Another series I have been working on of late is called Ochava Solstice. It’s a series of 1960s era apartment buildings which cast triangular shadows.
In Buenos Aires buildings on street corners have this beveled edge. The idea is to improve visibility at intersections for automobiles. The law dates back to the early part of the 20th century when cars [and collisions] were becoming increasingly common. The diagonal is known as an ochava because seen from above the four corners of the intersection appear to form an octagon.
Older buildings usually found a way to incorporate the diagonal into their design. During the 1960s, however, a new aesthetic emerged that was driven by an economic imperative to maximize the square footage allowed under zoning laws. The ochava requirement only applies to the ground floor so all the higher floors would come to a point, creating this triangular shadow which tracks the sun.
In this series I have gone to specific street corners which have these triangular shadows, set-up my 4×5 camera on a tripod and waited for the shadow to fall exactly in the middle. For almost two years I have been noting these street corners during my walks around Buenos Aires. The city is filled with these sorts of smallish, concrete apartment towers from the 1960s [indeed, I used to live in one], but very few have shadows like the ones in these photos. First of all, the building has to face north, towards the sun [remember, we’re in the southern hemisphere down here]. There can’t be another tall building kitty-corner because that will block the sun. It needs to be on a residential street. Avenues are too wide and buildings on busier commercial streets usually have businesses on the ground floor.
Google Street View hasn’t made it to Argentina yet so I have to scout out these buildings on foot. I tend to find them in mixed density neighborhoods like Colegiales, Saavedra, Caballito and Flores. The exact time of the “solstice” varies according to the orientation of the building. Buenos Aires’ street grid is a little messy. Since I’m not sure of the exact time I try to arrive an hour or so early. I spend this time walking around the neighborhood, often discovering additional buildings with the same shadow. Like groves of giant sequoias that depend upon precise soil, light and weather conditions, these buildings tend to cluster. In fact, more than half in the series I discovered this way.
Obviously these shadows only occur on sunny days. If it’s even partially cloudy I won’t bother going out since most of these buildings are a good hour bus ride away from where I live. Sometimes it gets cloudy during the journey. I always fear of cars that park illegally on the corner right when I need to take the photo [it’s happened].
Speaking of fear, crime is a huge concern these days in Buenos Aires. Every day there are stories of brazen, daylight assaults, many in the neighborhoods where I’m photographing. I have been fortunate to have never been assaulted here [knock on wood], but the thought is constantly on my mind and I take steps to try to minimize my losses should something happen. For instance, I photograph with an old Busch Pressman I picked up on ebay for less than $200. I don’t even bring my light meter. It’s always sunny sixteen for this project. The camera mostly invites curiosity. People have asked me if its a Leica [or a Hasselblad]. Recently a building super asked what news channel I was from, thinking I’d set-up a video camera.
I guess there is the question of why I am even bothering with this series at all. I will admit that part of it had to do with a desire to have something to photograph on sunny days as my other projects I tend to shoot when its cloudy. A friend of mine looked at these photos and said they reminded him of Mayan pyramids and their astronomical calculations related to the sun. Of course, this isn’t the Yucatan but Caballito. I suppose for someone from North America or Europe both are equally exotic. Still, I think there’s something about these moments, these everyday solstices that occur all around us. In this series I’m trying to extract a little bit of that mysticism from the everyday surroundings of Buenos Aires urban life.
And then there are the apartment buildings themselves. People talk about Buenos Aires being the Paris of South America. I’ve always felt this comparison is absurd. Whatever architectural affinity between the two cities was destroyed by precisely the 1960s-era buildings that I’m depicting in this project. People today lament the new towers going up and how the character of the city is changing but, really, it was all “over” by 1970. On the other hand, I have a great affection for these cramped, shitty apartment buildings that blanket the city. For me there is a certain romance of the accessibility of a cheap efficiency apartment located in a dense city. This project is, in part, an homage to these drab, functional buildings which allow for a rich urban life.
As if to underscore this point, and purely by coincidence, the first building I photographed in this series sits on the corner of Zapiola and Olaguer and his home to the photographer Vivi Abelson, who I’ve previously featured on this blog. Her series Olaguer 3006 shows the residents of the building pictured below inside their kitchens. It’s a portrait of Buenos Aires urban, middle class life. As she said to me in an email, I think we’ve squeezed all the juice out we can out of this building.