The city of Buenos Aires is prolific in legends and urban myths stemming from some of the most different and particular origins. While some are associated to people (for instance, did San Martin cross the Andes, at 5,000 meters altitude, on horseback or in a tent due to illness?), others are associated to historical events (like the myth that holds that the UK thought of moving the stock market from London to Buenos Aires after the 1929 crisis that caused the Great Depression) and still others can be associated to buildings, like the one we are about to tell you: The Otto Wulff Building.
In the intersection of Peru street and Belgrano avenue stands one of those remarkable buildings Buenos Aires has to offer to the everyday passer-by. This one looks particularly enigmatic, a little bit creepy, and to complete the scene the name of the building, “Otto Wulff”, adds an extra element of charm to it. This attractive construction is a good example of the Art Nouveau architecture that populated the city in the rise of the 20th Century, in this case in its German/Nordic branch, the Jugendstil, which includes influences of the neogothic and eclectic styles.
The building is divided into three visible parts. The base, which extends until the 2nd floor, was made using black granite from Norway. The middle section of the building, up until the 8th floor, was built using reinforced concrete, as the owners wanted to use the latest materials of the time. Both the base and the middle section were covered with Parisian stone, which gives the building its distinctive gloomy and tenebrous look. Finally, the top of the building has two towers in the shape of domes (there are more than 400 domes, or “cupulas” in the City of Buenos Aires) with a sun and a crown situated on top of either of them with a rooftop consisting of tiles.
An eccentricity that can be observed comes from ancient Greek architecture where the buildings, like this one, magnificently replaced the ordinary columns with human figures, commemorating the Atlanteans, giants that, in Greek mythology, supported the weight of the world on their shoulders. The Otto Wulff building displays eight of them, three on Belgrano avenue side, and five overlooking Peru street. As a curiosity, three of these giants represent three of the people that made this building possible: the architect, Morten Rönnow, the owner, Otto Wulff, and one of the contractors, Peter Dirks. The remaining five Atlanteans represent the original population of the country, giving them the appearance of aborigines. This idea of representing, as a hommage, different symbols of the Americas extends to the rest of the building with the inclusion of concrete sculptures of corn, grapes, condors, penguins and bears. Also, the Atlanteans represent the arts and crafts of the workers employed in the construction of the building: blacksmith, carpenter, mason, surveyor, sculptor, and other similar trades.
The Otto Wulff also shows in a great way the changes the city was undergoing at the time. It is located where the house of the former viceroy Joaquin del Pino (1801-1804) used to stand, a member of the old spanish aristocracy that ruled the country until 1810, the year Argentina became independent. The house was demolished and the new building, that was finished in 1914, designed by a Danish architect, Morten Rönnow, built by a Dutch construction company, Dirks and Dates, and owned by two businessmen: Otto Wulff, a German, and Nikola Mihanovich, a Croatian. When Rönnow was hired to start the construction, he was reluctant to tear the old building down because of its beauty so, prior to demolishing it, he spent three years making a very detailed plan of the house that he would later donate to the Faculty of Engineering of the University of Buenos Aires.
The myth behind the building concerns one of the old European empires. Nikola Mihanovich was a rich man who based his wealth upon the business he made in the port, transporting goods around Argentina and back and forth from his native country, Croatia, which was, at the time, a part of the Austro-Hungarian empire. Because of the importance of his business in the relationship between the two countries, Mihanovich was appointed Consul of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in Argentina. In order to show his gratitude to the Emperors, he decided to include a homage in the building: one of the towers includes a sun representing the Emperor Franz Ferdinand I of Habsburg, and the other has a crown and a moon in honour of his wife the Empress Elizabeth of Wittelsbach, also known as Sissi. It is commonly believed the building was meant to hold the Austro-Hungarian Empire’s embassy in Argentina, but it was finished the same year the First World War started, 1914, that actually began when the Emperor Franz Ferdinand was assassinated in the Balkans. This means he never got to see the building. Furthermore, at the end of the conflict the Austro-Hungarian Empire no longer existed. The Otto Wulff building was then forced to change its functionality and is now an office building that mainly holds architecture studios.
So now you know that when you are walking around this city, you should always look up. But in case you are too worried about dodging dog poop and you can not look up, this buildings just happens to be the first stop of our Architecture Tour which you can join every Sunday starting in San Telmo.