Santiago de Chile and Valparaíso, signature cities
antiago has conquered nature. Its skyscrapers defy the seismic lands, which architects and engineers have striven to tame. Tower 2 of the Costanera Center – which at 62 storeys and 300m high is the tallest building in Latin America – was erected as an icon of this struggle. You will find it in the financial district, endearingly nicknamed Sanhattan (a combination of Santiago and Manhattan), due to the sheer number and height of the new buildings.
It seems Santiago wanted to be many different cities to what it is today.
In the distance, the foothills of the Andes take the form of a massive natural wall, separating Chile from Argentina and making the metropolis look tiny in comparison. Similarly, when stood amid the forest of skyscrapers Santiago may seem a vast urban sprawl. But the city has a human side, with visitors invited to lose themselves in its most historic and authentic neighbourhoods.
A tour through the different areas of Santiago reveal the varied styles of a metropolis that is now home to one thid of the Chilean population. Neoclassical buildings from the early 19th century evoke the historic centres of European cities. These sit comfortably alongside more eclectic styles, with both postmodernism and the market economy having left their mark on many of the main neighbourhoods. Alongside all the trends reflected in the façades, city streets and public spaces, Santiago offers exquisite examples of what we might call ‘signature architecture’. Mathias Klotz, Smiljan Radic, Sebastián Irarrázaval and Felipe Assadi and 2016 Pritzker prizewinner Alejandro Aravena are among the most revered representatives of a generation of architects that has positioned contemporary Chilean architecture among the best in the world.
The Nobel Prize of architecture
Alejandro Aravena (Santiago de Chile, 22 June 1967) was the winner of the 2016 Pritzker prize, considered the Nobel Prize of architecture. The architect is the manager of the group Elemental, whose headquarters are in Santiago, and he was artistic director of the 15th Architecture Biennale, Venice, 2016. His studio's philosophy is to offer real responses to real problems. That is why he is particularly interested in projects involving social impact and public interest, like social housing. Although the prize is for individual recognition, it demonstrates the global potential of Chilean architecture.
This continual modernisation of Santiago is also evident in the old centre, which was completely renovated in the early 20th century. It includes a very special feature: a network of indoor passageways lined with shops, which let you traverse the area without having to venture outside. Within this historic heart, unmissable destinations include Plaza de Armas, Casa de Gobierno and a stunning complex of squares, comprising Constitución and Ciudadanía, under which you will find La Moneda Cultural Centre, a fantastic architectural work and venue for a wide range of artistic events.
A more contemporary essential stop-off for visitors to Santiago is the Museum District, a complex where a short stretch of four or five city blocks serves to tell the story of Chile over the last century. Here, the Museum District complex plays host to the National Museum of Fine Arts, whose French architect, Émile Jéquier, took inspiration from the Petit Palace in Paris.
The GAM symbolises the rebirth of Chilean cultural and artistic life.
All of this is set within the Parque Forestal, a green space created to celebrate the first centenary of the Republic which borders the Alameda, Santiago’s most important avenue. Running for nearly 8 km along a dried-out arm of the Mapocho river, the busy thoroughfare is home to the Gabriela Mistral Cultural Center, aka the GAM. Built in the 1970s, it was completed in record time through a collaborative volunteer system. It used to house the World Trade Center headquarters, and then became a pet project of Salvador Allende’s government, which earmarked it as a metropolitan cultural center in honour of poet and Nobel prizewinner Gabriela Mistral. During the dictatorship, however, it became home to several ministries, including the Ministry of Defence. In 2006, a fire provided the opportunity to rebuild and return it to its original function. Today, the GAM symbolises the rebirth of Chilean cultural and artistic life, which looks out to the world, while simultaneously embracing and transforming its own history.
Chilean graffiti capital
Valparaíso is a graffiti fan’s paradise, an open-air museum with sea views. You can go on a guided tour of some of its cerros (hills), like Placeres, Alegre, Baron, Cordillera and Concepción, to discover the different artists and styles associated with this specialist genre of urban art. The traditional multi-coloured façades of Valparaíso have become a giant spray-paint canvas. And not just the buildings, all urban elements are susceptible to being graffitied. What for some is an aesthetic overdose, for others is a lure to enjoy the unique experience of Valpo.
Cerro San Cristóbal is the main metropolitan park of Santiago de Chile. Not only is it one of the largest in the world, but it is also a raised park. Its lofty position affords views of the entire city, including the many cerros (hills) surrounding Santiago. These include another essential stop, Cerro Santa Lucía, where the conqueror Pedro de Valdivia took refuge and set up his camp.
However, we set up our camp at Santiago’s Central Market, the fifth biggest in the world. Since its construction in 1972, it has become one of the city’s main tourist attractions. Here you can sample traditional Chilean dishes and products such as picoroco, a crustacean found only on the coast of Chile and which, as Pancho Rojas—worker at one of the many shellfish stalls—insists, is “a much stronger aphrodisiac than love”.
Valparaíso: amidst hills and boats
An hour-and-a-half from Santiago, you will find Valparaíso, a port town under continual reconstruction and a World Heritage City since 2003. It comprises 45 cerros (hills), each with its own name and personality, such as Alegre, which has the colourful houses; Placeres, the most popular among sailors after long voyages; and Concepción, now famous for its graffiti.
The structure of Valparaíso is similar to a Roman theatre, though here the stage is the sea. Its vertical, eclectic architecture was created using soil deposits and materials that used to arrive by boat. The early 20th century wooden houses, for instance, were built using Oregon pine and American oak, both used as ballast by the boats that came to load up with Chilean minerals. The sheet metal that encases many of the buildings also came from boat ballast. Even the multi-coloured façades associated with the identity of Valparaíso—or Valpo as the locals know it—are the result of locals making use of leftover paint from the shipping industry.
The lifts and cable cars used to climb the hills are more than a tourist attraction as they still serve their original purpose. While going up in one, you get a sense of the poetry that still envelops the city. It was here that Pablo Neruda wrote some of his best-known verses. At his home, La Sebastiana—currently open to the public—written in green ink, the poet’s favourite colour for his drafts, you learn “so far south are we that we are falling off the map”.