BUENOS AIRES, ARGENTINA – The morning light floods through the windows of an old building in the original core of Buenos Aires, Argentina’s capital. Instructors in the spacious learning center teach students skills to preserve the city’s architectural heritage. In one of the classrooms, students model clay figures of various shapes and sizes.
One of the students, Jorge Vázquez, 47, is studying ornamentation, the art of decorating statues in plazas and gardens. His specialty is one of several available to students at the Escuela Taller del Casco Histórico, a free city government school that teaches architecture and remodeling in the Casco Histórico, the city’s historic center.
Using a fine-tipped wire modeling tool, he puts the finishing touches on a series of interlaced petals and leaves he is making for his class. Bending over his work, he seems oblivious to his classmates’ comments and movements.
Vázquez is learning to model ceramic copies of figures that decorate gardens and outdoor spaces so he can restore original figures in need of repair. In learning the art of restoration, he strives to get into the skin of a project’s original creator.
“It is not easy,” Vázquez says. “You have to get into the eyes of the person who made the original piece, adapt yourself to that, and not allow yourself to get carried away by the personal desire to create.”
Although Vázquez has made ceramic figures for more than two decades, this is the first time he has undertaken such training. A doorman at a primary school, Vázquez appreciates the free opportunity to refine the skills he uses in his avocation.
A public school with the capacity to enroll 195 students, the Escuela Taller del Casco Histórico teaches techniques for conserving and restoring the cultural heritage, which includes buildings, outdoor structures and sculptures, in Buenos Aires’ historic center. Last year, the school first offered a two-year training program through which students will graduate with the title of technical assistant at the end of 2014.
It is the only free school in the city that specializes in this type of training. It accepts anyone 18 or older who is interested in the subject.
Located in San Telmo, the city’s oldest neighborhood, the school has operated for 14 years. The Escuela Taller is under Buenos Aires’ General Directorate of the Historic Center, a Ministry of Culture office tasked with protecting and maintaining the area’s cultural identity and architectural heritage.
The Casco Histórico comprises the 222 blocks of the city’s original urban nucleus, says Vivian Fernández, an architect and coordinator of the General Directorate of the Historic Center.
During the 19th century, Argentine architects designed many finely ornamented and elegantly decorated Italian- and French-style buildings in the Casco Histórico, Fernández says. The city’s authorities, many of them European immigrants, sought to transform Buenos Aires into one of the world’s great metropolises.
The center features emblems of Argentine culture, including the Casa Rosada, the seat of the national government; the Catedral Primada de Buenos Aires, the country’s principal Catholic church; and notable palaces, cafes and bars.
“This is part of what we are as a city,” Fernández says. “Every sign of a building, every corner, is talking to us about a story. That is to say, it is the physical part of a story that can be told again. Therefore, it is heritage.”
The school formed in the midst of a construction boom in 2002, a year marked by a depression where a loss of confidence in the banking system prompted heavy investment in real estate development. That year, private developers began demolishing old buildings to make room for new ones.
That trend alarmed preservationists, says Aquilino González Podestá, an architect who specializes in the conservation and restoration of architectural heritage.
The school has functioned for more than a decade as a workshop where students could come and go, says the school’s coordinator, Marino Santa María, who specializes in plastic art.
With the new two-year training, students can graduate with a specialty in woodworking, ornamentation or sgraffito, a style of decoration where parts of a surface layer are cut away to expose a different-colored ground. They can also train to become luthiers – makers of stringed instruments. All students receive theoretical training to learn to value patrimonial assets.