Ephemeral Histories: Public Art, Politics, and the Struggle for the Streets in Chile

Ephemeral Histories: Public Art, Politics, and the Struggle for the Streets in Chile

by Camilo D. Trumper

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Politics under Salvador Allende was a battle fought in the streets. Everyday attempts to “ganar la calle” allowed a wide range of urban residents to voice potent political opinions. Santiaguinos marched through the streets chanting slogans, seized public squares, and plastered city walls with graffiti, posters, and murals. Urban art might only last a few hours or a day before being torn down or painted over, but such activism allowed a wide range of city dwellers to participate in the national political arena. These popular political strategies were developed under democracy, only to be reimagined under the Pinochet dictatorship. Ephemeral Histories places urban conflict at the heart of Chilean history, exploring how marches and protests, posters and murals, documentary film and street photography, became the basis of a new form of political change in Latin America in the late twentieth century.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520289901
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 07/26/2016
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 296
Product dimensions: 6.20(w) x 9.10(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Camilo D. Trumper is an Assistant Professor of American Studies and Latin American History at the University at Buffalo, SUNY.

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Ephemeral Histories

Public Art, Politics, and the Struggle for the Streets in Chile

By Camilo D. Trumper


Copyright © 2016 The Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-520-96430-3


Of Spoons and Other Political Things

The Design of Socialist Citizenship

The destruction of the Diego Portales building in downtown Santiago was spectacular but not without precedent. Flames engulfed the lower section of the two-part structure in the early afternoon hours of March 5, 2006. The squat lower edifice was gutted. Its roof collapsed. Its exposed metallic skeleton was charred. The adjacent tower was left standing, only partially damaged. The fire was only the latest of a series of transformations. Though it was made of concrete, metal, and glass, the complex was remarkably malleable. It had been fluidly reimagined and reinvented over its forty-five years.

The structure was originally erected to house the Third United Nations Congress on Trade and Development, or UNCTAD III, in April 1972. Faced with the nearly impossible task of planning and building a conference site in less than one year, Popular Unity agents turned to the Urban Development Corporation (CORMU) leaders Miguel Lawner and Jorge Wong to coordinate various state organizations, industries, and workers to complete the project on time. The project's advisory committee decided on a site along the Alameda, Santiago's main axis, that was adjacent to the "Parque Forestal, Museum of Fine Arts, National Library, Municipal Theater, and one of Santiago's main universities." This location had a number of advantages, not least of which was the fact that it was already part of the CORMU's citywide San Borja social housing project. The residential building already on site could be easily appropriated as an office tower, immediately connecting the UNCTAD project to the state's broader reinvention of the city's architectural and social topography. Making use of the ready-built tower, the team could instead focus on the construction of the lower structure. Modeled in part on the UN building in New York and developed in loose consultation between UN architects and an interdisciplinary team in Chile, the lower structure was made of "reinforced concrete and prefabricated metal building housed under a 97,000 sq. ft. metal roof supported by sixteen oversized reinforced concrete pillars." Under this roof, Daniel Talesnik writes, the building featured "a 2,300-seat plenary assembly room, several large conference rooms, as well as two dining areas seating 600 and 200 people respectively. Shops, bank branches, travel agencies, a post office, communications room, delegates' halls, and a myriad of minor services were also distributed throughout the four-story low-rise structure." Over a total of 260,000 square feet, the dyad of "low-rise and [twenty-two-story] tower — a combination utilized in existing UN organizational buildings, such as UNESCO in Paris and the UN headquarters in New York — were connected by service bridges on three levels." The structure was designed with multiple entry points, removable walls, and modifiable floor plans that enabled flexible layouts and malleable spaces. The structure was variously described as a plaza, a gallery, and a pedestrian passageway.

The multidisciplinary team that designed the building was composed of architects, designers, workers, and artists. Original artworks were commissioned and designed for the building and built directly into its structure. "The most prominent local artists and artisans were included in the design process, not only in the creation of close to forty artworks that were distributed throughout the building," Talesnik writes, but also in "the design of the lighting, furnishing, ventilation, and acoustics of the building." The sculptor Juan Egenau designed doors in aluminum and bronze that opened into the two conference rooms; Felix Maruenda painted the exposed ventilation system bright red; Guillermo Nuñez, Jose Balmes, Gracia Barrios, Luz Donoso, Pedro Millar, and José Venturelli created murals in acrylic, wood, and cloth; Bernardo Trumper devised the building's illumination system; and Gui Bonsiepe, who led the CORMU's Industrial Design team, developed a coherent set of symbols that would direct the multilingual cadre of visitors seamlessly through the structure. These projects turned foundational and practical objects — air ducts, lights and door handles, woods and fabrics — into creative works, influencing the experience visitors would have when moving through it. The architect Jose Covacevich suggests that "artists came to define certain technical and tectonic conditions of the building" by embedding their works in it and thereby achieved what he called an "integrated design." Miguel Lawner remembers the construction as "an unprecedented and unparalleled accomplishment, a model of how to integrate art and architecture." Allende proposed that the building would "become the material base of the great Institute of National Culture."

