Tuesday, June 23, 2009

The Open City has a gate...

Last year I participated in an international competition with Professor Rene Davids at UC Berkeley that was sited in Valparaiso, Chile. In a lucky stroke of fate we ended up winning and as I had never actually been to see the site, a pit stop was very much in order. Valparaiso was deemed a UNESCO World Heritage site in order to preserve the ascensores, cable cars that run directly up the steep hillside, as well as the vibrant culture of the city. Our proposal dealt with creating an economic and spatial stimulus in the city through the creation of "plug in pavilions", inflatable public spaces giving away free energy powered by wind kites in the hills. Going to the actual city in person, I'm still unsure of how the intervention would be taken by the inhabitants, but suffice to say I would like to see the little inflatable pavilions dotting the hillside.

While staying at "Hostal Caracol" in Valparaiso I ran into an incredibly interesting family from Cape Town, South Africa that was meeting up with more family members to travel around Chile and Argentina for close to a month. I only mention this occurrence because its going to come up later in another blog, which is called foreshadowing. After climbing the ultra steep stairs and back alleys of the city for a day or two, I was only slightly being passed by old ladies carrying heavy grocery bags with legs the size of small tree trunks. The city is one large stairmaster machine, and this is coming from someone who is no stranger to the terrain of San Francisco, California.

From my professor Rene I had found out about a place about an hour by bus North of Valparaiso called "Ciudad Abierta" or "The Open City" in English. Ciudad Abierta was started back in the 70's by a group of poets, artists, and architects with Utopian ideals to create an atmosphere outside of the stifling constraints of Santiago. The "city" is not truly a city in the normal definition of the word, nor is it completely "open" by physical standards. It is comprised currently of about 10 family residences and an equal number of public pavilions/meeting areas, closed in by gates and fences and broken up into two distinct sections on opposite sides of a busy highway. The property of Ciudad Abierta is right on the water and comprised of about 270 hectacres, or 670 acres. Many of the buildings there are built in the sandy dunes nearby, creating a constantly moving and shifting site.

One of the houses there, nicknamed the "Dune House" [or it is now anyway] is constructed completely within the dunes, prone to high winds and the removal of the very foundation it is built on. Also did I mention that it is in an earthquake sensitive region? The only thing that could make it a more challenging site to build on would be if an giant mutant moth started coming over the sand hills breathing fire. Slight exaggeration? Possibly. But the site necessitated a re-thinking of how to construct the house, and therefore how to design it. In order to allow for the wind taking away a majority of the sand that the building would be resting on, they started to experiment with a "floating foundation" system recently made more well known by the Canadian architect Mark West. West uses fabric instead of wood or steel for the formwork, allowing the concrete structure to bulb out where more strength is needed instead of a continuous section. For the dune house, concrete piles were cast down 2 meters or more in certain locations, but the majority of the foundation of the new addition is raised above the sand, being cast in strong fabric held in tension to allow the sand and wind to dig out underneath the beams instead of trying to fight the constant movement.

In order to account for the earthquake activity, the house has a completely suspended steel structure with many different joints to allow movement. If you stripped the skin of the building away, the hanging members would wobble something akin to a series of chains hanging from a ceiling. Indeed as it was being built, the main structure was put in place first and way only slightly stabilized once the floor was installed to give it a slight amount of rigidity. From the outside the dune house calls to mind the bleached carcass of a large animal that died from exhaustion while within site of the ocean. The wooden structure visually mimics bones, appearing to be ribs, though in reality, the houses are built in stages over the course of many years. Mainly from a financial point of view, the buildings many times start with a core element and then branch out from there as funds and more family members increase. In the case of the dune house, there are three distinct stages of ongoing construction. One being the main house that the family lives, the next is the open superstructure that is in the process of being expanded to a floating outdoor living area, and the final one is still in the initial stages of foundation being poured.

At Ciudad Abierta, the process of design is unable to be separated from construction, as they exist simultaneously usually. Rarely are anything resembling construction documents done, and the students that are the majority of construction force each take on different pieces of the project to make their own and elaborate on. No one technically owns the land that they build on, it is all managed through a corporation and all inhabitants meet together a few times a week to discuss future plans and how the construction of different projects are coming along. More to come on the Open City, as there is not enough time in the year to write down all of the fascinating occurrences or webspace enough to post all of the pictures of the incredible structures. They defy sketching and any attempts to think of how you would draw them makes your mind freeze up. I believe they are able to achieve such astounding complexity through the continual construction process, and not having it all planned out before. They start with an initial scheme and focus, and evolve continuously through that. Scattered all around the city are projects that pushed the limits too far, and therefore had pieces chipped off or incomplete. But the magic of the place exists for this very reason as well, for every "failure" there are 50 other locations where material exploration changes 8 times over the course of several feet. It seems to be in a constant state of renewal, never happy to look at a detail the same way again. Many of the materials are left over from other projects or donated, and students will grab whatever at hand to accomplish their goals.

