The Valparaiso School and the Construct(ion) of Regional Identity

[Originally published in Hispanic Studies vol. 23]

The School of Architecture at the Catholic University of Valparaiso is an important experiment in architectural pedagogy that speculates with the possibility of a distinctly Latin American architecture founded upon values of artisanship and mytho-poetics. The utopian Open City in Viña del Mar, built by students and faculty of the Valparaiso School, is a physical manifestation of these values. Taken in the context of the currently prevailing model of western architecture, the Valparaiso School and the Open City represent, respectively, an implicit critique of—and an explicit alternative to—the industrialized and standardized building practices that dominate much of the built environment today.

With their emphasis on a poetics of place, the activities of the Valparaiso School can be vaguely described as ‘regionalist’ in their disposition. Since the late eighteenth-century rise of modern techno-science, regionalism has represented a de facto ‘architectural resistance movement’ to the technical and positivistic imperatives of a hegemonic, universalizing western civilization. Alan Colquhoun describes regionalism as an “approach [according to which] architecture should be firmly based on specific regional practices based on climate, geography, local materials, and local cultural traditions” (13). Alexander Tzonis and Liane Lefaivre write: “Regionalism has dominated architecture in almost all countries at some time during the past two centuries and a half. By way of a general definition we can say that it upholds the individual and local architectonic features against more universal and abstract ones” (apud Frampton 20-21).

Regionalism is thus an architectural theory that espouses the application of (anonymous) vernacular principles toward the (authored) work of architecture. The word ‘vernacular’ refers, of course, not only to a local style of building, but also to a local language or dialect. It is precisely language that distinguishes architecture from building, as Miriam Gusevich writes, referring to Adolf Loos’s famous aphorism that an architect is a builder who has learned Latin:
The term ‘architecture’ is of Greek and Latin provenance; ‘building’ on the other hand, has Anglo-Saxon roots. In common parlance, both have the same referent (structure, construction, edifice); they are synonyms. Nevertheless, they have different connotations: architecture meaning something superior to building (8).

The ‘poetic regionalism’ —a wordplay on the term ‘critical regionalism,’ coined by Tzonis and Lefaivre and elaborated by Kenneth Frampton (for a critique of critical regionalism, see Fredric Jameson)— of the Valparaiso School, however, complicates this language-based architecture-building opposition: it is a school of ‘builder-architects’ who write poetry and who, in addition, undertake travesías, or poetic voyages across the South American continent. These activities of travel, writing and construction are, in the field of architecture, often academic or techno-scientific by nature. At the Valparaiso School, however, they are mainly poetic.

Architectural travel originates in the eighteenth-century Classical Grand Tour of the ruins of ancient Greece and Rome, where it is mainly an activity comprising historical research and aesthetic contemplation. But the Valparaiso School’s travesías mark a significant departure from this tradition in that ‘travel’ here becomes, effectively, a form of artistic ‘performance work’ (interestingly, the French word for ‘work’, travail, is the etymological origin of the English word ‘travel’). Not unlike Mexico-based conceptual artist Francis Alÿs, who, in one particular performance work, traveled “from Tijuana to San Diego without crossing the border between Mexico and the United States by flying via Santiago, Shanghai etc. to Vladivostok and Vancouver before arriving in California” (Ferguson 54), the Valparaiso School’s travesías are not necessarily means-to-ends but also very much poetic ends in themselves.

Secondly, the written text has a tradition in architecture usually as background research, construction specification document, design explanation, architectural theorization or manifesto. In most cases, these are (con)textual complements to a priori architectural graphic representations or actual buildings. While theoretical texts or manifestos have, at times, been written in a poetic style, the writing of actual poetry is rare in architectural practice —a notable exception is Le Corbusier’s “Poeme de l’angle droit” (1955). Just like its travesías, the Valparaiso School’s poetry is artistically autonomous and not intended as a caption or explanation for a privileged architectural image.

Finally, the ‘hands-on’ involvement of architects in the actual, physical construction of buildings is also quite exceptional. The architect usually oversees a building project: ‘designer-builder’ architects do exist, but they are considered marginal or underground among mainstream architects, who largely perceive this activity as a threat to the profession’s elite social status. The Open City in Viña del Mar attests to the priority that the Valparaiso School places on the hand-made, on the artisanal, on a degree of ‘authenticity’.

