If someone asks me about the October 2019 protests in Chile, I would use the images in this post to explain it.
Santiago has areas equivalent to standards of life of the wealthiest and the poorest countries in the world. Most barriers in the city are intangible, and the inequality in access to opportunities is immense. Why were people protesting? For a history of inequality, which was deepened during the military dictatorship and has been dragged into the present. In Chile, social mobility is incredibly low and accesses to opportunities is radically different. The country has public basic healthcare and education, but not even remotely close to international standards. The list starts there and is quite long. If you pay, you will get top-quality services, if you don’t, you should not complain. People have different statuses, even when confronting the law. The solutions need to come in a strong and decided way.
The photographs show plot 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 Las Condes, an affluent Council of Santiago. 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.
In 1989, general Augusto Pinochet transferred the site ownership from SERVIU’ Housing and Urbanization Services’ 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 sanitised and sterile masterplan, which many people consider to be an example of urban development Santiago.
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 approved 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 mainly supported by a structural study that showed the structure of the building was not safe.
Why would you want to protect those ugly boxes? Many people asked, genuinely confused. Because they narrate the story of Chilean resent history; how we have decided to organise our society and develop our cities. In my opinion, the buildings do not hold a particularly important architectural value, but they narrate part of the history of the country. They witnessed events that should never be repeated again.
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 are turned into a museum and cultural centre. The site is big enough to allow new infill mixed-use residential buildings, with some market units which could have helped cross-subsidising the acquisition of the site by the government and refurbishment of the old blocks.
Keeping these buildings would have made tangible those intangible difference in society. It would have been a reminder that Chile can do things better. The old blocks full of life would have looked beautiful reflected in the shiny modern towers.