Reflections from the other, South, America

I had every intention to start this blog upon moving down to Buenos Aires for the semester. I should have written about a month’s worth of posts until now and probably would have felt rather accomplished. Instead, I ended up leaving the States two weeks late due to some personal issues and at that point resolved to get writing as soon as possible. But as I was coming into some pre-semester Spanish lessons late, getting to know the bus lines, figuring out how to change money at the beneficial black-market rate, etc., etc.,  I hit the ground running in that direction and haven’t really stopped for a few steps, a derive if you will, in the direction of writing.

The semester started Monday the 26, and I wanted to start then, didn’t happen. I turned 27 last Friday and resolved to write then, but didn’t finish my thoughts and didn’t post, so held off. (birthday recap to come).

Yeah, yeah, cut the excuses. “Remember: A writer writes, always.” (Throw Momma from the Train).

Even this post is now a bit late, so here we go. Photos and more to come.


By now I’m not even in Buenos Aires anymore, but a small town in central Chile (really about a third of the country from the northern-most tip) in a log cabin hostel with both wireless internet and a wood-stove heater. The city (town?) of Talca is modern enough for us to navigate, but neglected enough for us to notice its shortcomings. We flew into Santiago yesterday then took a 3 hr train ride South to Talca. Our professor is part of a conference this week and the students at Universidad de Talca are in the midst of a three-week long project. As such, we had the opportunity to visit Chile and meet other young architects-to-be.

Getting off the train, we were met with the smell of actual log-fires. Like the kind that US Americans used to burn in their fireplaces before the ubiquitous gas “log-like-concrete-castings-that-prevent-your-home-from-smelling-anything-but-neutral” fireplaces became popular. I imagine that many places in the US still burn wood, but in the places that I have lived: CA (bay area, LA) and AZ (Phx), fireplaces are mainly for decoration and the occasional flip-of-the-switch entertainment décor.

I grew up with real fires (though not extremely necessary) both inside the home and out. We always burned real logs, not to necessarily keep warm, but for the experience of enjoying a fire. At home in Pasadena, we burn logs in a fire pit made from a 55-gallon oil drum we found on craigslist. But this has caused neighbors to call the police and complain about the smell. Of course California (and LA in particular) enjoys a whole degree of privilege beyond US privilege, so I guess my experience is a bit skewed by that, but the realization was instant: I smelled fire in the air and knew that people were trying to keep warm.

The train station was a concrete platform that we crossed and met our contact person Felipe, a student at Talca. After they slid the metal gates closed we were just in some run down parking lot with two large doors and the ruins of an old train station beyond. You would never guess that this was where you would catch a train. Felipe didn’t speak much English. I told him my name was Var and he thought I said Bart, “like Bart Simpson.” Or maybe he was thinking of a person he knows named Var Simpson. That was good enough. We cabbed it to our hostel, driving past what people in the US would consider “ghetto” or “slums” but really it was just some improvised fences (plywood, awning material) and lots of graffiti. I was a bit concerned that the good price of our hostel landed us in a neglected part of town. Only halfway correct on that one.

Our group of 5 is split between two cabin-like structures fit with exposed pine rafters and panels. The heater is a stove in the corner that burns logs kept in a pile outside. Logs are (presumably) cut locally as we drove past more than a couple wood mills today and past more homes with felled trees on their property. Local industry, what a concept. As in things don’t have to get shipped halfway across the globe for us to enjoy them. Dropped our stuff off and went to get some food. Walking a few blocks past broken down buildings and tons of graffiti, the streets started to get a bit lighter and we found a central square that had fountains, trees and proper streetlamps. The town got abandoned after the earthquake in 2010, and the city still hasn’t fully recovered.

