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Home/Stories and articles/Recovery
September 2002

A conversation with architect Jorge Atria:
How to re-inhabit our history

The capacity to react to architectural heritage systematic damage is still scarce. Buildings are not only abandoned, but constantly threatened by pillory. Paradoxically, they get an increasing interest from those who value urban patrimony. About problems and solutions we spoke with the architect Jorge Atria.

By Rosario Mena

A logical effect of the globalization process, a reaction to the imposition of foreign models, a consequence of political factors or socio-economical contingencies. The fact is that the protection of our architectural heritage issue has began, little by little, to gain relevance.

The concern shows in the interest of people for visiting those monuments opened on the "Heritage Day", celebrated the last Sunday of May, the amount of articles printed, the buying of patrimonial buildings as headquarters for big corporations, the work of state organizations and committees. Specially, the public debate is giving to this issue a relevance never seen before. On that happy scenario, we witness the inexorable and daily death of valuable houses and buildings, and even large urban zones of great heritage value, and whose deplorable shape shows a long history of decadence, most of the time irreversible.

The modernization process started on the 70s, the alteration and renovation of most of the existing urban structure and the need for using space to build, have forced a lot of cities to face how to deal with the conservation of architectural heritage.

Our country is no exception, even if this debate has started late. Though time and earthquakes have taken their toll, the deliberated destruction of heritage in cities such as Santiago during the last two decades, has had no bigger consideration than to clear the terrain to place a new building over it.

"Santiago is too extended a city, with little land available. So more consolidated areas, that had a frozen structure, began being used. There is a lot of low edification, of no great value, that could have been considered", thinks Jorge Atria, architect and university professor, employee of the SERVIU and member of the Heritage Committee of the School of Architects.

The need to gain more space for new constructions and the profitableness of land-sale has been supported by a dull legislation that has allowed the demolition of a lot of valuable buildings, because of a protection policy that was almost non-existent until the year 1990, when the Monuments Act, promulgated on 1970, began being operative. The National Monuments choosing of highly valuable buildings, along with the title of Typical Zone given to some neighborhoods and settlements, has allowed a degree of protection that warrantees their permanence. Among the criterion for naming a National Monument there are the historic significance, its location, urban presence, architectural quality and its faithfulness to the "incarnation-of-a-time spirit", in Atria's words.

The buildings titled as such can not be altered. The naming of a neighborhood, or part of it, as Typical Zone is based on the quality and environment value of the whole. On that case, there is more flexibility to intervene, only if the fronts are kept. Among these areas, such as Valparaíso's downtown, the París-Londres neighborhood, Plaza de Armas or Barrio Lastarria in Santiago, there can or can not be buildings that are Monuments.

But there are a lot of valuable buildings that are left outside this protection, abandoned to probable disappearance. On the other hand, the law has some limits that, far from fostering the conservation of some Monuments, encourage its abandonment and even its deliberated destruction. Part of this problem could be diminished with new initiatives, such as the update of Donations Act -that allows private corporations to deduct taxes by the way of donating money, materials or resources to the restoration of buildings or heritage value— and the benefits given by the Ministry of Housing to those who buy such houses.

—How can so much demolition persist during the last decade? Has it been unprotected buildings? Too many legal cracks? Money's power? What has happened?
—A lot of buildings have been brought down because they have no protection, they can be legally demolished. The issue here is valuing, a cultural problem. A lot of protected buildings have also been brought down. Until recently there was no concern and the law was too dull. Even the owners have led the destruction of buildings that were declared Monuments.

—Besides the legal protection, there are interesting ways gaining some popularity, such as the reshaping on the western part of Santiago. Or those companies that have located their headquarters on ancient buildings.
—Yes, those things happen. The same as in Europe, where to live in an ancient building is highly valued and where companies think a benefit for their image to work in this buildings. But to me they seem as isolated cases, not part of a general trend. The State has made an important work on re-using buildings, which is something essential to the conservation of an important heritage. Anyway, in my opinion, this is the line: re-use, take the heritage away from this frozen condition, give the buildings new uses and maintain through use, which is the most viable way of maintaining. In the case of companies, it is very significant that they understand the strength of identifying oneself with a building with distinction, more than with a headquarter that has a standard image, as it usually happens.

