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Austral Lineas

Courtesy of Pei Cobb Freed & Partners
Exterior rendering by Paul Stevenson Oles / Courtesy of Pei Cobb Freed & Partners

This project for Austral Lineas, Argentina’s domestic airline, was an elegant solution to rigorous local land use regulations and opportunities presented by the building code in Buenos Aires. Two major constraints were presented: 1) a limited footprint on the ground, which was respected, and 2) a limitation on site coverage, which was not.

Pei wanted a horizontal building to span the full width of the site to border an adjacent park. He gamely divided the building volume into a structural grid 3 squares wide x 5 squares long x 8 floors high, totaling 120 squares. Knowing the client’s spatial requirements and also the zoning requirements, he effectively turned the building upside down and began removing squares of space, chewing away the mass from the underside until only two squares (for the lobby and core) remained on the ground. By taking some squares out and putting others back in, he created an enormous amount of overhead soffit, in essence a “fifth façade.” The solution deftly skirted site coverage limits in smaller, more acceptable increments while simultaneously adding sculptural interest and bringing natural light into the heart of the building. The varied height and location of lower levels created a building that is simultaneously there, but not there, integrated with the park in a breeze- and fountain-cooled outdoor environment.

As local fireproofing requirements allowed the building’s columns to be filled with a retardant substance, unlike American requirements for steel fireproofing/cladding, the result is an especially refined expression of pure structure. A similar aesthetic would be evoked at 88 Pine Street, an office tower by I.M. Pei & Partners in New York, although achieved by very different means.

In late 1980, after the building was designed, but before construction documents were issued, Austral Lineas, wallowing in debt, was taken over by the government. With that, there was no longer any need to build a new headquarters for the airline. The project went unbuilt.

Design Team: I.M. Pei, Design Partner; W. Stephen Wood, Design Architect
I.M. Pei & Partners