SAH Blog

  • Incomplete Remains: Interpreting Mining Company Towns in Chile

    Sarah Rovang
    Feb 1, 2019

    Sarah Rovang is the 2017 recipient of the H. Allen Brooks Travelling Fellowship. All photographs are by the author, except where otherwise specified.

    The original railroad that ran through the Atacama Desert, connecting the string of northern Chile’s historic nitrate mines to its port cities, today very nearly matches Route 5, the Panamerican Highway. Plunging through the heart of the Pampa, Route 5 is punctuated only by roadside memorials and signs marking the sites of the long-abandoned nitrate towns, called salitreras. Many of these are not only visible from the roadside, but can be reached via a bit of off-roading. On the drive from Antofagasta to Calama, we did exactly that, pulling the car off the highway and trekking a few hundred meters out into the desert. At this particular salitrera, whose name I never learned, the best preserved buildings were long rows of packed-earth worker housing. The roofs were absent, but the bleached and desiccated palm fronds blanketing the floor of a few houses were clearly fallen roofing material. Faded house numbers and the remnants of colorful interior paint were the only hints of individuality in the dwellings along this anonymous street. I climbed up to the roofline to get a better sense of the space. From this vantage point, I could almost make out the ruins of the next salitrera up the road.




    This stretch of Route 5 is remarkable, but within the context of Chile’s history, it’s hardly exceptional. It’s hard to miss the impact of mining on Chile’s built environment. Dotted throughout this narrow country are countless historic and active mines—silver, copper, nitrate, coal, and lithium most prominently. Alongside the historic port architectures I discussed in my previous post, mining sites constitute another lynchpin in Chile’s growing heritage tourism sector. Of these sites, the company towns of Sewell (copper) and Humberstone (nitrate) are perhaps the best known. Both possess decidedly utopian intentions, are UNESCO World Heritage Sites, and have been extensively restored and redeveloped to support tourism. However, that’s where the similarities end.


    Sewell is perched high in the Andes, about three hours away from central Santiago, on an expansive parcel of land owned by CODELCO, the nationalized copper mining company of Chile. Visiting Sewell means booking a tour with an authorized guide, a long drive on a hulking tour bus, and passing through an official checkpoint to access CODELCO land. After the checkpoint, the last hour of the drive covers land so stripped bare it is simultaneously Martian and post-apocalyptic. As the road winds its way to Sewell, vistas open of decimated land stained green by oxidized copper remnants and current mining operations painted in phosphorescent hues; a postmodernist industrial distopia. The visitor’s first view of Sewell is the town’s old cemetery crumbling into the hillside over a parking lot filled with CODELCO buses. The second view is a dizzying composition of wood-frame buildings impossibly situated on a precipitous mountainside.



    Sewell’s lifeblood and the source of its copper was El Teniente, an active mine that is today one of the world’s largest underground copper mines. Founded in 1905, Sewell was Chile’s first copper mine company town. The town was occupied until the 1970s, by which point CODELCO had decided that it was more economical for the miners and their families to live in Rancaqua, a town off company land more than an hour away. Preservation efforts to conserve the remaining buildings began in the 1990s, and in 2006 Sewell was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site.1 Today, though miners drive behemoth modern rigs nearby, only tourists climb the grand escalera (or great staircase) that runs through urban Sewell’s core. Situated on a steep slant, Sewell’s designers devised wood-frame worker housing and service buildings and steel industrial structures uniquely suited to this hostile and topologically challenging environment. As at most other company towns, the majority of technological and structural innovation was applied to the industrial sector (the copper concentrator built in 1915 is still in use today).2 Yet, even with the requirements of building on a vertiginous Andean mountainside, the architects of Sewell adapted traditional timber-framing to a unique urban layout reflecting of the values of the company founders.3 Some buildings are stuccoed or plastered, but all are painted in brilliant hues, striking even amidst the low-slung clouds obscuring the mountainside.


    The capital at Sewell, as at so many other Chilean copper and nitrate mines, came not from within the country, but from North American and Great Britain. Anglo-American financiers brought with them not only the technological savoir-faire to build mining operations but also cultural ideas about how a company should be run, and how those ideas should be expressed in architecture. The balloon-frame mansions that I described last month in downtown Iquique thus found their analogs in mining towns. The Norteamericanos who founded and ran Sewell only constituted 5% of the town’s population, but nevertheless made a dramatic impact on its culture and society. Workers at the mine were divided into A, B, and C roles. The Norteamericano minority held all of the A-role positions and lived in single-family dwellings segregated from the rest of the worker housing, further up the mountainside.4 Although all of the A-role housing was demolished before Sewell became a UNESCO site, the remaining structures give a vivid glimpse into its hierarchical society. A guided visit to Sewell begins in the Teniente Club, a building reserved for A-rolers and their guests, complete with a ballroom, dining rooms, and a heated swimming pool. For a moment, one can even enjoy the illusion of being in a turn-of-the-century club in New York or Chicago, until the views from the big bay windows spoil the effect.

    A view from the second-floor ballroom at Sewell’s Teniente Club.

    Teniente Club drawing room.

    Swimming pool reserved for Norteamericanos in the basement of the Teniente Club.

    Built as an urban agglomeration over several decades, the wooden buildings (and one-off concrete structure dating to 1958) reflect changing stylistic trends—the Teniente Club’s tall ceilings and crown molding are a stark contrast to the c.1930s/1940s mining school down the hill. Though the onsite signage goes to great lengths to emphasize the pragmatism and economy of the architecture (with “no place for unnecessary ornamentation”), the mining school nonetheless picks up the horizontal lines of International Style architecture and the sweeping curves of streamline moderne.5 This building hints to me that despite the town’s remote location, the administration remained plugged in to contemporary architectural trends, and that the desire to look as well as function like a modern mine town exerted some influence in the design decisions made for this building.

    The single concrete structure in Sewell, constructed 1958. At that time, there was a plan to replace all of the older wooden buildings with concrete ones, but after trying it once here, that plan was abandoned.

    The former mining school, which is today the mining museum. Beneath the plaster, this is purportedly still a wood frame building, but it’s hard to tell that from the outside.

    The tour of Sewell begins at the top of the hill with the Teniente Club and winds its way down, through worker housing blocks for those on the B- and C-role, and the numerous recreational, religious, and educational facilities provided to give worker life structure and meaning outside of the copper mine. Outside of questions of style, the architecture of Sewell invariably reflects the beliefs and mores of its founders, including social mobility, freedom of religion, temperance, and the right to education. Numerous services and amenities were designed to serve the town’s robust administrative middle class, and the church’s Catholic iconography is notably restrained in order to keep the space interdenominational.



    Though I’d booked a tour in English, it turned out that our guide spoke only Spanish. As a result, I spent much of the visit watching the other people on our tour, considering their reactions and wondering why they had left a lovely summer Saturday in Santiago to trek around in 40 F temperatures at Sewell. What did the experience of this place mean to them? I was seeing a company town with utopian aspirations, but what were they seeing? Of the thirty or so people on our tour, there were only two other Norteamericanos (also academics). The rest, judging by a glance I got at the tour roster, were Chileans. That ratio seemed about the same for the rest of the other tour groups visiting on the same day. The lack of English language reviews of Sewell online led me to (wrongly) believe that this was not a terribly popular attraction. But on the day we visited, there were at least 5 or 6 other tour groups of similar size running simultaneously. Adding to the crowd were those there to see a youth exposition of traditional Chilean dance taking place on the town’s central plaza. It quickly became clear that despite its remote location, Sewell is a site of living memory for many Chileans. After posting some photos of my visit to Instagram, the Chilean mother of a friend messaged me to say how meaningful the images were, as her great-grandfather had mined at Sewell. 


    The working class culture around mining is a pervasive aspect of Chilean nationhood. Unlike in South Africa, where mine owners intentionally used language barriers and ethnicity to discourage the formation of trans-cultural African worker movements, and where white unions often worked to the detriment of their black counterparts, Chile possesses a largely solidified working class culture. The narrative of the Chilean worker as a national “type” dates back to Nicolas Palacio’s polemical (and deeply problematic) 1904 book La Raza Chilena (The Chilean Race). In this work, Palacio valorizes the much-maligned Chilean worker, dubbed the Roto (or “broken”) Chileno. In reclaiming this term, Palacio denies any significant Latin contribution to the Roto Chileno’s character, instead attributing the unique culture and features of the Chilean worker to the miscegenation of Teutonic people and the indigenous Mapuche. This work, which fueled both early worker movements and anti-immigration campaigns, was similar to other contemporary works in that it argued that the Chilean character was based in mestizaje, or racial and cultural hybridity.6 But Palacio’s work is emblematic of a broader shift in Chilean culture towards recognizing and celebrating workers, and particularly miners, alongside heroes of the Independence and the War of the Pacific.7 Not coincidentally, this transformation paralleled the rise of worker movements and increasing class consciousness.

