A new lease of light has been brought to the dark, solitary streets of what can be considered as ‘the real’ part of La Boca. Away from the touristy Caminito strip lies a precious gem that had been kept under wraps for a number of years, until now.
Dubbed “the new home of culture” by mayor Mauricio Macri’s administration, the Usina del Arte, an abandoned red brick electric factory near the Riacheulo, has been scrubbed up and turned over to the arts.
And culture vultures have plenty to be excited about: boasting Buenos Aires’ first symphony concert hall, music, art, dance and theatre are just some of the plans on the agenda for the centre, which will also be home to the Buenos Aires’ Philharmonic and National Symphony Orchestras.
From Factory to Symphony
The Usina del Arte is located inside the former Italo-Argentina factory buildings, next to the Buenos Aires-La Plata motorway. The simple – but quite massive – structures amount to a site total of 15,000 m2, with two annexes separated by a small street.
The complex, designed by Juan Chiogna, was built between 1914 and 1916 by Martignone e Hijos and continued to produce electricity until the early-1990s. This was when Carlos Menem’s administration privatised utilities, and after its doors closed, the building was abandoned.
The Buenos Aires City Government had the idea to create a concert hall for the national orchestra not long after, but it remained a dream as restoration of the building became an uphill struggle through the years of economic crisis in Argentina. In 2006 the city government bought the building from the state, and then-mayor Jorge Telerman began the rehabilitation of the space, a process that has continued with Mauricio Macri.
From outside, the building is quite spectacular, standing out from its run-down surroundings. From the clock tower where the bell would be rung to call electricity workers in for their shifts, to the Romeo and Juliet-like balconies where orders would be called to workers in the front courtyard, each and every historical detail has been preserved.
Inside the grand, luminous entrance hall, many original parts of the building were also restored, such as the iron-cast staircases that wrap round the side areas of the structure as well as some of the old tiled flooring on the ground floor.
The big attraction is the symphony concert hall: inside the 23-metre wide, 103-metre long and 20-metre high interior of the main building it is now in use with a capacity of 1,200 seats.
A smaller concert hall, due to be completed in 2013, will have a 400-seat capacity for smaller, more intimate concerts. A rehearsal room for up to 250 performers is in the works inside the main building, as well as restaurant area and shop, all planned to be ready for next year.
Buenos Aires City’s Culture Minister, Hernán Lombardi, who has been involved in the project since it began, said that it was still “a work in progress”, but also expressed his joy over the fact that the majority of the building can now be enjoyed by the public.
“I signed the agreement between the national government and the city government when I was the Minister of Culture for President Fernando de la Rúa.
“Ten years later, I have the pleasure of being able to present the Usina del Arte and for me it’s really touching. Bit by bit we are working to ensure the place can be taken full advantage of.”
The delicate work of perfecting the acoustics inside the symphony concert hall was explained during a recent visit to the site.
The top acoustics were achieved by adding wood to the existing structure of the building, treating and painting the masonry walls, and building the wood around them. Exterior wooden panels were then added to the walls to achieve the perfect sound inside the auditorium. Triple-layered windows were installed to block out as much sound of the passing motorway as possible. As a spectator, it does seem to be the real deal.
There is a peaceful, ineffable sound inside the hall that allows the audience to pick up every performance direction carried out by the orchestra or solo instrument. From the pianissimo effect of the xylophone made by percussion soloist Angel Frette at a recent concert, to the fortissimo parts brought by the brass during the latter parts of the performance, where Schumann’s Symphony Number 2 in C major, Op 61 was played.
Christian Baldini, who conducted the Buenos Aires Philharmonic Orchestra at the Usina at the Schumann concert on 18th July, said after the show: “Acoustically speaking, it’s very easy to work here. Sound can be adjusted very easily.”
Baldini, a Mar del Plata native who lives abroad and has assisted in the conducting of orchestras around the world – including the BBC Symphony Orchestra and National Symphony in Washington – added: “In comparison with other live music venues such as Parque Centenario, this place rates at the top of the list. It’s a real pleasure to play here.”
The Future of the Barrio
Where La Boca is well-known for the brightly coloured conventillos at Caminito, the area around the Usina del Arte is not known for being particularly pretty or safe, especially at night.
Under the shadow of the concrete motorway, the former slum-area was largely cleared during the renovation process of the building. It is now residential, but shows signs of decay, an area of real conventillos and dark back streets that the city government plans to make that change.
“We are using culture as a tool in order to enhance the neighbourhood,” says Lombardi. “It began with opening the Cinema Museum last year, and this year, the use of the concerts and other activities in a hope to bring new life to the neighbourhood.”
The Macri administration has also enhanced security, bringing in the Metropolitan Police to patrol the building and its immediate surrounding area 24 hours a day.
Lombardi continues: “As well as this infrastructure, probably in a few years we will have restaurants and bookstores. This neighbourhood will be the future.
“We are just between the Puerto Madero and La Boca tourist centres, so it’s probable that this space will work as a cultural corridor between the two,” he adds.
While the building’s final touches are underway, the Usina del Arte is currently not open on a daily basis to the public. However, from now until December, free guided tours (in Spanish) are carried out on Saturday and Sunday afternoons, highly recommendable for those who have yet to visit the building. It will also be open for specific performances until the end of the year.
The Usina is open at specific times for concerts, for details check the City Government’s culture website. Guided tours run from 2-4.30pm every half an hour on the weekends. For more information on this year’s cultural programme and general information on the centre visit their website.
The Museo del Cine, created in 1971, is now located in the building adjacent to the Usina on Caffarena 49. It is open from Monday to Friday 11am-6pm and on Saturdays, Sundays and bank holidays from 10am-7pm.