Chile – researchers say – means “at the end of the world” in the language of the Aymara. Many Chileans also see their homeland as a kind of “island” – separated from the rest of South America by the vast Andes. Eighteen years of brutal military dictatorship under the despot Augusto Pinochet did the rest to push the country to the global margins, both morally and socially. In terms of architecture, too, only a few had the country on their radar screens.
That changed in the 1990s, when a “golden generation” of architects that include, for example, Cecilia Puga, Mathias Klotz and Sebastián Irarrázaval attracted attention around the world – with architecturally sophisticated villas on steep rocky coasts, hotels nestled poetically in lush landscapes, futuristic university buildings and dignified wineries.
Chile’s architects have also increasingly delighted on the international stage: the Expo Pavilion in Milan (Undurraga Devés, 2015), Smiljan Radić’s Serpentine Pavilion in London ( 2014 ), the 2016 Architecture Biennale in Venice curated by Pritzker Prize laureate Alejandro Aravena and – also at the Biennale – the Chilean contributions by Pezo von Ellrichshausen ( Vara Pavilion, 2016 ), Pedro Alonso and Hugo Palmarola ( Monolith Controversies, 2014 ) and Alejandra Celedón ( Stadium, 2016 ) attracted much attention.
To better understand Chilean architecture’s success story, the editors of archithese traveled for one month through the Andean country, with its stunning natural landscapes – a land of fire and ice: we saw volcanoes, geysers and dust-dry deserts, salt flats and glaciers. And we met openhearted and friendly people. We got to see magnificent and spatially ingenious buildings: villas by Pezo von Ellrichshausen; hotels by Germán del Sol and Cazú Segers; a winery, a theater and museums by Smiljan Radić; university buildings by Elemental and much more. In addition, we paid visits to landscape designs that succeed in intensifying the existing potentials of the natural spaces, most notably the poetic interventions of Teresa Møller.
However – and this was the flip side – our journey was also disillusioning. Chile’s beautiful new architectural world turned out to be the domain of a small upper class. Only a privileged group shares the benefits of the neoliberal country’s sustained economic boom. Even though the country is economically well off according to statistics, the situation is tense. Driven by the hope of someday rising to the middle class, many young Chileans borrow money for their education but often fail to then find qualified jobs.
Those like us, who have the privilege of being able to move about almost exclusively within the spheres of outstanding new buildings, remain unaware of the sobering world of working-class and indigenous Chile. You have to leave the paths trodden by architectural tourists, drive out to the humble settlements and take a close look at what is missing: social building projects are almost non-existent in Chile, and the public realm is waiting in many places for ( re -)vitalization. We did not get to see any interesting new housing projects, but we did visit many bleak single-family housing developments, built on cheap land somewhere out in the middle of nowhere, with spiritless rows of hundreds of identical homes.
The environment, too, is sometimes heavily polluted: Lithium mining consumes large quantities of water and the capital, Santiago, suffocates every winter in smog. Global tourism is booming, meaning that crowds of people are flooding the national parks from Patagonia to Atacama. Hotel ships now sail as far as Antarctica, where tourists tread on the penguins’ feet in their colonies.
But the younger architects are starting to grapple with these issues. They are increasingly questioning the impact of the economy on the environment, infrastructures and cities, and are aspiring to exert more influence on the housing situation and public spaces. The leeway to do so, however, is limited. All the more reason why we have tried to put the spotlight on the tender young seedlings that have taken root and are flourishing on the broken edges of South America’s neoliberal “model state”.
editor in chief archithese