    Mining is today still a mainstay of the Chilean economy, copper mining alone accounting for 50% of its exports, and the miner retains a vaunted places within the national imaginary.8 Remember the 33 Chilean miners who were trapped underground for 69 days back in 2010? Though the rest of the world was equally rapt by that story of survival and endurance, the way Chileans understood that event was undoubtedly shaded by the country’s longer narrative about miners and mining. I wonder then, if Sewell, located close to Santiago, and with a significant portion of its original architecture intact, might be considered the Chilean equivalent to Colonial Williamsburg, a metonymic place that conveys broader and more persistent narratives of national identity. Indeed, the presence of active mining within sight of the historic company town makes it easy to perceive an unbroken linkage to the past. The interpretive choices at Sewell strengthen than connection, by placing focus on the restored spaces where working- and middle-class Sewellians lived, worshipped, saw movies, and went bowling. Most visitors, I suspect, don’t make the trip for the formal qualities of Sewell’s architecture, but rather for the human stories contained within its walls.


    More than one thousand miles north of Sewell is the nitrate mine and company town of Humberstone. Located 45 minutes east of Iquique, the drive to Humberstone loops up the coastal range and onto the Pampa, the elevated plain of the Atacama Desert. Today astrobiologists study the Atacama to learn about how life might survive on Mars—only the hardiest of microorganisms can eke out an existence on the Pampa, where the last rain may have come decades if not centuries ago.9 It is also here that the world’s largest mineralogical deposit of nitrates (also known as saltpeter) was discovered in the 1820s. When runoff from the Andes seeped up through the flat plain of the mineral-rich Pampa, long, stratified bands of different mineral contents were distributed through the process of evaporation. The fact that all of Chile’s former nitrate mines follow a straight path parallel to the coast is not for economic reasons, as I had assumed, but in fact geological ones. From the 1880s until the early 1930s, somewhere around two hundred salitreras were established along this strip of nitrate-rich earth stretching north along the Pampa from Antofagasta to Pisaqua. Each of these salitreras was connected to nearby port towns via a railway, allowing the so-called “white gold” to reach the rest of the world. The nitrate boom coincided with—and also precipitated—the rise of industrialized agriculture across the globe, yielding a fertilizer capable of restoring depleted fields to fecundity.

    Map of Nitrate mine distribution in 1890 from Iquique to Pisagua, image courtesy of Wikipedia Commons.


    A South African poster advertising Chilean Nitrates, courtesy of “Afiches Epoca del Salitre,” Mineria y Cultura, accessed January 30, 2019,

    A poster advertising Chilean Nitrates to Britain and Ireland, courtesy of “Afiches Epoca del Salitre,” Mineria y Cultura, accessed January 30, 2019,

    Despite the lack of ground moisture, Atacama mornings are often characterized by an impenetrable fog. Once that fog burns off though, there’s just barren land, blue sky, and fierce sun. We arrived wearing jackets and by noon were down to our shirt sleeves, and on our third application of sunscreen. The visitor experience at Humberstone is decidedly more self-directed than that at Sewell: rent a car, roll up, buy several large bottles of water, and hope your tetanus booster is up to date. Near the site’s entrance, there is a sign introducing the color-coding system by which buildings are marked as being in good, fair, and dangerous condition.


    It is not immediately clear how massive the site is (for the record, it’s 573.48 hectares, or 1417 acres).10 The row of medium-size houses for middle-managers and engineers that flanks the entrance initially blocks everything behind it: a fully-fledged company town complete with dozens of intact buildings, and the ruins of the industrial mining and processing plant. While I spent much of my time at Sewell people-watching, Humberstone is so extensive that it was hard to find any other people to watch, though quite a few other visitors arrived by bus and car over the course of the day. A five minute drive down the road from Humberstone, the smaller and less visited salitrera of Santa Laura offers a complementary heritage experience: here, the industrial portion of the plant has been well preserved, while the housing has been completely destroyed, leaving only foundations.

    A view overlooking the housing section and central plaza of Humberstone.

    The intact industrial core of Santa Laura, which retains enough structural integrity to demonstrate the process through which nitrate-bearing ore is refined and turned into consumer-grade saltpeter for export. Gravity was used extensively during this process, which is why many of the industrial structures are quite tall.

    Humberstone is notable not only for the sheer amount of worker housing preserved, but the massive plaza at its core, which, like Sewell, articulates a particular vision of worker life. There’s a theater, a hotel, a general store, a public fountain, and an outdoor bandshell. Nearby are a swimming pool and a school. Having seen some truly bleak and desperate worker environments during my fellowship explorations so far, I was not expecting to find a resplendent Pueblo Deco theater in the middle of the Atacama Desert.

    22-TheaterHumberstone’s theater; a uniquely Atacama Desert variation on the Pueblo Deco style popular in the North American Southwest.


    The Art Deco facade of the hotel, which also contained entertaining spaces for visitors and guests.

    The pulperia, or general store.

    A sculptural, Art Deco inspired public fountain at the center of a courtyard reminiscent of that of a hacienda.

    The back of the bandshell in the central plaza, looking out onto the stage.

    A swimming pool with bleachers directly adjacent to the central plaza.

    An Art Deco-inflected school with almost a dozen classrooms.

    The same railways that transported processed nitrate to nearby ports also were responsible for bringing in building materials in. Rather than turning to the construction strategies traditionally employed on the Pampa, which include both an adobe-like earth-block building method and a wattle-and-daub tradition using bamboo grown in oasis towns like Pica, the Anglo-American managers at Humberstone (and many other Atacama salitreras) opted to import methods they were familiar with—at the start, mostly timber framing. Humberstone, which was active from 1872 to approximately 1960, encompasses a range of styles and architectural approaches to the extreme aridity of the Pampa. In the middle of the Atacama, direct sunlight feels scorching, but full shade verges on chilly. As a result, creating shelter is largely a matter of moderating sunshine, as in the hotel’s ballroom and bar, where light filters gently through a ceiling made of bamboo draped over wooden crossbeams. Arcades and shaded porches are frequent features throughout the site. The architects of Humberstone drew from a pan-American and pan-historical vocabulary of forms, picking up a hacienda courtyard here, an Art Deco flourish there. Though the first sequence of buildings was made out of wood, frequently roofed with corrugated tin, later additions increasingly employed concrete, particularly in public buildings. Many of the most prominent public structures are products of the 1930s, during which time a program of reform sought to bring new services and amenities to the workers and families.

    Without the fear of rain, roofing only needs to provide protection from the sun, as in the hotel ballroom with its bamboo roof.

    Porches and shade structures are also common in Humberstone’s worker housing.

    The interior of a working housing block, showing the combination of wood framing and adobe fill held in by wire.

    The heart of Humberstone’s urban plan is not its church or its theater, but the pulperia, or general store. The infrastructure to provide for all of the alimentary and material needs of the town’s workers was extensive, including cold storage areas for meat and produce, and industrial-sized ovens for baking bread. With the sprawling intricacy of a Roman bath, the pulperia now functions as Humberstone’s engaging interpretive center. The interpretive signage here and across the site effectively points out the ways in which Humberstone, like Sewell, followed a rigidly hierarchical model, given architectural form in housing type and site arrangement. The director’s vaguely Arts & Crafts bungalow might have been that of an upper-middle class family in the American Midwest, but the bulk of workers, particularly those who were without families, shared rooms in what were little more than barracks. And at Humberstone, as at many salitreras, payment was often given in the form of tokens, which could only be spent at the general store. Contemporary observers of the nitrate trade speculated that mine owners might have sometimes made more from their general stores than they did from the nitrate industry, a suggestion that intimates a kind of economic slavery endemic in the whole salitrera system 11. That the general store was the sturdiest and most complex building on the site was surely no mistake; directly inside the pulperia’s main entrance sits Humberstone’s de facto bank counter, from which paychecks or tokens would be distributed.

