Most cabbies aren’t familiar with how best to get to the corner of Villarino and Santa María de Buen Aire. Sure, they’ve heard the streets’ names, but they’re far from being part of their everyday rounds. The streets meet at the southern end of the Barracas neighborhood, down by the Riachuelo river, in an area that used to be one of the city’s primary centres of industry, but in recent decades has witnessed dozens of abandoned shops and factories fall into disrepair and a proliferation of unoccupied spaces. On this particular corner of the neighbourhood, however, is the entrance to a building that buzzes with creative energy and is poised to revitalize the area and catalyse the city’s economy. This building is the Metropolitan Design Centre (CMD).
Form and Function
The CMD is situated in the building that used to serve as the city’s principal fish market. In 2001 the city government’s Ministry of Economic Development began renovating the building and will celebrate the official completion of the centre on 14th October. The building has a total area of 14,000m² and an employment potential of 1,500. It houses government offices concerned with promoting design, creative industries and foreign trade, 70 workspaces for the “incubation” of entrepreneurial ventures, an auditorium, classrooms, spaces for workshops and laboratories, 3,000m² for exhibitions and displays, a specialized library, a museum, a cultural centre and a cafeteria.
The CMD’s mission is to be the leading public advocate in the city of the economic and cultural importance of design. It financially and logistically supports and stimulates private and public initiatives related to design in the city. It assists local entrepreneurs in launching their ventures, coordinates interaction between designers, design managers, business executives, academics and policy makers and promotes the importance of design to the city’s economy.
Enrique Avogadro, general director of creative industries, foreign trade and design for the Ministry of Economic Development said that altogether 10% of the city’s economy is related to creative industries. The fashion industry alone provides 2.5% of the total employment in the capital. In the first 10 months of 2009, for example, goods related to fashion amounted to 4.4% of the city’s exports.
But the fashion industry is just one sector of the local economy that the CMD works to invigorate. Through various mechanisms, the CMD supports production of TV programs, movies, advertising, videos games and computer animation, publishing, music and architecture. The centre works to promote these creative industries both at home and abroad. At home they offer training, project management, and provide grants and loans from the city bank. Abroad, they organize international trade missions, arrange for local producers to attend prestigious trade fairs and host the annual Buenos Aires International Design Festival.
The CMD permeates multiple sectors of the city’s economy, and collaborates with many non-governmental institutions. For example, the CMD works with intermediary institutions such as local business chambers and universities to run its incubation program of entrepreneurs, incuBA. Together, representatives of the CMD and the partner institutions select promising start-up enterprises and help them through their first critical year of production.
Once a project is selected, it is given access to one of the 70 work spaces in the CMD set aside for the program, training and economic and logistical support. After a year, the budding enterprises are sent out into the market but are encouraged to keep ties with the CMD. If the venture is successful it benefits all parties: the business primarily, the city by augmenting the economy and the intermediary institutions by giving them experience fostering young businesses. Avogadro said of collaborating with intermediary institutions, “We want them to learn with us. We want the program to be a sort of a factory of entrepreneurs.”
Revitalization not Gentrification
One way that the CMD is working to draw attention to design as a tool of economic growth is the revitalization of the southern end of Barracas, by turning it into a design district. The Project Design District is still being formulated, but plans have focused on offering preferential loans, tax cuts, and subsidies for the restoration of buildings to design related companies that would install their offices or workshops in the area surrounding the CMD.
There is a balance to be struck though, and Avogadro made it clear that the project is aimed at revitalizing the area, not gentrifying it. He explained, “The market is already there, so if we provide some sort of incentive, such as a tax break, they will have an interest in coming. But it’s also interesting, because this is not Palermo, though we want to attract the creative community we don’t want to expel the local neighbours. So we have to find a way of mixing both trends: local industry and traditions with economic opportunities.”
The CMD will also bring attention to the importance of design by opening it’s own doors to the community. In addition to the exhibitions spaces, the museum, and the classrooms being open to the public, the centre also hopes to establish a weekend design fair. Last month an exhibition space was filled with paintings and sculptures created by area children. The centre offers free training courses in trades such as sewing and leather work for unemployed individuals looking to get into those fields.
Spreading the Word
Technically speaking, Buenos Aires is already one of the premier design centres of the world. In 2005 the city was named the first City of Design by UNESCO, part of its Creative Cities Network. UNESCO said of the capital, “Spanning the fields of fashion, architecture, industrial, interior and urban design with a keen focus on incorporating the latest technology and know-how, Buenos Aires is a city that inspires design.” While honoured and encouraged by the recognition, Avogadro says that Buenos Aires still has a ways to go before it truly lives up to the title.
One of the ways that the CMD is working to strengthen Buenos Aires’s importance to the international design community is by establishing the annual Buenos Aires International Design Festival. The festival, which will run this year from the 22nd to the 31st of October, will feature international enterprises, professionals, academics and institutions that will take part in exhibitions, conferences, installations, product launches, debates, workshops, fairs, contests and other events. There will also be a Summit of Design Cities, that representatives of other UNESCO Design Cities will participate in.
In addition to the CMD, events will be held at some of the city’s other examples of first-rate design, including Konex, the Proa Foundation and the MALBA museum. Almost all events will be open and free to the public. Avogadro believes that the festival is one of the best ways for the CMD to focus local attention on the importance of design. He said, “I don’t want the festival to be totally owned by the government, but by the citizens. I want it so that if you’re a designer or part of the design community I want you to think that you should be doing something interesting in October, and if you missed this year, then you can do it for the next one.”
Even if it’s not quite there yet, Buenos Aires, thanks to the efforts of the CMD, is well on its way to being one of the premier design cities of the world. Avogadro says that Buenos Aires will truly be a design city when that’s one of the things that cabbies tell visitors just arriving at the airport. When that day comes, it will be safe to assume that the cabbies will be well familiar with how best to get to the CMD.