The best example of this I can think of is when to get reception for a very high stakes futbol game, a few of the students living in a place called "the cells" started lashing together bamboo poles to create a makeshift antennae. Then brought over some bricks from a nearby pile to stabilize it, and presto, we're watching color TV! You get the feeling that many of the inventions started from this very functional perspective, and were infused with art through the process of making. All this writing and I haven't even gotten to my gracious host of Ciudad Abierta, Ivan! Stay tuned for the Adventures of Ivan and the Open City soon!

Thursday, June 18, 2009


In Santiago I was lucky enough to meet up with another Berkeley graduate student, Amber Nelson, who is down south visiting her talented boyfriend, Fito. Fito is a member of a performing street troupe, splitting their time between serenading old women in jewelry shops, narrowly missing getting hit by cars, and mixing up a concoction called "fanschop" in the park [a combination of fanta and beer which is surprisingly very good]. I spent the day acting as the honorary photographer, though I was much worse at earning tips...

Santiago is in places very beautiful, especially around the two prominent hills, cerro Santa Lucia and cerro San Cristobal as well as the Providencia region. You don't notice it as much when you're on the ground, but once in one of the funiculars or cable cars in San Cristobal park you get a glimpse of the heavy mat of air pollution that rests on the city like fog's drunk and untrustworthy step-brother. Then like Tolstoy's white bear, it becomes impossible to not think of the smog once you're in the city again [to get into Leo Tolstoy's childhood club, you had to sit in the corner of a room and not think of the imaginary white bear in there as well. You also had to go a whole year without seeing a hare, either alive or cooked... Hard isn't it?]. Santiago proved to be a much need recooperation point for a little R&R [reading and research].

I also got to eat the best [and only] crab pie I've ever had in my life at a bar called Liguria in Providencia. My time in the city allowed me to meet up with a few architects to get the lay of the land and talk Chile. Rodrigo Perez de Arce is a very gifted architect in Santiago that is currently teaching at the Universidad de Catolica Pontifica and redid the main plaza of Santiago, Plaza de Armas, among other projects. He was kind enough to have me over for a truly Chilean meal with his lovely family and gave me great advice about some places to visit when traveling.

I walked around the bohemian feeling courtyard of Universidad de Catolica on my way to the architect Mathias Klotz's office. His office is on the basement floor of his black wooden-sheathed house near the school. Hugo, one of the architects there gave me the tour and showed me what they have on the boards currently. They are doing lots of international work it looks like and look to be extremely busy considering the relatively small office size. He also apparently has a healthy obsession with cars, with little models and replicas scattered all over the shelves. I picked up a Mathias Klotz book in the local bookstore and he described his philosophy on site in that a building should be like an automobile. Parked on site, but able to be driven off at a moment's notice. Then thinking back to the lightness in touching the ground of most of his projects, this is probably a pretty good description.

Thoughts on Traveling #19 : Always double check "googlemaps" in a foreign country. It has no trouble confusing a large movie theater with the middle of the ghetto. Apparently they look the same to a computer.

Friday, June 12, 2009

::Desert Hotels::

After catching my breath from my exhausting half -mile bike ride, I kept rolling down a dusty path to a visit some of the hotels near town. The Explora Hotel, locally known as the Hotel de Larache and Hotel Tierra Atacama. Hotel de Larache was designed by German del Sol [pronounced "Herman"] and Jose Cruz, with Tierra Atacama being done by Rodrigo Searle and Matias Gonzalez. I had a tour scheduled with the general manager of Larache, an extremely knowledgable and passionate Chilean named Maurice Dides. As we walked through the alfalfa fields that surround Larache, Maurice outlined the philosophy of the hotel and how it related back to the architecture that houses it. The Explora philosophy, as described on the website is:

"explora was founded to encourage a new way of travel in the remote regions of the Southern tip of South America. We love nature and enjoy liberty, we suggest a philosophy of travel born out of the desire to explore the natural and cultural environment of the remote. "

This means that explora is thought of as one giant "base camp," with monastic rooms and a minimum 3 night stay to make sure guests participate in trekking and outdoor adventures. The hotel was designed originally to allow horses to access the interior pathways, further blurring the spatial separation between outside and inside as well as refined and rustic. Though you can't find hoof prints in the hallway now, the fixtures of the doors to the main spaces are made with hardware from the stables. Which was another interesting feature of the hotel, the entry actually comes through the stable area. When I arrived, at first I thought I had the wrong place, being lost in a small maze of aromatic horse stables and cobbled paths with no sign to guide my wanderings. It wasn't until a surly Chilean with a cowboy hat took pity on me and guided me to the main lobby that I found my way.

