Chile is characterized by geographic isolation. Elongated and narrow, the country is confined by strong natural barriers: a bleak desert on the north, the freezing Antarctic area on the south, the towering Andes mountain chain on the east, and the Pacific Ocean on its entire western side. This separation, combined with the absence of a strong preHispanic culture such as those that highly influenced other Latin American countries, greatly shaped the nation’s architecture during the 20th century.
Because the population is mostly of European origin, there is a discontinuity between the cultural links with a different continent and the great distances from all the major centers of Western civilization. Architects and planners struggle to find Chile’s own image, with very little historic precedent.
In the first two decades of the 20th century, Chilean architecture was dominated by a strong academic tradition. The influence of the École des Beaux-Arts produced important institutional and residential buildings. The Palace of Beaux-Arts (1910), by Emilio Jecquier, combined Bourbon language and diverse ornamental motifs. Jecquier also produced the buildings for the Catholic University in Santiago (1914), a complex of excellent harmony and urban significance. Any reaction to the academic style was slow and marked by discontinuity. Diverse movements were adopted according to the circumstances dictated by client needs or representational purposes, but the intense theoretical debate and the search for newness that characterized turn-of-the-century European architecture were absent in Chile.
The most important architects of the 1920s and early 1930s were Luciano Kulczewsky, Ricardo Larraín Bravo, Miguel Dávila, and Ricardo González Cortés, architects who exemplified a variety of current trends, including Art Nouveau, neoColonial expressions, and Art Deco tendencies.
The democratic government of A lessandri Palma in 1920 and later the dictatorship of Carlos Ibáñez began the process of modernization as well as the growth of administration and public services. In 1928 an earthquake hit the city of Talca. All these factors intensified Chile’s modernization and brought rationalization in construction techniques.
A representative Art Nouveau building, presently used as the College of Architects of Santiago, was designed by Luciano Kulczewsky (1920). His own house (1920) was designed in the Gothic Revival style, another indication of Chile’s conservative tastes. Looking to regional traditions, another prominent architect, Ricardo González Cortés, combined decoration inspired from aboriginal Mapuche forms and Art Deco. Two representative pieces of this tendency are the Caja de Crédito Hipotecario (1930) in Santiago and the Building of Public Services (1935) in Talca. This combination of regional forms and European styles indicated a desire to define a representative style.
Concurrently, the influence of the Chicago School manifested in the growing cities of Santiago and Valparaiso. The first skyscraper, the Ariztía (1921), was built in Santiago by Alberto Cruz Montt and Ricardo Larraín Bravo.
Rationalist architecture arrived in Chile when a new generation of architects returned from Europe after visiting important Modern monuments. Representative of this generation, Rodolfo Oyarzún, Roberto Dávila, Sergio Larraín, and Alfredo Johnson combined classical compositional devices with elements of modernism. Among the first modernist buildings, the Oberpaur (1930) in Santiago, by Sergio Larraín and Jorge Arteaga, incorporated elongated windows and a free plan. Similarly, the Hotel Burnier (1930) in Osorno was designed in a modernist language by Carlos Buchmann.
In his important and influential 1929 visit to Argentina, Le Corbusier met the Chilean diplomat Matias Errázuriz; the following year Le Corbusier designed a small vacation home for him, located in Zapallar. Together with the house for Madame Mandrot, near Toulon, the project for the Errázuriz house (unbuilt) was a radical departure from the white, purist architecture of the 1920s. Although the impact of this new style of house and the use of local materials did not immediately influence architecture in Chile, once regionalist styles were legitimated outside the country (in Finland and Mexico), they gained acceptance among Chilean professionals. The assimilation of rationalist principles and a purist language characterized the 1930s. Rationalism dominated in the work of Sergio Larraín, Roberto Dávila, and Alfredo Johnson. These efforts were furthered when Dávila worked with Peter Behrens and Le Corbusier in 1932. The restaurant Cap Ducal (1936), by Roberto Dávila, is located in Vi a del Mar, overlooking the Pacific Ocean, and exemplifies the modernist Chilean style. The Santa Lucia Building (1934) in Santiago, by Sergio Larraín and Jorge Arteaga, uses forms of refined modernism including circular windows. The Hogar Parque Cousiño (1939), by Aguirre and Rodríguez, isolated from any other urban reference, shows the assimilation of Bauhaus-designed elements—such as asymmetrical composition, pilotis (stilts), elongated windows, a terrace garden, and a free plan—combined with a rationalist formula.
