My 15-Minute City: Providencia; Santiago, Chile
I have always loved walking, even as a child. It helps me organize my thoughts and ideas, distracts me, and fills me up with the city. In Santiago, Chile, where I live, all roads lead to downtown. It is often said, with contempt, that the rich have never been downtown. That comment comes from the fact they don’t need to visit it in order to live their own lives of aloof luxury. Throughout my childhood, the 90-minute bus rides I took to get to school, downtown, university, and my grandmother’s house were a huge influence on how I came to think about cities. I actually first drew Santiago by mapping the seven Metro lines—they replicate the main avenues—even before drawing any of the city’s defining features: the Andes Mountains and the Coastal Range containing the city, the Mapocho River crossing the city from East to West, the 26 stand-alone hills, including the largest urban park in Latin America. Currently, I live in an area called Providencia, and my trips are mostly on foot, by bicycle, or by public transport—a luxury.
A country tucked in the corner of the world, Chile has always wanted to absorb everything in order to become global, but feels uncomfortable with the scale of big things. We call a square, park; and a square, a roundabout. As a result, the Costanera Center Tower, designed by Cesar Pelli and once the tallest skyscraper in the southern hemisphere, fits all kinds of metaphorical analysis of Chilean society.
Why are these soldiers patrolling a statueless square? Explaining it properly demands a whole article, but I will try to be brief: Plaza Italia (or Plaza Dignidad) has for years been the symbolic center of the country, where people perform and express national joy or anger. Today it is the ground zero of the 2019 Social Outbreak—the political protest, still in progress—so to seize the square is to seize the narrative.
Since the Social Outbreak erupted, every single Friday protesters face off against the special police forces in Plaza Italia/Dignidad. The urban furniture has turned into projectiles, and the trees have revealed their square-shaped roots after years of being boxed in.
I know you won’t believe me, but the Mapocho River actually runs through Santiago. If ever this seemed underdeveloped to a developer’s eyes, today the climate crisis makes us appreciate these natural ecosystems more than ever. Here is where I come to hide out from the city during the pandemic.
Barella Iriarte + Eskenazi’s Providencia Neighborhood Unit: the modernist’s legacy in Chile is inescapable. It happened because of the union between a long-term state-led political vision, farsighted planning, and a flourishing middle class that demanded a large-scale housing solution in the 1960s. Today it’s romanticized by architects, but questioned by those who live there.
Whether we like the aesthetic or not, the 1973 Bannen Zoning Regulation helped create higher-quality public space in Providencia’s commercial and financial center. For every 10 square feet provided for public enjoyment, a development project gains 16 feet in height—a South American version of New York City’s POPS.
I’m a cuisine nerd, not a foodie, but most of my favorite places are outside my 15-minutes-by-bike radius. However, I share with you my refuge these last months: Felix Cafeteria, designed by Santiago-based Oficina Bravo. Yes, before the cafeteria there was a laundry service.
While drinking a cup of coffee sitting outside Felix Cafeteria, one can kill time by reverse-designing this Postmodern building on the front sidewalk. Luckily, Chilean contemporary architects have largely skipped this era.
Not surprising at all that a company based in a 33-degrees-latitude city decided to set in plastic Caribbean palm trees on a rooftop. Since we picture the Caribbean as somewhere festive, surely the company’s happy hours are celebrated up there.
When people are asked about the best thing Santiago features, a common answer is “the mountains.” That means that the best thing about the city is nature, the non-built environment. However, Chile’s relationship with nature has historically been one of fear and mistrust. Fortunately, we have been losing that fear in recent years.
All photos by the author. Due to a recently ruled lockdown in Santiago, the photos were taken on different days, but are part of the same trip I used to walk.