1980 in Parallax: Plaza de la Constitución, Post-Modernism, History and Propaganda in Pinochet’s Chile
In 1980 the first ever Venice Architecture Biennale entitled ‘The Presence of the Past’ famously announced Post-Modernism as the international mainstream of architecture. It proposed a new canon that was to be more inclusive and polyphonic, and sought to embrace a diversity of narratives, a variety of styles, contradictions and irony. Yet despite these ideals, none of the case studies and architects presented at the Biennale went beyond the European and North-American context. Looking back – once again – in order to look forward, this series of essays addressing the question ‘Whose Post-Modernism?’ reconsiders the Post-Modern canon from the critical distance of 43 years to reinvigorate the pluralism suggested by the Biennale and Charles. It invites multiple voices to collectively remap the year 1980 from various geographical and cultural perspectives beyond the West, while reflecting on its legacies today. Fourth in the series, Lidia Klein looks at the case study of the Plaza de la Constitución in Santiago de Chile and explores the entangled relationship of Post-Modern Architecture with non-Western authoritarian regimes.
Post-Modernism is one of the most elusive terms in contemporary architecture. Though we would be hard pressed to pin down a universally accepted definition, one of the most characteristic aspects of Post-Modern architecture is undoubtedly its interest in history, marking a departure from Modern architecture.1 For Post-Modernists such as Paolo Portoghesi or Charles Jencks, despite their differences, the idea of reviving the architectural past was employed to aid in designing engaging, democratic, relatable and pluralistic environments. In discussions of Post-Modernism by such critics as Fredric Jameson, the uses of history are explicitly characterised as apolitical, symptomatic of designers who exploit tropes, forms and typologies taken from architectural history solely for commercial purposes. However, we can see some other uses of history in Post-Modern architecture once we look outside of Western Europe and North America. If we turn our focus outside these well-studied locations and consider countries in which architecture was entangled in complicated relationships with authoritarian regimes, we see Post-Modern architecture using history and traditional architectural typologies in even more explicitly political, propagandistic aims. One such instance is the case of Post-Modern architecture in Chile under the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet, where we can see the uses of Post-Modern architecture to project a carefully crafted vision of a desirable version of the past.
After Pinochet replaced the socialist government of Salvador Allende as the result of the coup d’état on 11 September 1973, Chile implemented harsh neoliberal reforms. The militarisation of the government and its apparatuses was combined with a strong agenda of privatisation and deregulation such that the social and economic efforts of Pinochet’s administration were focused on reversing the pro-social policies of the previous governments of Eduardo Frei Montalva (1964–70) and Allende (1970–3). This radical shift in approach influenced Chilean architecture and urban space. Pinochet eliminated state agencies responsible for urban planning and social housing and, in 1979, adopted a law stating that ‘urban land is a resource which can be traded freely’, allowing zoning laws to be shaped by the demands of the market.2 The new administration’s regulations and policies thus undeniably had a significant effect on urban planning and the architecture produced under the dictatorship. The privatisation-oriented policies and economic reforms of the new government led to the emergence of architectural formats new (or at least not previously popular) to urban space in Chile. Just as the eras of Frei and Allende were represented by late Modern social housing and public buildings, the architecture of Pinochet’s time was defined by banks, hotels, headquarters of private (or newly privatised) companies and shopping centres. As these buildings, burgeoning in the 1970s and 80s, were mostly designed according to the newest Post-Modern trends, for many Chilean architects and architectural critics, Post-Modernism became widely interpreted as a style of Pinochet’s time.3 Even though Pinochet’s government did not formulate any direct programme or guidelines regarding architecture, it had a clear preference for a Post-Modern language. This is apparent in the results of public architectural competitions organised during Pinochet’s reign. The two most notable of these concerned sites of symbolic and political significance: the Plaza de la Constitución in Santiago de Chile (1980, organised by the municipality of Santiago) and the Congreso Nacional de Chile (1988) in Valparaíso. Further, the competitions marked the two most significant political events in the post-coup history of Chile – the establishment of the constitution and the Chilean national plebiscite, respectively – and the winning designs were based on Post-Modern forms and ideas.
