Appreciating Abasto Shopping Centre

Avenida Corrientes stretches from Chacarita to Puerto Madero, bisecting Buenos Aires from east to west.  Saturated with traffic, shops and pedestrians, Corrientes is a typical Porteño thoroughfare, indistinct from avenues Cordoba or Santa Fe. However, at its midpoint, the urban monotony is broken by an art deco building that is impossible not to notice. Rising in dramatic, grand arches, the Abasto shopping centre defies its surroundings in the gritty enclave of Balvanera. Yet, through this decontextualization, it ultimately defines them by becoming the most recognizable edifice in the neighbourhood.

The shopping centre occupies a full city block, flanked by Corrientes and Lavalle to the south and north, and Aguero and Dr Tomas Manuel de Anchorena to the east and west. For 91 years, from 1893 to 1984, the site was home to the central fruit and vegetable market of Buenos Aires, the Mercado de Abasto Proveedor. The expansion of the city due to the arrival of European immigrants necessitated a new central market following the demolition of the Mercado Modelo near Plaza Lorea. The first Mercado Central de Abasto was constructed in 1893 and was inspired by the warehouse market buildings of Les Halles in Paris, but by 1930 demand had increased again and a new market building was planned on the same site.

Slovenian architect Viktor Sulčič, of Argentine firm Delpini-Sulčič-Bes, was in charge of designing the replacement market. In the inter-war years between the 1920’s and 40’s, art deco embodied modernity, drawing on advancements in technology and industry for its aesthetic. Geometric shapes and the hierarchical use of symmetry were cornerstones of the style, and when combined with extravagant decorative features, conveyed a grandeur and opulence synonymous with the era.

Built between 1931 and 1934, the new Mercado was certainly at the forefront of technological progress. It was directly accessible by a new subway train, incorporated underground parking, included mechanical escalators to service all the floors and employed the newest construction techniques using reinforced concrete. It was also the first building in the country to use concrete as a finish both internally and externally.

Facade

Sulčič’s Abasto market is perhaps a more severe representation of art deco, its volume and materiality lacking some of the finesse of its international counterparts. However, it is no doubt glamorous. The south façade on Corrientes dominates, with five fluted, concrete arches marching down the width of the block. The arches are in-filled with lead-framed glazing. The transoms and mullions of the frames cascade down the façade, creating a theatrical effect and terminating in lead canopies which overhang the pavement. The mullions are dotted with glass spheres along their length, adding to the drama. The middle arch is higher and wider than those on either side, and the building wraps around the corners of the block, leading to three smaller arches mirrored on Aguero and Anchorena. At the rear, in the middle of the block, the north-south and east-west arches interlock, creating an impressive colonnaded interior at high-level, reminiscent of the Mosque-Cathedral of Cordoba, Spain. The roof is a vaulted honeycomb, inset with panels composed of glass blocks.

Roof 1

While the site had initially been chosen because of its location between La Boca and Olivos, two principal areas of fruit and vegetable production in the early 20th the city had become impractical. The decision was made to move the market outside the city and the Mercado de Abasto Proveedor was closed in 1984. It lay dormant until 1999, when, after various schematic incarnations, it was given new life as one of the biggest shopping malls in Buenos Aires.

The design and construction of the shopping centre was quite an undertaking, with many local residents opposed to the conversion and resultant loss of period features. Three design practices – urban planning, architecture and interior design (MSGSSS, BTA and Pfeifer-Zurdo respectively) – were contracted to come up with a scheme for century, by the late 20th century, its location in the middle of the newly envisaged site. One of the characteristics of industrial buildings, whether warehouses, factories etc., is that they generally have large, uninterrupted floor plans, making them ideal for re-appropriation into different functional uses. The structural volumes of the market allowed for the original interior to be stripped and replaced with contemporary retail units. The façades have been preserved, as has the roof, but sadly, what remains of the old structure is just the shell. Various additions have been made on the Lavalle side of the block which connect back to the main market building.

The new shopping centre is spread over four levels and organized around a central core containing shops, ancillary functions and vertical circulation. More retail units occupy the perimeter and two atria allow light in from the glazed roof above. The basement connects to the Carlos Gardel Subte station on the B line and offers underground parking. The lower ground floor is mostly retail units, while the first floor offers retail units and at the rear in the newer annex, a large concourse and cinema complex. The second floor is where the longitudal volumes and interlocking of the arches are most obviously expressed, and the location of an open food court here takes advantage of views of the roof structure. A games arcade and Children’s Museum occupy parts of the second floor, while the third floor is dedicated to more of the Children’s Museum and also contains an auditorium.

Food Court 1

Abasto shopping is one of the biggest malls in Buenos Aires and is clearly successful on a commercial level.  Architecturally, the façade and roof have been carefully and considerately restored and conserved.  There are some awkward moments at the junctions of old and new, such as the rear concourse of Plaza del Zoral, where the old building is uneasily truncated, and on the second floor south perimeter, where the games arcade unfortunately obscures the lower sections of the glazed arches that front onto Corrientes.  The conversion of historical buildings will always bring controversy, but the Abasto shopping centre still manages to thrive as a hub of commercial activity even 120 years after it was first used for this purpose.

arcade

Trivia:

– Abasto shopping boasts over 230 commercial outlets.

– It is home to the only Kosher McDonalds in the city.

– The neighbourhood was the old stomping ground of Carlos Gardel, the poster boy for tango.

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