New Internationalist

Poverty And Pride

Issue 202

new internationalist
issue 202 - December 1989

Poverty and pride
In Chile the choice for architects is stark: side with the poor in the dangerous
backstreets or design for the affluent beneficiaries of military rule.
Lake Sagaris
tells the story of two who have taken the more difficult road.

A common exercise for architecture students at the University of Chile is designing an 800-square-metre home - one so large that 23 standard low-income homes would fit inside. Many of the students will eventually graduate onto the real thing.

'There are now numerous examples of these huge homes in Santiago,' says Miguel Lawner, who was Minister of Housing in the Allende Government at the time of the 1973 military coup. After imprisonment and nine years of exile, he returned to Chile in 1984. 'In a country like ours, with so much poverty, this is a scandal. It's one thing for a country to be poor; it's quite another to treat this as if it were inevitable.'

Olga Segovia and Igor Rossemann are two architects who have refused to contribute to this extraordinary inequality in housing. Private practice - all the military regime's new economic model offered - didn't satisfy either of the young architects. Igor had been active in opposition student organizations while at university and his preferred area of specialization was the problem of housing for Chile's homeless. They formed a group of five architects and began to work with the people in Silva Enriquez, a squatter settlement set up after a land invasion.

About 40 per cent of Santiago's 4.5 million people live in poblaciones (housing areas for the poor) like Silva Enriquez. The term poblador, used to describe people living in these communities, is peculiarly Chilean, combining the ideas of poverty, pride, dignity and a struggle for change. Chile's military government prides itself on the number of houses it has built during its 16-year existence. Images of military president General Augusto Pinochet cutting the ribbons of new housing areas for the poor dominated a plebiscite campaign last year.

But while the housing deficit during the two previous democratic governments averaged about 350,000, church and other authorities estimate it is now three times as high. Pobladores, the people who need homes most, know that the housing situation is worse than ever before. Their traditional solution to intolerable housing conditions are tomas or land occupations. Tomas have been a spontaneous response to housing shortages in Chile for 50 years - and participants often face brutal repression.

It was in 1983 that thousands of homeless Chileans occupied an empty field and declared it their new community. After repeated and fierce battles with police, the pobladores won. Up went improvised tents of blankets and cloth, later followed by wooden shacks. With the help of architects like Olga and Igor, as well as doctors, students and non-government organizations, the pobladores built communal showers and wash-houses. Over every roof, no matter how modest, flew the Chilean flag.

The Camp was named Silva Enriquez after the Chilean archbishop famous for his defence of human rights under the Pinochet regime. Overflow pobladores set up another camp and by the end of 1983 the two camps housed an estimated 20,000 people. But they didn't last long.

The armed forces surrounded and invaded the camps repeatedly during 1984. In one operation, all the local leaders were arrested and sent to a concentration camp in northern Chile. The Chilean military government began a process of 'eradication'- the official term for resettlement. Families were scattered throughout Chile. About 1500 of them were eradicated to Lo Ombu, a field on the far edge of Santiago. Piece by piece they brought their houses and put them back together. Lo Ombu now numbers some 40,000 souls.

The roads to Lo Ombu Camp are deep channels carved through mud. The homes are shacks, painstakingly hammered together out of old wood and scraps, the tin roofs held down by stones, illegal wires connecting households to the electrical system. After sunset, 'it's dark as the inside of a wolf's mouth', as one popular saying puts it. And it was here that the young architects came into their own. At first they rented a small shack to serve as a community centre but later funding from the World University Service of Denmark allowed them to buy a tiny farm right on the edge of the community. With help from the architects, the pobladores remodelled the small adobe house on the property as a community centre. Now it buzzes with activity: workshops during the week, musical and cultural events on weekends.

Building a community centre may seem like a strange way of confronting housing problems, but when most families cram nine or more people into houses less than 16 square metres of space, having a place to meet and talk was essential.