The building formed part of a larger, nascent plan to engineer a "modern" socialist city center and a modern socialist experience and interaction. It was praised at the time as "one of the most important Chilean contributions to Latin American modernism." Following the example of modernist architecture in Europe and the Americas, the construction unified public and private, street and interior into an ideal of uninterrupted and egalitarian circulation. Strolling past and through the UNCTAD became "santiaguinos' favorite pastime," a daily ritual that crossed class lines. According to Talesnik, "the building became a gathering point, a pole of urban attraction, where one could suppose that social differences could be set aside. Social equality had a theater in this building, a stage for a daily performance of an idealized country." After the conference had run its course, the building was rechristened the Gabriela Mistral Cultural Center (GAM) and served as a showroom for the national Social Housing Exposition (VIEXPO), a fledgling art center, and a gathering place for lunches in dining halls that catered expressly to patrons of all class backgrounds.

The structure's place in the urban and political imagination was radically altered from the inaugural moments of the dictatorship's almost seventeen-year reign, as part of an attempt to first "sanitize" Popular Unity's aesthetic as well as political production and then institutionalize military rule. Unable to inhabit a presidential palace in ruins and having dissolved Congress and outlawed political parties and suffrage, the junta occupied the Gabriela Mistral structure in the hours and days following the bloody coup that toppled Allende. It transformed the low-rise into the seat of the executive and the tower into the headquarters of the Ministry of Defense, the symbol of military authority in the very heart of the city. It sheathed the structure's windows in metal grates, erected fences, and posted guards at every fortified entrance, modifications that utterly transformed "the original transparent relationship with Alameda Avenue"; "the windowed façade at the plinth level was blocked with masonry),] ... isolated both visually and physically from its surroundings." The open plaza and gathering space that connected the structure and the residential Villavicencio neighborhood was shuttered. Egenau's side door was sealed. The "cafeteria was closed, and all public circulation through the building was banned, radically changing its civic character."

The junta enacted a series of more symbolic if no less subtle changes. It renamed the structure "Diego Portales" in line with a broad attempt to write a nationalist military history that included "heroes" of independence struggles and the early republic into the urban landscape. Maruenda's ventilation shafts were painted army green. Artworks were removed or destroyed, replaced with busts of the military and nationalist figures O'Higgins, Prats, and Merino. Milton Friedman, one of the ideologues of the military's experiment with economic neoliberalism, delivered a lecture titled "Chile and Its Economic Take-Off" in the building in May 1975, and Henry Kissinger, then U.S. secretary of state, remarked on the beauty of the building to Pinochet when he visited as part of the Organization of American States' general conference. Though the executive returned to the Presidential Palace in 1981, the structure endured as the control center for the Minister of Internal Affairs and the headquarters of the Ministry of Defense. Ironically, the building's monumental nature, its symbolic weight, and the flexibility and adaptability built into its design made it a perfect target for a regime intent on the reinvention and legitimation of tradition. Yet the "return to democracy" did little to change this. The building retained the role it had played during the dictatorship into the early 1990s, when it was rented out as a convention center and the press hub for the plebiscite and first elections in the first years after Augusto Pinochet's ouster. The National Council of Culture oversaw a public competition for its design and reconstruction in the wake of the 2006 fire. It was reinaugurated in 2010 as the Gabriela Mistral Cultural Center.

The 2006 blaze set in motion an impassioned public debate regarding the relationship between politics, architecture, and design that lasted well into the twenty-first century. In a series of opinion pieces published in El Mercurio's Architecture section, leading Chilean professionals maligned the UNCTAD's architectural and aesthetic value. The director of the School of Architects went as far as to lament that the once-lauded building had not in fact been completely destroyed in the fire. A former national prize-winning architect, Christian De Groote, advocated razing the building. Lawner, director of the CORMU under Allende, entered the public debate. He argued that these professionals' assault was emblematic of the neoliberal moment. Those who leveled these critiques were the architects and planners who were swayed into betraying their political and social ideals by the "multinational corporations" for whom they worked. He interpreted his contemporaries' wishes for demolition as a gesture toward erasure and silence, an attempt to demolish the "historical memory" of "the emblematic architectural works of the Allende period" and the "collective effort by workers, artisans, professionals and artists." This silence was, Lawner argued, directly parallel to what the military "had attempted with the disappearance of people." The debate was therefore a sign of the triumph of the military's long-term repressive project, in which the threat of violence simultaneously censured political freedoms, restricted access to public spaces, and shattered long-standing political and social connections between individuals.

