The recent announcement that the Costanera Center building in Santiago will finally open in 2012 is the latest episode in the building’s troubled history, during which it has been both the emblem of Chile’s booming economy and the grand symbol of its downturn in the context of the global recession. The mixed-use development –which includes what will be South America’s tallest building, standing 300 meters high— will feature a shopping mall with a number of restaurants and a cinema, two hotels, two shopping markets and office space.
The previous chapter in its history was much less optimistic: during most of 2009 the project in the financial district of Santiago (colloquially known as Sanhattan) sat half-finished, its exposed concrete and reinforcement bars contrasting with a banner at the site that read Icono del Desarrollo Latinoamericano (“Icon of Latin American development”). Once a symbol of Chile’s soaring copper driven economy, the Costanera Center became an emblem of its decline, an all too visible manifestation of the dramatic downturn of the construction sector that saw dozens of projects like this coming to a halt and caught in a temporary-but-possibly-permanent state of suspension.
According to the Corporación de Bienes de Capital (CBC), an institute that monitors private investment in Chile, a total of 105 projects at different stages of planning or construction were delayed, suspended or scrapped last year. Even though works at the Costanera Center slowly started again during December 2009, the massive earthquake that affected Chile at the end of February 2010 created new doubts about the development. The engineers in charge finally announced that the construction would continue at a rhythm of two and a half floors per month. At every level, height appears to be the measure of achievement: Chile is on its way of having the continent’s highest building, and the workers involved in the construction will see their pay rise as they literally climb higher and higher in their daily job.
The destructive nature of the earthquake can be compared to the explosive and unchecked character of Santiago’s frenetic development and, indeed, the relationship between both phenomena goes beyond the metaphorical (and not just because the recently elected president Sebastian Piñera named a number of high profile businessmen in the construction sector as the new local authorities for the five worst affected regions, arguing that their expertise would be key to the success of the reconstruction). The earthquake swept away not the very old, but the very new in Santiago and other major Chilean cities like Concepción, generating a temporal displacement in which rise and fall, birth and decline simultaneously appear at the construction site. Halted projects like the Costanera Center and the newly-finished-but-already-ruined buildings both express a frozen form of architecture that cannot be expended, enjoyed or consumed.
Paradoxically, and in spite of their evident fragility, these buildings present themselves as having a solid, uni-dimensional meaning rather than a contingent quality; they stand still, maintained as they are, waiting either for an order of demolition or the reactivation of works. To this extent, these constructions represent a notion of waste that does not appear to be generative, but rather, seems to be suspended and vacant. Even though they might have radically different fates, in their present state both halted projects and half-ruined buildings refer to the same condition of waste. These examples of development and decline are inscribed within the larger processes of speculative construction and economic control that have shaped Chile’s urban landscape from the 1970s onwards. These processes echo the experiences of other countries but are also particular to Chile’s history, its rapid modernisation, its troubled recent political past, and its vulnerability to natural disasters.
The suspended landscape created by these buildings appears to limit the potentialities that otherwise contingent spaces could have. The work of the British architect Cedric Price, for instance, addresses the endless capacity of buildings to maintain themselves in a condition of openness, without any reference to past or future functions. In his understanding, the interval—manifested, for example, in the period in which a structure is yet-to-be-built, or in the moment in which the construction is paralysed due to economic or regulation constraints (which is, indeed, the present state of these Chilean buildings)—is an opportunity to be free from any limitation from the past or any aspiration to future glory, a condition of potentiality that generates new processes of exchange. But Price’s projects—which vary from very simple design solutions to buildings in a more conventional sense—could only work if they are able to engage with the present of the construction without privileging any particular outcome. In contrast, the examples of architecture coming to a standstill in Chile (due to the fragility of the country’s economy and the foundations of its flashy construction) can be seen as static monuments that do not commemorate a past event but rather refer to a future that is already out of date. Rather than generating new uses while these projects are halted, they remain encircled, in arrested development; limiting the transformable aspects that might be derived from their current uncertain position.
From the 1970s Chile abandoned its old state-centred policies in favour of a virtually unregulated free-market economy. Indeed, recent accounts of the earthquake metaphorically recall Milton Freedman’s doctrine of shock (the imposition of capitalism without any softening of its sharp edges) as a discursive figure: the American economist was advisor to General Pinochet during his dictatorship and a whole generation of highly influential Chilean professionals received a first-hand education from Friedman at the University of Chicago. ‘The Chicago Boys,’ as the group is commonly known in Chile, exerted a direct influence over the complete re-organisation of the country’s public health and education systems, alongside the transformation of its material infrastructure in a process not dissimilar to the changes wrought by earthquake and tsunami.
Santiago, in particular, is a city that has transformed its old urban fabric like no other in Latin America. The city is an extreme example of the boom-and-bust development process: plans get approved, buildings get ready and constructions become dated within an incredibly short life-span. Development opportunities in the city centre are rapidly becoming scarce, and construction companies now look to demolish whole buildings to source their land. Other companies buy any property that remains in the wealthier neighborhoods without concrete plans to build anything; these properties are laid to waste, with their gardens unkempt, masses of weeds covering the walls. Consumer sites dedicated to urbanism and architecture such as www.plataformaurbana.cl suggest that the earthquake has provided new opportunities for land speculation and rapid demolition. In Talca (another city badly damaged by the earthquake), construction companies offer new, cheap houses on the city fringe in exchange for damaged properties near the historic centre.
Among the endless images of destruction reproduced after the earthquake, the most notorious depict recently built constructions in complete ruins. In Santiago, at least 23 apartment buildings were abandoned and/or received demolition orders in the aftermath of the quake. The development known as Condominio Don Tristan (which, split in half and severely inclined towards one side, became the most emblematic image of the catastrophe) still has the signs reading Visite Departamento Piloto (“Come and Visit the Showroom Apartment”).
