When we speak, Vanessa Bell is at her house in Buenos Aires as the first heatwaves of summer are starting to roll in. I learned of Bell several years ago when I came across her Twitter feed, where she frequently posted photos of midcentury and post-modern lobbies in buildings throughout Buenos Aires that communicated a benign nostalgia. I learned later that Bell had been leading tours of Buenos Aires for years, showing off what she calls the “B-side” of the city. Her architecture tours are intended for design enthusiasts but, over time, have grown to a local audience of people hungry to learn more about the city in which they live.
Bell lived for eight years in the city center, in an apartment off Plaza del Congreso. The flat was surrounded by buildings designed in the late 19th and early 20th centuries in the eclectic style that has become emblematic of the city: a mix of neoclassical, art nouveau, and art deco. The pandemic led Bell out of the city, in search of more green space, and allowed her to reconnect with her childhood, as she puts it, “growing up in a countryside village outside Oxford, waking up and hearing the birds as opposed to screeching traffic.”
Bell left Oxford in 2010, her split heritage — she’s the daughter of an Argentine mother and a British father — leading her to a writing gig for the “TimeOut” guidebook on Buenos Aires. Her heritage helped her hone a particular point of view, colored at once by a nostalgia for a Buenos Aires of old, her childhood holidays spent in Argentina, and by her own aesthetic sensibilities. She doesn’t wear rose-colored glasses, admitting to the complexities and difficulties of living in a country prone to economic crisis and political volatility. When we speak, Bell bemoans the state of some of those same buildings that surround her old neighborhood: “The pandemic has allowed the rampant destruction and demolition of old buildings to escalate. Various organized campaigns aim to protect period architecture in the city. Still, it seems that often the financial benefits and lucrative business dealings win, and they end up demolishing a crumbling neoclassical facade in favor of a bland tower block.” Her deep appreciation for old Buenos Aires, combined with her nose for good design, leads her around the city to find what can’t be found anywhere else.
During the pandemic, she shared pictures of places like La Tayuela, a so-called bar de viejos (old-person café) that struggled with business during the strictest lockdowns. These bars, Bell observes, give Buenos Aires its distinctive character and are worth preserving — they’re the parts of town that aren’t made “for export.” Maintaining this particular point of view that veers away from clichés isn’t easy. We’re used to consuming images quickly on social media; our eyes get used to a certain homogenized aesthetic, and we develop certain expectations about what a place we visit will look like. Bell cuts through that, highlighting things that she finds compelling or even strange.
When we talk, she tells me a story about leading a tour of the Buenos Aires neighborhood Caballito, after which two women who had lived in the neighborhood for decades told Bell that they gained a new understanding of the place where they lived. “I had gotten access to this wonderful passage, within this beautiful old house, and both of them said that they had always wanted to go into this complex,” Bell tells me. “We went down these side roads, and one of the women said that the tour had pointed out things that her eye would’ve never landed on. That’s amazing, that I could show the neighborhood completely differently to someone who has lived there for 50 years.”
In an increasingly globalizing world, it would be tempting to lean on old myths, like the one that Buenos Aires is the “Paris of South America,” or to take visitors to the most tourist-friendly parts of the city. Bell bemoans the popularity of tourist-y parrillas, which serve the traditional Argentine asado to groups of people who rarely speak Spanish. It would, conversely, also be easy to tokenize or give in to stereotypes. Bell does neither.
Standing firmly between her British and Argentine identities, Bell inhabits a one-foot-in, one-foot-out position. It’s a flexible perspective that, when made accessible to others — visitors and locals alike — allows Buenos Aires and Argentina to reveal themselves over time, slowly, and in all their beautiful complexity.
Favorite Spots in the City
I love Concepción; it’s a brand new design space that opened in the pandemic run by the founders of RIES design studio. As well as displaying their own work, they have carefully curated a selection of beautiful decorative and functional pieces by emerging young designers. It’s housed in a converted warehouse space which they worked on during lockdown. They stock hecho hecho’s porcelain designs and Luna Oks’s beautiful hand-printed fabrics, two designers I love.
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To eat, I’m a big fan of El Preferido, a converted old-school bodegón opened in 1952 by Asturians which was given a facelift and now serves contemporary Argentinian fare. The organic tomate al medio and milanesa for two with fries or mash is a must.
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Matías Carbone’s new menswear label CARBONE incorporates artisanal techniques. He works with skilled craftsmen in various Argentinian provinces to produce heirloom pieces with a contemporary twist, such as woven waistcoats and tunics. Other timeless pieces include his tailored trenches, shirts, and trousers. In addition, he runs a showroom of his collection from his flat in Buenos Aires.
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Lastly, Here are Five Reflections on Buenos Aires
- You need a PhD in finance to get Argentina’s economy. Porteños are obsessed with talking about money, but phobic about discussing how much they earn. This doesn’t help improve gender inequality or bettering salaries.
- Road markings are symbolic, and the Porteño idiosyncrasy is personified behind the wheel. They either act like maniacs or wannabe Formula-1 drivers.
- My best friends are Argentinian. Once you’ve earned their trust they’ll go out of their way to help and be there for you, and when the chips are down they’ll keep you company, cook for you, always eager to do you favors and make you feel at home.
- You no longer starve if you’re vegetarian. In the 12 years I’ve lived here there’s been a huge shift in local eating habits. These days you’re more likely to stumble across a new plant-based opening or organic market than a new parrilla.
- The best time to visit is in November. Spring has sprung and BA’s central avenues and parks pop with the jacaranda trees’ vibrant purple blossom.