In 1939 an earthquake in Chilián, the presidency of Aguirre Cerda, and the beginning of World War II created a new context for the development of a modern architecture in Chile. During the 1940s architects in Chile continued their experimentation with modernist forms. The Maritime Biology Laboratory in Montemar (1944), by Enrique Gebhard, shows the strong influence of Brazilian modernism. Also important were the Hogar Social Hipodromo Chile (1941), by Gebhard and Aguirre, which used modernist materials such as glass, brick, and concrete combined with a regional stone for its walls.
The publication of Arquitectu ra y Construción magazine, the incorporation of Chile in 1946 to CIAM (Congrès Internationaux d’Architecture Moderne), and Josef Albers’s visit to the country in 1953 established modernist ideals in Chile. In the 1950s the proposals of CIAM influenced several habitation complexes, among them the Unidad Vecinal Portales (1957) by Carlos Bresciani, Fernando Castillo, Carlos Huidobro, and Hector Valdéz, a building that incorporated for the first time in Chile the separation of vehicular and pedestrian circulation.
After World War II the influence of American culture and the dominance of the International Style were evident. The new typology of a platform and tower appeared, as in the case of the Plaza de Armas building (1955), by Sergio Larraín, Emilio Duhart, Osvaldo Larraín, Sanfuentes, and Jaime Larraín. Another example is the Arturo Prat building (1956), by S.Larraín and Duhart. Parallel to the full incorporation of the International Style in the 1950s, some architects began to pay more attention to significant differences in architecture throughout the many regions of Chile. For example, the Hotel Antumalal (1952) in Pucón, by Jorge Elton, combines aboriginal craft, materials from the area, and landscape.
The 1960s were characterized by a new generation of architects and a diversity of tendencies. Emilio Duhart, who studied under Walter Gropius and later, in 1952, worked for six months with Le Corbusier in the project for Chandigarh, applied his experience to the building for the United Nations in Vitacura, near Santiago. Known as CEPAL (Comisión Económica para America Latina), it was designed in 1966 in collaboration with Christian de Groote. Duhart proposed a strong geometry with a simple square shape, an elongated body with a sculptural conic shape and expressive details. The building recalls the enclosed shape of Chandigarh’s Palace of the Assembly. The strong plastic shapes contrast in their abstraction with the presence of the Andes in the background.
The lasting influence of Le Corbusier is seen in the Benedictine Monastery in Las Condes, Santiago de Chile. This monastery was built in a time spanning almost 30 years. The unity reached through diverse interventions is the most important lesson of the complex. The monastery was designed by Jaime Bellalta in 1954 and the cemetery by Brother Martin Correa in 1954. In 1964 P.Gros planned the hostel, and in 1965 Brothers Martin Correa and Gabriel Guardia designed the church. Jorge Swinburn planned the refectory (1974), while R.Irarrával designed both the access plaza (1975) and the library (1980). The complex is related to the topography of the hill and built with exposed concrete, white stucco on brick, and details in wood. The most prominent feature of the monastery is the church, consisting of two cubes slightly rotated that create a strong yet simple space for prayer and ritual. Light generates a serene atmosphere and provides the space with its spiritual character. This simple and austere church constituted a key piece in Latin American architecture, comparable to Cavari’s Fátima church in Argentina, Oscar Niemeyer’s church in Pampulha, and Eladio Dieste’s church in Atlántida.
