She draws to preserve Buenos Aires’ identity: ‘A building is like a city’s personal diary’

Natalia Kerbabian is an architect and artist striving to register architectural heritage lost in the face of urban renovation

A drawing by Natalia Kerbabian. Credit: Ilustro para no olvidar

Some of the drawings show the building’s facade. A watercolor fresco displaying the detailed window sills and moldings seen in some of Buenos Aires’ most beautiful buildings. Others are drawn in perspective, showing shop windows and signs as well as the typical attics of French neoclassical architecture.  

Despite the differences in technique and construction type, all these buildings have one thing in common: they either no longer exist or are scheduled to be torn down. 

The drawings are part of a documentation project called Ilustro para no olvidar (I draw so I don’t forget). The artist behind the endeavor is Natalia Kerbabian, a practicing architect working in Buenos Aires who spends whatever free time she can carve out drawing buildings set for demolition. 

Her goal: to preserve the city’s visual memory in the face of urban renovation. 

“Documenting the architectural heritage we are losing is a way of practicing remembrance,” she told the Herald, standing in front of two residential buildings in downtown Buenos Aires. Believed to have been built in the 1920s, they will soon be torn down to make way for a flashy new minimalist construction. 

The two homes, designed following the traditional style that was in vogue in early 20th-century Buenos Aires, were in perfect condition. The developer is tearing them down so they can join the plots in order to build a larger building completely unrelated in scale or aesthetic to the existing ones.  

“Once they’re gone, pretty soon we won’t even remember what this block even looked like,” she lamented. 

Kerbabian is fully aware that cities change and evolve. It would be impossible for a district to remain the same over time as people’s ways of living change and technology improves. For her, preserving architectural heritage is not about standing still but rather about striving to maintain a built connection to a society’s culture and traditions.

“A building is a city’s personal diary, if you will. It projects a form of history, a story of itself, that its citizens can relate to,” she says. “They maintain a city’s spirit and create a sense of belonging, helping us figure out how our future buildings should be based on who we are and what we need.”     

She launched Ilustro para no olvidar in 2022 when she came across the remains of two iconic houses in the neighborhood of Belgrano that had been demolished. The void left her with an almost uncontrollable urge to draw the missing buildings. Since then, she has sketched over 130 buildings that have been torn down, or are scheduled to be, all over Buenos Aires. The full record is on the project’s Instagram account. 

Although she does the artwork herself, Kerbabian has come to rely on people who share her concerns and reach out on social media, pointing to treasured buildings that are destined for the wrecking ball. She receives a tip and immediately heads out to document the building — or what’s left of it, if she gets there too late. 

Kerbabian does not live off the project and currently depends on public support to keep things running. She sells her drawings and also accepts donations. You can check out the different options to contribute here and here.  

“People care about their neighborhood; they care about losing that house they considered beautiful and an intrinsic part of their block,” she adds. Awareness of the importance of protecting valuable properties is growing, she believes — but this is not always reflected in the city’s current legislation. 

“People feel anguish. And loss.” 

The tension between preservation and urban renewal is an ongoing dilemma for cities like Buenos Aires. Governments and institutions have to consider what buildings are valuable enough to be kept and which ones are disposable, while managing pressure from developers jockeying for land and owners who want to be free to decide what to do with their properties.

“It’s a never-ending discussion,” architect and conservation specialist Graciela Aguilar told the Herald, adding that the issues revolve around ideas that are in constant flux, like what heritage should be protected and what kind of city we want to build.

Aguilar also pointed out that legislation regarding conservation in Europe is shifting. “Conservation now tends to focus on city sections or landscapes; trying to preserve parts of a district that capture its identity,” she said, meaning that preservation efforts are centered more around urban settings and what characterizes them than individual buildings. 

Kerbabian doesn’t just want to register the city’s lost heritage. She also seeks to raise awareness of the cultural value of a country’s architectural and urban heritage, planting the seed among children and adults alike. 

“Knowledge of built heritage is something that should go beyond being an architect or abiding by what a special committee says should be protected,” she argues, pointing out that in her experience, kids are a good indicator of value.  

“They tend to marvel at buildings that have a soul and are representative of our spirit.”


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