Center for Art + Environment Blog

May 31, 2011   |   William L. Fox

Travels in Chile — Part 4 of 4

Travels in Chile -- Part 4 of 4

A residence at The Open City. Photo by Elias Redstone

A residence at The Open City. Photo by Elias Redstone

A residence at The Open City. Photo by Elias Redstone

In 1970 several faculty members from the Catholic University of Valparaiso established an architectural laboratory just north on the coast near the town of Ritoque. It was to be an open-ended inquiry in design based not upon the commonly accepted vocabulary of formal geometry, but upon poetic invention. David Walker, Josefina Guilisasti, Cecilia Puga and I were guided around a small portion of the site by the sculptor José Balcells. There is no master plan, no model-making, just growth premised on absolute consensus of the residents. The results are far from utopian, yet aspirational, not at all pragmatic, yet practical. And stunning.

David Walker taking a picture of one of the agorae at The Open City. Photo by Bill Fox

David Walker taking a picture of one of the agorae at The Open City. Photo by Bill Fox

The site extends from the dunes and wetlands of the coastline up through meadows and into the hills. The structures range from shared residencies to amphitheaters using wood, concrete, brick, and stone. Every kind of material seems to be deployed. So is every type of process, from bricklaying to the automatic writing exercises of the Surrealist poets. The portion of the property that José takes us through is devoted to a series of agorae (open meeting spaces where all decisions are debated and made), an amphitheater, the community cemetery, and ritual enclosures, all built in brick and connected by running water. For a cooperative within which no project can more forward if so much as a single person votes no, it’s remarkable how extensive and cohesive are the architectural interventions.

What I noticed was how vibrant a country Chile has become. Despite the social and economic challenges, no one seems to be saying “we can’t do this,” but instead takes on projects with great verve. South America’s tallest building, a 60-story skyscraper by Cesar Pelli, is going up in Santiago among a welter of construction cranes around the city, and contemporary art spaces are taking over old industrial buildings. Everywhere we looked we found a mixture of pre-Columbian, Colonial, and contemporary life that is unique in the world.

The Open City has long been admired by architectural theorists and students worldwide (and if you want to find out more, Road that is not a Road and the Open City (http://mitpress.mit.edu/catalog/item/default.asp?tid=5661&ttype=2) from MIT Press is a great place to start). Created to be an experiment without end, La Cuidad Abierta is also, as José says, “a way to learn how to live in an unfinished work.” If ever there were a goal for what art + environment could teach us, that might be it.


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