The UNCTAD's successive transformations over time opens a window into the many ways in which public space became political in democracy and in dictatorship. This chapter investigates the UNCTAD building and its physical and symbolic place in Chile's changing urban and political landscape to address the broader themes and tensions that underwrite this debate, treating the struggle over public space as a creative act that transformed both the language and the form of political debate. It explores the connections between the public sphere, the production of space, and the rhythms of political change. It studies the ongoing and overlapping attempts to define and redefine legitimate languages of political conflict that occurred simultaneously in parallel sites and spheres and that remade politics "from above" and "from below." Grounding an analysis of the form and function of the public sphere in public spaces opens unexpected sites and sources of political debate and political history. The study of urban planning and design has untapped potential for Chilean political history. Examining the state's role in the production of space allows us to reconsider some of the basic assumptions that shape this historiography. Most significantly, it prompts us to contextualize Allende's socialist project in a longer history of political thought. It allows us to study politics "from above" and "from below" and on the Left and Right together. Finally, it suggests that we can study political citizenship as it was practiced in the everyday — in quotidian, often ephemeral, urban encounters. I focus below on chairs, spoons, buildings, walls, and streets as significant players in a complex political contest.


After decades of conflict over rights, workers, women, and campesinos successfully gained universal suffrage in the 1940s and 1950s. But the expanded electoral rights told only part of a larger story. Waves of Chileans migrated permanently to the capital in search of new industrial jobs and, as the historian Mario Garcés Durán has argued, quickly began to make demands for fair housing. They expressed their needs through the vote, courts, and, ultimately, land seizures. Grassroots urban groups were able to effect significant change in their everyday lives from the ground up. They engaged in direct action, often seizing lands and building communities and then demanding that the state support their efforts or provide basic needs, including sanitation, lighting, and housing. The Christian Democratic Party (PDC) attempted to bring these new political subjects into the fold in the early years of Eduardo Frei's presidency, but residents' challenges soon outstripped the government's offers. They ultimately forced the state to establish projects, policies, and institutional structures that amounted to a reappraisal of the relationship between state and citizen.

The PDC responded to the pressures of this emergent citizenry by intervening directly in the landscape of urban planning. The Frei regime, through the CORMU, oversaw a "vast program of urban change that promised an important transformation of Santiago's urban landscape." Though much of this program was ultimately frustrated, the state's plan reveals an attempt by the PDC to rearticulate the role of the state vis-à-vis its citizens, filtering the state's influence ever more through its ability to act on the city.

A close reading of its role in urban planning and design suggests that it would be a mistake to see "the state" as a single or unified actor in the field. Rather, multiple state agencies proposed contrasting, sometimes complementary, projects and visions of Chilean urban policy. The CORMU developed a concept of urban design that drew on and developed alternative renditions of hemispheric urban projects and sparked innovative understandings and practices of space and social relations that ran contrary to overarching ideas in urban planning and party politics. Grassroots urban groups shaped this vision to an extent: reflecting the growing role of "marginal" groups, the Frei regime proposed a vision of the city that drew heavily from hemispheric modernist projects that aimed to ameliorate the largest social discrepancies and glaring social differences marking Chilean society. State making was increasingly tethered to new strategies and policies of urban design, and Santiago was transformed into a laboratory for novel forms of urbanism.

The San Borja and San Luis housing projects illustrate the Frei government's vision of the politics of urban planning and social housing. The San Borja plan included forty-five high-density towers on eighteen hectares to house some eighteen thousand residents. It envisioned a ring of residential buildings placed throughout and integrated into the city, and that included a large swath of parks and recreational areas. Authorities saw the San Borja towers as the CORMU's "emblematic achievement" in the period — the cornerstone of a larger urban renewal project that would transform the city's urban and social landscape in its design and its breadth. The "megaproject" was nevertheless only a first step; it became the inspiration for a "more drastic, radical and unprecedented construction: the Parque San Luis."

