Waiting for the bus in Buenos Aires

Depending on how you look at it Buenos Aires is one of the most orderly or disorderly cities we’ve visited.  Flying in to the airport at night, it is obvious from the rows of streetlights that Buenos Aires was designed using a grid system.  Walk around any neighbourhood, and you’ll see the buildings lining the street all do so with their fronts neatly squared with the street (which might not seem like such an accomplishment until you’ve visited parts of Ireland and Mexico).  Watch people queue up for a bus, and it’s easy to think you could take a measuring tape and find that each person in line is exactly 18 inches from the next, and they all face the same direction.

But look a little closer and you’ll see the chaos all around you.  Bus passengers may respect the rules for standing in line, but drivers certainly don’t respect the rules of the road, if they exist.  People often drive through town at incredible speeds, motorcyclists ride on the sidewalks if the motor traffic ahead of them seems to be moving a little too slowly, drivers create lanes that aren’t there, or turn from the second (or third lane) over, or turn into the fifth lane (a frequent occurrence), and at the many unregulated intersections (that’s right, no signs or lights of any kind, even at many fairly busy intersections) you can see the yelling and hand gestures imported from Italy.

And while the streets and buildings may seem orderly, there are some baffling exceptions.  To see what I mean, walk to Plaza 25 de Mayo, which lies directly in front of the Pink House (much like our White House, except it’s a kind of pink, of course).  You’ll see a nice planned plaza, with a statue of a man on a horse, a flagpole, another statue on an obelisk, fountains, gardens, etc.

Try this experiment.  If you could stand in the center of the main arch of the Pink house and strike off perpendicular to the building, you will come to a statue of a man on a horse.  However, you won’t be right at the middle of the statue, but a few inches to the side.  Make your way around to the other side of the statue and try again, and you’ll almost run into a flagpole just a few feet away.  Almost, but not quite, since the flagpole is not centered on the pink house or the first statue.  Keep going and  you’ll come to a plaque explaining the planned garden ahead of you, but you’ll have to step about two feet to the left to read it since the plaque is not centered on anything you’ve passed so far or even on the garden ahead.  You could keep this up through the garden area, to the statue on the obelisk and so on and you won’t find anything that is lined up with anything else.  It’s generally symmetrical and it would have been the easiest thing in the world to line up the front door of the pink house, the statue, and all the rest but no, they didn’t.  It’s as if someone snapped a plumb line, set all the pieces in place, then nudged each element two feet this way, or four feet that way.  It would be fine, too, if it was clearly asymmetrical, with everything offset enough to give the sense it was done purposefully.  Instead, it looks like each builder just showed up and said, “Close enough.”  It wasn’t.

The most amazing thing to me is how the plaza was used during the recent bicentennial celebrations.  As explained in the last post, this year marks the 200th anniversary of the first local government in Buenos Aires, which began on May 25.  The nearby thoroughfare Avenida 9 de Julio is much, much larger than the Plaza 25 de Mayo, and so made sense as the focal point of the celebrations, but the Plaza seemed more like a construction zone during the celebrations than anything else.  Imagine there was a 4th of July Plaza directly in front of the White House, and the U.S. was getting ready to celebrate its bicentennial (July 4, 1976) and decided to use the White House lawn and the plaza as a loading and unloading zone for events elsewhere.  The Plaza 25 de Mayo looked horrible until the day after the celebrations ended, when all the extra crap was cleaned up and it was transformed into a beautiful public space.  It’s still not lined up, though.

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