Santiago de Chile | Two Tales

Alejandro Aravena & Ricky Burdett | London School of Economics | by Levent Kerimol

While in Santiago de Chile, MovingCities sporadic contributor Levent Kerimol visited the much acclaimed Elemental’s La Pintana and Lo Espejo housing projects and scanned Ciudad Abierta – Valparaiso University’s architectural playground (dixit Diego Grass Puga). Levent files a report and tells two tales of how an architect’s attempts to change the world are obstructed by his ego.

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It is strange that one can go most of the way around the world and not feel they are anywhere significantly different from where they started. Chile is almost as far away as it is possible to be from Europe, bar perhaps New Zealand. However like New Zealand the cities are strangely similar to their European counterparts. Albeit with the tinge of a suburban retreat across the colonial grandeur. Santiago has all of the buildings and institutions any significant city of 5 million would, but none of them particularly stand out. Contemporary architecture thrives on unique houses in the countryside. Chile is a suburb of Europe.

The only thing that sets the The only thing that The only thing that sets the country apart is the physical geography. Santiago is only an hour from skiing in the Andes and swimming in the Pacific. However it is in the north of the country where one really feels the presence of planet Earth. The vast ‘dirt’ of the Atacama Desert intensifies geysers, salt flats, sculpted valleys, volcanoes, wildlife and clear star-lit skies. The main economic activity is mining. Initially nitrate and salt, now vast copper ore extraction operations are serviced by the big trucks and freight trains that rumble through Antofagasta, the principle port of the north.

Santiago is familiar to European eyes not simply because of the colonial buildings, but as a well organised urban operation with a sophisticated social and cultural life. The intellectuals and trendy types sitting in arty quarters and gentrified markets don’t fall far short of London. The climate is temperate. Metros are clean and efficient with rapid bus provision accessing the places the metro has not caught up with. It seems the mineral resources of the nation have raised the general level of wealth, even if inequality remains. One would imagine Brasilian favelas would aspire to the poor ghettos on the outskirts of Santiago. These slum areas are extremely well organised, housing is generously spaced, roads have plenty of space, and some plots have grass and playgrounds as place holders for parks.

xxxxThis observation is perhaps the first contradiction in the way the work of Elemental is presented around the world. Elemental is the office of Alejandro Aravena, who I first came across at a lecture in the LSE, and was hugely impressed. Aravena is an articulate and inspiring speaker. Seemingly complicated messages are described with such clear diagrams, that the ideas come as revelations. It is no surprise he has been taken up by the likes of Ricky Burdett and Harvard GSD, and paraded at international architectural events.

Instead of designing a small house corresponding to the small social housing grant available, Elemental’s big idea is to design “only one half of a much bigger house”. They have formulated a series of workshops where the slum dwellers decide which “half” is most difficult to build themselves. This is usually the foundations, plumbing, hygiene, and perhaps a roof in more rainy climates. The construction of the other “half” of the house as extensions rely on the self-initiative and individual preferences of the householders themselves. However this other invisible half is choreographed by Elemental in the way the built elements are arranged to stack and give space for sideways expansion on upper storeys. The density and financial savings allow more of the allocated housing grant to be used on more expensive sites closer to the city, to avoid unreasonable travel distances. The resulting alternating rhythm of pragmatic minimalism with community bricolage even amounts to rather good architectural taste, which is uncommon for such ‘worthy’ projects. This seems such a win-win formula that one is filled with the power of design thinking and architecture to make the world better. A belief that makes us feel good about ourselves as designers.

However, on further reflection, there is a nagging suspicion that there may be some thing not quite right. Certainly the ideas are not much of an advance on “serviced plots” in African squatter camps, yet there is still the sense that Aravena is not giving away the whole story.

A visit to Elemental’s office was the only way to get to the bottom of these doubts. Located some way up a glass tower, in a tidy minimal office, with only a playful array of peep-holes in the entrance door to suggest there might be a handful of architects working at desks. Aravena was in Shanghai judging the Pritzker. We were made to feel at home speaking to a young man who looked and sounded very English. He was working on a rapid masterplan for the reconstruction of a town which had experienced damage in the recent major earthquake and tsunami. The project involved re-using severely demolished sites to insert new social facilities into the city. Housing would also be cleared from the seafront to create a new park which included a series of mounds designed by Arup to dissipate future tsunamis. They were working with inhabitants on this masterplan, as they had done with the social housing projects. However the use of ‘consultation consultants’, creates a subtle separation in the participation of professionals they were more interested in the results of the workshops, rather than the partic process itself. A fine distinction that sets didn’t want to get their white office dirty, and raised questions over how much the workshop process could be credited.

Trying to track down Elemental’s social housing projects, we were repeatedly told “that’s the ghetto, why would you want to go there?” However these peripheral ghettos were well organised, and fairly easy to get to with efficient buses. Any fear in approaching these neighbourhoods was more due to the influence of a wealthier population evidently infected with paranoia from a sensationalist news media.

