Staying in Buenos Aires last week, I saw some of the expected sights – Recoleta, Cafe Tortoni, Calle Florida – but it was an unexpected visit to a museum which provided the greatest delight.
Seeing friends in the neighbourhood of Caballito, we had time to spare so we called in at the Museo Argentino de Ciencias Naturales “Bernardino Rivadavia” (MACN) on the main thoroughfare of Avenida Angel Gallardo.
Designed, built and opened in stages between 1926 and 1937, the museum is the work of the Department of Architecture of the Nation, placed in the Centennial Park. The two entrance blocks were built first, the plainer joining galleries added later, as is evident in the photo above. The design objective was to build “according to architectural standards in force at the time for European science museums.”
From the first glimpse of the northern entrance hall, you are in the grip of a Gothic imagination. Yes, the owl is a symbol of wisdom, and the spider in its web perhaps signifies the power of carefully constructed thought, but for many people these are spooky, slightly menacing animals too.
The dramatic nature of their symbolism is emphasised by such devices as the high placement of the rather large owls, and the golden shimmer of the brass spiders and webs against the the black iron-work of the doors. These symbols are intended to invoke awe.
The largely geometric decoration of walls and floors points up these natural forms. And there are more surprises lurking in corners.
The relief sculptures of animals on display in the halls are to be expected in a museum, but the bats at the capitals of the pillars are an unexpected find, and once again, quite Gothic. They are carved in crisp, unmistakeable detail
Although the Musem’s website mentions two of the sculptors involved – Alfredo Bigatti, who worked in stone and bronze, and for the stage, and fellow-Argentinian Donato Proietto – the building is an anonymous work, perhaps reflecting the character of the commission from the state as well as the tenor of the times.
The handrail to the first-floor galleries uses the same combination of black ironwork and brass – the forms evoke snail shells, in a style reminiscent of Gustav Klimt.
Some of the Museum’s galleries are gloomy boneyards – the museums was directed for many years by a paleontologist, and it shows. The collection of dinosuar remains is extensive.
There are some good collections of live fish in aquaria, and the bird tableaux have a diverting soundtrack which can be summoned at the push of a button for each species. The geology collection is also good, and all sections have the admirable aim of providing a panorama of Argentinian samples. But it is an old-fashioned approach.
The quiet star of the show for me is the building itself. Maintenance is demanded to keep it at its best – with more dramatic lighting and a greater emphasis on its history and qualities, it could become a well-deserved architectural landmark of Buenos Aires.
I noted a bus tour of “Buenos Aires, City of Architecture”, and there are indeed many fine buildings from the Belle Epoque and Art Nouveau and Deco eras. This 1930s masterpiece deserves to join them.
The Museum’s dedication to informing and educating its public about Argentinian natural history could happily be complemented by highlighting its architectural history as well.
And if you were looking for a location for the next Batman movie, the Museum could stand in well for Bruce Wayne’s mansion … it’s a hidden gem of Buenos Aires’ architectural riches.
On the Museum, see
On Alfredo Bigatti, see