A forgotten masterpiece

A closer look at Mar del Plata's architectural heritage

Escrito por: Rodrigo Barrios
Visuales de: Romina Cordova


“If you study Architecture, you have to visit the Casa sobre el Arroyo.” This is the third time Ramiro has insisted. It is a windy winter afternoon in Mar del Plata but that does not discourage some sunbathers from going for a swim at Playa Grande. Romina and Ramiro, Peruvian and Argentinean architects-in-the-making, take a stroll in front of the chalets in the Los Troncos neighborhood. They jump in a cab at Saavedra Street and Ramiro takes advantage of the time with the driver to complain about the local municipal management. “Mar del Plata used to be the most exclusive and beautiful beach in Argentina,” he boasts while passing one of the several Swiss-style chalets with hard rock walls and brick gable roofs. “A few blocks from here, on Yrigoyen Street, one of the most beautiful chalets in the city, the San Jose, was torn down to build a horrible new building.”

Ramiro’s complaints coincide with a general concern about the preservation of the city’s historical areas. An exponential increase in real estate development and the rare enforcement of the city’s Territorial Planning Code have led to a widespread deterioration of the area’s architectural heritage. Not only has the number of new buildings grown, but so too has the number of households arbitrarily deciding to refurbish with little-to-no regard for the traditional city landscape. MDP a + u, a civil association dedicated to the preservation of the coastal city, frequently speaks up about the lack of government oversight. “Unlike a painting, an architectural work—excluding private property—belongs to the city, and, in order to preserve the value that it represents, the town council cannot be absent in its protection,” emphasizes one of the association’s members.

In Romina’s view the situation isn’t as critical. As the cab speeds up Quintana Street she takes a look at the orderly chalets—a homogeneous extension several blocks long. Some, with broken windows and faded facades, make her envisage a bygone time of opulence: classic cars, feathered hats, tailored suits. After a few minutes the landscape changes; the chalets give way to high rises then suddenly are replaced by wide avenues brimming with vegetation. Ramiro presses his face against the window, silently asking ‘are we there yet?’ “He thinks twenty minutes is a long haul,” jokes Romina, recalling the hour-long trip she makes everyday to reach her university in Lima. The taxi suddenly stops in front of a massive, palm-fringed garden. “Finally!” cheers Ramiro, “This is it! Let’s go inside quick, it’s gonna close soon.”

Mar de Plata, Argentina

casa abandonada en mar del plata

At first glance the house is striking; a long, rectangular building that appears to be hovering above a small creek. Two flights of stairs flank either side of the home on opposite banks of the river—both structures supporting the main nave in a bridge-like fashion (thus its alternate name, Casa del Puente [Bridge House]). The property originally belonged to the Argentinean architect, Amancio Williams, who designed and built the house for his father, composer Alberto Williams. Amancio Williams was a forerunner of Argentinean Modernism. The movement attempted to bring the advancements and aesthetics of European modernist architecture to the South American nation. In fact, in 1949, Williams directed the only project Swiss architect Le Corbusier ever undertook in Argentina, the Casa Curutchet, and several elements of Le Corbusier’s style are also reflected in the Casa sobre el Arroyo. A free plan, that is, a structure with no load-bearing inner walls, is one of many observable Modernist characteristics in the building.

“The house is perfect—modern and simple, extremely well-thought-out,” explains Romina. “It’s a bar-shaped house, and every room has a garden view.” After climbing the stairs and entering the home, one can see that the entire nave is bisected. A small corridor, barely four-feet wide, divides both sections of the house from one end to the other; on one side, all of the social spaces, on the other, the family bedrooms. “It’s like the backbone of the building, containing all the necessary appliances and services the house might need in order to function properly: closets, heating, air-conditioning, a fanlight, an air duct, etcetera,” continues Romina while enthusiastically drawing the floor plan on the nearest napkin. By placing these elements in the central corridor Williams creates more ample and neater living spaces. “For example, the social section of the house contains only one big room—living room, dining room and sitting room altogether—separated only by the furniture that was also designed by Williams.”

casa sobre el arroyo

However, time has not been kind to this masterpiece. After the Williams family sold the property it was taken over by a local radio station. Once the station moved it was abandoned for several years and even survived a fire. Nowadays, vandalism and pending oblivion plague every corner. “For more than a decade this was a gathering place for junkies and thieves,” Pablo, the afternoon guard remembers. “Recently the town council set aside some money to maintain the building, but we also rent out the property to private venues so we can have a higher budget,” he continues. On this day the rooms have been rented out for a children’s puppet show, revealing the estate’s fragile financial situation.

casa abandonada

Just before leaving, Romina and Ramiro notice a group of kids bursting into the house through the left hand side. “It’s almost two o’clock,” warns Pablo, “finish up because the show will start soon.” As Ramiro takes a final look at the main bedroom, he once again criticizes the government’s lackluster preservation effort. He groans, staring at some photos carefully placed by the exit showing the house in its past glory. “My guess is there are no restoration plans whatsoever. They should have the house restored with all the original furniture and show pictures of how it looked while it was abandoned, not the other way around.” Next to the pictures there’s a suggestion book. Romina reads dozens of messages by past visitors (and even some architects) who, like Ramiro, demand a timely restoration. Others convey a shared guilt, asking whomever might be reading the book to forgive them for the property’s deterioration. “I think the decay is proof of what the house has seen,” reflects Romina. Unlike many others, she sees in the building’s deterioration the final years of Amancio Williams, the end of the economic boom in Mar del Plata, and can hear the conversations of the homeless that made Casa del Puente their temporary home. “It’s cool that you can walk through the rooms and reconstruct history.”

With the beginning of a new administration, the general population has placed new expectations on the government to follow through with preservation efforts. Until then, this groundbreaking masterpiece will remain—spanning the creek, awaiting visitors and those lucky enough to rent the rooms. A last look, Romina concludes, “People complain and say the estate should be restored, but that would be like cheating.”

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