Design reflection: There were improvised fences and walls around properties covered in graffiti. I wonder whether the neighborhood was actually as bad as it looked. Does the presence of said walls around property invite graffiti? Or is it a necessary protection? I am not sure, but I imagine that after the homes were abandoned, left ruined by the earthquake, they would get looted or perhaps would become home to squatters. Owners (or neighbors? Neighborhood watch?) wanted to prevent this and put up walls which became invitations to graffiti. Now you might be considered foolish to take your walls down for fear of who is on the streets. Classic chicken and egg story. But I also noticed this while living near USC, south of downtown LA. Nearly every home has iron bars over their windows in certain areas. Go a few blocks north (depending where you are), and the bars start to disappear. Do criminals gravitate to certain streets? Of course if you are the only house without visible security bars, you will be the one targeted by a thief. Which then makes the neighborhood look less desirable because of all the bars and then people don’t want to live there (unless they are students and have to, but that is an entirely different rant). End reflection.

A few more blocks and we made it to some restaurant that had a Chilean specialty: The Completo. Basically a hotdog with tomatoes, some sort of Avocado sauce and mayo. The bread was actually very good and the experience wasn’t bad, but it was literally a hotdog. A glass of peach nectar was a good complement.

We then went to grab some beers at a local drinking establishment and pitted our sorry Spanish against Felipe’s broken English. He won. It constantly amazes me at how we get away with travelling without knowing the host country’s language. I’m not pointing fingers, because speaking Armenian and studying Latin in High School do me no good here. But even when we try to speak Spanish, people who speak English do so and we can get by fairly well. They still give a bit of a sigh and acknowledge that our expectation is that we expect them to know English. Even ASU seems to think that giving us a three-week “basics” course should get us by fine. It is a bare-minimum approach to things and is in line with the way ASU treats its students so I guess I shouldn’t be surprised. But they should have required us to take a semester (at least) over the summer. Not so we can get by, because we are doing fine, but so that as ambassadors of the school (and country) we at least seem like we care about their language. Obviously my fault as well for not doing it on my own, but there is something to be said for “damage control.”

U Talca students are nice but speak less English than people in Buenos Aires. Being design students, their subject matter is immediately intelligible and in the context of images and drawings, I can make sense of the words and descriptions. Students are broken into a number of groups (10-15 per) and are addressing a number of sites along a river that flows from the Andes, through Talca, and to the Ocean. Along this river are small communities that have small, local economies. Mostly agriculture, pertaining to grapes for wine or flour for export to US. As the economy has changed, these communities shifted or dried up. The only thing keeping them around is a series of train stops along the track that runs parallel to the river.

So students are challenged to come up with a number of interventions near train stops along the way. The interventions are built responses that change the way people interact with the site, but that address both the train stops and the river. All designs must incorporate concrete. Minimalist in approach, the designs ranged anywhere from natural reflecting pools to modular benches to cantilevered platforms to half-moon fishing seats (think Dreamworks). Students presented ideas to the whole class which led to discussions. The professor’s role was not to critique but aid in the charette process and connect a few dots where he saw fit. In one studio, the students had decided their intervention and had already started site work. Three of our group got to visit this site while the other two took a trip up to the mountains for some manual labor (and no lunch as we found out later!).

About 20 minutes down the freeway from town, we take an exit which is basically a right turn off the freeway. Think the northern part of the 110. Add train tracks right after that right turn. There are chickens and a rooster on the tracks and we pass some houses with large lots, very rural. Everyone has dogs and chickens. And there are also stray dogs and chickens. The sky is quilted with clouds and the sun in poking through enough to make them glow. Eventually the dirt road leads to a clearing where we see some students sweeping and raking. They are uncovering the foundation of a house that was abandoned and demolished about 30 years ago. There are other houses which have met similar fates and some still have the remains of chimneys and broken bricks, but for the most part, they have been stripped down to the foundation. What is curious about this one is that the last inhabitant’s garden is intact and within the outer expanse of concrete foundation is a dirt area, probably a raised floor at some point. The perimeter of the property is marked with large rocks, trees and flowers in a rectangular shape. It is as if someone plucked the house up and left the roots of the plants so that they could grow back. The plan for this area is to plant a native-species garden within the house and keep the existing plants outside (many non-native).