—Besides the added value of identifying yourself as a company that maintains the heritage...
—Totally, like Gasco and Telex Chile have done, or what the Chamber of Commerce did with the Bruna Palace. That is very welcome. Those are reshapings or restorations that, keeping the building more or less untouched, have been respectful, proper and have given them value by the way of a new use. Other interventions have been less fortunate. For example, the Diego de Almagro Hotel, at the Rivas Palace on the Alameda. Here, an important part of the original building was demolished, leaving part of the front and incorporating at the back a five-stars Hotel in a very aggressive way. The relation between both buildings is very unbalanced. The new building crushes the original, does not value it. It would have almost been better to demolish it all at once. The same happens with the Santiago Prison, in General Mackenna street. The front was demolished, it had a lot of value, and only the main access was kept with its two extremes, these are minor volumes. On the facade, they added a mirrored building, so the remains seem simple caricature. One wonders if there was any sense on leaving it laid aside. The Prison building was unprotected, was very damaged by the earthquake and it was determined that it had no structural capacity. This allowed to sweep against it. It seems to me it could have been saved. There are some things where interests interfere, but I have no bigger background on that.

Cultural lightness
In Europe, no matter how modern, cities keep their ancient center. Why doesn't that policy rule here?
—I believe it has to do with something cultural. In here, there is no consciousness of the value of what we own, we don't even feel we own it. In general, we don't value our property, our geography, our culture, no matter what area. Since there is no appreciation, there is no capacity of defending the patrimony, promote it and stimulate its conservation. People do not know their heritage. I give classes on three architecture schools and the students, who we thinks as concerned people, some of them not even know the Plaza de Armas, or the Museo de Bellas Artes. We have a deep cultural problem. We have valued more what's foreign and the curriculums of architectural schools have just included the issue of patrimony on the last ten years. Some private schools don`t even have it. Architecture students have to be aware of this.

—In your opinion, what valorization do we have about our architectural heritage?
—Well, it is not part of our culture to feel pride for our architecture, as it is in other countries. And that responds, partially, to the fact that our architecture's historical thickness is very light compared to the European. We have very few examples of ancient architecture, and they are very scattered. There is no unity, as in Europe, where there are cities completely destroyed, like Varsovia, that have been totally restored. In Mexico there is also a very strong and powerful past. Not us. From 1850 on, we can find some things that can be used as models. But patrimony is always valuable on a context. One example is the Tortel community, which is going to be declared on the Heritage Day as Typical Zone because of its architectural quality. It is obviously a settlement with no history or architectural value as in other big cities, but if Acropolis is important for the Greeks, Tortel is important for us, keeping the distances between one and the other. Heritage is relative, it depends on its reality. Tortel is close to Coyhaique, and the value of its architecture relies in its affinity with nature. There is an harmonic response, a way of making architecture according to local needs, a model of architectural identity. Last year the community chosen was Chanco, a rural community on the seventh region. What's important is for people to feel proud of belonging to a place protected by its value. It is a honorific title, that's the main thing.

—About heritage value's relativity, what do you think of the criterion applied when choosing Monuments?
—It is a hard question. It is a conjunction of criterion what is important, but the relative weight that each one gets is debatable. What's interesting is considering how can I make a building today, that will be heritage tomorrow.

—As always, it is the market the one that rules. So there is no other solution than offering the owners financial incentives. Are there funds for that?
—There is no money to give them, but there are measures to take. For instance, free them or lower their contributions, giving them access to light-credits to improve their property. In the case of buildings placed on high-density zones, it could also be introduced a compensation for the commercial value they loose when they can't sell the land nor enlarge their homes. That is something that has been done in other countries, which consists of giving the owner a market-transferable right equivalent to the difference between his house height and the maximum height allowed on that area. That difference can be used or sold to somebody building somewhere else, and who can use that "bonus" to build higher than what is allowed there. A group of people from the School of Architects of the Ministry of Education and the Monuments Council, were proposing for a long time modifications such as these to the National Monuments Act, starting with its name. We want it to be called "Heritage Act" and that has been jammed on legislative bureaucracy, so we do not have a modern legislative body that could help us save buildings. We can not avoid this rigid situation.

-And what happens with what is not protected? There are a lot of very valuable things that are not Monuments, nor Typical Zones.
—A lot of houses that have been brought down are not protected. The Huemul neighborhood (in Santiago), for instance, is a clear example of an unprotected Typical Zone. On the other side, not everything can be protected. You have to be very careful not to start a "protectionism fever". It is better the quality than the quantity of the protection, not everything that's old is valuable. Anyway, there are more valuable buildings than what the Monuments Council can take care of. The Council is completely overwhelmed on its capacities. It is formed by people that work ad-honorem and that help from their positions in twenty different institutions. The staff they have is very small. Among the ideas to improve the legislation, there is one to give them an organization with more specialized professionals, hired full-time. Among all the records that get in, all studies, etc., there is too much work. Angel Cabeza (National Monuments Council director) always talks about this unbalance between demand and the capacity of response.

