achieve these five structural aims:
– the reconversion of the area so as to recover it from its state of deterioration;
– the reconstitution of its character, preserving its strong evocative power;
– the allocation of land for tertiary activities which require a central location;
– the re-conquest of a new and effective approximation of the city towards its river;
– the contribution to re-centring the central area, bringing balance to its northern and southern sectors.
Motivations of the master plan
Consequently, the proposal sought to recover the area for urban uses and to capitalise the demands for new equipments, increasing the value the pre-existing ones. From the ideas contest -in which more than a hundred projects took part- the winning team produced the master plan for urban development, which draw up structural lines along which the project is still running nowadays after two decades.
Even though the zone is an industrial and port area no longer in use, and is highly conditioned by the low accessibility of its bridges, the objective aspired to generate a site of prestige as a lateral expansion of the central area and -without unbalancing the present urban fabric- absorb the demand of new-generation offices, which efficiency required broad and flexible areas. The urban codification defined morphological indicators block by block, accentuating the criterion of preserving its intrinsic characteristics.
The scope of the proposal
With a buildable area of 1.5 million square meters (approximately 16.150 million square feet), the proposal consisted of a narrow urbanised strip between the four docks and a big park, formed by natural green reserves. The transverse connection -coinciding with the existing boat-breadths waterways between the impounded docks- is made by wide boulevards which link to the city. Between these axes, upon the said park, high-rising buildings were disposed to frame the civic axis.
The group ended up structured as follows: the system of avenues and the modulation of the docks, which characterises differential stretches; the fills and gaps of the docklands, which do not respect the rhythm in the layout of the city; the sheaf of high-rising tower-like buildings upon the intersections of the fabric; and the cranes and grain mills and elevators, which define the imprinting of the former port. Then, the plan comprised the restoration of the old docklands of the western side, the conservation of those buildings with patrimonial value, the construction of a narrow strip of seven-story residential buildings in the eastern side, a group of towers and a big park in order to re-establish the relation between the city and its river.
The process of managing the area
The Corporación Antiguo Puerto Madero leaded all the planning process and the management of the area, promoting the development of a master plan and setting up the land subdivision, the sale of lots and the execution of the infrastructure works. Firstly, the recycling of the brick buildings of the docklands, which were distinctive of the port identity, was undertaken in the western sector of the docks. These buildings, of historical and architectonic value, had been built together with the port and served as goods warehouses.
In a few years the recycling process was finished and therefore it gave rise to the formation of a sough-after space for the settlement of companies and a new gastronomic commercial district. The success in the development of the western sector strengthened the launch of the eastern sector, with tracts of greater building possibilities. Differently from the western side of a wholly historical profile, the eastern side allowed the development of a more modern architecture and the incorporation of state-of-the-art technology, which triggered a frantic real estate speculation.
Effects of the renewal operation
Nowadays, the renewal of the waterfront of Puerto Madero goes through its final stage, after twenty years of development, with the filling of the last parcels. From this perspective, it is possible to set in value some distinctive features of the operation. On the one side, a new model of territorial management was proposed in the local environment, which allowed the requalification of port lands which were useless for quality urban land use. On the other hand, given its longitudinal character, the piece triggered off a reconversion process of the old centre for the allocation of economical, services and tourism-related activities. Services have been brought in, streets have been opened, squares and parks have been built and urban equipment was provided.
However, the development of the eastern sector proposed a heterogeneous kind of intervention, unequal morphological results, with no character, and governed by the strong pressure of the real estate market. Finally, it must be underlined that a strong process of gentrification has started in the whole area of influence, which expulsed population and also traditional shops were replaced for new brands stores. And, from a global point of view, the operation generated a surplus which urban rent was wholly withheld for itself, without promoting the transfer of it to other zones of the city in need, such as the impoverished southern neighbourhoods.
© Guillermo Tella