Natural Disasters: The birth of Homo Dolarensis
Dino Buzzi’s coming of age tale about architecture, cash caves, and modern land development
“I was benevolent and good; misery made me a fiend. Make me happy, and I shall again be virtuous.” - Mary Shelley, Frankenstein; Or, The Modern Prometheus
Rite of Passage
In the previous days, he had thought that, once the time came, everything would be set in motion, would soften, and give ground. That it would be less uncomfortable or feel less forced. But, as he walks downtown, sounding out and touching his customized jacket in every step, as if a dancer or a spy, he realizes that no one had prepared him for this.
Not a second goes by without him envisioning a count, a calculation in the air that he never finishes due to the glance of a suspicious-looking guy or the noise made by the exhaust pipe of a distant motorcycle. Those prying eyes and that diesel thunder could well signal the most feared accident of this walk between the place where he got off the bus and the cueva:1 a threat, a pulling, a blow on the head, and the uneasiness of realizing that he is the weakest and most vulnerable animal in the downtown ecosystem. When the alarms about a suspect turn off, he reviews again how the amounts have been distributed in the different nooks and crannies of his coat.
His aunt’s pesos, in four quite voluminous rolls (a three-bedroom apartment with a garage and a balcony-terrace, according to his calculations), are in his external pockets. His own money and that of his partner, is split into two very large pockets, created ad hoc with his sister’s help in the internal part of the coat back. Two high school friends also decided to join in this diving competition of evolving from tenants to owners, their banknotes travelling in secret folds of the hood and the right sleeve respectively. And, in the left sleeve, a contribution from his mother who had recommended travelling by bus: anonymous, without the need to cross parking lots, stop at lights, or surrender to that random fate that may befall one getting into a taxi in Buenos Aires.
He is already halfway. The slope is behind him; he is now just one among many in the downtown area. The passage from Libertador Avenue (Bajo) to the central business district (Microcentro) itself is obvious: the frequency of the financial power is weakened, the banks’ traditional headquarters are scarce and the general landscape has diversified. Now he is definitely inside, he is just one more part of the system. While he looks out of the corner of his eye at the set of buildings and the architectural details, he feels that these observations become increasingly difficult, as if the influx of the pesos distributed throughout his body were emitting some kind of radiation that contributes to deprogramming him, almost like kryptonite.
There is only one block left. He picks up his pace, touches again the radioactive pesos and thinks about how the old expression about the weight of money, historically applied to refer to millionaires and powerful people, would be used in this case with a vulgar irony. At worst, he carries no more than four or five kilos in weight. But he should not shrink himself either; after a temporal exchange into dollars, those kilos will eventually become some four or five tons of land, and, finally, the weight of a complete building.
The weight he feels at that moment, then, is not related to the banknotes per se, but to the actual load of his own and collective expectations of developing a building; the effort and time invested by all those behind this endeavour. He does not know it yet, but one day he will remember this moment with tenderness and a certain shame—it is the day that the trance of his childhood and of the academy was permanently erased from his conscience, replaced with the weight of an entire building.
In Argentina, cueva (cave) is a local slang term for an underground money exchange house that often offers a rate better than an official one. ↩
All Caves the Cave
Arriving calms him and even encourages him, but another professional reflex makes him distrustful of the plain, mediocre hall. Following the anxiety he had to endure to get there, the place is disappointing. The mention of a cueva, or cave, always made him think of baroque and mannerist grottos, entrances to secret gardens, cabinets of curiosities, and places that border the transcendental. And this entry, almost devoid of any architectural language, decorated only with take-away rotisserie menus pinned by a diligent cadet, reinforces the feeling of a slow but inevitable immersion in a dark fluid, far from light and knowledge.
The building in which the cave is located is one of many in a never-ending group of downtown office buildings erected during the 1960s and 1970s. Each shoebox-like structure contains tens and even hundreds of smaller shoeboxes with access to little or no natural light, corridors covered in granite or wood, their style reminiscent of second-rate movie theatres. A local genre of architectural exploitation, these buildings have humbly accumulated many of the mysteries of Buenos Aires since the beginning of the 1970s: dealers, resellers, quacks, alternative therapists, conspiracy clubs, fake publishing houses, old toy collectors, brothels, law firms; and, certainly, caves, hundreds of them, jacks of all trades that make up the secret machinery that, in a low hum, keeps the city working.
He rings the bell, says his name and that of the person who recommended him, and the entry door opens. He goes up, knocks on the door, and is welcomed in.
First, he passes through some sort of living room-reception room, then, to a smaller room where he sits down on one of two blue plastic chairs facing an empty desk. “I did not learn about this grotto in any theory lesson,” he thinks. The bearded face of the guy who opened the door seems familiar, but he disappears through a door behind the desk before he can be looked at too closely. While he waits, the air fills with the whirl of infringement. A few minutes later, two other people show up. They offer him coffee, which he declines, and they ask him for the pesos, which he hands over to them little by little, ecstatic, with the trembling pulse of faith. He gets rid of the money, first the wads in his internal and external pockets, then under the hood, and finally, from his sleeves. They ask him to be patient, as there are a lot of bills. Before they begin, as in a movie he watched so many times, he asks a question that suspends the action in a dramatic pause: “Is this morning’s exchange rate still valid?” After a few seconds of hesitation and an exchange of looks, they call the bearded guy, who appears briefly and confirms the previously agreed-on figure.
