Book Review: Chilean Creativity

By Michael Webb

White Mountain: Architecture in Chile. Puro Chile and Hatje Cantz; DAP. $85  

All the usual suspects and several unfamiliar names are rounded up in this ambitious bilingual catalog of recent work by about sixty Chilean architects, working alone or on collaborative ventures.  Essays by Miquel Adriá,  Horacio Torrent, and Pablo Allard provide a historical background, explain how architecture has flourished in Chile over the past two decades, and introduce some of the leading players. Each architect or team is represented by one or more buildings—the prolific Mathias Klotz has eight—shown in plans and photos with brief factual descriptions.

All the significant new buildings I saw in Chile two years ago are included here, so this anthology revives happy memories of a country in which serious architecture has been widely embraced. Modernism rules. The remoteness of the country—a narrow strip, 4000 miles long that is isolated from the rest of the world by the Andes and the Pacific—bred a strong feeling of independence. Though rich in minerals, it contained no precious metals and was spared the cultural imperialism of Spain—and the dubious legacy of Colonial-style buildings. Chile was settled by European immigrants, but—in contrast to Argentina– they had to work hard and contend with extremes of climate and devastating earthquakes. That shaped the architecture, which is for the most part, rigorous, restrained, and solidly constructed. Wood and concrete are widely employed. A few firms—notably Alejandro Aravena, Jose Cruz Ovalle, Sebastián Irarrazaval and Pezo von Ellrichshausen—have created work of great originality within these constraints.

If these names don’t trigger recognition, you can blame the shocking insularity of American media, and the widespread ignorance of cultural expression beyond our borders. Despite the influx  of immigrants from Latin America, the rest of our continent is still viewed through a clouded lens. That makes this book a valuable resource, but its production is seriously flawed. “We wanted an accessible and easy to read format,” declares the introduction. So why print texts in miniscule type on dark red paper? The English-language translations are often wooden and fail to highlight key aspects of the projects described. The pictures are of high quality but the credits are even tinier than the texts, and there are no dates. This is the revised edition of a collection first published in 2011; we can hope that the third will be radically improved.

 

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