    The dry goods counter at the pulperia, which has been restored to appear as it might have in the mid-twentieth century.

    The pulperia also sold other material goods that miner families would have needed in Humberstone, such as fabric for making clothes.

    Immediately within the entrance was the counter from which worker paychecks (either in tokens or cash) would have been distributed.


    Incomplete Remains

    Since it was built over a number of years, Humberstone’s plan doesn’t have the same legible, symmetric geometry of other utopian company towns. However, just a few hours south is Maria Elena, the last of the original salitreras still occupied, and a compelling example of utopian town planning. Focused on a square park, the central plaza is surrounded by most of the town’s main public buildings—the church, the theater, the general store (now a market), the bank, and a long civic building that was recently converted into a municipal museum. From the square central plaza, the town radiates out as a series of concentric octagons. The outer rings are mostly occupied by housing— long, one-story structures wrapped by shaded porches. Time and continuous occupation have transformed them from standardized worker housing into individualized dwellings, painted in diverse shades. Just east of town are the remains of the former nitrate processing plant. The town still relies on nitrate mining and processing, but this happens in a newer, modern facility a few miles from the town.

    Satellite image of Maria Elena and the historic nitrate processing plant, courtesy of GoogleEarth.

    The church at Maria Elena.

    The famous Art Deco theater of Maria Elena.

    Maria Elena’s new museum, the Museo del Salitre, is housed here.

    By this point in my fellowship year, I’ve visited many de-industrializing cities, bled dry of their economic lifeblood and without a younger generation to support the aging population that remains. That’s what I expected to find at Maria Elena, but with mining activity still providing jobs for the residents, there was none of that sense of desperation. If not excessively prosperous, there was a sense of activity and purpose. The market bustled, there was a line at the bank, and we were far from the only people eating lunch in the park. The town was in the full Christmas spirit, with decorations in the park and a nativity scene set up next to the bank. There was even a star hung from the old processing plant.



    We wandered over to the museum, only to learn (following the logic of so many small town museum hours) that it was closed, but would reopen at 4 pm. John trotted out his high school Spanish and haltingly explained our reason for being there, and the kind docent on duty relented and gave us a tour. I’ve now seen a lot of museums about Chilean mining, ranging from rather dated regional museums to the slick, modern Museum of the Atacama Desert. But the museum in Maria Elena was the first and only interpretation to really dig into the spatial dynamics and architecture of nitrate mining. A series of dioramas showed the development of salitrera layout in three stages—the preindustrial, the early industrial, and the present-day. It was the middle diorama that looked the most familiar—a planned company town directly adjacent to the nitrate fields and the processing plant. But it was also missing so many of the urban features I’d become familiar with. The diorama showed only the processing facility and a few bleak rows of barracks-style worker housing. Where was the school, the theater, the expansive pulperia? In each of the preserved mine town examples I’d seen so far, there had been an implicit or explicit dedication to labor condition reform and worker development, made clear by the inclusion of certain building typologies and their privileged placement within the town. Perhaps these museum-ified company towns were not the whole story of what early industrial mining life was really like in Chile.

    A diorama at the Museo del Salitre in Maria Elena showing the middle stage of salitrera development: rows of worker housing adjacent to the processing plant.

    At our final stop in Northern Chile, an ecolodge near the oasis town of Pica, I asked our host Marco, a Peruvian geologist, about what we’d seen, describing the disparity between the preserved and interpreted salitreras and the version we had seen in the diorama at the Maria Elena museum. Marco explained that Humberstone and Maria Elena are not the “real” salitreras of the early twentieth century—instead, these are relics from a later period in which the government partially took over the Chilean nitrate trade. In 1929, the nitrate market had collapsed after German chemists invented an artificial process for synthesizing the compound. At that point, most of the salitreras in Chile shut down and those that remained were put under partial government control. Humberstone, Maria Elena, and the few other salitreras that continued production into the 1930s and later were significantly altered, often with the intent of improving working conditions. Looking at both the style and typologies of the Humberstone structures dating to this post-1929 period, it is impossible to avoid being reminded of contemporaneous New Deal architecture in the United States. I even wonder whether the architects of the reformed vision for Humberstone were directly inspired by their Norteamericano counterparts in the PWA. Was the construction of that glorious Pueblo Deco theater perhaps also a public works project, a make-work construction job to help out the ailing nitrate industry?

    I told Marco about our escapade off Route 5—the ruins with the packed-earth worker housing. There, the industrial structures seemed to have vanished entirely, or were perhaps so distant that we never found them. There were no signs of the amenities preserved at Humberstone—the school, the theater, the hotel. The whole idea of public space, so critical to the other salitreras we’d visited, was missing. Before that period of reforms in the 1930s, Marco told us, nitrate mining had been an unequivocally “nasty business.” Surviving documentary evidence from that earlier era of mining backs him up on this. Worker accounts, such as that of Elías Lafertte, describe a peripatetic lifestyle on the Pampa, frequently searching for new opportunities, enduring toxic, dangerous work, and never quite able to get ahead due to the exploitative “token system” of payment. Lafertte also witnessed the 1907 Iquique Massacre in which the army killed some two thousand striking workers and family members. This event is a reminder that the Chilean government, which would later tout its worker reforms, long abetted the exploitation of those same workers in service of enriching the national coffers.12

    Because the built remains of this earlier period of mining have either been lost, lack interpretation, or are not easily accessible, how can these places be made real to the public? How do we avoid losing these stories or forgetting that exceptional examples like Humberstone and Maria Elena tell an incomplete story? In some sense, it’s the same challenge to that architectural historians face working with plantation houses in the United States. Those plantation houses that have survived, particularly those that have been preserved and opened to the public, are often exceptional in the quality of their architecture and/or in the kinds of historical narratives they tell. The extraordinary nature of the architecture can belie or obscure the fact that these “beautiful houses” were supported by the institution of slavery. Likewise, it’s easy to look at Sewell or Humberstone and think that being a miner in 1920s was probably not so bad, even if we know that isn’t the whole story. The spaces at both of these sites that intentionally remind us that this isn’t the whole story are also the most powerful: at Sewell, a room containing a mural showing an infamous 1945 mine disaster that killed 355 people, and at Humberstone, a memorial and museum dedicated to the 1907 Iquique Massacre. These homages to human events remind us that historical sites aren’t just snapshots of a synchronic moment, but rather diachronic spaces that inscribe a multitude of lived experiences. With that in mind, public historians can begin to peel back the utopian, reformist layers—Sewell was at its start a collection of simple covachas, or wooden shacks, and early Humberstone likely looked very much like the simple packed-earth salitrera we found off Route 5.

    The Sewell tour includes a stop at a mural responding to the deadliest mine disaster in Chilean history, a 1945 incident where many workers due to smoke inhalation.

    Humberstone houses a moving and effective memorial museum dedicated to the 1907 Iquique Massacre. The interpretation provides necessary context, describing the economic conditions that had prompted the strike, and the army’s fateful decision to respond with force.

    A worker memorial at Humberstone’s Iquique Massacre Museum.

    The day we visited Maria Elena, we also drove 20 km south to the salitrera of Pedro de Valdivia. Abandoned as recently as the 1990s, Pedro de Valdivia has been declared a national monument but lacks any official interpretation other than a plaque at its front gate. Throughout the town, families have marked their names in spray paint, commemorating who lived where and in what room. Someone—maybe former residents, maybe their children, living today in Maria Elena—still maintains the landscaping on the town’s main street, which is kept alive by a rudimentary drip irrigation system. A makeshift memorial at the town’s center pays homage to former residents, its spray-painted epitaph reading, “Para que nadie pierda la memoria porque soy parte de esta historia // y en medio de esta tierra mi voz geguira viviendo,” roughly: “So that nobody loses the memory, because I am part of this story // and in the middle of this earth my voice will live.”







    I thought back to the nameless salitrera, which had no names inscribed, no written record on site to memorialize who lived there and when. What will happen to places like Pedro de Valdivia, which are so remote from Chile’s tourism hotspots? The sad, pragmatic truth of industrial heritage is that not everything can be saved, nor is curation and interpretation financially feasible at every site. Mass-produced sites, designed with the premise that both architecture and worker’s lives were fundamentally disposable, lose out to the reformed counter-examples, the utopian one-offs. But that grates against a basic and instinctual human desire to not be forgotten, and to mark our landscapes so that we will be remembered. As one resident of Pedro de Valdivia wrote, “Yo no estoy muerto, lo estare cuando no me recuerde” — “I'm not dead, I'll be dead when you do not remember me.”

