BY Vincenzo Latronico in Features | 17 DEC 14
Featured in
Issue 168

Open City

Vincenzo Latronico visits a utopian community in rural Chile, which is still thriving after over 40 years

BY Vincenzo Latronico in Features | 17 DEC 14

Just outside of Viña del Mar, the coast of Chile empties out and widens, offering travellers headed for Quintero – 24 kilometres further north – a suggestion of how this still sparsely populated area must have looked before the country’s economic boom of the 1990s. Looking west, from the narrow motorway punctuated with stands selling the local sweet delicacy, empolvados, you see an expanse of sand dunes green with chaparral and patches of pine trees: you could be in California. Looking east, you see the ragged outline of the Chilean Coastal Range and, in crisp weather, the near-7,000-metre peak of the Aconcagua looming behind it, and realize you’re not.

In the 1970s, this stretch of coast was deemed a fitting location for two projects that, despite being entirely opposite in nature, could both benefit from the fact that the area was so remote and so isolated: a utopian community of architects and poets, and a prison camp established by what Chile still officially refers to as the ‘military government’. Four decades later, though, only one of them is still there.

Pavilion, built in 2012, photographed in 2013. Photograph: Ana Asensio Rodríguez

I’d first heard of the Ciudad Abierta (‘Open City’) from a Chilean friend who’d been exiled to Italy during the Pinochet years. He spoke dreamily of a group of people who had managed to create radically innovative architecture and a thriving alternative community close to his hometown of Valparaíso, and sustained it right through the period of military dictatorship. When I discovered that my hostess in Santiago, Maria Pilar Pinchart, had invited members of Ciudad Abierta to the Chilean pavilion she co-curated with Bernardo Valdés for the 2012 Venice Architecture Biennale, I immediately asked her if she could arrange a visit to the notoriously secluded community. A week later, a bus left us in what seemed to be in the middle of nowhere on the Viña-Quintero road.

We climbed over the guard-rail and walked back south for a few minutes, following a sandy path along the road while trucks and buses zoomed past behind us. After a while, we reached a clearing and, behind the dunes, saw the angular outline of the Hospedería de la Entrada (Entrance Quarters), an oblique, stilted structure made of driftwood and glass. In the distance, beyond the pines, we could make out similar sparse buildings that collectively make up this ‘open city’ at Ritoque: complex and slightly quirky, seemingly pre­carious but weather-beaten and inhabited for decades, abstract in outline yet so entwined with the natural environment as to seem like one of its emanations. The taste evidenced by the buildings’ basic geometry appeared to be at odds with their wildly irregular outlines and organic materials – a sort of Steampunk Postmodernism or Mies van der Rohe on LSD.

Hospedería de la Entrada (Entrance Quarters), built in 1985, photographed in 2013. Photograph: Ana Asensio Rodríguez

The architectural style of the Ciudad Abierta is as particular as its history and philosophy. Architectural Modernism had a delayed arrival in Chile, aboard the ship that the poet Pablo Neruda chartered in 1939 to help scores of refugees escape Franco’s regime in Spain. Over the next decade, the European movement’s brand of early-20th-century utopianism (positivist, clear-cut and coolly rational) melded in Chile with the political concerns of the 1950s and ’60s, which included a stronger focus on small, autonomous communities and a wish to draw closer to nature.

These ideas resonated particularly at the Catholic University in Santiago, where they further developed under the impact of a Jesuit brand of communitarianism very much present in the Latin American Catholic left. In 1952, the architect Alberto Cruz Covarrubias was invited to join the school of architecture at the Catholic University’s Valparaíso campus, with the aim of innovating its pedagogical model. Cruz insisted on sharing his appointment (and salary) with a number of like-minded practitioners and researchers that included the Argentinian poet Godofredo Iommi. In 1965, under Iommi’s guidance, a group of teachers and students set out on a journey from southern Chile to Bolivia, in order to survey local landscapes and ways of life with the aim of formulating a specifically Latin American architectural identity. The party could not reach their destination – they were blocked by Che Guevara’s guerrilla forces – but the trip still inspired Iommi to compose the Amereida (1967), a long philosophical poem that was to form the basis of the Ciudad Abierta’s intellectual manifesto, and continues to do so to this day.

In 1967, when Chilean President Salvador Allende’s predecessor Eduardo Frei Montalva launched an agrarian reform that made all the larger farms in Chile liable to be repurposed for use in the public interest, the followers of Amereida saw an opportunity, pooled their money and bought an empty lot of sand dunes north of Viña del Mar. There, a few years later, they staged a collective performance that marked the founding of what would become the Ciudad Abierta, whose motto – an apt summary of the par­ticular nature of the Latin American landscape – is Ha lugar (‘There Is Room’).

Roof of the Hospedería de la Rosa de los Vientos o Las Celdas (House of the Rose of the Winds or The Cells), built in 1997, photographed in 2004. Courtesy: Archivo Histórico José Vial Armstrong, Valparaíso; photographer unknown

Originally conceived as an extension of the architecture curriculum at the Catholic University at Valparaíso, the Ciudad Abierta was intended to be a radical experiment in communal living, architecture and education. Students and teachers worked outside of any hierarchy on projects in which planning and improvisation were equal parts of the design process. This, alongside the principle of collective authorship and the preference for scrap or locally sourced material, has determined the seemingly haphazard, irregular look of many of the Ciudad Abierta’s structures. Each building is inspired – and often determined – by the peculiarities of its site, with some designed in order to prolong a dune’s gentle curve or with their columns aligned in order to avoid blocking the ocean breeze.

