Essay by Pablo Brugnoli, Francisco Díaz, and Amarí Peliowski, curators of Chilean House: Domestic Images. The exhibition was on view at the Sala Andes at the Centro Cultural La Moneda between January 18-May 10, 2020. [Centro Cultural La Moneda closed in response to coronavirus (COVID-19)]
“Only a very small part of architecture belongs to art: the tomb and the monument. Everything else that fulfills a function is to be excluded from the domain of art. Only once we overcome the great misunderstanding that art is something that can be adopted for an end, only once the deceitful catch-phrase of ‘applied-art’ has vanished from the vocabulary of the people; only then we will have an architecture of our times.”
—Adolf Loos, “Architecture,” 1910.1
The house, for Adolf Loos, was a type of architecture that did not fit into the category of art. The well-known Austrian architect claimed that the inherently functional status of the house—enabling and protecting private life—distanced it from the uselessness of the artistic object.
But a house is not only characterized by its functionality. It is also set apart by that unusual trait wherein it can exist in multiple situations—topographic, typological, economic—yet remain unmistakably a house. If there is something that identifies it, it is this condition of multiplicity. In fact, despite the diverse ways in which it can manifest itself, we rarely doubt that a house is a house; moreover, differences aside, we all live in some form of house.
Prioritizing its daily use, literally its “domestic” condition, the house constantly questions architecture’s artistic hierarchy. In the house, architecture distances itself from art to approach domesticity. Thus, regardless of whether it is art or not what matters is that, if we all live in some form of house, we all end up engaging with architecture.
For Walter Benjamin, however, the state of distraction in which buildings and constructions are perceived was the counterpart of the optical attention that architecture enabled. Furthermore, as the German Jewish philosopher asserted, it was this double condition that upheld architecture in a unique position regarding its relationship to the masses, unattainable by any other artform.2 For Benjamin, architecture was an art with usefulness, a material object that, if scrutinized beyond its utility, allowed for an appreciation of the culture it conveyed. In sum, a cultural object.
To exhibit architecture in a cultural center allows us to depart from the categorical debate—whether architecture is an art or not—to focus on its status as a cultural object: as a prism that reflects and illuminates the society that produces it. The house is one of such cultural objects, and through it, architecture turns into a lens to look at the society that produces it.
Considering the house as a cultural object, Chilean House: Domestic Images is an exhibition that seeks to display the various expressions that the house assumes in this southern country. By means of representing a large number of houses designed for everyday use, the exhibition seeks to show the different forms of domestic life in Chile, accounting for the cultural, territorial, and social diversity within national borders. Encompassing most of the Chilean territory, from the northern regions to Antarctica, Chilean House demonstrates that the geographical diversity of the country is coupled with the need to invent ways of adapting to the climate and landscape. From individual dwellings to big collective housing buildings, this exhibition also presents the substantial variety of typologies we Chileans inhabit, therefore, illustrating the versatility of this cultural object. Finally, by encompassing diverse materials, from the first representations of houses in Chile to recent projects, Chilean House proposes a visual journey through the history of the country, with the house as its guide. This not only enables us to grasp different moments in time, but also travel from the vernacular to the industrial, from the homes of the first inhabitants of this territory, preceding its conquest, to the places where immigrants live today.
Chilean House: Domestic Images is organized around six major themes that illustrate aspects that the house must deal with. Territories presents the various ways in which geographical adaptation has determined specific modalities for the house. The section addressing Densities looks at those dwellings in which concentration is key, facilitating communal forms of life and located mostly within urban environments. Economies focuses on those houses shaped by the availability of resources, evincing that their capacity to rise in market value and the savings in construction processes and materials are two sides of the same coin. The section on Singularities focuses on those houses designed to represent particular identities—from the architects’ to the owners’—by means of objects that aim to be useful in more ways than just for living in them. The chapter on Struggles looks at the house as a right worth fighting for. Finally, Temporalities displays dwellings that change in time, allowing us to contemplate the evolving lives of their occupants, the new uses the house becomes subject to, and even its disappearance after the occurrence of catastrophic events.
Each of the six chapters is in turn subdivided into three categories, based on paradigmatic case studies that work as prisms through which we can appreciate the variety of forms that the Chilean house assumes. Each category is defined by an adjective that not only identifies but also attributes qualities to the house. Territories consists of the “vernacular house,” the “adapted house,” and the “shelter house.” Densities includes the categories of the “collective house,” the “serialized house,” and the “communal house.” Economies considers the “commodity house,” the “prefabricated house,” and the “almost house.” Singularities is organized around the “manifesto house,” the “experimental house,” and the “fantasy house.” Struggles consists of the “seized house,” the “imposed house,” and the “reclaimed house.” Temporalities, finally, is made up of the “dynamic house,” the “recycled house,” and the “destroyed house.” The exhibition’s display is organized following these six chapters, eighteen categories, more than 100 cases, and about 300 items that aim to portray the houses in which Chileans live.
