Chilean architecture is having a moment. In March, London’s Serpentine Galleries announced that this year’s summer pavilion will be designed by Smiljan Radic, a 48-year-old Chilean. In January, Chilean practice Pezo von Ellrichshausen was selected by London’s Royal Academy of Arts to take part in its Sensing Spaces exhibition. Around the world many other Chilean architects are involved in designing residential, commercial and government buildings: Santiago-based practice Elemental (in partnership with Iran’s VAV Studio) won a competition to create the Iranian Stock Exchange in Tehran; Teresa Moller is working on projects in China and Australia; and Mathias Klotz (in collaboration with Rodrigo Duque Motta) is creating two buildings of more than 80,000 sq metres each in Zhengzhou, China.
Speaking after the announcement of Radic’s appointment, Serpentine Galleries director Julia Peyton-Jones said: “We are thrilled that Smiljan Radic has designed the pavilion this year; he is a key protagonist of an amazing architectural explosion in Chile.”
It may sound rather Eurocentric to call this a particularly potent moment for Chilean architecture. After all, the country has long been architecturally literate, with some 44 architecture schools for a population of 18m. (Britain, by comparison, has about 50 such schools for 64m inhabitants.) Yet there is little doubt that the surge in global interest reflects a maturing of Chilean practice, both abroad and in the domestic market.
Until recently, Chile’s architects were best known for creating dramatic second homes in coastal and rural locations. Despite high levels of urbanisation – about 40 per cent of Chileans live in Greater Santiago – the nation’s cities were often neglected. “Over the past 20 years, architects abandoned our cities,” says Juan Pablo Corvalan, an architect at the Santiago practice Supersudaka. “All the interesting architecture took place out of the city and contemporary architecture was just for the elite.”
For the first time in a generation, the architectural focus is now turning towards Chile’s urban spaces.
Klotz is one of the country’s best known architects. He has designed buildings in Argentina, China, Lebanon and Spain, and his residential projects are seen as pivotal in the history of Chilean architecture.
After the fall of the Pinochet junta he was the first to embrace simple, contemporary, white cube designs that maximised the impact of their locations, such as the Casa 11 Mujeres, a clifftop holiday home with stunning views of the beach and sea from every room. For many years, Klotz worked almost exclusively on second homes for wealthy Chileans, but today his practice is working in cities. One such project is a large residential scheme in the seaside city of Valparaíso, which involves converting a former hospital and designing seven additional buildings. These homes were created within the constraints of the existing urban fabric and are smaller than past projects – the apartments will range from 35 to 90 sq metres, and the houses from 160 to 210 sq metres.
Klotz is also creating 200 homes and the surrounding public spaces for a development on the outskirts of Santiago called Singular. The first 50 properties, which have an asking price of $2,650 per sq metre, are due to be completed in December.
The designs are architecturally interesting and typical of Klotz’s preference for simple structures.
“Socovesa, the developer, wants to improve the quality of its offer as it is now targeting the highly competitive top-end segment of the market,” says Klotz. “That’s why, after years of working with their own internal architects, they’ve opted for recognised names instead.”
Other architects are also working on urban projects. Santiago-based RuizSolar is in the planning phase for a six-storey block of 19 high-end apartments called La de Hesa, in the city’s upmarket Las Condes area. The cantilevered design features gardens on every level. “The developer is targeting a luxury market: we expect the apartments to sell for around $1m each,” says architect Matiás Ruiz.
This growing focus on the urban fabric is partly driven by demand. A mining and resources boom has seen GDP rise to about $15,000 per capita, mortgages are more freely available and land values in some affluent areas of Santiago have risen as much as 30 per cent over the past two years.
Claudia Pertuzé is director of Ediciones Puro Chile, which last year published a monograph on Chilean architecture called White Mountain: Architecture in Chile. “The population in Chile is more educated and less conservative now, and our history of producing high-quality second homes with a strong authorial character has laid the groundwork for increased commissions in the urban area,” says Pertuzé. Klotz agrees. For his Santiago scheme, 12 per cent of the homes were sold off-plan, a record for the developer.
“Consumers are becoming more sophisticated and demanding more than just square metres from the homes they buy,” he says. Some architects, however, believe this commercial focus has its downsides. “Projects in our cities are primarily generated by developers who naturally have a business focus,” says Eduardo Castillo, a protégé of Radic. “As a result, good quality architecture remains the exception in Chilean cities.”
Mauricio Léniz, a founder of Elton and Léniz, a residential practice that’s worked in Santiago for 20 years, agrees with Castillo and says poor planning legislation is hindering effective development.
“Our urban planning laws are very limited. There is no centralised planning authority in Santiago and the concept of public space is still nascent,” he says. “Developers are driven by cost, there are few protected buildings and it’s possible to knock down and rebuild even in heritage areas. You see some terrible developments.”
HLPS Arquitectos is a young practice that achieved fame when it replaced Renzo Piano to design the Valparaíso Cultural Park. Among other projects, the group is now working on a housing development called Ochoalcubo in Los Vilos. The estate will comprise 16 houses, with eight designed by Japanese architects and eight by Chileans. Each home is visually different: some have simple lines and geometric shapes, others have soaring concrete curves. One design appears to hang between two rock faces, another uses wood and glass to blend into a clifftop location. The project aims to deliver architectural harmony by imposing a limited selection of materials. The first homes begin construction in July and will range in price from $1.5m to $2m. Two of the 16 have already been sold.
Ochoalcubo was conceived with the aim of illustrating that good architecture can add real value to urban developments. “Many real estate projects in the suburbs of our cities imitate designs from places with different realities to our own, with stylistic clichés and results that are often a long way away from good architecture. Too often, architecture is simply considered to be another cost that should be avoided or plagiarised if at all possible,” says Eduardo Godoy, the developer behind Ochoalcubo.
Latin America is an increasingly urbanised continent. According to the UN, almost 85 per cent of Latin Americans live in cities, and by 2050 that number is expected to rise to 90 per cent. Chile is just one country grappling with the challenges of urbanisation, rapid economic growth and historically weak planning laws. Architects in the country will have an important role to play in ensuring cities remain liveable in the future.
Mauricio Pezo, founder and partner of Pezo von Ellrichshausen, sums up the challenges ahead: “Our lack of prominent urban history and precious buildings might be read as a form of freedom but we see it as an enormous responsibility for the future.”