At the age of five, Fernando Carral was already fascinated with one of Buenos Aires’ most majestic and peculiar buildings. His mother would take him to Plaza Congreso (“the only place with pigeons at the time,”) then he would play in the hall of the nearby Palacio Barolo, captivated by the glass in the floor.
His fascination with Mario Palanti’s landmark building, the tallest in South America when it was completed in 1923, remained throughout his training as an architect, and he went on to rent an office in what was a storage space in one of its 12 small domes. There he soon found himself working on the building’s maintenance and promoting its restoration in time for Argentine’s 2010 bicentenary.
“It’s a dream for me to be in this place,” he says. “I can see the tower from my window and almost touch it with my hand, it’s so close. It’s something that goes beyond bricks, it’s something personal.”
The building was repainted and reclad but Carral’s big challenge was the painstaking repair and restoration of the searchlight that tops the tower. The parabolic mirror is irreplaceable and the lamp is too big to move down the stairs so had to be dismantled in-situ.
“We took it apart with absolute terror. There was no one to learn from or copy because nothing similar had been done.“
Palacio Barolo is famous for the intriguing symbolism in its architecture, with references to Dante’s Divine Comedy. It also includes substantial Masonic symbolism which is still being studied. For example, it’s built over water: an underground stream can be seen through a shaft in the basement. Carral’s fascination with the building and its Italian architect has led him as far as to visit Palanti’s birthplace and the university from which he graduated in Milan.
“Now the building’s well known, which is what I wanted: for people to know about this incredible building,” Carral says. “But there’s still so much to discover. This is a huge jigsaw and we keep finding new and exciting pieces. The vaults in the main hall are all false, for example, made of plaster. There are still spaces that I need to open and explore to see what’s there, so the story continues.”
And the story is sure to continue. Carral is passing on everything he knows about the Barolo to his son, Julián, so his work can be continued.