Elemental’s social housing project in Pudahel formed a friendly community around an informal courtyard. Children were playing in the centre, and older guys were fixing a car. The focal point of the compound, was one small shop built onto the front garden of a house. Other than this there were no extensions apparent. This project adopted Aravena’s trademark alternating rhythm, to produce a standard social housing scheme in an area of decent three or four storey social housing stock. The much hyped innovation was not apparent here.

La La La La La La La La La La La Pintana seemed a rougher neighbourhood – graffiti murals marked the territories of drug gangs – housing was mostly self built, although still just as organised. The Elemental project was just nearing completion and had not been occupied yet. This time it was very clear to see that it had been completely built in crisp red and white finish to the same trademark look. Perhaps it had emerged from the workshops that residents had not wanted “half a house”.

Lo Lo Lo Lo Lo Lo Lo Lo Lo Lo Lo Lo Lo Lo Lo Lo Lo Lo Lo Lo

Lo Espejo had more of a mix of state housing and self built housing which ranged from glorified shacks to dream cottages with BMWs parked outside. Some of the original state housing even had self built extensions sticking out of the third or forth floor – an Elemental idea, which had already been invented by residents themselves. There was something extremely normal about Elemental’s rhythm of bare blockwork and resident infill in this context, that one wondered what all the fuss was about. A similar reation to the “chairless” collaboration with Vitra, where a  traditional strap that makes sitting on the ground more comfortable, is replicated as a designer seat belt and marketed at high cost for radical aesthetes.

eThe coincidence of itineraries led to an unusual comparison between Elemental’s social housing and Ciudad Abierta (the Open City). Ciudad Abierta was described as “Valparaiso University’s architectural playground” by MovingCities’ Chile contact Diego Grass Puga, the founder of 0300TV. Set in a remote stretch of road between cities, it took some tracking down. Strange constructions began to reveal themselves through bushes and mist, set on top of cliffs with deep ravines and barbed wire fences preventing access. A set of large white security gates, mysteriously began to open, and dared you to walk cautiously up a gravel path. The gates were opening for a departing car which stopped to allow us to explain why we were there. The driver taught at the university and said there may be people inside who should welcome visitors. Before he left he apologised for the security gates; “it’s not really the idea behind the Open City“.

It was not It was not it was not it was not It was not much of a City either. There were a few sparsely placed buildings visible in the distance as we climbed to the top of the plateau. A pair of black dogs came barking to stop us in our tracks. The sound of electric saws on timber from deep within a nearby building, suggested human life. We called greetings, and only once the dogs came to accept our innocent intent, did they let us past to meet the occupier of this house, who was making something in the yard.

The old man was a product design professor who used this place as a weekend house. He explained that all the houses in Ciudad Abierta were interpretations of a poem. Each responded to the poem’s descriptions of wind and light in different ways. The houses were not designed specifically for anyone or owned by anyone. The residents considered themselves (long term) guests of properties they would hand on to the next people to live there. Every generation added and changed bits of buildings.

The The The The The The The sparse buildings experimented with endlessly surprising construction methods, styles, and visual effects. Relatively cheap and straightforward materials gave every construction the appearance of a shack, that was intricately poised on the verge of collapse. Completely different from every angle like a complex scaled up Bartlett model. Walking across the grassy plateau, these exuberant manifestations of poetry sat silent and mysterious. There wasn’t much life out here in winter. The contorted forms exuded an eerie presence.

The The The The The TThe black dogs became our guides and protectors, leading us into the plaza the professor had mentioned and to the cemetery where generations of architects were buried. These landscape projects were elaborate conceptions that covered a large area, with the same quirky clash of ideas.

The The The The The The The TThe importance that had been placed on these public space projects demonstrated a culture that considered the plaza and essential part of anything that could be called a city. However the public space sat independent of the very suburban typology of scattered houses. This has some parallels with the concept of Chile as a new town suburb of Europe. The bespoke individual house was everywhere in Chile. In the countryside and in contemporary architectural magazines. No doubt, the architecturally fine suburban retreat Diego was setting out to film for his website the following weekend, was first conceived in the fields of Ciduad Abierta.

Such independent spirit at all levels of Chilean society, suggested mixing it into social housing was not a big feat for Elemental. Alejandro Aravena’s presentations seemed more over-hyped than ever. The international performances are entertaining slight-of-hand magic shows. Aravena’s attempts to market “his” idea through branding and patenting several versions of the idea, with an IKEA style selection palette, sit uncomfortably with the laudable intentions. The ownership of the idea actually stops others from spreading the approach around the world. His reasons for such control are to prevent poor quality rip-offs – the same argument used by multinational fashion and entertainment corporations.

The idealism of Ciudad Abierta, on the other hand, seeks to find universal truths through the originality of an inward-looking genius. The freedom and the communal ownership and public space of the Open City materialises into frivolous sculpture and suburban individualism, and serves as a training ground for further suburban individualism.

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Pictures and words by Levent Kerimol | London, July 25th 2010

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