The exhibition considers the house as a cultural object that is constantly represented in art, media and their archives, either as a metaphor of human life, as evidence of different social realities, or as a mirror of the diverse cultures that make up our society. In this context, several materialities and visualization formats have been gathered, which have historically registered and represented archetypes and domestic scenes in Chile: photographs, drawings, paintings, videos, films, newspaper clippings or press reports, objects, scale and full-size models. In an attempt to maintain the particular condition of each case study (as opposed to homogenizing them), the domestic images that shape the exhibition seek to reveal the diversity that coalesces under the concept of the house.
Albeit, as Benjamin himself posited, these images do not represent architecture but rather present it; they do not re-produce architecture, they produce it in the first place.3 After all, architecture comprises not only buildings but their documentary records, memories, archives, interpretations and representations as well, and is produced not only by architects but by artists, journalists, historians and even ordinary people. Thus, more than buildings or the work of architects, Chilean House seeks to exhibit architecture through of its domestic images.
With about 4,300 kilometers in length that allows it to traverse 39 parallels, the narrow corridor of land that runs from north to south between the Pacific Ocean and the Andes Mountains has a surprising heterogeneity in its physical geography and at least ten different climates. The need to live in a determined place has led to ingenious ways of thinking about the form and situation of the house. From the palafitos of the fishermen in Chiloé to the bases for scientific research and political sovereignty in places like the Antarctica—where a human being would not survive without a house—Chileans have defined and redefined the places we inhabit according to the forms of life defined by the territory. Territories presents houses that, paradigmatically, have managed to create interiors that protect from inclement weather or topographic conditions.
Selected case study:
Caja de Habitación Popular del Estado, Quebrada Márquez Housing Complex, Valparaíso, 1946-1949.
Following the shape of the street, which in turn traces the contours of an old ravine, this housing complex proposed a novel way to adapt to Valparaíso’s topography while using a modern language. Its balconies, which give access to the apartments, are elevated sidewalks that disappear as they encounter the slope. Thus, the scale of the buildings visually diminishes to avoid obstructing the hills, becoming one of the architectural icons of the port-city.
With close to 90% of its population living in cities, Chile is one of the countries with the highest urbanization rates in the world. Although single-family houses are the prevailing model, increases in density have been explored as a way to house a greater number of people on urban land ever since the beginning of the last century. The densification of the city has given rise to remarkable cases where the scale of the project—be it a singular building or an entire neighborhood—enables the city to be built from large groupings of houses that allow communal living. Perhaps the most extraordinary examples are those carried out during the ‘“developmentalist project” that operated in Chile between the Radical Party governments and the Popular Unity term in which, through a series of direct and indirect mechanisms, the State became a key agent in the construction of the city.
Selected case study:
Urban Improvement Corporation, San Borja Remodeling, Santiago, 1970.
Albeit not being fully completed, the San Borja Remodeling comprises a super block with an interior park of dimensions akin to the Santa Lucia Hill, aerial walkways, and a series of towers surrounding substantial portions of public space. Taking advantage of the demolition of the old San Borja Hospital, which freed a large plot of land next to Alameda Avenue, the Urban Improvement Corporation (CORMU) mobilized this project as a flagship of its understanding of the city through collective housing. Today, despite it never reached the initial vision, it remains as a privileged witness to one of the last moments in which the State was still a key agent in the construction of the city.
For the vast majority of the Chilean population, the house represents the largest expenditure that a person makes in his or her lifetime. But precisely because of its cost, the house is also transformed into an asset that can be traded, capitalized or mortgaged. Hence, those who have greater purchasing power can buy several houses and have them as means to generate income; thus, the house ceases to be a place to live and becomes a “commodity.” Cost reduction—through optimization, prefabrication, or the pursue of cheap land—goes hand in hand with the possibility of capitalizing the house as a real estate asset. Economic aspects, therefore, not only intervene in the house once it is placed on the market, but from the very moment it is conceived as a product for sale.
Selected case study:
Decent Housing Action.
The recent explosive surge in housing prices in Santiago has made it increasingly difficult to afford a property. The strategy of real estate companies to make homes more affordable has not meant to reduce the profit margin but rather the size of the apartments, reaching extremes such as 17 square meters for new apartments, an area smaller than that of a mediagua. This urban action carried out by an anonymous collective of architects and architecture students in the context of the social protests of October and November 2019, seeks to reveal the perverse extremes that the real estate logic can reach when they are the only housing providers.
In the same way that all human beings are different, yet we are aware that we belong to the same species, all houses are different, yet they all remain recognizable as houses. Each person living in one makes use of ornaments, furniture, or colors. But there are also houses that seek to be singular from their conception. They may aspire to reflect the fantasies or desires of their owners; they may be used by their designers as a means to publicize a discourse, or they may even be envisioned as a testing ground for radically new ideas regarding housing or architecture. Houses, therefore, are often designed to represent a particular identity—from that of the architect to that of its owners—through an object that aspires to fulfill needs that go beyond the provision of a space to live.
Selected case study:
Luis Peña House, Miguel Eyquem, 1981, Santiago.