It is not the second sighting of the face that completes the memory he stubbornly could not place, but rather the man’s martial statement on that day’s exchange rate: that cuevero (caveman) with a long and untidy beard, thick glasses, and firm judgement looks exactly like Manfredo Tafuri. While the guy wearing a grey t-shirt and melanin teeth counts the pesos in one of those machines only banks and drug dealers have, and the other one, a slim tall man with white light eyes, takes them to the little rear room, he cannot stop thinking about Tafuri. It is known that the history and criticism of architecture have never been profitable activities, but perhaps this may be too much. Tu quoque Manfredo, dear Manfredo, Manfredo Tafuri lost forever. Are there other caves like this one in the heinous office buildings on the infamous Lavalle, Bartolomé Mitre, and Sarmiento streets downtown? Is this where utopias end up? Caves where Massimo Cacciari gets euros, where Francesco Dal Co does not charge a commission, where a Foucault Device is the nickname for the banknote-counting machine?
The slim guy, meanwhile, keeps going in and out of the Cave within the Cave. Every time he goes out, he leaves on the desk timely bundles of dollars, whose value, well preserved throughout these years, is ready to be transformed into physical matter. Finally, when no peso is left to be exchanged, he is handed all the bundles of money together with a small paper torn from one of those old accounting firm calculators that print yellowish receipts.
Once outside, again on the street, he feels a little more like a man. Or rather a new type of man; a homo dolarensis. Before starting off towards the next stop, he looks at the receipt of the exchange. That piece of paper of minimum weight, printed with an ink that will fade faster than his memories from that morning, is the only evidence that he was there doing the blackest and most wonderful magic of all.
More calmly, he travels the road to the next stop, the Bank. But, in fact, he now has more to lose. He is loaded, as they say. But there is empowerment from possessing dollars, something between religious zeal and the satisfaction of a good transactional exchange. He has heard about it since he was a kid, that faith instilled in him as in many other young people born in the seventies and eighties. The dollar, a mixture of superstition and dogma; reserve of value, way of life, soul-haven, locus amoenus safe from the storms of the bipolar national economy. Who can feel unsafe carrying a bundle of dollars?
So he walks, a bit more relaxed, and, in a few minutes, reaches the main door, waves at his partner, who is waiting for him inside the big entrance hall of the bank, who shares the slightly tired expression he has. They greet each other and go to see the notary, who is waiting on a sofa in the central hall, chitchatting with the owner of the plot. All together at last, they head to one of the rooms that banks hide in their basements, specially prepared for these types of transactions. While they get comfortable, he is surprised to see that, in spite of the institutional formality of materials and furniture, the posters of a careful design advertising credits, the calculated warmth of the light, and the idea of wellbeing intended by the artificial plants, the aura of this room is identical to that of the cave. Regardless of whatever pseudo-legality there is, the architecture of money and finance seems unable to avoid generating a detached and artificial atmosphere.
They sit down to go over the terms of their contract. But he cannot focus on the figures or the documents. His mind is filled with images of natural disasters: earthquakes, hurricanes, locust plagues, sudden floods and the garbage unveiled by their recession, waste and dirt deposited in the middle of the street. Devaluation works a little bit like this: it is a more or less predictable external factor of folkloric value, on whose previous occurrences a knowledge of technical understanding and intuition is built.
After counting the money, bill by bill, up to two or three times to be sure, he gets his pen, signs, and draws in a deep breath. Done. A real estate transaction that is also a rite, this is what they have done after all. The job of oracles, climatologists, wizards, and alchemists. Foreseeing a disaster and turning the dollars first into land and then into “bricks,” transforming family members into trustors of a contract, mutating themselves from architects and into the financial rescuers of their close most-trusted circle, and finally, to developers, a term of wide and uncertain meaning.
Now they own a plot of land and have to erect a building. A safety deposit of 1400 m2 covered with amenities that complete the fiction untaught in any course at university, where all discussions deal with habitable space. Maybe he is no longer an architect. In fact, maybe he stopped being one the minute he received his degree and left the campus. All of a sudden, he sees architects as an endangered species that can only be preserved in certain protected environments.
They all stand up, put away their documents, say goodbye, and scatter among the streets downtown. There, once again among ordinary people, with the mark from that fire still fresh, he feels capable of foreseeing his future. For sure, a more mundane and less lyrical time, in which his skin will toughen, his eyes will get used to seeing in the dark and he will become an expert in the practice of rescuing pesos and dollars from his dreams with pharaohs in jars, envelopes, mattresses, folders, and false bottoms, to turn them into invulnerable matter.
The dollar, the miracle
I live like a parasite within the mind of the middle class, rekindling the fire of its ambitions for social mobility, I blow the unpredictable winds of the Argentinian financial system, and I entertain myself adjusting here and there the urban details of the city of Buenos Aires
I won’t waste your time. We won’t play any guessing games. I am a God. A furious and omnipresent God. The Argentine’s obsessive worship of me gives me strength, makes me eternal and ephemeral. My power in this land was born in the seventies, when the warmth of weapons, confusion, the dismantling of institutions, the collective embellishment when faced with the spectacle of an economic system ran wild down a slippery slope that led to destruction.
I am a contemporary God, I do not respect traditions. I am young, thorough, and unreachable, I do not allow myself the vanity of practicing pious acts as the old gods. Exchange comedies, contractual shortcuts, daily speculations that you secretly concoct to try to understand and anticipate me… these are my bread and butter. I do not feel guilty. You came to me to have something to believe in, you placed me high up on a stand and elevated me to the height of your own dwellings. And you thus shaped me into something extremely worthy.
I encompass all this. I am a destroying tiger, a devouring fire, a crashing river. The world is, unfortunately, real. I am, fortunately, the dollar.
This article is part of “You met me at a very strange time in my life,” our CCA c/o Buenos Aires program that investigates architecture during the Argentine financial crisis.