'We knew we couldn't resolve their housing problems,' says Olga. 'Our role wasn't to build their houses: where would we get the money and the materials? But we wanted to provide support and meet their needs for training and information.'

Busy surviving: the poor under Pinochet. At Lo Ombu the pobladores were already organized into their own co-ordinating committee (of handicraft workshops, unemployed groups, soup kitchen organizers etc) and this helped the architects' efforts considerably. Unlike other projects where professionals from 'outside' have come in to get things started, the architects faced a relatively strong independent organization with its own ideas about how to get things done.

'Suggestions come from all over: the committee members, who are elected once a year, summarize them and together we work out ways of responding.' Such discussions have produced workshops on women and violence, children and television, and a four-month-long course on the basics of good construction.

'The construction course was pretty intensive,' according to Olga. 'It was twice a week with videos, talks, workshops. It was so impressive to see them working: many hadn't finished school, but there they were with pen and notebook, writing everything down.'

The pobladores put their knowledge to work when contractors from the municipality came to build casetas sanitarias (small brick structures with running water, containing a sink and a toilet). 'It was really useful,' says Marta, one of the local women. 'When the contractors came, we could see they were doing a lousy job. We fought with them and made them rebuild several times. The facilities still aren't that good. But it was important to know what they were doing and where they were doing it badly.'

Every Thursday afternoon, some of Lo Ombu's women crowd together in the community centre. As their fingers sew woollen rainbows of protest and celebration (known as arpilleras, they speak of the problems in their homes: the overcrowding, husbands' alcoholism, beatings, children with little to do and no place to go. Slowly but surely their hands and their talk build an organization. An organization that may not be able to solve all their problems, yet can nevertheless prepare these women for the bureaucratic and political battles that can improve their lives.

When asked what they want most from the future, the people of Lo Ombu don't speak first of houses. They speak of safety: from delinquents and from political repression. They speak of jobs for the unemployed, health care, more chances for young people. They speak of their need for dignity and community.

Projects like that at Lo Ombu will not solve the housing crisis. But the architects hope they will channel the rage and frustration that homelessness produces into real communities capable of identifying their own needs and fighting for the resources necessary to meet them.

Lake Sagaris is a freelance writer. She has lived in Santiago for many years.

Building Hope
Centre of dreams
Australianarchitects have traditionally taken
little account of the special needs of
Aboriginal people. But George Fisher
reports from the equatorial zone on one
community centre that is different.

The site overlooks the Apple Channel. It is dreamlike, typical of this coastal region of north Queensland. This is remote, equatorial Mornington island, which has an Aboriginal population of 900.

When the Mornington Shire Council and the all-Aboriginal group at Gununa decided to construct a community centre, the designers faced two great challenges. The first was climatic: being squarely in the cyclone belt, the building had to be able to withstand persistent strong south-east winds, hot and humid summers, tropical downpours, waterspouts and cyclones. But the second was just as important: to incorporate genuine elements of Aboriginal design, in order that the local community would feel at home in it.

The building has been designed to withstand wind forces of up to 70 metres per second, an intensity equal to that of Cyclone Tracy which devastated Australia's northernmost city of Darwin more than a decade ago. During cyclones, local residents can shelter in the main hall which has been designed free of glass. But cyclones aren't the only problem caused by the tropical location: any wood used had to be specially treated to resist the termites which are rife in the region.

The final architectural form combines this structural soundness with a strong Aboriginailty. The spatial aesthetics of the West combine with a distinctly Aboriginal perception. Its uniquely sculptured form is transformed at night into light art, generated by rows of diamond-shaped illumination panels.

The building is a model of design undertaken in consultation with the Aboriginal community. It is now popular and much-used, serving as (to name but a few functions) cinema, dance hall, sports centre, child-minding centre and small-group meeting area. And to this day, at least, it has withstood the wind.

previous page choose a different magazine go to the contents page go to the NI home page next page


This first appeared in our award-winning magazine - to read more, subscribe from just £7

Comments on Poverty And Pride

Leave your comment