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Napoleon is lounging on the table with green and blue light glowing through a glass bottle wall behind him. Nearby work continues on the Lighthouse at The End of The World and jet-black wrought iron horses glint in the midday sun – welcome to the fairytale landscape of La Casa de Botellas.
Twenty-one years after Tito Ingenieri started work on his latest project in Quilmes, over six million bottles have been cemented into a workshop, living quarters, encircling battlements and gallery. When the third floor is completed on his galleon-like tower around March his home will finally be complete. And then he’s going to move on.
Never one to conform to expectations, he previously spent 15 years living in a tree with a staircase curled like a snail around the trunk. During the military dictatorship, when imagination and creativity were snuffed out of the public eye, he was forced to dismantle a glass bottle theatre that he had built and he has plans to retire in a house shaped like a fish.
Tito, 57, a Mataderos-born sculptor, artist, collector, inventor and latterday miracle-worker answers the door with Captain Nemo trotting hot on his heels. Wild beard, thick grey dreadlocks and wearing a Captain Crimson t-shirt – he ushers us inside.
“The house is a challenge,” he smiles over round gold glasses, “I sleep well at night after I finish working on it.” Inviting us to sit down on chairs made of reclaimed scrap metal, he puts on The Who and furnishes us with thimbles of ice-cold juice and fat empanadas.
“You could say that I’m a naufrago del tiempo – one of time’s castaways. I am an art labourer – obrero de arte and I didn’t have a house so I decided to make one,” he adds.
Almost all of the building materials are recycled apart from the cement and he maintains this is one of the cheapest ways to build a house. “I hate cities, I’d say I’m more a man of the woods. We’re different to porteños out here in the country, it’s like if they don’t have a car they don’t have a life,” he says.
The fantastical confections of glass and iron are surrounded by a lush rock garden full of bright flowers, pungent herbs and audacious butterflies. Half-finished metal sculptures and work tools are littered about and Nemo, a dwarf German Shepherd keeps an eye on proceedings.
People in glass bottle houses
Remarkably Tito isn’t the first person to build a casa de botellas – the original is in France and there are 26 in Jujuy.
The structures are made by constructing a metal framework of reclaimed iron, soldered into abstract shapes and incorporating recycled junk like 50 year-old wagon wheels and port-hole windows. This frame prevents the aggregate pressure of thousands of bottles splintering or warping the glass.
Tito has a small army of friends and helpers like Felix the cabinet-maker who helped him make the polished wooden stairs, floors and roofs. From the street the only sound is of clinking glassware as small mountains of donations from nightclubs and the local authority are sorted by colour and type. Everything from beer to champagne bottles are then worked into the frame and cemented into place.
Curious to see the process in action, we are led up the polished wooden staircase to the tower’s second floor where his friend Victor is slotting bottles into to the half-finished wall. Climbing up to the third floor; as yet nothing but an open cage of twisted iron, the panorama over the swampy neighbourhood opens up. The floor is unfinished and we pick our way gingerly along planks of wood feeling like weak-kneed sailors in a crow’s nest. Tito, meanwhile, hops nimbly along the narrow beams – more than ever like the seasoned captain of a landed ship.
“People are scared of me – they think I’m like a werewolf or something. They respect me in the neighbourhood,” he says.
With dark clouds closing in over the surreal scene, Tito assures us that the structures are completely water-proof. There has been electricity, plumbing and cable television almost as long as he has been working on the project.
When the sudestada winds blow from the south, a low haunting whistle sounds in the bottle tops and warn of storms rolling in across Río de la Plata.
“Art is for everyone, whether or not they respect it is their problem,” says a friend of Tito’s as we look at a visitors’ book packed with messages from people who have stopped off on their travels to see whether the rumours of his magical endeavour are true.
Until the tower is complete, Tito and his wife are living in a single story bottle house that he has called Nautilus at the front of the enclosure. Half museum: half house; there is a living room, kitchen, bathroom and bedroom. It is crowded with sea-related art-work, diving suits, a chandelier made of a bicycle, a Christmas tree made of green bottles, self-portraits, stacks of CDs, and more than the eye could possibly take in.
Despite Tito’s phobia of water, perhaps borne of his enforced service in the marines, Nautilus is something of a tribute to Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.
Whether it’s the gentle sea-green light coming through the walls or the sea diver motif (on everything from the mosaic floor of the bathroom, to half-finished paintings and sculptures), it feels like a spooky submarine world.
Hospitable to the last, he escorts us to the door and it takes a moment to adjust to daylight when we close the door to La Casa de Botellas and the collection of treasures, trophies and nicknacks that chronicle Tito’s life as man and artist.