Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
August 26, 2022
Adrián Gorelik The Grid and the Park: Public Space and Urban Culture in Buenos Aires, 1887–1936 Trans. Natalia Majluf. Pittsburgh: Latin American Research Commons, 2022. 478 pp.; 100 b/w ills. Paper $30.00 (9781951634223)

Adrián Gorelik’s La grilla y el parque: Espacio público y cultura urbana en Buenos Aires first appeared in print nearly a quarter century ago, in 1998, but the persistence of Eurocentricity within the disciplines of art and architectural history have delayed its translation and, thus far, limited its reach to primarily Latin Americanist circles. Now, thanks to the translation efforts of Natalia Majluf, it is available in English in paperback and as a free e-book from Latin American Research Commons (LARC). The Grid and the Park: Public Space and Urban Culture in Buenos Aires, 1887–1936 is the first title in LARC’s In Translation: Key Books in Latin American Studies series, also edited by Majluf, which portends future opportunities for English-speaking scholars to become more familiar with the work of their Spanish-speaking colleagues. 

The continued relevance of Gorelik’s text is manifest in the prominent citation of its Spanish iteration in contemporary publications on Latin American urbanism. References to La grilla y el parque undergird important recent publications like Fabiola López-Durán’s Eugenics in the Garden (University of Texas Press, 2018), Ana María León’s Modernity for the Masses (University of Texas Press, 2021), and Idurre Alonso and Maristella Casciato’s The Metropolis in Latin America, 1830–1930 (Getty Publications, 2021), in addition to myriad Spanish-language texts. This English translation promises to further expand the reach of Gorelik’s analyses. As Gorelik notes in his preface to this edition, the translation gradient runs from English to Spanish, rather than the other way around, and LARC’s initiative is long overdue.

Even in translation Gorelik’s prose is challenging to unpack, in part because his linguistic structure can seem unfamiliar to English-language speakers, and in part because his knowledge of Argentine political and cultural figures unrelentingly barrages the reader with the specificities of Porteño history (an obstacle the author acknowledges). Because of this, the book is more suitable for upper-level graduate students and above, rather than undergraduates or non-academic readers who will likely find the intricate urban debates arcane and disorienting. However, for those more familiar with South American urban development, the book is refreshingly immersive and explicitly resists attempts to fasten the city’s trajectory to European or North American models. Gorelik successfully argues that, despite prominent contributions from Parisian planners, Buenos Aires’s urban form is not the result of foreign models projected onto an Argentine canvas, but that the city’s modern shape grew out of local debates, exigencies, and speculations directly related to the Porteño landscape and culture. Gorelik is not derelict in referencing urbanist movements in the global north but these passages are appendages to his robust engagement with Argentinian vernaculars.

True to its name, The Grid and the Park considers the urban grid and public park as symbiotic forms of material and metaphorical importance. The text orbits these two structures, constantly redefining and reanimating them as the chronology progresses. A single read is hardly adequate to disentangle the cyclical waves of acclamation, acceptance, and derision directed towards Buenos Aires’s expanding grid over the text’s fifty-year span, but even those unfamiliar with modern urbanism will come away with an appreciation of the primary arguments for and against them within a global perspective. Gorelik explains how the Porteño grid evoked the colonial project, enabled real estate speculation and suburban growth, at times inhibited the development of industrial sectors, provided a boundary against the wild Pampas (while also evoking its boundlessness), was criticized for its horizonless ugliness, reflected the abstraction of American displacement, and became an iconic feature of the cityscape, among other readings. Likewise, the park is cast as a space for staging urban acculturation, returning to nature, restoring health, parading bourgeois affectation, encountering danger, and galvanizing community. Looking at the grid and the park side-by-side, Gorelik provides rich discussions of the myth of Haussmanization in Latin America, the tension between the “legal” and “illegal” city, and the problems of access and meaning-making in public space. The depth of these conversations makes summation nearly impossible, but I highlight the main themes of each chapter below.

The introduction establishes the relationship between the urban development of the federal district of Buenos Aires and the political development of Argentina during the first century of the country’s existence. Reciprocity—“between city and society, between form and politics, between material culture and cultural history,” and ultimately between grid and park—is the primary framework for Gorelik’s discussion of the city as a cultural product (3). Likewise, his analysis benefits immensely from its integration of visual materials, especially maps and diagrams, into the text. Although the reproduction quality is suboptimal, the book is a cartographic treasure trove with the potential to spawn additional interest in the visual qualities of these objects.

The book’s narrative runs mostly chronologically across nine chapters evenly split between three parts. Part One, “Figurations,” centers on the last decades of the nineteenth century, a time when Argentina’s political destiny and Buenos Aires’s urban development were both guided by the policies of progressivist president Domingo Faustino Sarmiento (1868–74). Sarmiento’s ideas are continuously revisited throughout the text, so it is necessary to build a foundational understanding of them at the beginning. The first three chapters explore, respectively, the development of Palermo Park, the construction of the Avenida de Mayo and the city’s first monuments, and the tandem implementation of the grid and public park systems at the turn of the twentieth century.

Part Two, “Omissions” highlights the years surrounding the centenary of Argentina’s independence in 1910. Foregrounding the push and pull between the city center—the space of tradition—and the suburbs—the space of the new and the marginal—Gorelik’s primary focus in this section is how the government and its citizens dealt with civic change, particularly in the face of heavy immigration. This part includes analyses still relevant today on the role of monuments and spectacles in galvanizing national and civic identity (chapter 4); the phenomenon of suburbanization as a modern, capitalist, and inherently American process (chapter 5); and the importance of public space to integrating working-class neighborhoods (chapter 6).

Ultimately, The Grid and the Park is a cautionary tale of “the emergence and failure of metropolitan public space in Buenos Aires” (xix) and “the triumph of modernization over reform” (397). Part three, “Modernization or Reform,” charts a power struggle between the traditional urban center and the ever-multiplying barrios on the periphery in light of the political and technological advances of the 1920s and 1930s. Chapter 7 explores Socialist reform movements coinciding with the 1925 Organic Project—which Gorelik identifies as the high point of the integration of the grid and park—revealing simmering tensions between expansion and the “search for the [city] center” (292). By the 1920s, the suburbs had become the locus of progressive politics, mass culture, and nostalgia, as reflected in the urban-focused works of Argentine cultural luminaries like José González Castillo, Jorge Luis Borges, and Horacio Coppola, explored in chapter 8. In the concluding chapter, Gorelik reads the urban reforms and classicizing avant-garde artistic productions leading up to the city’s fourth centenary celebrations in 1936 as the triumph of “white” Buenos Aires: a city whose identity merges modernity and tradition into a progressivist mythology. In the end, the tidiness of modernist urbanism empties both the grid and the park of their messy potency, negating the promise of public space in favor of a “reactive utopia.” It would have been appropriate for Gorelik to make mention of the eugenic valences of this process, but that oversight has since been corrected in López-Duran’s Eugenics in the Garden.

As translator, Majluf is extremely faithful to Gorelik’s original vocabulary. This approach preserves the richness of Gorelik’s thought and the rhythms of his Castilian while maintaining comprehensibility. Occasionally, directly-translated words like “eccentric”—which is used to mean “remote” in line with Gorelik’s use of exéntrico in the original—merit a translator’s note (of which, here and through the book, would be helpful in future editions). Furthermore, a preface from LARC on the critical value of the text and the process of translation would have been an asset to the volume. Nevertheless, translating Gorelik’s book was assuredly a Herculean task, for which we all owe Majluf an enormous debt of gratitude.

Danielle Stewart
Assistant Professor, History of Art Department, University of Warwick