    1. “Sewell Mining Town,” UNESCO World Heritage Centre, accessed January 20, 2019, ↩︎
    2. “The Sewell Concentrator and its Astonishing Longeivity,” Sewell interpretive sign, photographed November 17, 2018. ↩︎
    3. “Functional Architecture for an Unusual Mountain Location,” Sewell interpretive sign, photographed November 17, 2018. ↩︎
    4. “The Sewell Elite: The North Americans,” Sewell interpretive sign, photographed November 17, 2018. ↩︎
    5. “Functional Architecture for an Unusual Mountain Location,” Sewell interpretive sign, photographed November 17, 2018. ↩︎
    6. Nicolás Palacios, “Race, Nation, and the ‘Roto Chileno’”, translated by Enrique Gauguin, in The Chile Reader: History, Culture, Politics (Durham: Duke University Press, 2015): 213-216. ↩︎
    7. Ibid., 199. ↩︎
    8. For an effective visual explanation of Chile’s copper economy see Jeff Desjardins, “How Copper Riches Helped Shape Chile’s Economic Story,” Visual Capitalist, June 21, 2017, ↩︎
    9. Rebecca Boyle, “The Search for Alien Life Begins in the Earth’s Oldest Desert,” The Atlantic, November 28, 2018, ↩︎
    10. “Humberstone and Santa Laura Saltpeter Works,” UNESCO World Heritage Centre, accessed January 30, 2019, ↩︎
    11. Elías Lafertte, “Nitrate Workers and State Violence: The Massacre at Escuela Santa María de Iquique’”, translated by John White, in The Chile Reader: History, Culture, Politics (Durham: Duke University Press, 2015): 240. ↩︎
    12. Ibid., 238-244. ↩︎
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  • District, Route, Corridor: Port Architectures and Heritage Strategies in Chile

    Sarah Rovang, 2017 H. Allen Brooks Travelling Fellow
    Jan 9, 2019
    SAH BLOG 5 Sarah Rovang is the 2017 recipient of the H. Allen Brooks Travelling Fellowship. All photographs are by the author, except where otherwise specified.

    In the Yokohama Port Museum, there is a row of framed archival photographs from the United States occupation of the Yokohama port and harbor after World War II. These artful black and white images capture the bizarre urban condition of the occupation—leisurely lawn parties in the fenced American compound against the backdrop of bombed out buildings and everyday Japanese hardship. Those stark images stuck with me in part because of how different they were from the rest of the Port Museum, which is a well-orchestrated profusion of digital interactives and pleasingly haptic physical models. But I think the main reason I’m still pondering those photographs two months later is that at some basic level, they conveyed the cultural, economic, and political messiness not just of Yokohama’s port in the late 1940s, but of industrialized port cities in general. As someone who grew up landlocked in the desert of the American Southwest, it has taken me until this trip to appreciate the extent to which industrial and post-industrial port cities lie at the fragile nexus of local and global economic forces, constituting surprisingly vulnerable and yet adaptable urban entities.

    Across the globe, as historic ports have lost economic activity, changed function, or undergone retrofitting for containerization, redevelopment and spatial reconfiguration have become critical to the survival of ports and their surrounding urban areas. Today, Yokohama’s port has entered a new economic and architectural phase. While industrial shipping (particularly the export of Japanese cars) is still part of the equation, those functions have been consolidated into the southern part of the bay. In Yokohama, much of the harbor has been taken over by commercial and touristic programs.



    Adjacent to the Port Museum, a nondescript and somewhat hidden building, is the impressively preserved Nippon Maru, a 1930 vessel that was for many years used to train the Japanese navy. A Ferris wheel turns steadily over a small amusement park, next to several new retail complexes. A short walk away, at the Cup Noodles Museum, architectural minimalism meets consumerist maximalism in one of Yokohama’s most popular present-day attractions. The red brick warehouses (constructed 1911 and 1913, repaired after the Great Kantō Earthquake of 1923) have been converted into claustrophobia-inducing boutique shopping malls. On the day I visited, the atmosphere was festive. The Christmas shopping season had started and the plaza between the two warehouses was filled with a street market and a bevy of food trucks.

    From the redeveloped commercial area, the present-day shipping port is shielded from view by the International Passenger Terminal, a sprawling edifice that juts 430 meters into the harbor. Designed by Farshid Moussavi and Alejandro Zaera-Polo of Foreign Office Architects in 1995 (and finally opened in 2002), the design still looks cutting-edge today, a prescient precursor to public projects like the New York High Line.1 On my pennultimate night in Japan, I sat out at the open air cafe on the terminal’s roof/walkway, witnessing a dizzying array of movement and activity in the redeveloped port. Behind me, to the south in the distant industrial port, the unloading and reloading of shipping containers progressed with mechanical grace. Nearby on the passenger terminal, a wedding ceremony reached its conclusion. With a cheer, the guests released an armada of pink and red balloons into the sunset sky above.



    Yokohama’s International Passenger Terminal, Foreign Office Architects, 1995-2002.

    The day I spent in Yokohama proved to be a fitting bridge to my next destination: Chile—a long, thin whisper of a country edged with 2,600 miles of coastline. Over the last six weeks of exploring Chile’s industrial heritage, I’ve spent much of my time in the country’s port cities. Life along Chile’s unending coast has formed a marked contrast to my inland adventures, which have taken me to remote pre-industrial German settlements, nitrate ghost towns, and copper mines; and the cosmopolitan, European-inflected metropolis of Santiago. This month, I will tackle the particular issues of Chilean port cities, investigating the heritage preservation and interpretive approaches being taken in three very different urban conditions—Valparaíso, Iquique, and the decentralized ports of the Chiloé archipelago. Next month, I’ll move inland to explore Chile’s historical and current mining landscape—company towns, worker housing, and the mines themselves.

    Despite the strong sense of national unity that exists in Chile, the built landscape of its ports is surprisingly diverse. Indeed, Chile’s port architectures tend to be hyper-local, responding to geography, locally available materials, stored cultural knowledge, and the variable and uneven application of industrial technologies and practices. As interfaces between Chile’s powerful export economy and the rest of the industrializing world, the country’s historical port cities were (and still are) also particularly vulnerable to both internal and external economic shifts—such as the opening of the Panama Canal in 1914, or the collapse of the nitrate economy in 1929. And although many port cities across the globe have served as stages for workers’ actions, including strikes and protests, this function seems outsized in Chile, particularly in the north where the harsh desert climate rendered port cities the default hubs for collective action.

    The economic vulnerability of industrial ports in Chile and elsewhere in the world is registered in their architecture and urban planning. What I witnessed in South Africa and Japan was the almost universal redevelopment of port districts, a process that typically mingled adaptive reuse (see my second SAH Brooks blog post) and new construction. In Cape Town, that process included new luxury residential developments alongside trendy retail spaces, food halls, and landmark cultural attractions such as Zeitz MOCAA. In Japan, most of the port redevelopment seemed predominantly commercial, often incorporating elements of heritage tourism. And for most of the port cities I visited, the redevelopment process was already quite advanced, with some port cities now even needing to restore and refresh commercial architecture constructed in the 1980s.

    The redevelopment of Hakodate’s “red brick warehouse district” dates to the 1988 opening of the Seikan Tunnel between Honshu and Hokkaido, which enabled Shinkansen (Bullet Train) travel to Hakodate. Capitalizing on this transit corridor, the historic warehouses were redeveloped as tourism-oriented commercial spaces.

    The earliest commercial architecture along Kobe’s port appears to date from the mid-1980s. These slightly faded structures are joined by new additions, such as “Mosaic,” an ostentatious Florentine-themed labyrinth of indoor/outdoor retail space.


    But while the cycle of redevelopment and re-redevelopment is already well underway in the postindustrial port cities of Japan, Chile’s entry into the cultural and heritage tourism game has been much more recent. While the end of the Pinochet dictatorship and Chile’s return to democracy in 1990 initiated an almost immediate upswing in nature and adventure tourism, the country is just starting to advertise its historical places, culinary offerings, and shopping opportunities. While few visitors come to Chile for the cultural element alone, heritage sites and experiences are becoming increasingly prominent supplements to adventure tourism standbys such as Patagonia or San Pedro de Atacama. As part of this new focus on heritage tourism, Chile is actively developing its historic port cities as cultural destinations, for both domestic and foreign tourists. Yet, owing the hyperlocality of their architectural traditions and their distinctive cultural and historical contexts, the heritage challenges faced in Valparaíso are unique from those in Arica, Antofagasta, or Lota—and the corresponding preservation and interpretation responses are equally as diverse.