In total, the structures of the Ciudad Abierta number a few dozen, usually sited far apart from each other a couple of hundred metres back from the shore. Many of them seem as if they are still in the process of being built – either because they are, or because at some point in their construction someone decided their unfinished look fitted their location. They range from dwellings – with multiple doors and passageways, so as to blend the private and public spaces – to sculptural installations and common spaces, such as the Sala de música, a concert hall that has been hosting a communal lunch every week since its construction.

Pilares de Hormigón (Concrete Pillars), public sculpture, constructed in 2003, photographed in 2013. Courtesy: Archivo Histórico José Vial Armstrong, Valparaíso; photograph: Ana Asensio Rodríguez

It was to one such lunch that Pilar and I were invited. We gathered in the Ciudad’s main square, a sandy expanse with a fresh ocean breeze that filtered through the chaparral. Students were milling about for a weekly elective course whose programme hasn’t altered since the project was founded: group calisthenics and sports followed by developing ideas through poetry readings, performances and construction workshops. The food at Ciudad Abierta is prepared in turns by the families living on-site – most of them are involved in the department’s activities or closely associated to them. After a long, hearty meal, a moment for speeches ensued. As a first-time guest, I was invited to introduce myself, explain what brought me there and ask questions. To my initial amazement, people’s chief concern, in response to my questions and remarks, was to state clearly that their project was, absolutely, not a commune and that, beside professional activities and a single weekly meal, they were just a group of families living in the same spot.

Before my visit, I had assumed that the Ciudad Abierta’s communitarianism had grown out of similar politically engaged projects established around the same period. On the contrary, its activities have, in fact, always been animated by a marked rejection of political action and of intervention in the outside world in general. For example, for over a decade, the Ciudad shared the same stretch of beach with a prison camp for dissidents of the Pinochet regime, yet this has barely been acknowledged in the community’s activities and writings. 

Hospedería de la Rosa de los Vientos o Las Celdas (House of the Rose of the Winds or The Cells), built in 1997, photographed in 2010. Photograph: Leonardo Finotti

This desire for isolation has had reverberations. The Ciudad’s experiments in design are as unique as they are confined to the city’s environs – hence both their idiosyncrasy and relative lack of impact outside its perimeter. The community’s reflections on architecture and education, often framed in an arcane Heideggerian language influenced by the presence of poets in the group, have for decades proved more inaccessible than thought-provoking. Even the Ciudad’s legal status is somewhat bizarre – it is now a foundation, owned by the Catholic University, but is managed as a commune by the inhabitants of what, superficially, are nothing but seaside villas.

In comparison to the more politically engaged communities that blossomed all over Europe and the us in the 1960s and ’70s, and often vanished soon thereafter, it would be easy to find in the Ciudad a suspicious brand of conservatism. Indeed, after my trip, I would hear activists from the same generation refer to the Ciudad Abierta’s founders as ‘right-wing anarchists’, whose brand of communitarianism was influenced more by early Catholicism than by ideals of social transformation. But one could just as easily argue that the community’s desire to focus on teaching and experimentation, disregarding potentially disruptive agendas (personal, political), is precisely why, almost half a century after its founding, the ‘Open City’ is still open.

‘Phalène apertura de los terrenos’ (Phalène of the Opening of the Lands), one of the ‘poetic acts’games, readings and performances used by the community to generate ideas, 1971, photographer unknown. Courtesy: Archivo Histórico José Vial Armstrong, Valparaíso; photographer unknown

As we walked back over the dunes to try and hail a bus home under a scorching mid-afternoon sun, Pilar resisted my attempts at pigeonholing what we had just seen as either side of a dichotomized political schema. ‘It’s probably both,’ she said, ‘or has been, at different times.’ This strikes me as true, if paradoxical, since the Ciudad literally hasn’t changed, while all around it has.

In the 1970s, my aunt lived in communes in Malawi and Vermont; I’m pretty sure she and her friends would have dismissed the Ciudad Abierta as timid and individualistic. Today, with education struggling to find new models and architecture striving to enact participatory practices, the Ciudad’s project seems more radical and hopeful than any of the communes my aunt belonged to, all of which have long-since closed down. If its isolation is what has allowed the Ciudad to carry on, then this, too, has a political significance. It’s enabled the community to carry on with its original project, which is now more limited in scope, which is perhaps why it endures. Isolation has protected its idiosyncrasies, while the world around the Ciudad gradually became more timid and more individualistic than its founders ever could have been.

The bus finally arrived, and before sundown we were back in Santiago.

Vincenzo Latronico is a writer and translator based in Milan, Italy. His latest novel La cospirazione delle colombe (The Conspiracy of Doves) was published in Italy by Bompiani in 2011. He is currently working on a new Italian translation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Tender is the Night (1934).