San Cristóbal Hill is presented as historical, imagined, planned and in constant ecological transformation. It is place that as a productive landscape is unattired, and as a public park, tries on attire that fits but does not belong to it. On September 28, 2018, the iconic hill celebrated one hundred years since it began to be more than the Virgin and a Quarry, but despite its urban value, today it is seen without any commemorative plan. Instead, the time lag of the landscape is exposed for responding neither to human time, nor to geologic time.
“Landscapes change and evolve, and they too are shaped by force and resistance working over time. But the rate of change in a landscape or an ecological system is far slower than that of an individual living body. Architecture is situated between the biological and the geological – slower than a living being but faster than the underlying geology. Resistance and change are both at work in the landscape: the hardness of the rock and the fluid adaptability of living things.”
(1) In Stan Allen, Landform Building (Princeton: Lars Müller Publishers, 2001), p.20, 22.
Landscape seems to be located in an interstitial temporality, which exceeds the individual history and is located there between biological time and geological time. This statement, as we question a project application, makes us question how to measure the time necessary for an effective transformation of a landscape. And this reflection finds meaning in one of the most important places in the history of Chile’s capital, San Cristóbal Hill, which celebrated its 100 years as an urban public park on September 28, 2018.
This is a centennial celebration that begins with a specific episode: the first time the hill was thought of as a park (2), understood as a mountainous formation of more than 700 ha to resonate with the aerial plaza of Santa Lucía, a key piece that was begun under construction in 1872 when the urban planning model of Benjamín Vicuña Mackenna materialized. It was the vision of his nephew, Alberto Mackenna Subercaseaux, who as mayor of Santiago between 1921 and 1927 and from his various functions as a public actor, promoted plans for the transformation of the hill. These plans found a culminating point in 1920 with the hiring of Carlos Thays, a French landscaper, who at that time was Director of Parks for the city of Buenos Aires. Thays was tasked to design a complete plan for San Cristóbal (3). Thays’ plan disappeared shortly after its delivery – lost for a hundred years – making its implementation impossible. However, despite this disappearance, he was able to model a symbolic scene that converted the hill into a city landmark. In the words of Mackenna: “a golden key containing treasures of health for Santiago’s inhabitants” (4).
(2) Anticipating by almost a century the publication of Large Parks edited by Julia Czerniak and Georges Hargreaves (New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2007), which conceptualizes this term from the contemporary theory of landscape architecture.
(3) See Romy Hecht, “The imaginary of non-realized projects: Chile’s Cerro San Cristóbal as a Large Park, 1916—1927,” Studies in Historical Gardens and Designed Landscapes, article to be published in 2017.
(4) In “El simulacro de conquista del San Cristóbal – La fiesta de los scouts – En el Cerro San Cristóbal – Entusiasmo de los excursionistas. – Numerosa concurrencia los acompaña.” (Simulation of the conquest of San Cristóbal –The scouts’ party– On San Cristobal Hill – Enthusiasm of the hikers – Many people accompany them), El Mercurio (30 Julio 1916).
If the landscape is understood as an image formed in the relationship that man establishes with the observed environment, San Cristobal Hill can be defined as a container of these images, which are as varied as the eyes that have captured it. This cluster of images, far from contributing to a single definition, creates a figure that is sufficiently diffuse to allow for the transformation of the hill over time, but sufficiently iconic to be differentiated from its surroundings. It is a site that, as a given form and one that is artificially constructed, is unique and irreproducible.
In parallel, this promontory can also be understood as an ecological system, as a network of active forces that feed each other (5). Then, as a project it has meant a constant flow of a massive amount of physical material. As such, part of the hill is distributed in buildings and even a river as a construction element; in these is the stone material extracted from the site’s quarry. As well, it receives and reproduces on its surface a foreign and introduced vegetal mantle brought from distant plant nurseries of Santiago. These materials establish a closed system of exchange with the city. According to this dual vision, but always sustained in a huge historical accumulation, the temporal structure of San Cristóbal is fixed in what John D. Hunt would define as “historical soil.” In his book Historical Ground, Hunt defines three historical aspects that affect the territory: geology, defined as the deep narrative of the development of the earth; topography, understood as the position of the earth that gives shape to the surface and the materials with which we live; and weather, as the third element capable of historical record (6).
(5) Haeckel, Ernst, Una asensión al pico de Tenerife, Santa Cruz de Tenerife, (The climb to the top of Tenerife, Santa Cruz) Ediciones Ides, 2009 . vol 2 p. 287
(6) John Dixon HUNT, Historical Ground: The Role of History in Contemporary Landscape Architecture (London: Routledge, 2014).
Thus, this geography, which seems to dress and undress in front of the city that observes it and is configured around its skirts, has taken shape over these hundred years. It is a process that is established as a means of resistance before the times that govern it. In administrative terms, the park belongs to the Ministry of Housing and Urban Planning, its management changes at least every four years. Of those years, if we consider the periods of adaptation and preparation for the next elections, the effective time for work and intervention becomes more or less two years. Faced with this reality, the key to the treasures of health of Santiago’s inhabitants becomes part of the political booty to be distributed while remaining indifferent to a centennial plan.
Tatiana Carbonell. Architect, and holds a Master’s degree in Landscape Architecture from UC.