    Understanding heritage tourism in any given nation also entails decoding the various legal and economic vehicles through which buildings and landscapes are protected, preserved, and interpreted. In South Africa, a shared language and some fortuitous on-the-ground networking gained me access to helpful archives and a more direct path to decoding the intricacies of that country’s heritage sector. But in Japan and Chile, I’ve been battling a language barrier (a rather severe one in Japan) and a lack of contacts. In Chile, I’ve been combing the Chilean national monuments page, with some help from Google Translate. Local guides and walking tours have served as useful historical primers. UNESCO nominations and the accompanying maps have been uniquely helpful. I’ve cut a diet of Isabel Allende fiction and memoirs with the illustrative primary documents and incisive commentary contained in The Chilean Reader.2 In concert with the act of just being on the ground and observing how daily life functions in these historic places, this research yielded a much clearer conception of the motivating concepts behind how heritage is being conserved and developed for tourism in my three case study port cities.

    Valparaíso: Patrimonial Zone and Piecemeal Preservation

    In the nineteenth century, Valparaíso’s port functioned as an important resupply station for ships making the arduous trip around South America to reach the other side of the North American continent. With the opening of the Panama Canal in 1914, Valparaíso fell into decline and depression. The sluggish economy prevented much from getting built, but also stopped much from getting demolished either. Encompassing a mind-bending topography of steep hills and valleys, Valparaíso’s historic urban core has retained much of its architectural integrity since the turn of the twentieth century. In 2003, Valparaíso’s historic downtown was inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, a move which has encouraged the gradual development of heritage tourism.

    Valparaíso’s UNESCO-inscribed patrimonial zone and its buffer zone. Composite image created using satellite imagery from Google Earth and a map from the Consejo de Monumentos Nacionales de Chile (“Area Histórica de la Ciudad-Puerto de Valparaíso”).

    1. Muelle Prat
    2. Plaza Sotomayor
    3. Cerro Concepción
    4. Cerro Alegre
    5. Cerro Cordillera
    6. Cerro Santo Domingo


    On my second day in Valparaíso, still groggy from my Santiago-Tokyo flight and the 12 hour time difference, I ambled down the terrifyingly steep hill of Cerro Alegre to partake in a walking tour of the historic urban core. While our guide, American ex-pat Johnny, tracked down a few stragglers, we waited on the ground floor of the nineteenth-century house he and his Chilean wife are in the process of restoring. The amount of work and money that had gone into the venture were clear from the care in the details. I knew, from seeing the crumbling, unrestored versions of Johnny’s row house further down the street, what those walls might have looked like before their restoration. It wasn’t pretty.

    Valparaíso’s urban vernacular is typified by a unique fusion of local and industrial materials, and indigenous and European architecture, adapted to suit the demands of an intimidating topography. The most characteristic house type in historic Valparaíso arose in response to the city’s rapid growth at the end of the nineteenth century as an industrializing port. On a foundation of fired brick, a wooden frame, frequently in a half-timbered style, is filled packed earth adobe brick. Unlike the deep, load-bearing adobe of the Southwestern U.S. (or Northern Chile for that matter), this much thinner brick relies mostly on its wooden framing for support. The resulting structure is neither weatherproof nor rot-resistant, and so the exteriors are typically clad in corrugated tin, often brightly painted and featuring wooden trim in complementary colors.3

    Above, a typical Valparaíso house with corrugated siding, painted in monochrome. Flowering plants like this bougainvillea are frequently used in the city to add color contrast and visual interest. Below, an example of street art on a house in the historic district. This mural is by a street artist who typically depicts scenes and people from southern Chile, frequently celebrating indigenous Mapuche culture. Also along this side wall, it is possible to see what Valparaíso’s characteristic corrugated tin looks like in its unpainted state, and what the uncovered adobe looks like as well (left of mural).

    Once the walking tour was underway, John (husband) and I chatted with Johnny (tour guide) about his experience moving to Chile, and restoring this variety of historic house in a patrimonial district doubly protected by Chilean federal law and UNESCO status. The upshot? It’s a lot of paperwork. As Isabel Allende sardonically notes in My Invented Country, “The Chilean loves laws, the more complicated the better. Nothing fascinates us as much as red tape and multiple forms. When some minor negotiation seems simple, we immediately suspect that it’s illegal.”4 Indeed, the Kafkaesque complexity of the whole process runs counter to the city’s purported goals of stimulating investment in the historic district.

    As we zigzagged through the patrimonial zone, I came to appreciate the extreme diversity of structures, landscapes, urban types encompassed by the 23.2 hectare inscription and its 44.5 hectare buffer zone. The UNESCO area extends from the area closest to the port up into the hills above. Home to Chile’s legislature, the thin ribbon of flat land nearest the water links a number of traditional squares and blocks planned on a relatively even grid. Plaza Sotomayor at the center is a testament to the city’s architectural diversity and to the evolution of preservation approaches employed within its urban zone. The Plaza opens onto the water, where an active port still serves the surrounding area and the inland capital of Santiago. But move just a few blocks inland and the tidy structure of linear parks and historicizing civic buildings falls away as the city dissolves into its characteristic hills with their twisting streets and tin-clad adobe houses. Into the tight fabric of hillside houses are woven significant historic buildings and landscapes that diverge from the adobe and tin vernacular—the Arts & Crafts Palacio Baburizza, a host of neoclassical mausoleums, and several neo-gothic churches. In addition to the buildings, historic funiculars form a layer of transportation infrastructure that eased the daily journey of port workers up and down Valparaíso’s precipitous hills.


    The Consejo Nacional de La Cultura y Las Artes, a doctrinaire International Style municipal building, and a nineteenth-century neoclassical structure (after being put through the wringer of postmodern “preservation” tactics): just a sampling of the immense architectural diversity present in Plaza Sotomayor.

    The extraordinary topography of Valparaíso required innovative infrastructure at the height of the city’s industrialization. As the city expanded, the issue of urban circulation also became more pressing and complicated. The workers who commuted from hilltop residences down to the docks and back each day faced a steep descent and correspondingly vigorous climb. A traditional streetcar would simply not function in these conditions, and so instead, the city created a series of urban funiculars to ease transit up and down the hills. At their height, there were about 30 funiculars operating in Valparaíso.5

    Faced with the sheer diversity and complexity of the historic district’s architectural heritage, the city has pursued a preservation program that is decidedly piecemeal, pursuing isolated and intensive restoration projects, seemingly as catalysts to spur further private investment. On our walking tour, we climbed through the central public corridor of one of Valparaíso’s few fully restored hillside buildings. According to our guide, the government had spent millions (in USD) restoring this nineteenth-century complex, which is now being used as apartments. Just a hill away, though, were several adobes that were little more than crumbling ruins—structures that clearly needed to be razed for safety reasons. I suspect that the reason for focusing on construction rather than demolition has to do mostly with optics. On the ubiquitous infrastructure improvement signs throughout the country (“Todos para Chile!”), necessary removal is less glamorous than an entirely restored luxury apartment building.

    The view from one of Vaparaiso’s fully restored building complexes, revealing a landscape where most historic buildings are in varying states of preservation and disrepair.

    Similarly, rather than trying to resuscitate (or at least stabilize) all of the funiculars, the city has instead focused its efforts on a small handful. Out of the original 30, only 3 have been fully restored. The restored funiculars, which feature trendy kiosks with coffee and souvenirs, often attract queues of twenty minutes or more. Given that a ride costs only $100 CP (about 15 cents US), it’s hard to imagine that these extensive restorations are paying for themselves. Rather, the renovated funiculars and the isolated adaptive reuse projects seem targeted at changing the image of Valparaíso’s patrimonial zone—projects with substantial symbolic, if not economic, clout. But the city’s espoused desire for new investment has not been necessarily reflected in the experience of those looking to contribute, as with Johnny, who is fighting to save a historic building despite a lack of clear guidelines or municipal assistance.

    16-Restored Funicular 

    A journey on Ascensor Reina Victoria, one of Valparaíso’s restored funiculars. Renovated funiculars like this one now attract mostly visitors, catering to that audience with coffee shops and souvenir stores in the cable houses. Locals seem to prefer the slightly grungier unrestored versions, probably because they’re not clogged by long lines of tourists.

