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Take a look at these houses

What you see on the street level when strolling along the winding streets and narrow pathways up and down the hills of Valparaiso could well be ground floors of small town houses in a European town with straight stone or brick walls, framed front doorways and windows. But if you shift your eyes and look up at the next levels, you might see the first or the second floor built and lined with wood, the one on top of that with painted chipboard, and finally, resting on top of them all, you might see a little rusty shack-like construction lined with corrugated metal sheets with big windows overlooking towards the harbour, the Viñas or some other nice view.

Valparaiso hillside architecture seems to be dictated by necessity: new parts and spaces are added on when needed and wherever they fit, between, next to, on top of, and hanging from what there is already; different materials are mixed, old is fixed with almost new, which is then fixed with old again; and why worry too much about straight corners or rectangular forms as long as it stands up and holds together.

So, is it function before form?

Yes, maybe, but in Valparaiso context function must mean something else or something more than what it usually refers to in words like “functionalism”. Take the roofs, for instance: instead of covering the old leaky roof all at once with some purpose made, endurable material, little patches of this and that may be put on earlier patches to keep the rain and wind out. This seems functional and, maybe more importantly, affordable. But of course, only in the short run: patchy roofs with badly sealed seams deteriorate quicker than compact good quality roofs made to last, and eventually patching can become a more and more frequent routine. On the long run it could end up costing just as much as or more than replacing all at once every now and again, before the interior of the house is damaged even once.

Or could it? As a citizen of a geographically very securely situated Nordic country, I seem to have missed something very important here: the reality of potential earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, mudslides, avalanches, floods, and the climate strongly affected by the hot sun, and the cool ocean. Put in a word, the nature. For us Nordic people, who can expect their houses to last for generations, it may be difficult to grasp the ethos of temporality generated by natural conditions much rougher and more unpredictable than ours. In Chile the strong natural forces are well known and frequently encountered factors that must have some impact on how much and when people see fit to invest in the maintenance of their houses. Indeed, what’s the point of repairing the partially crumbled and slanted but still usable concrete staircase outdoors until it actually collapses all the way during the next bigger earthquake – or even during one of the very common smaller tremors – which would probably break the repaired staircase nevertheless? And why buy buckets of some fancy paint to repaint the walls each time they get cracked, when you can just patch them up with cement and a bit of left over, out of fashion shade obtained from friends for nothing – who’ll notice the difference anyway? Money and time saved there is money and time for something else, like relaxing and having fun…or painting graffiti.

Form becomes an interesting aspect here because, even though maintaining houses in the need-dictated, function-driven way like this doesn’t seem to be motivated by any kind of aesthetic ideas, the outcome can nevertheless be aesthetically pleasing and harmonious. Again, at least in the eyes of people like me, outsiders who need not live in those houses fighting against the wind and rain with corrugated metal panels, or for “buenas vistas” by placing yet another block on the rooftop in order to see over the newly added terrace of the house next door. Then, the conclusion would seem to be that although, by the look of it, function seems to come before form in Valparaiso architecture, form is equally achieved in the end.

Organic city

The architecture I am talking about here, is not the sort portrayed in the books about architecture and, of course, some may think that I am misusing the word “architecture”, attaching it to creations that do not look as if they had been designed by anybody, let alone an architect or any other professional in designing buildings. Instead, many of these houses seem to have grown around their owners, little by little, as families grow, needs dictate, environment, nature, time, space and economy allow. They evolve and change constantly, extend or fall apart, and are repaired or re-erected, coming out different. Their structure integrates with the shape and quality of the environment, the hillside and it’s vegetation, trees, and the scenery. And last but not least, they are invariably composed of recycled materials, nothing potentially reusable is thrown away – the Nordic (or is it just Finnish?) unsustainable way of throwing away gadgets that don’t work anymore and buying new ones, does not apply here, there are still people who know how to mend things!

To me the outcome is reminiscent of what you can read in the history of architecture books about organic medieval cities and, as far as I can see, even the criterions of the Gaia Charter for organic architecture and design as proposed by architect and planner David Pearson, are also pretty much fulfilled:

“Let the design:

▪ be inspired by nature and be sustainable, healthy, conserving, and diverse.
▪ unfold, like an organism, from the seed within.
▪ exist in the “continuous present” and “begin again and again”.
▪ follow the flows and be flexible and adaptable.
▪ satisfy social, physical, and spiritual needs.
▪ “grow out of the site” and be unique.
▪ celebrate the spirit of youth, play and surprise.
▪ express the rhythm of music and the power of dance.”

(source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Organic_architecture, 30.11.2011)