Here, it is important to appreciate that as the bureaucratic and technical processes of building have become more complex in this century, and as new professionals such as construction managers and highly specialized technical consultants have become integral components of these processes, the division of labor between designer and builder has widened significantly. With architects increasingly playing more of a mediating or coordinating role between all the parties involved in a complex building project, the art of architecture and the very notion of authorship this entails becomes increasingly anachronistic. But architecture can never be a ‘pure’ art, one that is free of contingency, since it is differentiated from art, at least traditionally, according to the criterion of functionality: architecture is always functional to some degree; while art is precisely non-functional. Furthermore, artists usually initiate and carry out a work themselves, while professional architects work mostly on commission and provide a set of blueprints, or instructions, for builders to carry out the actual construction. But architecture is not purely engineering either. In engineering, the design solution to a problem must always be the optimal one in terms of efficiency. Architectural design is not only a question of quantitative problem-solving, but also, if not more so, a question of giving meaningful expression —indeed identity— to built form, for which there is never a single, optimum ‘solution.’ It is interesting to note, however, that architects and artists have begun to reverse these traditional roles and definitions. Many contemporary artists are today creating environments, furniture and other objects that aspire to functional use, while at the same time contemporary architects are increasingly exploring the poetics of architecture through more autonomous practices such as installation art, artist’s books, sculpture, drawing and painting, objects that have traditionally resided in the art world. While artists are increasingly involving industrial collaboration in their work, a new generation of architects is making things by hand, eschewing industry. It is precisely in this expressive realm that the Valparaiso School researches the poetics of architecture.

It is with the poetics of architecture that the Valparaiso School is mainly concerned. Here, the notion of the architect as an overseeing professional is eschewed in favor of the architect as an artisan, as a maker of things. Indeed, students participate collectively and hands-on in the very construction of the Open City, thus actually bringing designs beyond the level of representation in the form of reduced-scale drawings and models, and to fruition in the form of actual buildings. The role of the architect as a technician, a planner or ‘engineer’ who designs in order to foresee all potential problems in advance, is cast aside, along with the reliance on Cartesian geometry that a division of labor between designer and builder entails. This allows for more organic forms, as form is liberated from the imperative to be efficiently translated, via conventions based in geometry, from drawing to building. Form, at the Open City, is also not principally dictated by function, another external imperative, but by the poetic intent of the artisans. Finally, buildings at the Open City bear no individual stamp, but are the result of collective decision-making, thus rebuking the hero-myth of the architect as a lone genius.

The Open City shares, in this regard, some affinity with counterculture settlements built in the 1960s and 70s in many pockets along the North American West Coast. An example of this is Hornby Island on the west coast of Canada, where a ‘back-to-the-land’ design-build culture emerged whose trademark is a highly expressionistic and rustic architecture built largely out of locally scavenged materials. As in the Open City, Hornby Island’s designer-builders cite the natural land and its mystical and poetic dimension as the source of inspiration for their work. Hornby Island’s structures are also built without first planning and drawing every detail, thereby inviting improvisation to the design-build process. Bo Helliwell and Michael McNamara, two Hornby Island designer-builders, write that “…bureaucratic controls, conventional space standards, manufactured building materials, service grids, mortgages —all of these would quash the spontaneity and delight of these self-build fantasies. None of these homes was the product of a drawing board, but rather a response between a place and its people.” (454-455)

Like those of The Open City, Hornby Island’s buildings were constructed in adaptation to their physical and social sites rather than the sites adapted, through the use of earth-moving equipment, to any pre-determined building plan. As in the Open City, many of Hornby Island’s buildings have been freely altered and modified over many years, while others have been left entirely to the mercy of natural forces: “These houses, with their natural materials and often amorphous forms, show a conscious effort to blend into the landscape —in some cases, they actually disappeared. An attitude toward landscape and building is revealed —an attitude of respect…This could be contrasted to another attitude: progress, development, wholesale land clearing and servicing —white houses on the hill.” (Ibid. 453)

But whereas Hornby Island represents a self-consciously marginal and countercultural withdrawal from the rest of its continent, the Valparaiso School differs in this regard, appropriating instead the entire South American continent as a site for poetic-architectural action. This is apparent in the very word ‘Amereida’, the title of the poem by Valparaiso School co-founder Godofredo Iommi, which is an amalgamation of the words “América” and “Eneida” (Aeneid). By making reference to Virgil’s poem recounting the myth of the founding of Rome, Amereida presents itself as no less than a founding myth for a new South American destiny. Iommi’s poem effectively represents, for the Valparaiso School, a mission statement or a manifesto, a call for poetic action that is regularly invoked in the writings, travesías and constructions carried out by the School.

Describing South America’s interior as an “abyss,” an “internal sea” that represents “the unknown,” Amereida suggests that the South American continent is open to re-conceptualization and re-discovery, but this time by Americans themselves. For Iommi, America is an alien construct that can only be authentically re-constructed ‘at home.’ He suggests that myth, if not history, can be reinvented, and that a new beginning, assuming a new identity, is legitimate. But this re-construction, however regionally focused, must embrace the world because “no aboriginals ever lived in America —they lived in the world, the universe.” Thus Amereida represents, in fact, a global outlook with a regional perspective. The Valparaiso School has published and mounted exhibitions internationally. Bruno Barla’s contribution contains a full bibliography.