Interestingly, this type of destruction generated significantly less international attention and media coverage than in the case of Haiti, since Chile presented an image of coping well with the disaster. TV and press images did not communicate a total collapse but rather a sensation of time frozen, or stillness. Analysing the media images, it is salient to note that there is not much rubble in these pictures or people excavating the debris; rather, most of them depict buildings with no one around, empty, standing still. Unlike the images of Haiti, where the devastation took the form of endless piles of rubbish and unsorted rubble, the visual face of the catastrophe in Chile is that of halted construction.
In spite of the discrepancy between a building destroyed by disaster and one left unfinished, Chile’s architectural landscape betrays no substantial difference between those structures half-finished and those half-ruined in either the terms of their use (or rather their lack of function, since they cannot be inhabited, used, or enjoyed) or in the bareness of the limbo in which they find themselves. These structures are dumping grounds, not of traditional waste, but of useless forms of architecture. As dumping sites they are void spaces within the city, monitored places that people surround but do not pass through. Paradoxically, they are also the most expensive sites in the city, in terms of both the money spent on them and land prices. They are luxurious dumps.
It is the apparent stillness and temporal displacement of Chile’s developments that distinguish these buildings laid to waste from other types of contemporary ruins. Without aiming for it some of these constructions have been ruined before even having been built. There is, however, no ‘ruin value’ here as there was, for instance, in Albert Speer’s ideal of building projects that would decay in an aesthetically pleasant way. In spite of the desire for novelty that animated their creators, the buildings have fallen into a condition of sameness.
The artist Robert Smithson made a similar observation in relation to his native New Jersey when he remarked that the city, unlike its cosmopolitan sister New York, gave up any desire to become part of the “big events” of history. In two essays dedicated to his home state Smithson suggests that the unused bridges and dated water pipes dismantle time in their total lack of aspiration. However, in his appreciation of these obsolete artefacts he is not arguing for a romantic redemption of the industrial ruin, nor is his aim to give them an aesthetic quality as objects of venerable decay.
That zero panorama seemed to contain ruins in reverse, that is, all the new construction that would eventually be built. This is the opposite of the “romantic ruin” because the buildings don’t fall into ruin after they are built but rather rise into ruin before they are built. This anti-romantic mise-en-scene suggests the discredited idea of time and many other “out of date” things (“A Tour” 72).
According to Smithson, everything seems to be declining in a present, even time. New Jersey’s suburban monuments are cheap and flat and embrace a future already outdated, as do Chile’s suspended buildings. Smithson does not seek to redeem the abandoned or unnoticed industrial landscapes of New Jersey (which, unlike Chile’s wasted buildings, inhabit the periphery rather than the centre of the city) but rather to stress how they embrace, through their vacant character, a total immanence.
Instead of causing us to remember the past like the old monuments, the new monuments seem to cause us to forget the future.
… They are not built for the ages but rather against the ages. They are involved in a systematic reduction of time down to fractions of seconds, rather than representing the long spaces of centuries. Both past and future are placed into an objective present (“Entropy” 11).
According to Smithson, the suburbs are privileged in comparison with big cities because they are uninterested in making history. The flaws and holes of their streets enact more clearly the immanence he is trying to argue for: “those holes are monumental vacancies that define, without trying, the memory-traces of an abandoned set of futures” (“A Tour” 72). It is interesting how the artist expresses similar concerns when writing about erosion, entropy and natural disasters, not least because they relate the wasted products of architecture with geological destruction, a connection that can also be observed in the case of Chile.
Written in 1966 before the rise of the ecological movement, a text like “Entropy and the New Monuments” links conditions of disorder and decay with a new kind of monumentality embodied in the undistinguished landscape of suspension. Smithson presents entropy as an irreversible and evolutionary process, yet not an idealistic one; even though these spaces were animated by evolutionary and modernisation processes, they now offer nothing but suspension. It is here that Smithson’s writings seem most pertinent in relation to Chile’s voided spaces. Unlike organic dumps, where refuse products rot and transform, Chile’s developments these express their entropic character in their stillness, in their absence of generative energy.
Recent critical theory has given significant attention to industrial ruins and has revaluated their cultural importance, arguing, from diverse perspectives, that processes of destruction could release new layers of meaning or generate different forms of knowledge. The writings of Dylan Trigg, for instance, make use of ruins to construct a philosophical critique of the notions of temporality and progress. Chilean born photographer Camilo José Vergara proposes to convert the failed modernity of Detroit’s buildings into a space of playful awareness. Tim Edensor vindicates ruins with particular enthusiasm, refuting the notion of an industrial wasteland and re-imagining ruins as spaces of leisure, shelter, creativity and alternative public life (21). This unpredictable unfolding of new meanings does not seem to be present in Chile’s suspended architecture. These buildings are yet to be consumed, and therefore they somehow pervert architecture’s cycle of novelty and obsolescence, while remaining in a state of suspension, waiting to be demolished.
Edensor, Tim. Industrial Ruins: Space, Aesthetics and Materiality. Oxford and New York: Berg, 2005.
Smithson, Robert. “Entropy and the New Monuments”. Robert Smithson: The Collected Writings. Ed. Jack Flam. Berkeley and London: U of California P, 1996. 10–23.
———. “A Tour of the Monuments of Passaic, New Jersey”. Robert Smithson: The Collected Writings. Ed. Jack Flam. Berkeley and London: U of California P, 1996. 68–74.
Trigg, Dylan. The Aesthetics of Decay: Nothingness, Nostalgia and the Absence of Reason. New York: Peter Lang Publishing, 2006.
Vergara, Camilo Jose. The New American Ghetto. New Jersey: Rutgers UP, 1997.