In the 1880s, French botanist and landscape architect Charles Thays (1849–1934) travelled to South America to study its rich flora, particularly the continent’s hundreds of endemic tree species. He initially settled in Argentina, where his services were in great demand as municipal authorities across the country sought to smarten their cities up. They, like their European and North American counterparts, were spurred by the realization that the country’s fast-growing urban sprawls needed parks and gardens to provide vital breathing spaces and recreational areas.
In 1890, Thays was appointed director of parks and gardens in Buenos Aires, in no small part due to his adeptness at transforming open plazas formerly used for military parades, or plazas secas, into shady plazas verdes, or green squares, such as Plaza San Martín. He also designed the capital’s botanical garden and the zoo – which he planted with dozens of tipas (also known as palo rosa, or rosewood) – as well as Palermo’s Parque 3 de Febrero, Belgrano’s Barrancas, Córdoba’s Parque Sarmiento and Parque San Martín, Tucumán’s Parque 9 de Julio and, most impressive of them all, Mendoza’s Parque General San Martín. Thays received countless private commissions, too, including the garden of Palacio Hume, on Avenida Alvear in Recoleta, and the layout of the exclusive residential estate known as Barrio Parque, in Palermo Chico.
Despite his French origins, he preferred the informal English style of landscaping, and also experimented with combinations of native plants such as jacarandas, tipas and palo borracho (a spiky-trunked relative of the ceibo with handsome pink flowers) with Canary Island palms, planes and lime trees. Oddly enough, given the high regard in which he was held and his contributions to the greening of Buenos Aires, the lone plaza named in his honour, Plaza Carlos Thays, in Palermo, is disappointingly barren, and definitely not the best example of landscaping the city has to offer.