Heritage Boom
-Lately, there seems to be a new concern about the patrimony issue, from the government, the people, the media. Why do you think that is?
—I think one of the factors has been the globalization issue. When a global culture is imposed, what's local gains more value.

—That is on a social level, but people are not so conscious of that. They don't think "I'm on a global world, so I have to look for my identity. What has concretely happened in our country that has made this issue more visible?
—From the 70s on, there is a worldwide trend of looking for the roots, giving value to what's ours and could fade away. These processes are seen long-term. But there are some strong facts. For instance, Chile used to be one of the few countries in Latin America that had no Mankind Heritage, as they are now the Chiloé churches and Easter Island moais. There is a political thing. With democracy's return there is an opening to the outside and a rapprochement to UN organisms, such as UNESCO. People in charge start changing their perspective. When I graduated from Architecture, in 1978, I was completely compromised with this issue, but in that time it was something that only concerned a group of idealistic professors, mainly from the Universidad de Chile. They had a seminar where they would study certain interesting buildings, starting a very interesting and valuable documentation center, which they now care a lot about. All students from Universidad de Chile, before receiving their degree, had to attend a History seminar.

—What importance do you give to the work of the Monuments Council?
—It has traditionally been an institution much more static than what it is today. Frankly speaking, they have made an impressive work. Before, there was a much more passive attitude, there was not the valorization that there is today about patrimony. Now, the heritage issue is a priority. Not during the 80s.

—How has influenced on the valorization of our architectural heritage the change that cities like Santiago have gone through, with the construction of tall and modern buildings that have nothing to do with our tradition?
They have been imported construction models and shapes that are transferred like a parcel, from one point to another, keeping no relation with the place's situation, its weather, its landscape, its culture. That happens all over the world. There are solutions that are packed, too technological. So there are large business groups that make big money with this kind of constructions. That gives the idea that, instead of looking abroad, you can do something modern, applying elements of our identity. There are some notorious examples of architects like Carlos Fernández, National Award, and others, that propose an architecture with our language. There is the search for an identity, and that gains value over the invasion of external images. The rejection to what's foreign, the language of glass-walls -totally rare to us, because of its aggressiveness, its volume, its incoherence with the weather, the universality of its style.

—But they are also part of capitalism's iconography...

—For you, what would be the best ways to approach the conservation of our architectural heritage?
—First, education. We have to interiorize in our children the value of their environment, of what is theirs. That they know their patrimony, care and feel proud of it. Along with the Heritage Commitee of the Schools of Architects, we made an activity with one hundred kids painting houses of San José de Alcántara, on the Sixth Region, a town with a very interesting chapel that is now protected by the Monuments Council. The kids valued their houses, appreciated their town as valuable. That's how we are working. We are now presenting a project to give heritage book to schools in all regions, so teachers can introduce them in their activities, as part of the crossover goals drawn by the Educational Reform. We are giving new skills to teachers.

A very interesting choice is for corporations to recover heritage buildings for their offices, making a new use. About legislation, hopefully we, as a community, can be able to modify the law which is now outdated, and find more agile and creative ways that help save the patrimony. Another important job is to look for valuable buildings and project new uses for them. That is what some architecture students are doing on their thesis, where they are studying new uses according to those buildings' values. There are some projects for the old Lota Theater, houses in Recoleta, the Pereira palace... There is a bunch of new architects that are interested on rescuing patrimony. To develop more projects you have to register, systematize the information about what we have. The Public Works Ministry and Universidad Católica are now making cadastres all over the country to know what there is, in what situation. From there, you project actions. In Chile, we have no cadastre of our cultural belongings, we are just doing it. That is of great value.

Promotion is also crucial. You have to promote TV programs and effective promotion forms. Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, Mexico... they all promote their heritage on a massive scale. People are interested on this, they just don't find anything. I see that with my students. When they know about the Errázuriz Palace, the Rivas Palace, where our history has taken place, they are impressed and regret they no longer exist. I would love for the newspapers to include once a year a catalogue such as the ones from department stores, but with heritage buildings. I'm sure people would love it. Last year, during the Heritage Day, I was one of the guides through the Moneda (government House), and it was one of the most valuable experiences of my life. People were so happy, they would thank me and even kiss me. They would make lines of two or three blocks to get in. Now I'm going to be a guide through the Errázuriz Palace. People are interested. You have to open it, promote it.

—Don't you think architects have traditionally been far from the people, when talking about this work?
—We, architects, use a very obscure language, it's hard for us to communicate in a more affective way.

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