Amid what she claimed to be the most “prolific period” in Argentine history in relation to the construction and enhancement of cultural spaces, President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner recently inaugurated the Centro Cultural Kirchner (CCK) ahead of the annual celebrations for the 1810 May Revolution.
The project, carried jointly by the Ministry of Federal Planning, Public Investment and Services and the Ministry of Culture, was originally planned by former president Néstor Kirchner in 2006.
After six years of construction and its first inauguration in 2010, the centre is now, once again, partially open to the public. The Indy joined one of the free guided tours available to get an insight of what promises to be the most important cultural centre in Latin America. But first, some context.
The obsolete Palacio de Correos y Telégrafos (Central Post Office), resurrected now as the CCK, was designed by French architect Norbert Maillart and inaugurated in 1928.
The building comprises ten floors and three sublevels, accounting for 110,000m2, of which 40,000 have been recuperated for the CCK. It served for decades as the country’s central post office and was proclaimed a national historic landmark in 1997.
The Argentine postal service was privatised in 1997 and remained in private hands up until its nationalisation in 2003, under Kirchner’s presidency, when its former owner, Grupo Macri, led by Franco Macri, failed to pay a debt of over $900m.
“The re-functionalisation and enhancement of the Central Post Office and ideas for its urban environment,” was the project that the studio B4FS proposed in 2009 and initiated that same year.
Located in the most important civic-political area of Buenos Aires, the CCK aims to be on a par with the greatest cultural centres in the world, fostering a bridge between the nation and its people through artistic expression and the appreciation for culture.
“The idea is to count with a modern space dedicated to artistic manifestations, as part of a democratic political project that seeks to promote inclusion, popular participation, and to facilitate the access of cultural assets to the community,” state those behind the construction and operation of the centre.
However, there exist controversies regarding the budget of the refurbishment project, which was expected to be $925m, but is estimated to have more than tripled that amount.
There have also been disagreements over the name of the centre. The city of Buenos Aires enforces a law that prohibits the naming of public spaces and streets after a person whose passing has been within the last 10 years. However, since the building is property of the federal state, the law does not apply in this case. Others argue that former-president Kirchner does not deserve to have a cultural centre named after him because of his limited influence in the artistic world.
President Fernández responded to the criticism in her speech on 25th May: “It seems that some resent [the centre] bearing the name of the former president. If it bothers them that much, why don’t they make a better one and name it what they want?”
During the 60-minute guided tour, I had the privilege to hurriedly appreciate the beauty of limited spaces in the CCK. I say limited because only a portion of the centre is actually finished, with construction on the project set to continue until 2016.
The structure is currently divided into two symmetrical sectors – the Noble area and the Industrial area – all enclosed within the original exterior of the building.
The Noble area, with its entrance on Sarmiento, recreates the now extinguished function of the building as the main post office, with the original structure restored and enhanced. The Industrial area includes most of the new innovations incorporated into the structure. “This wonderful building of the 19th century has incorporated the architecture of the 21st century in a masterly way,” stated architect Santiago Bo, referring to the aesthetics and functionality of the centre.
The guided tour started in the Noble area, walking the public through its main hall. While on my visit, I could overhear some visitors reminisce with nostalgia about their old visits to the former post office. The elegance of the main hall – covered in marble and decorated with the original wooden furniture of the building arranged as though it still functioned as the central post office – gave a first-time visitor like me an idea of its historical significance.
As we moved to the second floor and the Salón de los Escudos, where the only active exhibition is currently taking place, the tour guide explained that the free tickets to all the exhibitions and activities can be acquired at one of the desks downstairs.
We continued our guided visit to the most significant addition to the centre, La Ballena Azul (‘The Blue Whale’), a symphony hall which now serves as the home of the Argentine National Symphony Orchestra. La Ballena Azul is an extensive chamber, accommodating 1,750 spectators, within which the massive tubular organ that resides inside is a key attraction.
Aside from its impressive scale, the magic of this hall lies in the structural design, which assures that the vibrations of downtown Buenos Aires don’t affect the internal acoustics. The hall itself is suspended in the air within the building, with a wooden interior and a mobile stage that makes the performance more visually accessible. While sitting in the audience, the importance the centre puts on national artists, as well as the international recognition it seeks to achieve, became evident as the tour guide described the first performance in the hall as an emotional event for all.
We quickly stopped at the Sala Eva Perón, which in 1946 served as the donations office of the then First Lady during Juan Perón’s presidency. Since we didn’t get a thorough explanation of the hall, I confusingly assumed that its decorations, which vary from toys to cider and panettone, constituted part of the actual donations.
Our next stop was at one of the six multimedia auditoriums, which accommodate over 100 spectators each, and where an accordion player demonstrated the room’s highly-efficient sound system while playing tango. The meeting of modernity with old Argentine artistic and cultural traditions put a smile on people’s faces.
Finally, on our last stop, we got to see La Gran Lámpara (‘The Great Lamp’), hanging from the ceiling above La Ballena Azul. The impressive structure simulates a glass lamp that provides two levels for art exhibitions inside, which are currently open to the public with pieces of the original architecture of the building on display. It is a symbol of the innovative design that inspires awe in the visitors on the tour.
The modern interventions reach all the way to the terrace of the building, where a glass dome (‘La Cúpula’) is illuminated with LED lights that can illustrate the flag of any country in the world. The terrace offers a free panoramic view in Buenos Aires, where emblematic buildings, both private and public, can be seen, along with the luxurious neighborhood of Puerto Madero and the Río de la Plata. Disappointingly, although this space is extensively advertised, it is one of the many areas that wasn’t open to the public at the time of the tour (though this particular room is now hosting various cultural activities).
What sets this cultural centre apart from existing ones, besides its scale and grandeur, is the social responsibility it seeks to be accountable for. Eventually, the centre will offer an extensive amount of space for the public use, free of charge. It comprises 40 exhibition halls, six multimedia auditoriums, and two public squares. It will also contain three restaurants/bars.
Personally, if you have time, I would recommend waiting until it’s closer to being finished to make a visit. The centre has a lot of potential and I have no doubt that it will be an extremely useful tool in the life of up-and-coming artists, however, it is frustrating that much of the work remains incomplete. For those who don’t have long in Buenos Aires, unless you are particularly interested in the history and architecture of the building, I would recommend visiting one of the upcoming performances rather than attending a guided tour of the centre, which is also suffering some teething problems (although the staff were very kind, they seemed to be disorganised and uninformed).
[box_post]Centro Cultural Kirchner, Sarmiento 151. During June, opening hours are Thursday 2pm-8pm; Friday-Sunday 2pm-12am.
Free guided tours are available Friday-Sunday, 2pm-5.30pm. Tours last around one hour and begin every 30 minutes.
More information and the calendar of exhibitions, performances, and workshops can be found on their website. Tickets for shows and events can be collected at the venue until two hours before they start; they are all free, with a maximum of two tickets per person.[/box_post]