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An angular white concrete building that looks like an iceberg perched on a hillside.
In the documentary Poetics of Living, filmmakers Damien Faure and Caroline Alder visit Ciudad Abierta, an experimental community in Chile. The architecture of Ciudad Abierta was improvisational and driven by poetry, like the Residence of the Errant Man, shown here.

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How radical Chilean artists used architecture to find utopia

Ciudad Abierta, or the “Open City,” was about reconnecting with the landscape through poetic design

Along the windswept dunes on a stretch of Chilean coast about 20 miles north of Valparaiso sits a few dozen curious-looking structures. They’re all sculptural, white, and look as if they had been assembled ad hoc. Some are perched on stilts, some are partially built, some have been destroyed by the elements. It’s all part of a radical experiment from the 1970s called Ciudad Abierta, or “The Open City”—a utopian meditation on the spiritual experience of humans in the landscape.

In the documentary Poetics of Living, which is screening at this year’s Architecture and Design Film Festival, filmmakers Damien Faure and Caroline Alder visit Ciudad Abierta, where an alternative, communitarian group of artists had found their escape from the frenetic pace of the modern world. There, Faure and Alder slowly unravel how the experiment continues to inspire people hungry for a more poetic, connected, and meaningful life.

“I think we are in a period of human history where everything is going too fast, without even knowing where we are going,” Alder tells Curbed. “The anthropocene is today subjecting us to a heavy test in which we are suffering the climatic and social consequences that we ourselves have caused due to this rhythm in which human beings have done and continue to do without thinking, without measuring the consequences of what they do. In this context, this film is an invitation to take the time to reflect on how we conceive architecture, how we understand a territory, how we inhabit a continent, [and] how we inhabit the world.”

In the 1960s, the Argentine poet Godofredo Iommi attempted to traverse South America on a quest to understand how different cultures and societies had inhabited the continent, searching for entirely new ways of discovering, understanding, and living in space. He eventually wrote the poem “Amereida”—a portmanteau of America and the “Aeneid,” the epic Latin poem about war and travel—to describe his journey and what he was seeking.

At the same time, modernism was sweeping through Chile, and students and professors at the Universidad Católica de Valparaíso—where Iommi taught and helped establish an architecture school—were eagerly trying to develop their own brand of design that was uniquely South American. They rejected historicism and top-down prescriptions on form. Instead, they elevated individual lived experience and subjectivity. They looked to poetry, and “Amereida” specifically.

In 1971, a group of nine artists—including poets, sculptors, philosophers, and architects—led by Iommi and architect Alberto Cruz decided to establish a city using “Amereida” as their manifesto. On 300 acres of land overlooking the Pacific, they began to construct their community, which was loosely organized around places to live, gather, discuss, and rest.

The structures included an array of homes, communal spaces, and architectural follies. The Residence of The Errant Man, for example, features a faceted, angular, white concrete facade with irregular rectangular slits. The Gallery of the Point is a small cabin-like residence that looks onto the ocean. The Residence Suspended hovers over the land and is a response to the region’s seismic activity. If there is a unifying perspective that all the buildings share, it’s that experiencing each one should lend a feeling of discovery, that this is a space you’ve never encountered before.

“I discovered another way to understand the space,” Faure tells Curbed. “I understood that all the poetic buildings of the Open City were an extension of the topography of the places. Each structure interacts with an element of the natural environment. One building can open only to the sky by completely denying the Horizon line. Another is in total adequacy with the sand dunes. Another one completely ignores the landscape to focus on human relationships. I had never seen so many architectural proposals scattered in a desert area.”

The wood frame of an unfinished building
Some of Ciudad Abierta’s structures remain unfinished, and the city is constantly changing and evolving.

The people who founded the Open City kept their experiment going through social and political turmoil in Chile. Some structures succumbed to the high winds and some were left in an unfinished state. The outside world largely left Ciudad Abierta alone. It’s now technically a foundation owned by Universidad Católica de Valparaíso.

In an article for Frieze, critic Vincenzo Latronico questioned how Ciudad Abierto’s insularity affects whatever impact it has and compares it to “nothing but seaside villas”:

This desire for isolation has had reverberations. The Ciudad’s experiments in design are as unique as they are confined to the city’s environs—hence both their idiosyncrasy and relative lack of impact outside its perimeter. The community’s reflections on architecture and education, often framed in an arcane Heideggerian language influenced by the presence of poets in the group, have for decades proved more inaccessible than thought-provoking.

In recent years, however, there’s been sustained interest in Ciudad Abierta. It still draws intellectuals who are interested in exploring a different way of living. Architecture schools are bringing students to the community to explore what it’s like to create buildings by leading with improvisation, materials, and their hands as opposed to a pre-determined concept.

The city is constantly changing. In 2017, Documenta, the international art exhibition that takes place every five years, featured an installation about Ciudad Abierta.

A white building with curved corrugated walls perched on a sand dune
Buildings in Ciudad Abierta are connected to the landscape.

Faure and Alder were both drawn to Ciudad Abierta because it has sustained its alternative perspective on life, and think it’s worth exploring how the foundations of the city could inform present-day challenges.

Faure points out that modern life and the economic system of capitalism have exploited nature. “Today we see that we have reached a dead end because the earth has finite resources,” he tells Curbed. “We must rethink our ways of living and live...The Open City may be a solution to this impasse. Today too much architecture ‘kills the ground’ while those of the Open City are connected with the land.”

Of course, the Open City can’t be replicated around the world. But the forces that shaped it can.

“The fact that a community of thinkers and practitioners propose a particular vision of a continent, of architecture and, more broadly, of the world and that at the same time they put their ideas into practice is something very instructive,” she says.

Visit adfilmfest.com for more information about the Architecture & Design Film Festival, which takes place in New York City, Los Angeles, Washington D.C., New Orleans, Toronto, and Vancouver.

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