Hotel de Larache's landscape falls somewhere between the beauty of a well maintained farmland, and an overgrown trail that runs through a forest. The alfalfa fields that make up the majority of the area are partitioned off by thick chest high adobe walls to allow the horses to graze in different parts of the property. The landscape is flooded every 17 days when the hotel gets its allotted 20 hours of water, and the horses are rotated to prevent over-grazing. The small rooms look out onto this functional frontier instead of the normally sterile maintained landscape of most hotels.

The rooms are shielded from the hot summer sun by the use of a metal roof that acts as a heat shield, separated from the building underneath to provide an air gap. With this low-tech idea, the hotel does not have any need for central heating or cooling, even though in the middle of the desert.

Though most of the hotel falls under the rustic rough and tough, there are still a few points where you get back to more of the glamorous life associated with a high price tag. There are a series of pools and saunas in the back accessed by a heavy wooden walkway. Though even these seemingly superfluous containers of water have a function. In the case of a fire, the pools serve as an emergency water source, being drained if the need arises.

The other hotel I visited was the Hotel Tierra Atacama. The two proved to be an interesting comparison, as Tierra treated its connection with the landscape in a decidedly different manner. Where as Explora's line separating the building and surrounding is blurred and tugged apart, Tierra is distinct, with the property gazing out longingly over the austere desert. Instead of a fractured form, it is controlled and made predominantly of right angles and 20 degree slopes [+/-].

I didn't have a tour guide at Tierra, but luckily they didn't mind that a gringo went wandering around peering into people's windows. Fortunately for me, most all of the guests were away for the day hiking, horseback riding, or taking shots at one of the local bars. So that meant I was free to explore the extent of the property as long as I didn't get caught jiggling door handles. First on the list was heading out to the large acreage of property owned by the hotel. The walkways don't meander, they pierce the horizon, hovering over the semi soaked fields without visually touching. A striking contrast to the solid heavy walls defining the pathways at Larache.

The Hotel is probably most well known for the corten steel boxes that dot its interior. Their taut metal skins' stretched across, shrink-wrapping the boxes beneath. Their precision is perfect, everything lines up and is ordered. But in their accuracy of measurement something seems to be lost. I've been realizing more and more what draws me to many of the places I've been is the connection with the human hand. If you're a thoroughly unabashed modernist like myself, you strive to make sure everything lines up, has an order, nothing left to chance or chaos. That last statement was a gross generality and not at all accurate, but the fact remains that many times in the quest for refinement, a soul gets left behind. I've found more and more that slippages are a thing to be exploited, not contained. The rough marks left on concrete after form work is taken off showing the signs of making, the splinters left unsanded on a piece of wood, or the unevenness left in the adobe brick even by skilled masons. These are things of celebration I feel, the pressure for perfection is possible to be washed away by the acceptance once again of the calloused hand of the construction worker. Character, the hardest thing to define and even more difficult to achieve, can be gained from the logical process of making.

Never blog after a few glasses of wine, you get all worked up and off topic. What I was attempting to say in not so many words was that in the projects I've researched so far, one of the commonalities has been their lack of perfection in construction. Whether that is because of their separation from refined tools, the unskilled labor often times used, or the blinding sun throwing off measurements is up for debate. But the fact remains that I believe it to be an advantage, not a detriment in most of the cases I've witnessed. God I hope this doesn't lead to a rash of slipshod construction.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

San Pedro de Atacama

San Pedro de Atacama is a small village in an oasis in the middle of the Atacama desert. Which also happens to be in Northern Chile. Population : around 5000 people. 7,900 feel above sea level, making it high and dry. One of the driest places in the world actually, with little to no rainfall ever recorded. Temperature in the 80's during the day and drops down to below freezing during the night. The village was founded 11,000 years ago by the "Atacamenos". Some of the first known farmers in the country, they used llama droppings to fertilize their crops. Then, when the llamas got old, they cut them up and grilled them. So it goes. They charge 1200 pesos for a stick of llama meat now. I would have easily paid 1500.

The Atacamenos don't have much water, so they put up signs like this one in the bathroom. It was hanging in the hostel I stayed at and I only saw it the last day. Then I felt bad about my long showers before I knew it was there. They have so little water that they have to ration it by the hour.

There are a series of water channels in the village that are operated by a person called a "celador" [sp?]. You get a certain amount of hours of water from the channel depending on your plot of land. If you have horses or alfalfa you get a bonus. The Hotel de Larache gets 20 hours of water every 17 days. Which is a good amount and fair. They have both horses and alfalfa.

There are three types of shops in San Pedro. One is posh-rustic restaurants with expensive drinks. Another is tour operators with big glossy pictures of lagoons on the wall. And the last is an internet/bike rental/convenience store/laundry or any combination of the four. That is all. And a post office. All of the dogs are lazy and nice except for the ones that are owned by junkyards. They have pointy ears and good posture and run much faster.