    The more successful restoration or reuse projects in the patrimonial zone are those that actively engage Valparaíso’s diverse community, rather than relying on optics or targeting wealthy residents and visitors to the exclusion of middle and working class citizens. One example is former Penitentiary Center of Valparaíso (used from 1843-1999; including to incarcerate political prisoners during the Pinochet regime) that through grassroots activism has been recycled into a community arts and education center. A thriving park adjacent to the arts building is one of the very few green spaces in urban Valparaíso, and creates a quadrangle with the brick ruins of a historic armory (1810) and another brand new museum and educational center. On the several occasions I visited the park, community members were out in force, walking dogs, picnicking, participating in a dance class, and selling art and baked goods from the shade of the community center.



    Valparaíso Ex-Carcel (former prison reused as educational community space), 2011, architects: HLPS. The architects not only managed the reuse of the prison building, but also designed the new building constructed adjacent to it on the pentagonal site, which houses a larger lecture hall/auditorium.


    As suggested by the prominence of the community art center, contemporary artistic practice is an integral part of the city’s identity. Indeed, Valparaíso’s unparalleled street art scene has become the predominant generator of tourism over the last ten years. With many street artists practicing in and around the historic district, the street art movement has at times butted heads with local preservation projects. In one instance, city planners were looking to restore a degraded public square to its turn-of-the-century state, a move that would have erased all of the street art within a certain radius. One mural in particular, a piece by an indigenous Mapuche artist from southern Chile, had grown to be a local favorite, for its political implications as well as its artistry. In the end, the stakeholders compromised, restoring some portions of the square while leaving the surrounding street art intact.6 Unlike the luxury apartment complex or the fully restored and heavily touristed funiculars, this dialogue between members of the community with different perspectives has resulted in a restored space that is both safer and more inclusive—bridging the gap between the historical meanings of the square and its current purpose. Paradoxically, it is the restoration projects in the patrimonial zone generated by and for the community that seem to be creating the most engagement and interest among foreign visitors. Remote foreign investment in boutique hotels might increase the overall level of amenities available in the area, but it seems that those who visit Valparaíso today are mostly attracted to the historic zone’s overall atmosphere—a robust synthesis of vernacular architecture, street art, natural topography, and the investment of committed locals like Johnny and his wife.



    Three examples of street art engaging the past and present of Valparaíso’s architecture and urban condition. Prominent street artists are increasingly receiving lucrative commissions to paint municipal buildings and private businesses, but many street artists paint wherever there is available wall space in the historic district.

    If local and touristic enthusiasm for Valparaíso’s street art could be more effectively harnessed in the historic district, there might be an opportunity for further mutually beneficial collaborations. Indeed, such a tactic holds promise for the sadly neglected industrial heritage that lies outside of the established patrimonial zone. Further north along the shore are scattered vestiges of Valparaíso’s early rail infrastructure, including a turntable with national monument status and several derelict but intact warehouses. Connected as they are to the current commuter rail, there seem to be opportunities here for creating more community-oriented educational spaces through adaptive reuse.

    23-TrainTurntableDespite its national monument status, this early twentieth-century train turntable in Valparaíso has been left as a virtual ruin next to the pristine new commuter rail that connects Valparaíso and neighboring urban areas to the north. How could such a ruin be changed through a combination of intelligent policy and grassroots activism to serve the larger community?


    Chiloé: Decentralized Port Cities and Heritage Route

    800 miles (1300 kilometers) south of Valparaíso lies the port city of Castro on the island of Chiloé. Castro is the political and symbolical capital of Chiloé, but is one of many small port towns across the main island and the archipelago of smaller isles off its east coast. Indeed, Chiloé’s economy seems largely decentralized—it would be fair to say that most of its cities function as ports to some extent. Like much of southern Chile, Chiloé remains relatively unindustrialized, due to geographic as well as historical and cultural reasons. When Charles Darwin visited in 1834, he discovered that even the native peoples, who had been living on the islands for many hundreds of years, could not penetrate the western reaches of the island, which covered in a dense arboreal ecosystem known as Tepaul.7 One of the last strongholds of the Mapuche people and a fierce holdout against Chilean independence, Chiloé has retained a distinctive cultural identity. During the late nineteenth century, Chiloé was Chile’s main producer of railroad ties, the demand for which was driven by the need to ship copper and nitrate industrially mined in other parts of the country. Castro, which had been founded in the late sixteenth century, was joined by a series of new towns born out of the railroad tie industry. A railroad connecting the major cities of Ancud and Castro was completed in 1912, which allowed access to the forests of the island’s interior.8

    Tourist map of Chiloé, indicating the locations of all 16 UNESCO churches. In addition to the Ruta de las Iglesias, Chiloé also attracts substantial ecotourism in the form of lodges and farmstays. The private park (Parque Tantauco) that blankets the bottom quarter of the island is owned by the current president of Chile, billionaire Sebastián Piñera.


    Despite its historical production of railroad ties, during my five days on Chiloé, I spotted very few signs of mass production or modern distribution systems. Yes, Coca-Cola has a distribution center there, and there is a large Lider grocery store (a chain owned by Wal-Mart) in Castro. But besides some of the shellfish farming that happens offshore in the waters of the inland sea, hardly any of the economic activity on Chiloé today (either production- or consumption-side) could be remotely classified as industrialized. Family fishing operations, small-scale animal husbandry, and potato farming seem to predominate. The persistence of traditional economic patterns is mirrored in the robust and multifarious wooden shingle architecture endemic to the island. While other parts of southern Chile also employ wooden shingle architecture, the shapes and colors on Chiloé are uniquely diverse.

    Land with potato patch and pasture on Isla Lemuy. Below, my Instagram post showing a small sampling of the wooden shingle siding throughout Chiloé.

    Instagram Caption: There are nearly as many shingle styles and colors on Chiloé as there are buildings. I have the feeling that shingle type has a deeper language to it than I could discern as an outsider. Is there some significance to the shapes, or is it purely personal preference? Maybe hyper-local tradition? Or just whatever the local carpenter had on hand? Regardless, they are a pretty spectacular vernacular ✨🏠✨ #sahbrooks #preindustrial #chiloe #carpentry #shinglehouse #vernaculararchitecture #chile

    With the atmosphere of a pre-industrial idyll, Chiloé has become a locus for heritage tourism development in Southern Chile. Logging did not deplete the natural environment of Chiloé in the same drastic way as mining has in other parts of the country. There is a general sense that Chiloé is a place where traditional lifeways have been, for the most part, maintained. This is reflected in the island’s status as a “Globally Important Agriculture Heritage System,” a designation given in recognition of Chiloé’s intense and diverse potato agriculture.9 Fittingly, farmstays and ecolodges are readily available in the island’s more rural areas (“rural,” of course, being a relative term on Chiloé). There has been a resurgence of traditional Chiloé cuisine as well, particularly curanto, a stew of potatoes and shellfish that historically was cooked in underground pits.

    While not cooked in the traditional pit, I can vouch that the curanto at Carlita’s lunch counter in Dalcahue is a very satisfying repast. In case one forgets where the bulk of the ingredients come from, the food hall takes the form of an inverted boat, using ship carpentry as structural inspiration in much the same way as Chiloé’s iconic UNESCO churches.


    But the main attraction of Chiloé centers around its 16 UNESCO churches, which are arrayed across the eastern portion of the archipelago. The initial churches were established in the seventeenth century as part of the Jesuit order’s “Circular Mission,” and combined indigenous building traditions, particularly pertaining to shipbuilding and wood carpentry, with the European ecclesiastic architectural traditions that the Jesuits brought with them. In the coming centuries, the Franciscan order continued this mission work, and added another level of architectural richness to the mestizo Chilota tradition. Critically, Chiloé’s churches are still maintained as devotional centers of their communities.10



    These three UNESCO churches, all located on the main island of Chiloé and within an hour’s drive of each other, testify to the breadth of architectural expression within the Chilota School. Above, the Church of Colo, dating from around 1890, represents one of the earlier Jesuit models, with a less elaborated, unpainted facade and a long, simple basilican plan. In the middle, the Church of Tenaún shows an example of a slightly larger church with a more complex plan, accentuated by corrugated cladding and painted decoration. And below, the Church of San Francisco (1910-1912) Castro is a highly developed Franciscan example of the Chilota School, featuring extensive buttressing on the exterior, multiple chapels on the interior, and groin vaulting in various native woods. In contrast to most of the other Chilota School churches, Castro’s is distinctly neo-Gothic in style. Almost all of the churches have been rebuilt multiple times over the years since the first arrival of the Jesuits in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.


