The Expat: Ciara McGonigal

Screen Shot 2014-11-23 at 09.55.50CV
Born: Dublin
Lives: Palermo Hollywood
Education: Architecture at Dublin School of Architecture
Profession: Architect/designer
Book: Trout-fishing in America
Film: A Muppet’s Christmas Carol
Gadget: My tape measure

When Ireland’s economy proved to be going nowhere fast during the global financial crisis, architect Ciara McGonigal decided there must be more to life beyond Dublin. Along with her DJ boyfriend and another couple, they headed for Buenos Aires. Four years on and she’s just completed a project building a new hotel.

Ciara says: “I was living at home with my family and in 2010, Ireland was in the middle of the crisis. We were worried that if we didn’t go then we’d get sucked into a mortgage and various lifestyle responsibilities. It was the time to do something else and live somewhere else.

“I’d never been to South America before but I’d always wanted to come here. A neighbour of mine had opened a winery in Mendoza and he used to talk about Argentina and it intrigued me: Malbec, steak… it sounded like the life. Plus I’d been flirting with improving my Spanish as I have family in Madrid and lived there and in Barcelona for a while.

“So we moved here with two friends from Ireland and lived together for the first while. And every year we’d think ‘oh we’ll go back soon’ but it’s been four years now.”

Learning the ropes
The early days saw the gang stay in a hostel before moving to San Telmo, taking intensive Spanish classes.

She adds: “In the first week I met a friend of my cousin who had been here for three months and she was like a guru, even though she hadn’t been here that long. We lived in a hostel for a week, then we rented the first apartment we saw on Chacabuco. It was proper, old-school Buenos Aires with floor tiles, a courtyard, wooden floors and tall doors. In fact we only moved out as the owner was coming back, and we thought we should see some other neighbourhoods.

“In the beginning my boyfriend and the couple all wanted to chill for a while and we did a month of intensive Spanish class but after that I started looking for a job. Six months without work was a bit tough as I always like to be doing something. I’d send out CVs and get no response, in fact one reply came back over a year later! There was one architect who I befriended as I really liked his work then I started working for him – that was three and half years ago.

Back to work
“I work a lot and Hotel Clásico was one of the first projects I started on. It’s been really cool and my job is a huge part of what’s keeping me here as it’s so interesting and I’m still learning loads. I’d never worked on a project to that level of detail on that scale, so it was a big learning curve. Right now, for example, we’re designing a public park near the Polo Tecnológico, which is totally different – I feel that being here means I get to put my nose into more things than I could back home.”

Although she spends a lot of time at the office, there are lots of positives about the working environment that make being an architect in Buenos Aires a fun experience.

“We drink mate all day long – can you imagine doing that in an architect’s office in Ireland? One of the clients is also a friend of the practice and when I first started, he would come in and cook for us. I thought it was a joke that he came in every Friday just to do that, but it wasn’t! What a lovely thing to do, to take a few hours to sit down and eat together every week. We don’t do it every Friday as the practice is busier now, but we still have an asado every now and then, and I feel like it’s a necessity for us. To be given half a day to enjoy food and wind down would never happen at home.”

Eye for design
With a passion for design, Ciara always keeps her eyes open for architectural design. She says: “There isn’t much control with regard to the style of building you are allowed to construct. There’s control over scale and use but you don’t have to tie in with certain aesthetics and that means you get a unique street-scape and the skyline can go up and down 10 times in a single block. I see it as something very unique.

“Construction methods are also very different – we have to think a lot more how bloody cold Ireland is but here we don’t have that worry! It changes things so buildings aren’t so heavily insulated. Building is a long project and from the time you start with a concept to delivering a finished building can take years. But here it’s interesting how inflation ties into it – that’s very different from what I’d seen before as it’s not an issue I had to deal with in Ireland.”

In her spare time, Ciara loves going out to eat, sampling Fernet and Coke and has been known to whip up an asado, if only to prove a point. She says: “As my boyfriend is a DJ, I go and see him play regularly. And I love brunch and will do that Saturday and Sunday – he isn’t into it so I’ve had to find other brunch buddies.

“One of the positives of being here is that going out to eat is a lot more affordable than it is at home and it’s one of my favourite things to do. I try to do that one or twice a week. There’s always new things in Buenos Aires and I am constantly finding out new spaces or bars or some crazy clothes store – it’s cool.

“I also love to cook and recently made my first asado, the fire, all of it. I was hellbent on doing everything myself. I did it because of the fact that men mainly do it here and I felt like ‘anything they can do’… One of my Argentine friends said he knew that was the reason I did it and that as a woman I was smart enough to know that if a man wants to get hot and sweaty and smell of smoke, then I should just let him do it. And I thought: ‘how did I fall into that trap!’”

Moving house
Moving from San Telmo to Palermo Hollywood was a big change but a necessary one, she says. “All our friends had already moved out of San Telmo so we moved to Palermo Hollywood. I do miss it but we lived in front of a squat and at first that made me a little bit nervous but then I got to know all our neighbours. Little things like that when you live away, such as knowing the local chino owner or who you buy vegetables from helps you to feel more grounded.

“I like the tranquility where we are now. I still take care as it’s a massive city and you’d be silly not to but I do feel more relaxed. It had got to a stage where I didn’t like walking around in the dark – the thing is I just don’t want to be freakishly aware of crime! Palermo Hollywood has loads of cool cafés and work is just seven blocks away from home.”

Buenos Aires Herald, November 22, 2014
Ph: Mario Mosca

Enjoy meeting Ciara? Meet Colombian cook Pedro.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *