The images document the end of one of many chapters – mostly started during the military dictatorship – that have turned Santiago de Chile into a highly segregated city.
The photographs portray the last standing blocks in plot 18-A of Villa Carlos Cortes, later renamed Villa San Luis, a social housing complex built in a public site in the affluent borough of Las Condes. The construction took place between 1971 and 1972 during the government of Salvador Allende. When finished, the estate comprised 27 blocks containing 1.038 apartments. The housing estate aimed to tackle the already acute segregation problem in the city.
Between 1975 and 1980 – after the military coup -, the legitimate owners were gradually evicted from their homes by the military, and left in different points of the outskirts of Santiago. The 28th of December of 1978 was one darkest chapter in the history of the Housing Estate; at midnight, without any notice, 112 families were violently evicted by the military and left abandoned in different locations of the city. Military families later inhabited the apartments.
In 1989, general Pinochet transferred the site ownership from the ‘Housing and Urbanization Services’ (SERVIU) to the Ministry of National Assets. In 1991, already in democracy, the site ownership was transferred to the Defence Ministry, and later to the military. In 1996, the military sold the site to a private developer. From then on, the site has mostly been turned into class A office space. The new office tower forms part of a well-designed but hugely sanitised and sterile masterplan.
In 2017, the National Monuments Council voted in favour of a proposal to protect from demolition the last four remaining blocks of Villa San Luis, in plot 18-A1. The developers appealed this decision, which was, however, backed by the appeals court in 2018. The same year, the supreme court rejected the appeal of the developer and confirmed the listed status of plot 18-A1 blocks. In 2019, the National Monuments Council voted in favour of removing the listed status, authorising the demolition of the blocks and requesting the construction of a small memorial in their place. The demolition was supported mainly with the argument that the buildings were not ‘structurally sound.’
Why would you want to protect those ugly boxes? Many people asked, genuinely confused. Because they narrate a critical chapter of recent Chilean history. They witnessed events that should never be repeated again, and could have served as a reminder that cities are the reflection of societies that build them.
The site is today one of (if not the most) expensive in Chile. A middle solution could have been found, where some of the remaining blocks were kept as social housing and two blocks were turned into a museum and cultural centre. The site is big enough to allow new infill mixed-use residential and office buildings, which could have helped to fund the acquisition of the site by the government and refurbishing the old blocks.
An integrated regeneration project would have been an example for the future many people want for the country; inclusive, innovative and sustainable. The old blocks full of life would have looked beautiful reflected in the shiny modern towers.