In an essay written with Anita Berrizbeitia some time ago, we established that Latin American cities and landscapes are the result of three distinctive but interrelated processes (1). The first corresponds to the determinants of its physical geography, fundamental in the maintenance of cultural diversity, in territorial organization, and in the degree of effective response to disasters and catastrophes. The second is the colonization that Latin America experienced, a process markedly different from others, which implanted an extensive network of cities and a tradition of cultural hybridization. The third process, and which at the same time coincides with one of the most used hypotheses in Latin American culture, is that there has been a fully developed modernism in terms of culture, but without a complete modernization from the economic or social perspective.
(1) I am referring to “La Idea de Paisaje en USA: De Naturaleza a Ciudad” in Retorno al Paisaje: El Saber Filosófico, Cultural y Científico en España, (“The Idea of Landscape in the USA: from Nature to City” in Return to the Landscape: Philosophical, Cultural and Scientific Knowhow in Spain) Joan F. Mateu Bellés and Manuel Nieto Salvatierra, eds. (Valencia: Evren, 2008), 243-81.
To this narrative it is possible to add today a fourth condition of development, one that applies particularly to the Chilean case: our lack of commitment to the scale and nature of the design and administration of public spaces. And by commitment I do not mean to a particular ideology, but rather to the application of strategies to position the landscape project as a pivot and a framework for urban transformations.
In Chile, and particularly in Santiago, this idea and possibility is not new, but emerged towards the end of the nineteenth century, when our city was a complex and configured product based on the coexistence of productive, cultural and structuring landscapes. Although Santiago’s urban growth has been rather negatively evaluated based on its progress and its consumption of its agricultural periphery, it has not been emphasized that such development was the result of a vision of the city (discursive, public and participatory) that used the landscape project as a possibility to establish models for the development of the valley and patterns to recover disused infrastructure.
Agricultural properties were used as typological laboratories to compose the territory through large-scale planting operations; from real estate logics the agricultural roads were transformed into avenues that incorporated isolated houses in the middle of “nature”; old quarries were opened as public paths, containing the potential to build in time a system of elevated parks concatenating all the valley island hills; and the riverbanks were transformed into urban elements thanks to their transformation through the construction of water infrastructure.
Though scattered throughout the territory, all these pieces were design proposals. They were planned and built not only to incorporate green areas in the city, but also to communicate with their surroundings through public spaces that operated as territorial devices to recognize the geographical extension of the valley, while providing its inhabitants with both an urban and territorial identity.
Consequently, before complaining about the lack of urban vision that would have led us to destroy any available land area, we need to understand the technical and historical aspects of the construction and modeling of our landscape. And for this, we take one of the pieces incorporated into the city and collective memory from the perspective of the landscape project: the transformation of rivers into public space.
As is known, the Spanish conquerors founded our cities based on two fundamental territorial logics: first, to choose a site with a certain visual domain over their surroundings in order to prevent indigenous attacks and second, to draw the foundational checkerboard at least close to a body of water, so as to incorporate nature into the artificial device. Overlaid or juxtaposed to the grid, the rivers were transformed into a disputed territory, an indomitable element prone to flooding or extreme droughts and uninhabited due to the feeling of fear or uncertainty.
One of these urban trenches was the Mapocho River in Santiago, at the foot of whose southern bank the city was founded in 1541. Abandoned and isolated for almost two centuries, from 1700 a system of levees (tajamares in Spanish) was constantly in a process of redesigning, rebuilding and reopening. Its nineteenth-century version not only provided protection against floodwaters, but also allowed the integration of the river into the physical environment of the city thanks to ramps that led down to the riverbed (operating, for example, as areas of activity for the city’s laundresses) and the configuration of an elevated promenade for the Santiago’s society. Austere and without trees to provide shade, it was erected along the river in clear contrast to the lush nature pressing upon or disappearing against its edges. Unfortunately, during the twentieth century this extraordinary public space suffered inadequate and uncoordinated interventions that caused it to disappear as a result first of canalization works, and later of an urban highway system.
Perhaps with the implicit interest in reviving what was once a direct contact between the river and the city, two contemporary projects have emerged as mechanisms to recover the strategic condition of the tajamares. As the name implies, the Mapocho Pedaleable (2010 -) proposes a continuous cycle path in the riverbed, updating the nineteenth-century meaning of using the river for domestic activities. Proposed independently, the Mapocho 42K (2011 -) aspires to the same idea, but at the riverbank level, facilitating the connection between fragments to transform the river’s 42 urban kilometers into a linear park.
If developed together, both projects would have the potential to effectively reclaim the delicate relationship between the natural condition of the river and the most intimate character of its suburban environment, creating, as a result, a “new” landscape where there is not necessarily an “official” space for it (2).
(2) Manola Ogalde, as part of the Research Workshop of the PUC School of Architecture “Urbanismo desde el Paisaje: Lectura de Piezas Urbanas en Proceso, Santiago 2013” (Urbanism from the Landscape: Reading Urban Pieces in Process, Santiago 2013) (directed by Romy Hecht, Sem.1, 2013), explored the possibilities of this concept in her work, Dioramas del Mapocho: La Relación con el Río en los Tajamares (1792-1889) en Contraposición al 42K y el Pedaleable (2013). (Dioramas of the Mapocho: The relationship with the River in the Tajamares (1792-1889) in contrast with the 42K and the Pedaleable initiatives (2013). Available at the Lo Contador Library.
Committing to projects of this magnitude and impact in a context like ours involves developing strategies, not only to restore the meaning of synchronizing the rhythms of nature and patterns of daily life, but to recover the instrumentality of landscape interventions that have proven effective.
Committing to landscape projects in a context like ours does not, however, imply producing only large-scale interventions, but overcoming and moving beyond a historical blindness to update and create anew our successful attempts to develop relationships between infrastructure, program and imagined urban futures.