BUENOS AIRES — Elsa Dupont and Léa Namer first discovered the Chacarita cemetery in Buenos Aires eight years ago. The two French women were architecture students at the time, and had come to the Argentine capital from Paris as a part of an exchange program. They visited the cemetery individually, and on various occasions, but had similar reactions.

"We were really moved by the space," they explain of the 95-hectare compound.

But what grabbed their attention most was the site's Underground Pantheon, also known as the Great or Sixth Pantheon. A neglected gem of mid-20th century architecture, the Pantheon brings to mind the Roman catacombs, but with a heavy dose of Brutalism, a construction style then popular in Latin America.


The Great Pantheon of Chacarita — Photo: Wikimedia Commons

In fact, the two French architects were so taken by the place that they decided to research, film and mount an exhibition of what they consider a unique piece of architecture that is overlooked, nevertheless, in the catalog of eminent buildings.

They were even more inspired upon learning that this subterranean monument is the work of one of the country's first female architects and city planners, Ítala Fulvia Villa (1913-1991). "We found all of it fascinating," Léa Namer says in perfect Spanish. "The Underground Pantheon's spectacular and unusual organization, its brutalist aesthetics, and Ítala Villa's design and vision of death in the modern world," she adds.

The Pantheon, located in the "new" section of Chacarita, is a concentrated compound of niches in an edifice that 'rises' downward — dug underground like a vast grave. The complex is covered by a patch of grassland broken by heavy structures that act as entry points.

The project conveys a functional view of death.

The city council commissioned this part of the cemetery in the 1950s, when Villa worked in its Architecture and City Planning department. "This is her most beautiful work," Dupont and Namer insist. "It hovers between architecture and city planning, a combination she would develop throughout her life."

The project, built in 1958, conveys a functional view of death and consciously breaks with the traditional format of the more famous Recoleta cemetery or the older part of Chacarita. These reproduced the city on a smaller scale, with alleys and little buildings that literally conjured the idea of a "last dwelling place." Like the city outside, they housed "all social classes" but also displayed class differences.

Villa's complex, in contrast, sought to echo the big social housing projects of the time, which favored the Brutalist style. Dupont and Namer say the Underground Pantheon's "concrete asserts itself with force and subtlety, with different textures and mysterious, ornamental motifs marking its imposing structures." Villa made a conscious contrast, they note, between meticulous details and the scale of the structure, which is massive.

Before undertaking the Pantheon projects, Villa had played an important role in the Austral Group, an avant-guard collection of architects formed in 1938 and active in city planning. "Villa collaborated with Le Corbusier in Paris, providing documents for a city plan of Buenos Aires," Dupont and Namer recall. "Yet her work and role are undervalued."

The two French women mounted an exhibition in homage to Villa and the Pantheon at the Buenos Aires Architecture Biennial held last October, with pictures, models, installations and film footage. They plan to mount the exhibition again this year, at the Alliance Française.


Concrete and rectangular regularity — Photo: Wikimedia Commons

The Pantheon, with its 40,000 niches, is unique "for its size and organization," Dupont and Namer explain. But it also draws on outside influences. The niches are organized "like those of southern Europe," they say. "And yet, the structures are erected with particular rationality and staged in a totally modern way. The concrete staircases are developed like mechanized stairways, coffins are moved in elevators, machines ventilate deep inside the corridors, and the niches are piled within a strictly rectangular, continuous grill."

Dupont and Namer see the cemetery as breaking up the bustle of city life. "Chacarita is a place of contemplation and setting for our private mourning. It is the place of individual and collective memories," the women explain. But it also, according to the two architects, has a "dizzying effect" and raises a number of questions.

"There's one identical tomb after another, the dead laid above each other and the numbers that just go on, mechanically. Is this too harsh a vision?" they ask. "Which idea of death and society does it convey? Where is death's place in our modern societies, and which is the architecture for it?"


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