5 October 2020

Richness and diversity in traditional Chilean architecture

The first Monday in October is World Architecture Day, created by the International Union of Architects (UIA) to highlight the responsibility of architects in the development of cities.

In this context, Francisco Godoy, an architect with a master’s degree in Sustainable Environmental Design from the Architectural Association School of Architecture in London reflects on the importance of highlighting the identity of Chilean architecture and the major challenge faced by present-day architects in showcasing it in contemporary constructions.

“We live in a country that is tremendously diverse in terms of climate. Our coastline is over 6,500 kilometers long from latitude 18° to 50°, more or less, and we need to adapt the demands of architecture or building design accordingly,” explains Mr. Godoy.

He explains that bioclimatic or vernacular architecture is construction adapted by people to a given climate, which to a certain degree has forged Chile’s architecture throughout its history and territory. Not only is this important to recognize, but it should continue to be preserved and put into use in modern times.

“Landscape and climate diversity in Chile have resulted in a wide variety of architectural typologies that are extremely interesting,” indicated the architect. He also mentions some examples of traditional construction found in the northern, central and southern regions of the country that bear witness to that richness and identity founded in vernacular architecture.”

Tulor Village, San Pedro de Atacama

“If you think of the Atacameños in northern Chile or observe the Tulor village with its stone and mud houses with straw and mud roofs in San Pedro de Atacama, it makes complete sense given the specific climate,” comments the architect in relation to this dwelling complex in northern Chile, regarded as one of the oldest sedentary archeological sites in Chile.

Although it was a pre-Columbian fortress and not a dwelling complex, Pucará de Quitor, another structure in San Pedro de Atacama, is a reflection of how “architectural design was inextricably linked to the geography of the area through the use of locally sourced materials.” The architect indicates how this architectural identity came into being through aesthetics that were deeply entrenched with each location while being “100% adapted to the climate.”

Traditional Chilean house, central valley

Other architectural typologies can be found in Chile’s central valley, indicates Mr. Godoy, who mentions that the design of the traditional Chilean house “made from adobe and mission tiles” was brought over from Spain in the times of the Conquest and adapted to local conditions. “The Aragonese house, the original housing design brought over from Spain, was a three-story house with a small central courtyard to mitigate the impact of the sun. However, as Chile is an earthquake-prone country, the Chilean adaptation had only one floor with a larger central courtyard,” explains Francisco Godoy, going on to explain how the construction of the traditional Chilean house is the result of adaptations made to the design of the Aragonese house.

The architect also emphasizes the qualities of adobe, a material with a high thermal mass, capable of withstanding sun exposure while keeping its temperature low. Thanks to this, traditional Chilean houses are cool in the summer and warm in the winter. “All the heat absorbed by the material goes back into the environment when the temperature drops,” he explains. The traditional Chilean house involves a series of other architectural strategies, such as eaves to shade the sun’s rays, the use of water fountains as natural cooling systems or palm trees to provide shade in the central courtyard.”

Mapuche Ruka, central valley and Araucanía

Francisco Godoy also teaches sustainable architecture at a university level. He mentions that every year he has his students visit a Mapuche ruka to observe its important design considerations. “The structure is made out of wood because the material was widely available to the Mapuches. The ruka was completely covered by thick reeds known locally as totora, which is like straw or hay on the outside but inside it has very thin strands full of air, providing excellent insulation.” The professor commented that one of the most interesting strategies in the ruka is its open space inside has an open hearth with an advanced ventilation system. “Although the fire was traditionally kept lit the entire day, the air was kept clean and the space totally ventilated.”

Palafitos, Chiloé

“Palafitos” are wooden houses built on stilts. Mr. Godoy explains that just as humans who live in a very cold and wind-swept location tend to huddle together to keep warm, “palafitos” use the same strategy. “These houses comprise compact spaces and a limited surface area, which together form a whole, taking advantage of the shared warmth generated by each “palafito”, thus functioning as a system,” explains the architect.

Because it is an island, Chiloé also has a style of architecture that is steeped in tradition and identity. “The inhabitants of Chiloé never lose sight of the fact that they live in a space between the land and the sea,” continues Mr. Godoy.

The architect mentions Edward Rojas, who was awarded the National Prize of Architecture of Chile in 2016 and has dedicated his life to wooden construction in Chiloé, drawing attention to the value of local architecture. Mr. Godoy adds that “there are an increasing number of architects today who are rescuing this tradition, restoring “palafitos” and showcasing this type of architecture.”

The challenge faced by new generations of Chilean architects

Regarding current challenges for national architects, Mr. Godoy emphasizes that it is essential to “rescue the Chilean architectural language and identity created through the use of earth, adobe and wood,” seen in many of the traditional structures found in Chile. “This is the work that lies before us. We must communicate this message to university students,” says the architect. “I believe that all architects and designers can begin the process of recovering this identity and applying it in our everyday designs.”

Finally, Mr. Godoy asserts that our traditional architecture is generating a great deal of interest on an international level. “When you speak to foreigners about traditional houses, the “palafito,” etc., they express curiosity and find them very attractive.” The architect concludes that it is important “to understand and be proud of what we have built so that we can show the world what we have” and thereby continue to find inspiration in our own Chilean roots.







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