Whereas San Borja was touted as a "re-modeling" of the urban fabric, San Luis was to achieve the creation of an entire city-within-a-city built virtually ex nihilo. It was planned as a new metropolitan hub of approximately fifty hectares and seventy thousand residents in eastern Santiago, intended to answer growing political pressures and ameliorate social inequalities by providing quality housing for workers within city bounds. In its size and scale, it paralleled the larger urban projects inspired by Le Corbusier and the modernist Congrès International d'Architecture Moderne (CIAM) and brought Santiago into a hemispheric if not global conversation.

Popular Unity urbanism was indebted to but promised a substantial shift away from this program of urban design. It radically circumscribed existing, Frei-era projects. Instead, it aimed to fundamentally restructure the urban landscape as part of its overall strategy to radically alter Chilean economics and society. Housing was not meant to simply improve social conditions but to transform social relations.

The Popular Unity's 1971 housing plan promised "the implementation of an extensive model for the construction of housing," with the explicit goal of "providing Chilean workers access to dignified living by fully integrating them into the social fabric." State agencies imagined themselves as the brokers not only of social housing, but of social housing as a means by which "the infrastructure of the social is treated as a dynamic relationship between ... the integration of poblador into a life rich in human and political capital [on the one hand] and the buildings and spaces in which this life occurs [on the other]." They also championed the need to incorporate input from workers into the design and construction of their own housing. Social housing agencies saw direct "contact with shantytown residents" as a source of deeper knowledge of their "reality and pressing needs" and as a way of eventually giving decision-making roles to workers and pobladores. Housing was, in short, a means by which to remake political citizens and the city in which they lived.

Urban planning in general, and social housing in particular, would therefore be an important tool for crafting new, equitable social, economic, and urban worlds alongside active, authoritative, and productive citizens. In turn, "temporary" camp residents "themselves worked to transform the state's housing policy" by progressively "seizing, expropriating and building on public and private lands." By 1972, Allende would affirm that "we have already taken the first steps in redistributing members of different socioeconomic classes in the city." But the strongest evidence of this model of urban planning as social and political project can be gleaned from an international competition for the renewal of the city center.

The competition was sponsored by the state and the International Union of Architects (UIA) as part of the 1972 Social Housing Exposition, or VIEXPO, which was, not coincidentally, hosted in the new UNCTAD building in downtown Santiago. Organizers saw the competition as a means of gauging the "state of contemporary urban design" and how it addressed the needs of the state's "revolutionary project." They collected eighty-seven applications from twenty-five countries. Judges looked for a few fundamental tenets or categories of evaluation that shed light on the theoretical underpinning of the period's urban design. They preferred projects that fit the city's flow of vehicular and pedestrian traffic and addressed the relationship between housing, services, and public spaces. Urban scholars have since studied the winning bids as "a fairly representative sample of some of the tendencies of urban modernization that could be applicable to contemporary Chilean reality."

The winning project explored the architecture of "alternative urban forms" that wove principles of fluidity and integration into a novel form of modern socialist urbanism. Judges favored the bid because of its integration of scale, volume, and verticality. It proposed four "superblocks," relatively self-contained neighborhood units separated by the metro along the north-south axis and by existing thoroughfares and commercial sectors along the east-west axis. The plan integrated three planes. A sunken, subterranean level encouraged automobile and metro transit, making possible an uninterrupted flow of people and goods. A passageway elevated above street level encouraged seamless pedestrian traffic. Four-story structures were interspersed among larger towers that alternated every two square blocks. These towers held medical facilities, schools, solaria, gyms, and residential areas. Each was connected directly to the metro by express elevators. This plan proposed a vision of modern life that was defined by the seamless assimilation of residence, leisure, and labor. It reimagined the core of the city center (along the city's north-south axis and between Agustinas, Almirante Barroso, Santo Domingo, and Amunategui Streets) as an integrated arena, a zone of mixed use and of social integration and exchange that would bring those people who now lived in the city's most precarious housing along its peripheries into the downtown core where the majority of services were concentrated.


Excerpted from Ephemeral Histories by Camilo D. Trumper. Copyright © 2016 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments ix

Introduction. The Politics of the Street 1

1 Of Spoons and Other Political Things: The Design of Socialist Citizenship 17

2 Streets, Citizenship, and the Politics of Gender in Allende's Chile 43

3 A Ganar La Calle: The October Strike and the Struggle for the Streets 65

4 Political Palimpsests: Posters, Murals, and the Ephemeral Practice of Urban Politics 93

5 The Politics of Place in the "Cinema of Allende" 128

Conclusion. The Image of a Coup Foretold: Violence, Visual Regimes, and Clandestine Public Spheres 162

Epilogue. Ephemeral Histories: Erasure and the Persistence of Politics 195

Notes 199

Index 261

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