    The main interpretive center for the churches is in Ancud, the northernmost major city on the island and the port of entry for most visitors. The interpretive center itself is in a wooden church of the Chilota School, which makes it a particularly effective venue for learning about the traditional carpentry techniques that go into these buildings. There are intricate scale models of all the churches, rendered in wood and painted to match their full-scale brethren. Images of the 16 church facades arrayed as a four by four grid are everywhere: on posters, calendars, and even carved into wood panels by local artisans as souvenirs. The implicit message of the interpretive center and these depictions is that the enterprising heritage visitor should try to see all 16 churches while on Chiloé.


    An interior shot of Centro de Visitantes Inmaculada Concepción in Ancud, the main interpretive center of the 16 UNESCO churches, and an impressive example of the Chilota School in its own right. Below, the ubiquitous 4x4 grid of church facades that shows the range of architectural expression across the UNESCO listing.


    Accordingly, the churches have been linked into a heritage route, for which there is ample signage. The roads are consistently well maintained and mostly paved. While a few of the churches are remote even by Chilote standards, most of them are accessible with a rental car and a willingness to undertake a bit of driving and a few short ferry rides. Over the course of three days, I managed to see 12 of the churches. But the act of driving to all of those distant churches, was, to be entirely trite, more about the journey than the destination. On the drive from Castro to the tip of Isla Lemuy, an island with two of the UNESCO churches, the overall architectural heritage and landscape are just as much of an attraction, though one not codified in the official Ruta de las Iglesias. In the charming town of Curaco de Veléz, Chilote shingle style reaches its apotheosis, as evidenced by the sheer number of shapes and shades on every street. The lime-green A-frame Chilota church (definitely not UNESCO) adds a mid-century flare to the main plaza, and the catacomb of a Chilean independence hero at the plaza’s center contributes just the right amount of morbid fascination. Along the town’s tidal zone is a brand new walkway, complete with plenty of ornithological interpretation (Chiloé is the southern terminus of many bird migration patterns). These are all architectural experiences that I would have missed without the impetus of the Ruta de las Iglesias.



    Architectural and natural attractions in Curaco de Veléz, a port town that while lacking a UNESCO church of its own, lies along the Ruta de las Iglesias.


    Even Castro itself, which has become a kind of launch point for many visitors’ explorations of Chile, has seen a corresponding surge in other preservation activities outside of those directly linked to the churches. Castro’s distinctive palafitos, the traditional wooden houses on stilts that line the city’s tidal waterfronts, have been given new life as restaurants and boutique hotels. Today, Castro’s palafito streets are becoming walking tour and cultural tourism hotspots. As with many places I’ve visited during my Brooks travels, I found that in Castro, heritage tourism begets more preservation activism and even more demand for well-preserved heritage places. In my view, the palafito craze can’t be separated from the success of the Ruta de las Iglesias

    A row of palafitos to the south of downtown Castro. The distinctive stilted houses have been largely converted into restaurants and boutique hotels, benefitting from and reinforcing the system of heritage tourism already in place through the Ruta de las Iglesias.


    Because the Chilote archipelago never fully industrialized, it has been saved the pain of de-industrialization and the corresponding population drain and economic decline. Tourism is not the sole lifeblood of this place—it is merely another sideline, running parallel to more traditional economic strategies. Against the background of gradually increasing heritage tourism, life on Chiloé goes on as it has for many years, now with the benefit of paved roads.

    Iquique: Cultural Corridor as Singular Heritage Focus

    In 1821, Europe became aware of a unique reserve of naturally-occurring nitrates were found in the Atacama Desert.11 Then part of Peru, this coveted economic resource sparked a war between Chile, Peru, and Bolivia (the War of the Pacific, also called the Saltpeter War, 1879-84). Ultimately, Chile prevailed, and in doing so, gained the nitrate-rich deserts to the east and north of Iquique. The Chilean nitrate industry not only enriched the national coffers and facilitated the country’s entry into an industrialized world order, it also transformed explosives manufacture and global agriculture in the early stages of industrialized farming. While nitrate mining (the architecture of which I’ll tackle in next month’s post) exacted extreme human and environmental costs on the Atacama Desert, the resulting fertilizer was presented to the rest of the world as “white gold,” a substance that could renew soil and nurture abundant crops.

    Along Chile’s northern coast, port cities and towns sprung up to funnel that “white gold” from the network of railway-connected nitrate mines, or salitreras. Mine owners, mostly North American and English, built mansions, restaurants, offices, and casinos in these towns, finding beachside living preferable to the extreme heat of the Pampa (or high desert). Lacking suitable local building materials for such structures, the administrators imported what they needed, often from great distances. The historic district of Iquique—one of the largest and longest-lived of the northern port communities—was constructed from Oregon pine. In addition to building materials, the mine owners brought techniques and styles well established in the United States and Europe. As a result, most of the wooden buildings in the oldest part of Iquique are balloon-framed, with facades in a Georgian, neoclassical, or Adams style. The other main uniting architectural feature is the provision of shade through the use of porches, verandas, and covered rooftop areas. 12

    Inspired by artist Ed Ruscha’s 1966 Every Building on the Sunset Strip, I undertook the (slightly less ambitious) process of photographing every building on either side of Baquedano Street. The above image is a small sample from the project illustrating the characteristic nineteenth-century architecture of this historic corridor.


    Although Iquique has a sizable historic district, the majority of redevelopment and preservation has been focused on Baquedano Street, the primary corridor where mine managers and owners built their mansions, running south from Arturo Prat Plaza down to the beach. Baquedano Street has been on Chile’s UNESCO tentative list since 1998, but progress on the nomination has stalled. While I can only speculate as to why this nomination hasn’t moved forward, I would guess that it has something to do with the fact that the city, without permission or approval from the National Monuments Council, has undertaken several major development projects on the Baquedano. Some of these projects, such as the construction of an underground parking garage under Arturo Plat Plaza could (justly) be seen to compromise the historical integrity of the urban fabric.13

    A diagrammatic map of Iquique based on a 1907 map from Iquique’s regional museum. Baquedano Street and Arturo Prat Plaza have been highlighted in red, while other historic places and infrastructure from this period are highlighted in green. While the buildings directly affronting Baquedano have been relatively well preserved, many of the buildings marked in green seem to receive less funding for preservation and upkeep, and have not been successfully integrated into the city’s heritage tourism.


    Although there is reason to be suspicious of the preservation tactics being deployed on Baquedano, the pedestrianized street slowly seems to be developing into an active cultural corridor, in which somewhere between a third and half of its buildings are currently occupied by tour companies, hostels, local museums, restaurants, schools, or mine company offices (old habits die hard). During my daily walks to Arturo Prat Plaza, I watched the incremental progress of a restoration project on Iquique’s 1889 Teatro Municipal. Over the course of my stay, the scaffolding slowly came down, revealing a freshly painted and restored neoclassical facade in white and pastel blue. Concerts and festivals on Baquedano are frequent, as are pop-ups for various causes, from electronics recycling to human rights awareness. A regular collection of street vendors hawks their wares on the northern end of the street, and a historic diesel-powered streetcar chugs along leisurely from one end of the street to the other, adding more historic charm than reliable transit. Well-trafficked enough to feel safe and kept meticulously clean, the street seems on the verge of becoming the tourism and community hub local planners intended.


    The newly restored Teatro Municipal (1889) and a temporary stage on Arturo Prat Plaza. Exploring the cultural corridor mid-morning reveals the extensive daily labor required to keep the street and plaza looking pristine.


