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Architecture, Beliefs and Colour in Chiloé, Southern Chile

Part 1 Dissertation 1998
Alejandra Cadiz Aravena
University of Cambridge | UK
'Under the volcanoes, beside the snow capped mountains, among the huge lakes, the fragrant, the silent, the tangled Chilean forest ... I have come out of that landscape, that mud, that silence, to roam, to go singing through the world.' (Pablo Neruda)

The archipelago of Chiloé, begins one thousand kilometres south of the Chilean capital, Santiago. Geographical and historical isolation from the mainland have contributed to the relative paucity of accounts of Chiloé since the Spanish conquest. This remoteness has also given rise to a region with a unique culture, architecture and language. The Chilean geographer Subercaseaux observed Chiloé to be, 'a Chile apart, something especially different to anything we have seen so far'. During the past two decades interest in this region of 'otherness' has been revived by geographers, anthropologists, linguists and architects, principally from the Catholic and State Universities of Santiago.

The architectural debate surrounding Chiloé's vernacular tradition to date, has been concerned with history, region, typology, styles, materials and climate. Chilote culture, beliefs and traditions have not been entirely integrated or considered in these analyses. This study therefore, looks at Chiloé's architecture anew and within a framework that takes its inspiration from the anthropological explorations of Levi-Strauss, among others. These emphasised the inscription of society and cosmology upon the dwelling, transcending accepted notions of the dwelling as mere items of material culture. The study explores the ways in which domestic and religious architecture is perceived by the Chilotes, and how it is constructed, oriented, spatially organised, inhabited, tied to the sea and the earth, and how colour is used symbolically, both internally and externally. Within the Chilote community these wooden buildings are, therefore, idioms for social groupings, sources of symbolic power, the focus of rituals and the embodiment of beliefs.

The latter half of the study focuses upon the arrival of the Spanish to Chiloé, whom introduced a new culture, language, religion and building tradition. These caused irrevocable changes to Chilote cosmovison, but which over time, produced a symbiotic relationship between two cultures, Spanish and Huilliche, two languages, two belief systems (Catholicism and Animism) and two architectural traditions, one of stone and brick, the other of wood.

Alejandra Cadiz Aravena

In her dissertation, Alejandra Cadiz-Aravena set out to explore the vernacular architecture of Chiloé, a remote part of Chile. Her intention was to investigate the way in which the social and cosmological values of the inhabitants, the Chilote, are reflected in the architecture of their dwellings and their churches. To assemble the material for her dissertation, Alejandra had to embark on a voyage of discovery. A Chilean refugee with very limited means, who has not visited the country for a long time, her first task was to fund and organise the trip to Chile and southwards to Chiloé. Arranging the voyage, and the voyage itself, was a saga of reverses and successes requiring by turns bare-faced effrontery, measured diplomacy and extreme good fortune. She was eventually to secure funding from the Centre for Latin-American Studies in Cambridge and to win support from Professor Perez Oyarzun in the University of Santiago. Plans to sail south on board a Chilean Navy boat came to nothing and finally she made the trip south more prosaically but more revealingly by bus to spend six weeks living with the Chilote. Back in Cambridge, Alejandra faced the task of making sense of the vast amount of material that she had read in Santiago and the photographs, drawings and impressions that the trip south provided. That she was able to assemble all this material and make sense of it is due to her ability to get the best of the resources to be found in Cambridge. Drawing on friends, contacts and supervisors from the Departments and her College, King's, she has produced a dissertation which combines the skills of a number of different disciplines.

The result impresses me, it is both scholarly and adventurous and strikes a successful balance between ethnology, geography and architecture. There is a personal quality to her account, after reading it I had the same vivid sense of having been to Chiloé that 'Annie Proulx' novel The Shipping News gives the reader of the fishy, misty coast of Newfoundland.

Her dissertation brings a new order of animation and imagination to the discussion of vernacular architecture.

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