Aaron Betsky

Curving and cresting on dunes, rising up into bowed walls, incised with water run-off channels, building up to frame views and tunnels leading to rooms buried in a hill, the planes of Chile’s half-century old Open City are both ruins of a utopian past and building blocks for an experimental future. This beachfront collection of houses, shacks, and gathering spaces, spread among the hills, dunes, and flatlands of the country’s central coast, coheres around these open, fragmented, and worn bits of shaped outdoor space rather than monuments or even places of collective use. The city, built as a home to a community of architects, poets, and artists, is not so much open in the social or physical sense, as it is now a gated compound flanking the coast road. But it remains a collection of open spaces etched into the landscape and between human shelters that have a quality that is urban in the most elemental sense.

Visiting there this fall, I was reminded of Wolf Prix’s call for an “open architecture of the open eye, the open mind, and the open heart.” I found it here.

Aaron Betsky
Aaron Betsky
Aaron Betsky

In 1967, a group of professors teaching at the Catholic University of Valparaíso banded together to buy about 500 hundred acres of land in what was then the wild and sparsely inhabited coast half an hour north of Chile’s largest port city. There, they experimented with built form and materials, poetry and sculpture, bringing their students with them to learn and collaborate. Every Wednesday, they met to eat, talk, and make music. The land was collectively owned and there was no private property (it is now in the hands of a type of nonprofit foundation). Decisions were made through the writing of poetry (or so I am told). Several times a year, the group ventured out to a different location, whether in Chile or another country, where they made a temporary installation to serve the community there and to try out new ideas.

Today, Open City not only survives but, unlike most of the other utopian communities of that era, continues to experiment. Led by a son of one of the founders, Ivan Ivelic, it now is a more integrated part of Catholic University’s curriculum, and has even hired full-time staff to help manage its affairs, but it still concentrates on research and development of new forms. Currently, professors and students from the Ecole Cantonale d'art de Lausanne in Switzerland (ECAL) are creating bulbous, concrete-impregnated woven columns and beams at the site that more accurately reflect stress distributions than standard building elements–and happen to look beautiful.

Aaron Betsky
Aaron Betsky
Aaron Betsky

Open City’s core activity centers around the distinctly shaped outdoor rooms where the inhabitants come together. Spread throughout the property, which rises from the beach, past a flat area next to a wetlands, across dunes and then onto low hills dotted with trees, the rooms range from a vast expanse of grass used for sports to the small square carved out of a hill. The former gives you a sense of the coast’s sweep; the latter is an open-air sanctuary you reach by tunneling through a narrow slot to a place where you can only see the sky.

The earliest of these open rooms have the distinct sense of having been inspired by Ancient Greek models—the founders called them “agoras.” One is more of a stadium (which is what the Greeks called a running track) framed at the western end by a copse of trees, while another has more of the character of the original agora in Athens, a rambling outdoor spaces in which trees, statues, and differing levels and areas to meet are all framed, in this case by curving brick walls.

Aaron Betsky
Aaron Betsky

It is the bricks that largely define the character of that outdoor space. Oversized and rough, they were originally made in a nearby brickyard, which means that their quality varies. The sea air has corroded some heavily, while leaving others intact. The surfaces, which are horizontal, vertical, and everything in-between, have a mottled and at times almost ruinous character. Some of the planes curve with the earth itself or form artificial hills and spills, giving you a sense that the architecture is the result of tectonic forces such as erosion, flows, or earthquakes. Shot through with diagonal gutters that channel water during rainstorms, they point to natural landmarks such as a nearby mountain or form geometric patterns further defining the space.

Aaron Betsky
Aaron Betsky
Aaron Betsky

The best of all of these areas is the sequence of a park, a chapel, and a cemetery molded into a small canyon. As you step down a stair and past a small amphitheater, you enter an area of curved terraces whose centers are marked by trees. At the end is a flat brick courtyard whose sides are grass slopes and whose roof (recently added) consists of fabric sails mounted on posts in parallel lines. More courtyards follow, including the entrance to the buried outdoor room. Then you step through an opening in a wall and find yourself in the smallest courtyard, whose center is marked by an ancient and gnarled tree. The grave markers of many of the founders and their family dot the sides, rising up in hillocks and punctuated with sculptures.

Aaron Betsky
Aaron Betsky

Open City has become famous for its houses, which the inhabitants call “hospides,” a word meant to evoke hospitality and the fact that they are always meant to be open for visitors, discussions, performance, and experimentation. Most of these structures eschew the orthogonal. They consist of piles of curves and circles, diagonal planes flying in various directions, and structure that expresses its ability to span, cantilever, or just show of their bits and pieces with abandon. Many of them are also attempts to build with cheap materials and are constructed over time in various modes and following various different designs by groups of students and professors. That makes them into exuberant messes with little of the good manners you would expect from architecture that is meant as a teaching tool.

Aaron Betsky
Aaron Betsky

Open City is, in other words, a fragment of a city, and itself is a fragment of structures and shaped spaces that are accumulations of bits and pieces that sometimes come together, sometimes wander off into dead-ends (both physically and as designs), and, more often than you might expect, achieve a sense of complex and near-chaotic order that took my breath away.

Aaron Betsky

Today, Open City is just to the north of Concón, a fashionable beach town that is itself an extension of the Chile’s answer to Miami, Viña del Mar. Developers are circling, as is the government, which wants to build a proper highway through the property. Meanwhile, Open City is dependent for at least a third of its budget on fees paid by Catholic University, and increasingly it has to raise money to make ends meet. I can only hope that this preserve will not only endure and continue its experiments, but will remain open in every sense of that word.

Aaron Betsky is a regularly featured columnist whose views and conclusions are not necessarily those of ARCHITECT magazine nor of the American Institute of Architects.