Beyond these ruins lays abandoned railroad track that goes on for a while. The students are busy uncovering these tracks and will paint the entire rail red so that anyone who is here will be intrigued to follow the tracks to where they go. Between the two red rails, the tracks will be filled with crushed red brick, creating a path. We followed the tracks and discovered an abandoned rock quarry that shut down about 30 years ago or so. It is wild because the tracks lead to another clearing where there are piles of gravel and old machinery. Beyond the quarry is untouched nature. Not nature like LA or PHX, open land. But trees, mountains, streams. So the quarry and its machinery function as a sort of park to climb around, investigate and wonder. There are a few buildings in this area that have been ruined or torn apart and some of the rubble from that destruction just sitting there. I wonder what made them stop working here? And why did they leave their machinery? They could have at least parted it out or sold it for scrap. The teacher, Blanca, a lady in her 30s or 40s explains that the land is public, but held by the train companies. “They don’t know what they have.” The interventions are a way for architecture to encourage people to appreciate and reinterpret their surroundings. Although on public land the only permission requested is from an older lady whose house is directly near the tracks that will be painted. They don’t want to disrupt her, but she is excited to see something new. As far as the train company, Blanca says “The whole point of this exercise is that it is easier to ask forgiveness than permission.” The exercise is three weeks long: one week to raise money and find materials, one week to design, and one week to build. Build a temporary architectural interventions that will change the way humans interact with a place, stand back and watch people enjoy, and then if someone complains say sorry and let it sit there because the land isn’t being used anyway. Slightly less temporary than Goldsworthy, guerrilla architecture. I like it.


Talca Wrap up

The next few days went as such:

Wednesday: traveled to more student projects from years past, all over. Some interesting and sometimes provocative projects, but details to come when pictures go up. But we ended up at the beach (yes that same Pacific Ocean that as a Californian I know and love) and did a bit of climbing. Ate some Machas, which are a shellfish. It was cooked and covered with a white cheese and served on the half shell. Very good. The special fish of the day was Reineta, a very mellow white fish that was a bit firmer than most white fish. It was grilled and although I used a squeeze of lemon on part, it didn’t need it. Salad was weird: a plate of lettuce, cooked green beans, cooked cauliflower, tomatoes, two halves of avocados and corn. This was served one for each half of the table and as it was passed around the avocados and tomatoes went first. So I got some corn and green beans with lettuce. Whatever. Slept the entire ride home.

Thursday was the conference that our professor was invited to speak at. We watched him, along with two other architects, present their work and talk about it. It was in Spanish, so I had to derive some of the meaning from the slides. May have got a sketch in there during that time period J. Later I stayed behind to take care of some work while my classmates went to dinner. When I finally left I stumbled upon a festival in the town square. Complete with folk dancing and the exhibition of local crafts. Made me happy. I wanted to explore a bit more but the strange thing about Talca was I didn’t know whether I should allow myself to feel safe. People were friendly and there were people walking, but certain streets looked like a bad idea. I went down one just to see what happened and on the other end was a main street and to my right was a nice-looking hotel. Maybe it was the lighting or the lack of business presence, but there definitely are some continuity issues in the way the city reveals itself.

I ended up finding a Chinese restaurant with neon lights and tile mosaics. I just wanted to take pictures, but realized I had come so far I needed to go and eat. So I went in, greeted the hostess, read the Spanish menu and ordered what I’ve come to know as the best Chinese food west of the Andes! Really though it was more of a South American take on Chinese food, ie the wonton was more like an empanada with Chinese spices. But good. Pictures to come of the elaborate murals and diorama (sp?) installations.

Thursday: visited a group of students up in the mountains building a set of walls to interact with a bridge that leads to Argentina. The bridge is seldom used and when driving by, one misses a number of great vantage points. The walls being built are intended to direct attention away from the bridge gracefully to encourage travelers to enjoy the surroundings. We then headed back to school and got in a van to Santiago. 5 Students, 3 teachers, 1 driver. Everyone’s baggage. Lots of fun.

Coming soon: Santiago. Buenos Aires Recap. Studio Project.


One thought on “Reflections from the other, South, America

  1. A great read. Captivating stories that have me looking forward to the next adventure. Intrigued by the charette process – did it help connect dots? Your adventures seem to connect nicely already. Thanks for sharing.

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