A good way to get around is to rent a bike from the laundromat/internet cafe. Then you can go anywhere you want and see the other small villages. There are small creeks to cross that give you wet shoes if you go too fast. It is very high there and I think that I had altitude sickness, though no one told me that. I got about a mile before I had to stop and rest and wave to people passing. I'm sure they all knew that I wasn't reading my map because I was breathing so hard.

Many of the homes are made with many different materials. No one ever told me why. I think it was because you build with what you can in the desert. Sometimes that means barrels. Other times that means sticks. And every once in a while it means blocks.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

The Tin Man cometh

Just ran across this project in Patagonia and thought I would share. I'm in Santiago right now after being in the Atacama Desert for about a week [posts to come soon]. Manuel Rapoport is an industrial designer who has made a house out of almost all recycled materials in the Patagonia region of Argentina. I'll be making my way to Valparaiso soon, and then after that down to Concepcion and Puerto Montt. If anyone knows anything I should be looking at or who I should be talking to make sure to let me know!


Friday, June 5, 2009

Floating Along

Puno is a port town nestled off of the shores of Lake Titicaca, near the Bolivian border to Peru, and served as the next stop on what I'm now referring to as the Great South American Bus Ride. It feels as if my body is more used to traveling at 99kph [but never 100kph] than walking now. I've added up the amount of time I've spent on planes, trains, buses, or boats so far and I'm pretty sure its topped triple digits. Buses love to show dubbed over English shows and if I have to watch the Fresh Prince of Bel Air in Spanish again I'm actually going to believe Will Smith is Chilean.

But worth the travel it was, as Puno offered a great opportunity to explore some of the islands in the middle of Lake Titicaca, one of the highest navigable lakes in the world. I went down to the port in the morning and caught a boat with some local Taquilens [from Isle Taquile] in order to make it out to Los Uros, or "the Floating Islands". The name makes them sound like something out of a paperback fantasy novel, and they actually are similar in some respects, albeit without dragons or wizards. Los Uros are a series of many small bits of inhabitable land created by bonding together the local reeds, called totora, native to the lake. The reeds are not only valued for their medicinal properties, but serve to create a completely renewable construction material. As the reeds on the bottom of the island deteriorate, new material is added to the top to replenish the land, done almost every three months. Harvested locally, the islands are one of the few completely "sustainable" construction techniques I've heard of from a material point of view.

Not satisfied with just walking on and living on the reeds, the inhabitants of Uros also consume their slender building material of choice. The lower part of the totora is white and spongy, and contains iodine that wards off certain diseases. I tried some of it and tastes like what you would assume it to taste like, completely devoid of flavor with the consistency of a soft Brillo pad.

The population of Uros originally attempted to escape from other hostile peoples so they took to the water in order to get away. I've heard the original idea was defensible b/c they could move the islands to a different location in the lake when they heard enemies were present. I highly doubt the validity of this statement, as the top speed of a bunch of moving reeds would probably get close to .5 mph. Though maybe they were meant to just move so as not to give away their position. The transportation of the Uros got jealous and also mandated that it be built out of reed material, so all of their canoe like boats are incredibly well crafted and can go several years before they finally succumb to the elements. They are basically reed bundles tied together in order to get enough buoyancy, and are extremely rigid and tight construction wise. So some of their food comes from one material, their homes, their land, their car, as well as many of the obvious baskets and other oddities. I've never seen a culture so dependent on one main staple, and it brings to mind the Native American culture of re-using every part of the deer for different purposes.

The walls of the homes on the island are woven, keeping out the wind by layer after layer stacked on top of each other and threaded together. Many of the roofs use plastic now as an under layer and have also found out the benefits of meshing high tech and low tech. Since getting electricity out to the island would prove to be a shockingly hard venture [bad pun] many of the simple houses have turned to the sun to gather power in the form of solar collectors. Though it is pretty funny to see the gleaming metal in contrast to the simple woven homes.

Is it possible to gain some of the insight from the ongoing renewal of Los Uros as applied to our current construction practices? Right now almost no materials from a single family house can be re-used when torn down, and certainly not decay into the earth to come back in a different manner. What would happen if we allowed our buildings to "decay" to a greater extent in order to replace them? Or in a different vein, it allows us to look at the reuse of building materials to be used in another future project. Either embracing the degradation that would happen or using construction techniques that encourage longevity. The floating islands touched me in the way they utilized a local building material that can be renewed, as well as actually accomplishing the hard task of living where "we were not destined to be." Floating along, bobbing from the wakes of boats that pass by in the distance.

Thoughts on Traveling #18 : There are two competing types of peanut roasters in Santiago, Chile. There is the "Nuts4Nuts" stand and the "Crazy4Nuts" stand. I always patronize the Crazy4Nuts cart because I feel bad they weren't able to break away and come up with a better name.