Such a global outlook, from the particular viewpoint of postcolonial South America, is precisely what the French architect Le Corbusier urged in a series of lectures given in 1929 in Buenos Aires and Rio de Janeiro, lectures during which giant sketches were drawn before the audience in a manner that bears striking resemblance to Bruno Barla’s lectures at the Open City. In these lectures, Le Corbusier addresses South American identity and its place in the world with characteristically modernist urgency: “You in South America are in a country both old and young; you are young nations and your race is old. Your destiny is to act now” (245). Furthermore, Le Corbusier also invokes Virgil while explaining a scheme to replicate his famous Villa Savoie near Paris in Argentina:
“This same house, I should set it down in a corner of the beautiful Argentine countryside; we shall have twenty [of the same] houses rising from the high grass… The inhabitants, who came here because this countryside with its rural life was beautiful, will contemplate it, maintained intact, from their hanging gardens, or through the four sides of their long windows. Their home life will be set in a Virgilian dream.” (139)

The globalism Le Corbusier invokes, then, is that of industrial standardization and mass-production, an attitude that the Valparaiso School clearly rejects. Ann Pendleton Jullian, in her book on the Open City, points out that “It is significant that the founders of the institute [the Valparaiso School] were influenced by the words of Le Corbusier, removing from the entire body of work its plastic qualities, which are clearly influenced by the ‘modern’ promises of technology; extracting his attitude toward the making of architecture, toward creativity, and these in relation to poetry and the poetic, from his forms and materiality.” (50)

The Valparaiso School’s importation of some ideas while rejecting others from the same models —even models as dogmatic and totalizing as Le Corbusier’s— and its sampling and synthesizing from different traditions betrays an embrace of ‘hybridity’ and free experimentation. This attitude is especially evident in two of the contributions that follow: Godofreddo Iommi’s ‘Amereida’ as an American Aeneid, and Bruno Barla’s incorporation of an ‘American sense of vastness’ in his drawings of Palladio’s architecture in Italy. Both Barla’s montage of text and image and Roberto Godoy’s discussion of the ‘tangible’ and the ‘intangible’ phenomena of a ‘cause-place’ outline poetic methods for transforming observation and poetic reflection into architectural action. Observation and making are, in this regard, seen as reciprocal—if not ambiguous—activities. The ephemeral ‘works of architectural openness’ that are built during the Valparaiso School’s travesías are themselves ambiguous in that they serve both as devices for perceiving the land in a certain way as well as interventions that transform the land itself into architecture, into landscape. The relation of The Open City to its landscape is illustrated and discussed further by my colleague Herb Enns, whose text and photographs of The Open City serve, in conjunction with this introduction, to frame the contributions of Iommi, Barla and Godoy.

The Valparaiso School proves, in the final analysis, that poiesis has a rightful place in architecture, and a poetic architecture a rightful place in shaping the identity of a region. Appropriately, it does not argue this proposition logically, as I am attempting to do here, but poetically and passionately. Ultimately, the activities of The Valparaiso School convey a passionate love for the craft of making, whether it is that of a poem or of a city. “If the language analogy has something to offer to architectural theory, it would seem to be the discourse of poetry to which we should look, rather than to the discourse of science with its true or false assertions; to rhetoric rather than to logic.” (Harries 89)

WORKS CITED

Colquhoun, Alan. “The Concept of Regionalism.” In Postcolonial Space(s). Ed. Nalbantoglu, Gülsüm Baydar and Wong Chong Thai. New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 1997. 13-23

Ferguson, Bruce W. “Restless Productions.” In Walks/Paseos. Mexico: Museo de Arte Moderno, 1997. 53-61

Frampton, Kenneth. “Towards a Critical Regionalism: Six Points for an Architecture of Resistance.” In Hal Foster, Ed. The Anti-Aesthetic. Seattle: Bay Press, 1983. 16-30

Gusevich, Miriam. “The Architecture of Criticism.” In Drawing Building Text. Ed. Andrea Kahn. New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 1991. 8-24

Harries, Karsten. The Ethical Function of Architecture. Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press, 1998.

Helliwell, Boh and Michael McNamara. “The Hand-Built Houses of Hornby Island.” In Architectural Design Profiles 14 . 48 (1978): 450-455.

Jameson, Fredric. “The Constraints of Postmodernism.” In The Seeds of Time. New York: Columbia University Press, 1994. 129-205

Le Corbusier. Precisions on the Present State of Architecture and City Planning. Trans. Edith Schreiber Aujame. Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press, 1991. French original: Précisions sur l’état présent de l’architecture et de l’urbanisme. Paris: Crès et Cie., 1930. Reprint: Paris: Éditions Vincent Fréal et Cie., 1960.

Pendleton Jullian, Ann M. The Road That Is Not a Road and the Open City, Ritoque, Chile. Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press, 1996.

About Rafael Gomez-Moriana

I am an architect, writer and educator. rafagomo.com chronicles my architectural making, writing, teaching and curating activity, while criticalista.com is an archive of my writings as well as a platform for venting personal rants and observations. I studied architecture at the University of Waterloo (Canada) and at the Berlage Institute (the Netherlands). I direct the University of Calgary’s architecture term-abroad program in Barcelona and teach at CIEE, and have previously taught in the Metropolis Masters Program in Architecture and Urban Culture as well as at Carleton University and the University of Manitoba.

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