Process and collaboration throughout time characterize the Open City in northern Chile. In the 1960s a group of architects from the Catholic University of Valparaiso began to question both the principal tenets of the International Style and the relationship between client and architect. This challenge would culminate in the 1970s with the remarkable experience of the Open City. Located in the dunes of Ritoque, overlooking the Pacific Ocean, the buildings were erected without plans and based on a collaborative design inspired by the Maudés poets of France, a movement that proclaimed responsiveness to life and emancipation from rules.
Throughout the 1960s and part of the 1970s, Christian democratic and socialist governments emphasized the need for housing and other social programs. Among others it is important to mention the complex CORVI (1960), by Bruna Camus, Calvo Barros, Perelman, and Sepulveda, a project inspired by Le Corbusier’s Unite d’Habitation at Marseilles.
Since the 1980s, the term appropriate modernity , coined by Cristian Fernandez Cox, has taken center stage in Latin American architectural debates. Apropiada denotes both the appropriations of modernity’s values and ways to make it suitable to the Latin American context. A new sensibility characterized this architecture of the 1990s: a conscious effort to recover typologies rooted in the region, the search for cultural identity, the use of traditional technologies combined with modern devices, and the exploration of the unusual sculptural qualities of ordinary materials. Edward Rojas’s work exemplifies this approach. In his Modern Art Museum in Chiloé, outside the town of Castro, Rojas restored a warehouse built by Isaac Eskenazzi, who in the 1970s combined Modern aspects with regional typologies and materials. Rojas renovated the structure of the roof and floor and added a new building, a modest wooden shed. The combination of minimalist devices and regional types created a rich and simple museum adapted to the needs of the site and locale.
Mathias Klots’s Hotel Terrantai in San Pedro is equally context driven. Located in Atacama, a dry, northern area of the country, the small hotel was structured around a communal space. The project incorporated an existing house and kept the low profile of the context, composed mostly of adobe constructions. Inside, the structure combines broad expanses of glass and bleached timber floorboards with Andean-style terracing and textured walls.
The Consorcio-Vida Building (1999) by Enrique Browne and Borja Huidobro, is located in an elegant area of Santiago. The western facade, elongated and rounded, has staggered steps and trellises that generate a vertical garden of 16 levels. Protected by trellises that add a second skin, plants reduce up to 60 percent of solar heat gain. The building represents an appropriate modernity, as it incorporates recent tendencies and languages with an attention to sustainable design, local influences, and the economic reality of the country. The El Cerro House (1994), by Cristián Undurraga and Ana Devés, exemplifies a subtle reference to several precedents and a respect for the site. Two elongated walls, submerged in the hill, contain all the functions of the home in several levels and a terrace. Because all access is lateral, the only portal in the facade opens to the garden. Refined and minimal, the project refers to multiple figurative types.
Enrique Browne speaks of the permeability of Chilean culture, also characterized by the lack of direct relationship between sociopolitical events and architectural production. At the beginning of the 20th century, the principles of rationalism were not fully understood. As in many other Latin American countries, Chilean architects were attracted to modernism by its technical appeal rather than the Utopian and political origins that characterized contemporary changes in Europe.
Although 60 percent of the population is concentrated in the metropolitan area of Santiago, the country is geographically expansive. This situation has created a fertile ground for exploration of differences in materials and traditions as well as the regional adaptability to the rigors of extreme climatic conditions. An uncritical acceptance of modernist postulates has been transformed to a new respect for architectural heritage and the environment. One of the most important elements of 20th-century architecture in Chile is the tension and permanent dialectic between universal tendencies and the spirit of the place. Chile, with its economic prosperity and innovative spirit, is considered one of the most dynamic and active architectural cultures in Latin America.
Sennott R.S. Encyclopedia of twentieth century architecture, Vol.1. Fitzroy Dearborn., 2005.