The competition for the Plaza de la Constitución, the space occupying one hectare north of the entrance façade of the Neo-Classical presidential square Palacio de la Moneda in the heart of Santiago de Chile, was announced by the municipality in 1980. The vast square is one of the most symbolically charged spaces in Santiago. Owing to its prominent location, it had been used historically as a space for social and political demonstration, while on a day-to-day basis served as a car park. From 1973 onwards, Plaza de la Constitución increasingly took on new meanings. On 11 September of that year, the Palacio de la Moneda (aka La Moneda), bombed and attacked with tanks, became the main site of the coup d’état that toppled the democratically elected president Allende and instated general Augusto Pinochet in his place. After the coup, and for the following eight years, La Moneda ceased to serve as the presidential palace, and for a time the regime used its basement as a secret torture chamber for political opponents.
The timing of the 1980 competition was closely connected to the announcement of the new constitution, approved in a controversial referendum held on 11 September 1980, which introduced a model of democracia protegida (protected democracy), a neoliberal vision of democracy in which economic progress was seen as the main goal and in which political pluralism and citizens’ influence over decision-making were heavily restricted. The constitution contained temporary articles that ensured Pinochet would remain in power for at least eight more years. The competition was won by the office of Cristián Undurraga and Ana Luisa Devés, architects known for their interest in Post-Modernism. The project was based on a simple layout with a clear reference to traditional urban typologies. In the new design, the square was divided into four parts by two crossing diagonal lines constituting pedestrian paths. As a result, the Plaza de la Constitución was divided into four triangles. The inverted triangle facing the entrance to La Moneda is paved, and the remaining three are covered in grass. An additional short pedestrian path runs perpendicularly towards the façade, which emphasises the bilateral symmetry of the design. The paths are connected in the middle by a circular, paved plaza. The utterly traditional form of the Plaza de la Constitución – bringing to mind an array of historical associations, from idealised Italian Renaissance urban designs to the regularity of French Baroque formal gardens – corresponds with the Neo-Classical form of the palace. Because of the simplicity of the design, traditional typologies – path, plaza, court – are exposed and presented in a distilled, purified form. For these reasons, the square is often described as one of the most decisively Post-Modern realisations in Chile.4
The new design effectively erased the democratic character of the previous space as well as the violent history of the site. Unruly and unregulated, the pre-1973 Plaza de la Constitución had responded to citizens’ needs – from manifesting dissent and opinions on current political events to performing the mundane and ordinary function of providing parking spaces. The new design did not maintain any connection with the people, its ceremonial and official character resembling more of a Baroque cour d’honneur than a civic space. More importantly, the historicising design of Undurraga and Devés erases memory, covering up the darkest history of the space with clean, elegant forms. In this sense, the Plaza de la Constitución subverts key Post-Modern tropes of history, memory and genius loci. It erases the existing, living memory of this space and its character and replaces it with an idealised and purified vision of history. While such Post-Modernists as Portoghesi usually advocated for using historicising forms as a way to make architecture more relatable and familiar, Undurraga and Devés’s design reverses this logic. In the Plaza de la Constitución, different historical references are employed to replace real and tangible memories with forms that are abstract and distant – to detract attention from trauma. This vague and innocuous vision of history and tradition fitted into the image that Pinochet’s government intended to project. In a sense this may seem to recall the critique of the tendency of Western European and (especially) North American Post-Modernism to reduce history to easily digestible and Disneyfied visions of the past. However, in the Chilean example, such practices are done with a particular political aim in mind – not for purely commercial reasons but also as propaganda.5
Historian Steve J. Stern interprets Plaza de la Constitución in the context of the introduction of the new Chilean constitution and describes this new urban construction as a ‘part of the military regime’s institutionalization project and celebration of a new Constitution,’ which deliberately silenced the collective memory of this space.6 The significance of the new design for the Plaza de la Constitución was well captured by a representative of Human Rights Watch who in 1988 was delegated to report on the situation in Chile:
I looked down on Santiago’s famous Plaza de la Constitución, where citizens historically gathered to praise or protest the actions of their government. At first the expanse of grass in the plaza was pleasing, it was so green and neat. Then I remembered that it was Pinochet’s poorly paid minimum-work program for Chile’s large unemployed population that kept the parks so clean, indeed among the cleanest in the world. Pinochet had changed the layout of the plaza. More than two thirds of the traditional cobblestone public space was now subdivided into a series of well-kept elevated grassy sections. Citizens could walk along the guarded pathways but not congregate in the plaza – discouraging to protest.7
