Clorindo Testa was an anchor of modern Argentine architecture. Influenced by European architects including Le Corbusier, he had deep creative imagination
Clorindo Testa is acknowledged as one of the most prominent Latin American architects of the second half of the 20th century. Buildings such as the Bank of London HQ (1959-1966) and Argentina’s National Library (1962) are not just landmarks of Buenos Aires but also key moments in the history of Modernism.
Despite his prolific body of work, Testa was a humble and generous man. My first memory of his architecture dates back to my teenage days, when the National Library was being built. Testa’s architecture still colours memories of my life then: summer afternoons at the ICI (Institute for Iberoamerican Cooperation, 1987-88), Sundays at the Cultural Centre in Recoleta (1979) or Centenario Park, facing his Naval Hospital building (1970).
The Argentine critic Jorge Glusberg noted that ‘There is an “absence of dogmatism” in Testa. Owner of a daring talent, a vigorous creative imagination and a fine sensitivity, it is as difficult to place him within a specific architectural current, as it is to ascribe him to a determining artistic current, or to discover his theoretical stance regarding his own architecture or that of others.’
The key condition that defined his work says Glusberg, ‘was the unavoidable presence of a guiding idea for each project’. The unpretentious Testa defined it more informally: ‘The process of architecture seems slow, but it actually isn’t. The procedure is slow, but you know what you are looking forward to achieving. When you start a project you know what it is going to be like, no matter how long it will take. You modify things, but inside
of you, it does not change’ he explained in 1998.
Testa was born in Naples in 1923. His father, a doctor who had migrated to Argentina and married an Argentine of Spanish descent, wanted his son to be born in his homeland; a wish probably born ‘of romanticism’ − as Testa noted − but the father refused to let his son follow in his professional footsteps. Testa’s teenage interest and skill in constructing model ships led him to study naval engineering, but he quickly switched to civil engineering and, later, ‘almost by chance’, to architecture. Le Corbusier was his model. ‘I never paid attention to other architects’, he said. A trip to Europe, due to last three months, turned into a stay of two years and introduced him to painting, a discipline in which he excelled.
Growing up in the fervent atmosphere of Buenos Aires in the first half of last century, Testa is arguably one of the last representatives of an Argentinian identity and energy now sadly waning. This is metaphorically embodied in the chronology of the National Library, a building conceived during the thriving and intellectually sophisticated Buenos Aires of the ’60s, which was then forced to remain in a sinister limbo during the successive military dictatorships of the ’70s. Yet the democracy of the ’80s failed to rescue it and the Library had to wait until the ’90s to be officially opened; paradoxically, under the neoliberal government of Carlos Menem, a period that ushered in a tragic decline in the country’s cultural aspirations.
For modern Argentine architecture, Testa was a foundation stone and anchor. His work, which belatedly achieved international recognition, and his understanding of architecture, epitomised that specifically Argentine idiosyncrasy: the perfect absorption of everything universal to create something completely and uniquely local.