99% Invisible based in San Francisco just gave me a great excuse to mention the show here as they have done a Santiago de Chile story. In general, it’s a show about architecture and design in a broad sense hosted by Roman Mars, and it’s fan-freakin-tastic. Mr. Mars used to do sound for Chicago’s Third Coast Audio Festival, another one of the podcasts I can’t miss. Do yourself a favor and give them both a go-round. You can listen or subscribe at their sites. Wonderful stuff.
The newest 99% Invisible story is called The Zanzibar and Other Building Poems, which discusses the building boom that kicked off in the mid-nineties after the return to democracy in Chile and the high rises it inspired. Big cities grow up, and Santiago is no exception, being such a highly centralized country. The main figure of the episode, Sr. Rojas, discusses how he was hired to give names to these buildings and write poems about them before they were even built so that potential buyers could be inspired, take the brochure and poem to the bank and get a loan. If enough units were sold, the building would go up. He talks about how he invented things, or tweaked a detail or so to make a developer happy so they could sell buildings. How to make them happy? Elicit upward mobility; make people feel they are keeping up with Señor and Senõra Jones. They make note of the fact that Chile loves its poets, and they’ve got two Nobel prize-winners to boot: Gabriela Mistral and Pablo Neruda. I find that status and a love of poets is an interesting juxtaposition. I suspect that for some, the “love” of poetry is more about the status the fame affords.
And what of these buildings now? After the 2010 earthquake a lot of freaked out folks started ditching their high-rise digs and clamored for any available house. I was on the fourth floor when that baby hit. I can’t even fathom what it would of been like on the 14th. It seems now people have gotten past that initial fear, and buildings just keep going up. Some neighborhoods like Ñuñoa have ordinances against high rises except for a few of the main thoroughfares. Standing on my friend’s high-rise balcony at the edge of the neighborhood makes for an incredibly accessible view. The city is surrounded by the cordillera (mountains), with big hills to the north and city lights that seem to never end. The city is slowly creeping up the sides of the mountains.
The problem with the highrises? The big picture problem is that a lot of people really don’t like living in cities, but they have to work here because of the availability of jobs. I don’t know how to ease excessive centralization, but I wish somebody would take a stab at it. The smaller perspective is that they feature tiny apartments that are exact replicas of all the rest with absolutely no soul. They make me feel depressed inside of them, like we should all be little robots stacked atop one another in a dystopian science fiction movie. I much prefer the old architecture of this giant city. Houses, walk-ups and older apartments have a charm, a history and character that the new places will never understand. It is quite a curious mix. But as newness here is coveted, older vintage buildings with fixtures so ancient they don’t have modern replacements aren’t as sought after. It’s a class thing. Santiaguinos themselves will tell you they are not a racist people, and I believe they are right about that. They will say ‘we are classist.” I nod my head in agreement a second time.