Designed for entomologist Luis Peña, this house, in the words of its architect “has almost no straight lines because that’s how insects are, and for them Luis lived.” It was built with limited resources and executed by a very small team, in which the architect himself partook as a builder. The house, whose owner intended to transform it one day into a museum of the species he collected, stands out for the novel use of laminate concrete, one of the first buildings to employ this building method in Chile.
Selected case study:
Cien House, Pezo Von Ellrichshausen, 2011, Concepción.
Ever since the Renaissance, geometry has been a source of certainty for architects. This house is a true manifesto of such relationship. The square, a basic geometric figure, is repeated 12 times and then subdivided in multiple ways to introduce the different domestic functions of the house, in addition to offices, an access, two terraces and a paint studio. This almost obsessive repetition conforms an iconic volume from two elements of identical dimension: a vertical tower supported on the center of a horizontal bar.
For a large part of the Chilean population, a house is not a given, but rather something that must be fought for. Since the late 1950s, the dwellers’ associations—who until then lived in informal settlements known as poblaciones callampas in Chile—initiated a series of land seizures in different parts of the country. Some consolidated and others were evicted during the dictatorship in order to free up land in high-income neighborhoods, concentrating the most vulnerable population in socially homogeneous peripheral locations, far away from the opportunities offered by the city. Alongside this came the modification of the status of the house by the Constitution of 1980, which ceased to consider it a constitutionally-guaranteed right, designating it instead as something “that is achieved with effort.” That is, one that depended on the purchasing power of each individual. Consequently, after the return to democracy, the house became once again a territory of struggle, either for its access or because of the debt generated by its acquisition.
Selected case study:
Map of Evictions in Santiago.
Between 1979 and 1985, the military regime carried out a program to eradicate informal settlements that permanently affected not only the 330,000 people who were relocated, but also the capital city of Chile itself. Santiago, with its new commune subdivision established in 1981, became a city segregated according to the socioeconomic status of each household. This plan, in turn, also freed land for real estate construction in central and high-income communities.
The house is not an inert object. Its construction sets in motion a dynamic life cycle that entails modifications, reuses, and resignifications. Whether through changes in use or functions, extensions, adjustments, or as a response to weather or other natural phenomena, the house is transformed by the passage of time. This condition has given room to ingenious solutions, which incorporate inhabitants in the process of construction and evolution of their homes, or also changes of use in which, despite the new purpose, the imaginary evoked by the house remains. Even in cases where the house has been destroyed, its ghost lingers in place owing to other means, from pictorial records, to film, to individual memory.
Selected case study:
Fragment of Alto Río Building in Concepción.
Perhaps one of the most dramatic images of the aftermath of the 8,8 earthquake that hit central and southern Chile on February 27, 2010, the collapse of the Alto Río building in Concepción shook the role and meaning of architecture to its very foundations. Upon structurally “breaking down” at the base, the building fell on its side, taking the lives of eight people injuring about seventy people. The collapse entailed a view of the apartments’ floors and ceilings as walls, and walls transformed into floors and ceilings. Since the building had been inaugurated barely a year before, it raised questions about the quality controls in real estate developments in Chile.
1. Adolf Loos, “Architecture” (1910). In: Yehuda Safran, Wilfried Wang (eds.) Architecture of Adolf Loos. (London: Arts Council, 1987), p. 108. ↵
2. Walter Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” (1936). In: Walter Benjamin, The work of art in the Age of its Technological Reproducibility and Other Writings on Media. (Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2008). ↵
3. Walter Benjamin, “The rigorous study of art” (1932). In: Walter Benjamin, The work of art in the Age of its Technological Reproducibility and Other Writings on Media. (Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2008). ↵
Curators: Pablo Brugnoli, Francisco Díaz, and Amarí Peliowski
Project coordinator: Blanca Uría
Organized by: Centro Cultural La Moneda
Dates: January 18-May 10, 2020
Pablo Brugnoli is an architect who graduated from UCV, Chile in 2001. In 2018, he received his Master of Cultural Heritage from UC, Chile. He is Deputy Director of Projects at the La Moneda Cultural Center and has designed more than twenty exhibitions. In 2018 he curated Chillán: Modern Landscape, Territories in Transformation.
Francisco Díaz is an architect who received his M-Arch from UC, Chile, in 2006. In 2013, he received his Masters of Science in Critical, Curatorial, and Conceptual Practices in Architecture (CCCP) from Columbia University, NY. He is a Professor at the School of Architecture at UC, Chile, and is the Editor in Chief of Ediciones ARQ and ARQ Magazine. He has edited and published more than 80 books and 16 magazine issues. In 2019 he authored the book Patologías Contemporaneas, published in Chile and Spain by Uqbar Editores and dpr-barcelona.
Amarí Peliowski is an architect who graduated from UCV, Chile, in 2005. In 2008, she received her MA and, in 2015, her PhD in Art History from the EHESS, France. She is a Professor at the Faculty of Architecture and Urbanism at Universidad de Chile. She has conducted research on architectural representation, and on the education and work practices of architects in Chile between the eighteenth and twentieth centuries.