According to the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), arid and semi-arid zones cover approximately 40% of the earth’s surface, an increase due to the fact that 33.8% of the world’s population live in these regions. Because of this, taking a new look at those arid and semi-arid territories is necessary, particularly if we consider these as sites where the scarcity of water has historically been a limitation. Our guest columnist today presents this territorial condition as a challenge that can be the basis for research in landscape architecture.
The fog oasis of Alto Patache, located 60 km from Iquique, is the place selected to develop the Specialization Workshop 2016 for Master’s Program in Landscape Architecture of the Pontifical Catholic University of Chile (PUC), and to advance the study of landscape design in arid zones. Currently, the site is administered by the Atacama Desert Center, which belongs to the PUC (http://www.cda.uc.cl/) and in the past 20 years has recorded and investigated the coastal influence of the camanchaca, marine stratocumulus cloud banks that form in the coastal regions of Northern Chile. This phenomenon has been studied from different disciplinary fields including scientific, anthropological and artistic.
The students in the workshop had the foundational information on the investigations already carried out. What was of interest here was the field work experience to register the extreme conditions of the most arid desert in the world and to quantify in landscape terms an Atacama territory that appears imposing and vast at first, but then soon disappears subtly into the fog (Fig. 1).
In this paradoxical story, I would like to present Alto Patache again under three conceptual references:
Water is a scarce and almost non-existent resource in the desert, but it is found in specific and limited places. However, the entire desert has the imperishable markings of a system of basins and streams that morphologically are similar to humid climates, but that belong to a drainage system that shaped the surface many centuries ago (fig.2).
On this topographical basis, water is present as a subtle record of a hydrological history of rainfall, runoff, gullies, absorption and evaporation that form a wide range of textures, colors and granulometries in the soil. (fig.3). Added to this is the permanent water in suspension, which increases the humidity and heat index of the area and is a tacit manifestation of water that defines its identity in deserts (fig.4).
Tracks and Nomadism
Nomads have been present in deserts weathering their vastness, extreme climatic condition, and limited resources, such as water. The oasis of fog constantly presents this contrast for those remaining in this hostile territory with its presence of adverse environmental factors of strong winds, high humidity, and extreme temperature changes.
However, the possibility of “trapping” water (fig.5), the views from this place, and an incipient ecology makes these same sites interesting to inhabit. Today there are overlapping tracks of animal herders (fig.6), emerging colonizations, and occupations on the part of research activities. In this way, just as man has sought to live together with the fog, a history of interferences in the landscape, stories and tracks that nourish the site has also been configured.
Survival and Experiencing the Site
The experience of the environment, the need to spread the word about sites like this one, and its fragile ecology are constantly in tension in the oasis of Alto Patache. Low shrubs and a wide range of lichens manage to sustain a delicate and subtle flora and fauna, which can be discovered by walking the cliffs of the site. Their sizes and colors are attractive, always attached to the rocky surfaces, becoming true relict gardens, which are revealed only through close and attentive inspection (fig.7-8). They are capable of forming surfaces and discontinuous patches, directly related to the places where the fog manages to condense. At the same time, the stone produces shade and sheltering protection from the wind.
This partnership of survival inevitably leads the visitor to a leisurely and cautious walk in those moments when the fog enters the oasis, marking an instance where the visual range of the landscape contracts to no more than three meters for about eight hours a day. In contrast, during some hours of midday the absence of fog allows an opening to the territory, making it possible to identify distant references and the horizons particular to the desert. These distinct situations during the day inevitably create an experience for the visitor and make this landscape a dynamic and active medium (fig. 9-11).
Lía Aliaga is an architect and holds a Master’s degree in Landscape Architecture (PUC). She is part of the Atacama Workshop, developed together with Pilar García and Pablo Osses.