Domus Dulcis Domus: Rethinking the Cupola in BA’s Architecture

                             Diagonal Norte cupola (Photo: Beatrice Murch)

With its low buildings, eye-level graffiti, and outward sprawl into the provincia, Buenos Aires is often thought of as a “horizontal city”. In at least one respect, however, that impression merits modification. Buenos Aires is the South American city with the greatest number of dome-shaped roofs, or cupolas. About 300 can be found scattered throughout the capital in eccentric, beautiful, and seemingly infinite variations—from the heaven-stretching peak on San Martín and Diagonal Norte reinforcing the strong line of the “diagonal”; to the artillery-like projection set atop the blades of the now-defunct Confitería del Molino on Rivadavia and Callao; to the oval mirrors and intricate metalwork of the cathedral on Ayacucho and Rivadavia with its inscription in Catalán “No hi ha somnis impossible” (“There are no impossible dreams”); to the enormous mint half-globe of the Congreso building mooring Microcentro; to the double crowns of the Art Nouveau-style Otto Wulf building on Belgrano and Perú built by the eighth viceroy of Río de la Plata to house his 16 children.

A few of these cup-shaped roofs are in prominent locations, but many are not. They tend to top otherwise unremarkable buildings—walking briskly down an obscure side street, a viewer might miss one entirely if he or she chances not to look up. Whether one is conscious of them or not, however, the cupolas affect the skyline—and personality—of the city. Those interested in the social aspect of architecture might thus ask: Are these structures simply yet another eclectic urban element, or do they possess some greater significance?

The obvious place to begin an investigation would be the city’s many libraries. But a comb through the catalogues turns up disappointingly little—there is one book in the Biblioteca Nacional (notes on the aesthetics of the Immaculate Conception church in Belgrano), and nothing relevant in the Biblioteca del Congreso. Search results in the Universidad de Buenos Aires’ Facultad de Arquitectura, Diseño y Urbanismo: 0. Nor do the cúpulas necessarily draw the attention of tourists, who tend to register them only subconsciously as they chase down more attention-grabbing attractions.

Looking at the work of artists native to the city and familiar with its landscapes yields more fruitful (and colorful) results. Photographer Julio Fernández spent a year taking pictures of the cupolas from different angles and at different times of day; he’s found a reception in cultural centres around the country. Carlos Rios paints the cupolas in soft, impressionistic colours, as part of a quasi-phenomenological architectural project; for him, they have a “cosmic significance” in their “analogical relationship between the macrocosmos and the microcosmos, i.e. their reference to both the world and individual man.” And although it was a Chilean, Ángel Cruchaga Santa Maria, who wrote perhaps the most well-known traditional poem using the cupola as metaphor (“Es mi corazón como una cúpula / llena de cantos…”), Gustavo Cerati of the Argentine band Soda Stereo gives them a dark, majestic treatment in his 1988 track ‘Lo Que Sangra (La Cúpula)’.

No Hi Ha Somnis Impossibles – This building on Av. Rivadavia (at Ayacucho) was built in 1907 by Argentine architect Eduardo Rodríguez Ortega. He also designed the Palacio de los Lirios just down the street on Av Rivadavia. Both buildings have many detailes inspired by Gaudí. (Photo: Beatrice Murch)

In most of this art, the cúpula is treated in one way—as a form worth artistic consideration simply because of its beauty, as an “ideal” subject like a landscape or flower. If there is any thought behind its selection at all, it is the idea that the cupola is a crystallisation of the “romantic spirit” of the city and of the architects who built it. To quote the material promoting Fernández’ photography exhibition: “Those who constructed the city were able [with cupolas] to give expression to the romantic spirit of the landscape, in addition to brilliantly endowing it with a magnificent work of architecture.”

This idea of a “romantic spirit” is rather misguided. Nearly all of the cupolas are remnants of the 19th and 20th century immigrant waves, when French, German, Italian, and Belgian architects began to use materials such as iron and zinc rather than the previously-favored brick and wood, and imported aesthetic ideals such as the dome rather than adopting the simpler Rioplatense style. Most were built as commissions for the bourgeois Argentine upper classes. If there was any “romance” in the construction, it referred not to the landscape or the architects, but to the vision those ordering the buildings had of themselves.

In this century the construction of cúpulas has for all intents and purposes come to a standstill. But in the ‘50s and ‘60s their presence in the city served as a continuous reminder that an alternative existed to the modish functionalism of ‘Latin American Brutalism’, with its cost-effective repetition, prefab parts, and rhetoric of decent living standards for the masses instead of singular luxury. (An excellent example of this “box within a box” architecture in Buenos Aires is the Banco de Londres y América del Sur.)

Contrast this with the dome, which like the medieval gothic arch unapologetically projects grandeur, aiming to lift the viewer out from the humdrum of the everyday. In the case of churches, this means toward God—but the dome’s aura of nobility has also made it a favored choice for government buildings, and a symbol of earthly power. Indeed, the Spanish word for cupola—”cúpula”—possesses the secondary meaning of political, military, or business leadership; examples provided by the translation website WordReference are “la ~ del partido”, the party leadership; “la ~ militar”, the leaders of the armed forces; and “la ~ de la empresa”, the upper echelons of a company.

In the barrio Flores, a triple set of cupolas (one belonging to the basílica, two to the Banco de la Nación Argentina) loom over the plaza—luxury and commanding heights on one side of the Av. Rivadavia, homelessness and insecurity on the other. There’s nothing terribly new about the contrast. One might remember the roots of the word “domus”—in ancient Rome, the elite often lived in elaborate, cupola-topped marble residences, while the lower and middle classes lived in crowded flats called “insulae”. The two types of homes were often found intermingled on the very same street.

      Otto Wulf building at Belgrano and Peru (Photo: Beatrice Murch)

The false “romance of the cúpula” in the city may not be entirely negative. It has provided an impetus, even if uncritical or unconscious, for the restoration of a number of deteriorating domes like the Otto Wulf building, which have suffered from the effects of weather or time. The push is necessary: the government hasn’t been known to restore old edifices without pressure, and in recent years, in the absence of serious opposition, it has torn down a number of historically valuable sites. (Something grassroots organisations like Basta de Demoler have sprung up to prevent.) Despite their complicated past, the majority of the cúpulas are genuinely beautiful, and should be not only restored but promoted as touristic attractions.

To truly be effective, however, the process of advocacy needs to go hand-in-hand with reevaluation. Gothic churches were once considered a mere relic of the Dark Ages, and even a threat; their defenders were thus forced to turn out not simply nostalgic paeans but also arguments explaining why the buildings were not simply petrified relics of a dead past. A host of architectural critics in Buenos Aires today write on a range of topics, from Beatriz Sarlo’s analysis of architectural reification and the possibilities for reinvention (in a study of the shopping mall), to the attempts of Enrico Tedeschi to theorize the spiritual possibilities of architecture in the midst of secular urban life. These are possible starting points—the cúpula awaits its critic.