Like a facelift on an aging Argentine beauty, wildly swirling mosaics and an open air art museum have transformed a once crumbling smog-stained street in Barracas from a has been neighbourhood into a something of a tourist attraction.
The resurrection of Calle Lanín was the brainchild of porteño born and bred artist Marino Santa María, whose urban artistic intervention has tripled house prices since the installation of 40 painted and ceramic facades eight years ago.
Enter the unprepossessing neighbourhood and there’s not much hint of the psychedelic house frontages to come. Instead, on a day pelting with rain, we walk under a dark and sodden railway underpass. A homeless man dressed in black plastic rubbish bags asks us not for money, but for the time. We round a corner and pass a workshop, where men in goggles and hardhats are electric sawing their way through planks amid a haze of floating dust.
And then we’re there. The monochromatic landscape stained with the fumes of trains passing nearly overhead becomes a kaleidoscope of colour, swirls and splobs rising and wriggling on the house fronts. The weather has frightened away any wandering art aficionados, but the saturated hues of Santa María shine.
‘Projecto Calle Lanín’ started in 2001, when the artist returned from Bilbao with the aim of creating an artwork in a public space. He’d seen the Guggenheim museum, and wanted to dream up something that didn’t conform to conventions, in the same way that the architectural icon broke the mould of buildings that had come before.
Using a series of small abstract paintings, Santa María asked neighbours to choose the design they would like for the front of their house.
“In terms of the neighbour’s permission, they asked me to do it,” he explains. “It was all done for free. The only houses which haven’t been done are the ones that haven’t asked me yet.”
The houses, which were built in the early 1900s and given Italian façades, were initially painted. But with the passage of time, and an agreement with tile manufacturers Murvi three years ago, Santa María has been updating the designs with Venetian mosaics.
“Nothing lasts forever,” the artist says matter of factly. “In the past four to six years we’ve had to repaint the houses because the paint was short lived. With this new technique the designs will survive a long time.”
Barracas is a neighbourhood currently undergoing a boom. House prices have rocketed, and construction is frenzied. Property values in other parts of the barrio have risen 50% in three years. The old Bagley biscuit factory, one of the foodstuff manufacturers that gave the neighbourhood the name of ‘Barracas Dulce’, is being converted into a housing complex. And the government’s proposal to close the Borda and Moyano psychiatric hospitals and convert the zone into public spaces has investors in a flurry. But the Calle Lanín has also had an impact in the barrio’s renaissance.
In the real estate sections of the newspaper, Santa María says prices per square metre are referred to in terms of their proximity to Lanín, if they are half a block or a block away.
Most of his neighbours though, are staying put and have been based on the street – which not so long ago was all but forgotten – for 30 or 40 years.
Foot traffic is up, but the artist is not at all keen for the street to turn into the kind of tourist circus that La Boca has become.
“Having a market would be the biggest contradiction,” Santa María says. “If we had a market we wouldn’t be able to see the tiles. It would be like putting a bookcase in front of pictures.”
The trees that shade the street once did the same. But inundations of rain and sun have pushed the leaves upwards, away from the splurges of colour that illuminate the facades.
It’s not La Boca
In any case, Calle Lanín is stylistically significantly different from La Boca. While La Boca has a uniformity, Calle Lanín is made of fragmented fronts, the channel switching or zapping of post modernity. The palette, in addition, is different in La Boca.
“Benito Quinquela Martín‘s original colours were more academic and used a lot of grey mixed with other shades,” Santa María points out.
He refers to his hues of choice, primary colours and black and white, as a ‘reflection of the soul’, which ‘was natural and not at all calculated’.
It’s not only the street that has been transformed. Calle Lanín has radically changed Santa María’s career.
“Before I painted and took part in competitions, I exhibited, like any other artist. I was the chancellor of the National School of Fine Arts,” he told me. “This has transformed me into a specialist in public art.”
Arte en aire libre
As a side project, the street has also been given a new identity as an art museum.
Every Friday, Saturday and Sunday 33 digitally reproduced works by important contemporary Argentine artists are hung along a railway train brick embankment.
The number 33 is a reference to Santa María’s address.
“I put up work from people of my generation, people who were mentors, people who were part of a group I was in, people I admire and that I exhibited with,” he explains. “It’s an homage.”
It’s also been a lesson on museumology.
“One of the most interesting things is that I realised that one of the first things that people do when they enter a museum is they read the material, they look for someone to explain it, myself included. In the street there’s no one who is prepared to do that for you, so the reaction to the art is much more natural, like music, either you like it or you don’t. Fortunately they like it.”
Art in every business
In terms of regenerating the neighbourhood, Santa María organised a photogallery in a recently opened bar named ‘Ingrata’ (ungrateful).
“The idea is in whatever place they open, be it bar, restaurant or hallways of houses, to hang themed exhibitions of architectural drawings, design, photographs or prints,” he says.
Santa María’s wife has herself got in on the act, and recently opened Acielo Abierto with an intriguing exhibition of images by Amelia Herrero made from impressions taken from the plaques that covering water mains on the footpaths.
Fortunately not starving
While many a porteño is quick to reference the projects that have never come to fruition because of changes of government, Santa María is grateful for the support he’s had from city officials. Buenos Aires’ minister of culture Hernán Lombardi has promoted guided tours, listed the street on the city government tourism website and helped with the production of a catalogue.
“I’ve got funding until the end of the year at least. After that we can talk,” he joked when asked about the political climate.
Aside from the tourists directed Santa María’s way from the government, the next big source of neighbourhood visitors is a tour company led by historians who studied at the University of Buenos Aires called Eternautas.
Other groups don’t come because there aren’t many businesses in the area, Santa María says.
Art for impoverished children
Another of Santa María’s projects is a series of workshops for young children, the ‘Pequeña Muralistas Solidarios’. Six- or seven-year-old youngsters work together at the weekends under the guidance of the artist, making a mural from mosaics that will be installed in soup kitchens for malnourished children, or play areas.
“The idea was to give middle class kids the chance to interact with kids who are less fortunate than themselves. In this way you can see a dialogue develop between the kids who are in different situations. That was my objective,” he explains.
The colourful frontages have been given a better chance of surviving the test of time now that they have been converted into weather- and fade-resistant mosaics. But what Santa María has on his drawing board next is something far more temporary.
“I’ll be doing something on the wall under the bridge in the spring,” he says, referring to the overpass where we encountered the homeless man.
“I’m going to call some artists and poets to make some images and poems, and we’re going to stick works up until the water or whatever destroys them. It’s going to be a space called ‘Efimera’. Ephemera, meaning intransient, episodic, for a short duration. As Santa Maria said, nothing is eternal.
Arte Barracas. Museo intervención urbana
Calle Lanín Until the end of the year Friday, Saturday and Sunday 10am to 5pm