    The strength of Iquique’s corridor approach is that it focuses limited resources and creates a contiguous architectural heritage experience. Despite the addition of the underground parking garage, the historic feeling of the street remains, accentuated by a few exemplary buildings, such as the 1904 Casino Espanol and Palacio Astoreca (now the city’s cultural center, built circa late nineteenth century). However, outside the Baquedano Street corridor, there are a number of significant buildings from the nitrate era that have gone largely neglected. Near the end of my visit I met Marco, a Peruvian geologist and longtime resident of northern Chile, who has observed the changes in Iquique and the surrounding landscape over the past several decades. Marco reported that when he first came to Iquique, the whole downtown historic district had the grandeur and historical integrity of Baquedano Street. Over the last decades, however, the historic integrity of downtown has been radically compromised, and many of the original wooden buildings have been lost, due to new development and natural disaster. Unlike Valparaíso’s patrimonial zone, the area surrounding Baquedano Street has witnessed the construction of several high rise apartment buildings, along with a new commercial area with several grocery and department stores. The other threat to the area seems to be natural disaster, and fire in particular. Located in a city with an average rainfall of 1 mm a year, all of that Oregon pine architecture is a virtual tinderbox. After more than a week of wondering whether any of the wood buildings near my (thankfully concrete, high rise) AirBnB were fireproof, one morning I watched, horrified, as several houses a few blocks away ignited and virtually burned to the ground in the minutes it took the fire department to arrive.


    The opulent Casino Espanol (1904), above, is still operated as a restaurant and meeting area by the Spanish Club of Iquique. Below, the late nineteenth-century Palacio Astoreca (now used as the city’s Cultural Center), is a prime example of wooden Georgian architecture on Baquedano street, with its airy wrap-around porches.

    A fire several blocks from my lodging in downtown Iquique, which burned several homes. First responders arrived quickly, but the structures were essentially incinerated within the intervening minutes.

    Additionally, there is little interpretation or mention of many of the important historic buildings that do remain off of Baquedano Street. Without some concerted digging on the Chilean National Monuments website, I would not have found any of them as the majority don’t appear on tourist maps of the area. No wonder—currently heritage tourism is not what draws most visitors to Iquique. Today, the city serves primarily as a launch point to venture out into the nearby Atacama Desert or to sandboard and paraglide down the city’s towering dunes. In town, there’s a small (though well-done and comprehensive) regional history museum, and a life-sized recreation of the Chilean warship Esmerelda available to tour with an advance reservation. But significant national monuments are hidden in plain sight, including those that have been reused to serve civic functions, such as the railway administration station, which now has become a municipal family services building.

    Wanting to experience the heritage tourism that is on offer, I ventured down to the Muelle Pasajero, the city’s 1901 passenger quay (and a National Monument). Here, a charmingly informal boat tour company runs a “heritage” tour. For about $6 US, the rider can participate in an hourlong tour that covers Iquique’s still very active port, a colony of sleepy sea lions, and a buoy marking the spot where a Chilean warship (the Esmerelda) sank during the War of the Pacific.


    Iquique’s railway station and railway administration building (both c. 1879) are both critical components of the city's industrial heritage, but their location several blocks from Baquedano means that few visitors are aware of their presence.

    Baquedano Street has the potential to help build engagement with these other important and significant architectural remnants of Iquique’s early years as a nitrate port. Rather than being the sole heritage attraction in Iquique, Baquedano Street could spur more preservation efforts throughout the city. Though Baquedano Street may have been the main corridor on which the wealth of nitrate mining was made manifest as architecture, the influx of that wealth was made possible by the railroad station, the old industrial port (still in use as a containerized port), and the passenger quay (1901). Further, the 1907 Iquique Massacre, an event in which the army systematically killed approximately 2,000 striking mine workers and their families, is not an event that is memorialized on Baquedano Street. This was perhaps the most significant historical event to occur in Iquique in the twentieth century, and while there is mention of the event in the regional history museum, the main memorial is in a municipal cemetery largely inaccessible to visitors. As I wrote about a few months back, interpreting industrial heritage as a landscape rather than as a sequence of isolated and unrelated sites would benefit cities like Iquique, uniting all of these distinct buildings into a coherent visitor experience.

    Surprisingly, the best interpretation and memorial space dedicated to the 1907 Iquique Massacre is located at the former nitrate mining town of Humberstone, a 45-minute drive east of Iquique. While Iquique’s regional museum devotes a series of interpretive panels to the event, the massacre is without a major memorial in downtown Iquique.


    Conclusion: A Question of Relevance

    The success of Chiloé’s heritage route approach seems to be as much about interpretation and marketing as it does about the architecture itself. I would wager that only a niche set of visitors are passionate about Jesuit-Mapuche wooden ecclesiastical architecture before going to Chiloé, but the topic is presented in an approachable and welcoming way at the main interpretive center, and mainstream tourism sites such as Lonely Planet have seized on the ready Instagramability of the 16 churches. The churches serve as an entry point into the expanded built landscape of Chiloé. Chiloé’s core strategy of using existing momentum and enthusiasm to create a positive feedback loop around heritage tourism seems promising in both Valparaíso and Iquique as well.

    Valparaíso’s current attraction for most tourists is the street art that fills its streets and adds vibrancy to its patrimonial zone. How could interpretation of contemporary street art more directly engage with the city’s industrial past? Numerous artists operating in the city engage with historical themes in their art—this might be leveraged to raise awareness of ongoing preservation struggles throughout the patrimonial zone. In Iquique, Baquedano Street should capitalize on its remaining architectural integrity to become the hub, rather than the exclusive focus, of architectural preservation and interpretation.

    On my last night in Iquique, I had dinner at El Wagon, a restaurant several blocks off Baquedano devoted to resurrecting and preserving the historical working class foodways of Chile’s Tarapaca Region. The walls were decorated with old photos of pampino workers from the salitreras, old kerosene lanterns, and posters advertising Chilean nitrate in a variety of languages. I tried the sopa de pan y cebolla (bread and onion soup), a dish that was historically prepared by pampina women during the mining strikes—this was food for lean times designed to stretch all available ingredients. The complete sensory experience of consuming this historic dish surrounded by the material culture of the nitrate era was far and away the most effective and meaningful heritage experience I had while in Iquique.

    This experience drove home to me that more than clever marketing is needed for these historic port architecture efforts to succeed. Part of the other reason that Chiloé’s Ruta de las Iglesias works so well is that it illuminates the relevance of history to the present. These churches are not just idiosyncratic architectural artifacts, but places where present-day community is formed and enacted through the living practice of the Catholic faith. That tangible connection between past and present, similar to what I experienced through food at El Wagon, is what makes this heritage route so poignant and effective as a visitor experience. At the end of the day, ports aren’t interesting solely because of what they were a century ago, but what they still are today—fragile ecosystems contingent on the whims of global capitalism. When Chile’s copper reserve runs out in a few decades or becomes economically inefficient to mine (as some experts predict), what will happen to its ports? What if a new globalized system of shipping eventually supplants today’s shipping containers? With these questions in mind, heritage interpretation becomes not just a way to mediate the past, but to meditate on the future.

    1. For more, see David Langdon, “AD Classics: Yokohama International Passenger Terminal / Foreign Office Architects (FOA) AD Classics: Yokohama International Passenger Terminal / Foreign Office Architects (FOA),” ArchDaily, October 17, 2018, ↩︎
    2. Elizabeth Q. Hutchison, Thomas M. Klubock, Nara B. Milanich, and Peter Winn, The Chile Reader: History, Culture, Politics (Durham: Duke University Press, 2015). ↩︎
    3. “Historic Quarter of the Seaport City of Valparaíso,” UNESCO/WHC, inscription 2003, accessed December 30, 2018, ↩︎
    4. Isabel Allende, My Invented Country, Kindle Edition, 2004: 91. ↩︎
    5. These devices are also called “elevators,” though out of the thirty or so original funiculars, only one of them is a true vertical elevator. The rest transverse the hillsides at a steep incline. “Elevators of Valparaíso,” World Monuments Fund, accessed December 30, 2018, ↩︎
    6. Information from Valpo Street Art Tours, ↩︎
    7. See Charles Darwin, The Voyage of the Beagle, Chapter 13: Chiloé and Chonos Islands, 290-302. Accessible at ↩︎
    8. Information panel at the Regional Museum of Ancud in Ancud, Chile. ↩︎
    9. “Chiloé Agriculture,” GIAHS (Globally Important Agricultural Heritage Systems), Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, accessed December 30, 2018, ↩︎
    10. UNESCO World Heritage Site, “Churches of Chiloé,”; accessed December 26, 2018. ↩︎
    11. Roberto Hernandez, “El Salitre (Nitrate), Historical Resume since its Discovery and Exploitation,” excerpt from the 1930 book, accessed December 30, 2018, ↩︎
    12. Consejo de Monumentos Nacionales de Chile, “Calle Baquedano,” accessed December 30, 2018, ↩︎
    13. Ibid. ↩︎
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