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Valparaíso and Buenos Aires: Cities to Preserve

Two Latin American cities, Valparaíso and Buenos Aires, came together at the lecture "The Conservation of 19th and 20th Century Monuments and Heritage" at IDB Headquarters in Washington, D.C.

Ron van Oers, a Dutch urban planner with UNESCO's World Heritage Center, underscored the importance of the initiative undertaken by the Center to evaluate and preserve the cultural heritage of the 19th and 20th centuries. UNESCO has given hundreds of cultural and natural assets world heritage status, yet few represent recent centuries.

Modern Heritage of the Americas

In a meeting on the modern heritage of the Americas held in Monterrey, Mexico in December 2002, experts presented a list of sites in the Western Hemisphere worthy of inclusion in the cultural legacy that represents the past and the present, and that future generations will inherit.

One of those places is the Chilean city of Valparaíso, to which Van Oers refers to illustrate the difficulty of classifying modern cultural products as part of world heritage. A port city with eclectic architecture, Valparaíso was built by immigrants; its unusual buildings were made to accommodate the rough, uneven terrain. Valparaíso is home to an open, cosmopolitan society, and the Chileans have turned it into their cultural capital.

Van Oers emphasized the rudimentary elegance of Valparaíso's modern architecture, and the characteristics of the area surrounding the harbor-a window onto 19th century industrial society and the gateway to global trade. "These elements," said van Oers, "give Valparaíso enough global significance to qualify it for the heritage list. In June 2003, it will be decided whether Valparaíso is considered a historic community."

Buenos Aires, a Special Case

Fabio Grementieri, a manager of several projects involving the restoration and preservation of historic buildings in Buenos Aires, focused his talk on the architecture of that city between 1870 and 1930. "What's interesting about this period," the architect pointed out, "is that nowhere else in the world were there such diverse yet converging architectural trends as in the Argentine capital."

The Teatro Colón, one of the most famous opera houses in the world, exemplifies this architectural variety. Its design reveals a blend of several different styles, most notably Italian. Another example is the Iglesia de Santa Felicitas (Church of St. Felicitas), the only remaining evidence in the world of German neogothic style. Among numerous other examples cited by Grementieri were the Torre de los Ingleses (Tower of the English) in Retiro, built with materials imported from the United Kingdom; the Palacio Pereda (Pereda Palace), inspired by Paris and currently the seat of the Brazilian Embassy; and the Palacio Errázuriz (Errázuriz Palace), the quintessence of neoclassicism.

In the 19th and 20th centuries, Buenos Aires-the product of blending and imitation-began creating an invaluable heritage in the same way Jorge Luis Borges put together his literary world: with European pieces. Nevertheless, while Borges' work is preserved and circulated, little is being done to save the historic buildings of Buenos Aires from ruin. Hence Grementieri's emphasis on the need for greater awareness so as to preserve this unique heritage.

The IDB and Reclaiming Historic Heritage

"The IDB has a tradition of supporting projects designed to reclaim historic heritage, which is associated with its mandate to accelerate the economic and social development of Latin America," said Francesco Lanzafame, a housing and urban development specialist at the IDB. The projects the Bank supports must meet the following minimum requirements:

  • Establish long-term, self-sustaining standards of preservation;
  • Be adopted by the communities that either benefit from or own the goods to be preserved;
  • Promote reforms to prevent the irreversible deterioration and loss of heritage assets;
  • Promote public-private collaboration both at the financing and implementation stages of the project.

"In short," explained Lanzafame, "these projects are what keep the economy and the culture of an area alive. They are helpful in fighting social problems."


Dr. Ron van Oers is an urban planning engineer and researcher at Delft University of Technology. He serves as a consultant in urban conservation and management with UNESCO's World Heritage Centre.

Fabio Grementieri is an architect and a member of the architectural office Báez-Carena-Grementieri in Buenos Aires. He serves as an advisor to the City of Buenos Aires on architecture, heritage, and historic preservation