This week we reflect not only on the idea of landscape as a concept, but also on the sense that it can permeate its inhabitants in a latent and enduring way.
In light of the invitation received by the collective LOFscapes to participate as a representative of the School of Architecture of the Pontifical Catholic University in the exhibition 2016 Work in Progress (Santiago, May-June 2016), which is entitled “ National Landscape,” I thought it necessary to reflect on the meaning and scope of this notion from my own experience. This means starting from what I consider the origin of the landscape to be by explaining that for me the landscape is the result of a conflictive but necessary relationship between man and nature. In this sense, my constant efforts to understand and define the contemporary landscape have been unmistakably affected by my childhood.
Due to my father’s work as a chemical engineer at the National Petroleum Company, I grew up in Cerro Sombrero, the main oil town of Chile in the 70s, located at the northern end of the Island of Tierra del Fuego (fig. 1). The feeling of isolation instilled by the presence of the Strait of Magellan and of the unpaved roads, by the harsh winters and strong winds, has been decisive in my appreciation and enjoyment of the landscape in its ability to artificially shape a piece of territory. The Cerro Sombrero site was justified by economic considerations and determined by its definition as the equidistant point between the oil fields of the region. It was built in the midst of nowhere and, consequently, it imposed a deliberate pattern on a territory without signals or other possibilities of occupancy (fig. 2).
To support the lives of about one hundred families, the settlement was equipped with a school, a polyclinic, a warehouse, a social center, a theater and a sports complex that included a heated pool, a bowling alley and a solarium with species originally from a far-off tropical climate (fig. 3). Virtually all community activities were carried out in closed rooms protected from the severity of the climate. There were no public gardens, but there were family plots planted with rhubarb, potatoes, radishes and lettuce. There was no predominance of green colors or grasses; there was no intermediate landscape where one could take shelter or parks or mountains to visit, only an extension of land covered with Festuca Magellanica a type of grass occasionally interrupted by a flock of sheep and some trees bent over by the force of relentless winds. Under these circumstances, “nature” was an abstraction and its construction, a logical operation of occupation (fig. 4).
The ability of Cerro Sombrero (and other landscapes) to embody a sense of place for its inhabitants has since then, among other things, guided my way of understanding the landscape. In equivalent terms, the experience of living in the middle of a sublime territory such as the Patagonia of Tierra del Fuego grants enough distance to appreciate the landscape as a moldable field, subject to permanent transformations. The question then is how this appreciation can be transmitted by the sense of place and rootedness that landscapes provide for defining entities where human expectations, design proposals, and socio-cultural processes are intertwined and connected. Starting from one’s own experience seems not to be such a bad idea after all.