Sunday, 3 April 2011

G A M / part 1

Buildings tell stories. And stories collect in buildings. They keep on collecting as long as the building stands. New stories arrive, sometimes shouting from the façade. And the older stories settle into corners, they never disappear.

This could be said of any building, but it was something I felt very keenly a couple of months ago, when I visited the newly inaugaurated Centro Culturel Gabriela Mistral (GAM) in Santiago de Chile. In Santiago in 2007, we had walked past the hulking mass of the Edificio Diego Portales on the Alameda, a long boulevard that cuts through the length of the city. The vast building, that seemed to stretch across about three blocks, had been partly gutted by fire in 2006. The worst of the charred ruined mess had been cleared, but the empty bulk that remained had the appearance of a cut-away axonometric drawing, whereby part of the façade and walls are removed so one can peer in. The volume of a huge amphitheatre was discernible.  The ruined building was at once forlorn and overbearing.

I quickly learned that the Edificio Diego Portales signified a great deal to the Chilien people. Aeriel bombardment during the coup d'etat on September 11 1973 had partially destroyed La Moneda, the original seat of the government, so as they seized power the military Junta moved into the Edificio (which in fact consisted of two buildings - a long horizontal block on the boulevard, and a tower behind). The tower became home to the Minsitry of Defence, and the lower building became the seat of what one Chilien friend referred to as a 'fake congress'. The unelected administration did not govern democratically, but recreated the physical structures of a democratic government - debating chambers and assemblies, an illusion to lull the population. Pinochet gave many of his most famous speeches in the amphitheatre that was now partially visible from the street. But the people weren’t fooled, the two buildings came to represent the military dictatorship and all its ills to many Chiliens.

This 'fake congress' was also the place where the votes were publicly counted when the regime held referendums. In the 1980 referendum (following the UN's public criticism of the dictatorship) Pinochet won an eight year term. But in 1988's historic referendum, 55% of the population voted to end Pinochet's rule, and the slow transfer to democracy began. In 1989 Patricio Aylwin was elected as president, taking office in 1990. The votes were counted in the amphitheatre of the Edificio Diego Portales. The building that represented the brutality of the regime also began to be associated with its slow undoing.

The architecture of the building seemed to me perfectly suited to a military dictatorship. A closed dark shape, cutting through the fabric of the old city and disconnecting neighbourhoods, its vast concrete and steel superstructure expressing pure brute force. But its history has another layer that I was quite surprised to discover. The building was originally built by Salvador Allende's government, completed in 1972, one year before the coup d'etat. It was built at breakneck speed (in 275 days), by an army of volunteers, in order to be completed in time to host the third United Nations Conference on Trade and Development. Allende then established the building as the seat of the Ministry of Education, and also the Centro Culturel Gabriela Mistral (the Chilien poet Gabriela Mistral received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1945). The social role of the building was fundamental to Allende : 'We want this building to be devoted to... Chilien women and children, and we want this place to be the base of the National Institution of Culture. We don't want culture to be ... elite, but accessible to all, to the agricultural workers, factory workers.' But this egalitarian vision turned out to be fleeting - a little more than a year later Allende's government was ousted by the Junta. The Centro Cultural Metropolitano Gabriela Mistral was renamed Edificio Diego Portales, after the 19th century businessman and politician. The feminist poet ousted by a conservative statesman.

As the dictatorship was gradually dismantled during the 1990s and democracy established, the role of the building changed. The new government built a new Congress in Valparaiso, and the Edificio Diego Portales was used for conferences and conventions. The Ministry of Defence remained in the tower.

Back in 2007, when I first encountered the building, big questions were being asked about its future. The fire damage was so extensive that major building works were unavoidable. The way was laid for a radical transformation and the blackened remains contained a potent glimmer of what might be. Pinochet had died a few months after the fire. The dictator was dead and the palace he had appropriated for himself was ready to be reclaimed and have its original spirit restored.

The newly elected cente left president, Michele Bachelet, launched a competition asking for propositions to transform the ruins into a national cultural centre, and in December 2007, the architect Cristian Fernandez was announced as the winner. I will talk about his transformation of the building in G A M / part 2.

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