In the same year as the competition for Plaza de la Constitución was announced, Paolo Portoghesi curated The Presence of the Past, the first edition of the Architecture Biennale in Venice, with which Post-Modernism was affirmed as the new paradigm in Western architecture. The focal point of the exhibition was Strada Novissima, a street built from temporary materials in the Cinecittà film studios comprising 20 façades, each designed by a different architect and serving as an entryway to a display of their work. Presenting a creative collage of conventions, forms, architectural elements and ornaments drawn freely from the history of architecture in surprising and playful juxtaposing configurations, the Strada emblematized the core values and qualities associated with Post-Modernism. The theatricality, superficiality and focus on image were celebrated by Portoghesi as values that should set the direction for architecture that wants to understand its milieu as well as stay relevant and relatable to the broader public. According to Portoghesi, Strada Novissima ‘returns to the condition of the theater, of the stage’ and is ‘a machine for thought’.8 In this way it aligns with his definition of Post-Modernism as ‘an architecture of the image for a civilization of the image’.9 As Germano Celant put it in his review for Artforum, ‘“Strada Novissima” accepts the presence of illusion and the absence of the authentic and identifiable. Every imaginary edifice can make reference to every other; all things reciprocally cancel each other out to exalt the sacred “writing: of architecture. All principles of construction can be drawn from this encyclopedia of historical references.’10 Crucially, for Portoghesi, Strada Novissima and the first edition of the Biennale were affirmations of diversity and pluralism. The history of architecture was to be understood as shared, democratic heritage, which can be instrumental in fostering human connections and mutual understanding: ‘the past of the world … is the whole system of architecture with its finite but inexhaustible sum of experiences connected or connectable by a society which has refused a monocentric culture.’11 The Strada Novissima evoked ‘the presence of the past’ to provide a reminder of the importance of history, which the Modern Movement was accused of squandering, and it postulated the need for more relatable and humanistic environments based on pre-modern architectural language. Portoghesi put emphasis on the communicative potential of the Post-Modern in its use of traditional forms and typologies (or archetypes). This he saw as a remedy for the decontextualised and alienating architecture produced by Modern architecture: ‘the Postmodern in architecture can therefore be read overall as a reemergence of archetypes, or as a reintegration of architectonic conventions, and thus as a premise to the creation of an architecture of communication.’12
Analogically to Strada Novissima, Plaza de la Constitución is an exercise in architectural communication but in a fundamentally different way. It is meant to send a single uniform message rather than using history as a discourse intended as pluralistic and open to equally important interpretations. By utilising historical references, it furthers propagandistic content instead of creating a democratic environment. It doesn’t strive to make space relatable and close to everyday experiences but rather the opposite; by operating with vague, abstract images taken from architectural history it creates a fake image of the past distancing citizens from the real collective memory of that space.
Contrary to what we usually associate with Post-Modern practices based on well-known Western examples, the classical references used in Plaza de la Constitución are devoid of levity. Instead of performing erudite games subject to playful recontextualisations as was key for such projects as Strada Novissima, quotes from the Italian Renaissance and the French Baroque are used here to boost a specifically political image of grandiosity, authority, order and power. Whereas Jürgen Habermas and similar theoreticians famously criticised Post-Modern architecture for overlooking or ignoring social and political matters, with the Plaza de la Constitución, the Post-Modern style is used politically as, for the government, it is a convenient tool to distract from the terrors of Pinochet’s dictatorship. If Post-Modern architects in the West eagerly used different historical sources often placed in unexpected contexts (engaging in ‘Free-Style Classicism’, as Charles Jencks characterised the façades in the Strada Novissima),13 the untethered references to European architectural traditions used in the Plaza de la Constitución are useful in silencing an immediate past through new evocations of grandiosity. While the use of historical referentiality and traditional typologies links Plaza de la Constitución to other Post-Modern realisations, the past is present here in a very different way than envisioned by the curator of the first edition of the biennale. If for Portoghesi, quotation of historical traditions was founded upon the belief that ‘the character of a place is a patrimony to use and not to mindlessly squander’,14 in the case of the Plaza de la Constitución it was quite the opposite, producing a non-local past – a past more evocative of the Italian or French periods mentioned earlier. This also plays into a different use of image than that theorised by Portoghesi: here the image is one of grandiosity, meant to signal to the Chilean population a new era that is continuous with respectable societies of the Old World.
By its Western critics, Post-Modernism was often accused of exemplifying ‘pseudohistorical nostalgia’ and abusing ‘fabricated traditions’, as McLeod put it, but it usually did so in commercial contexts as a marketing strategy that appealed to clients and developers alike.15 In the case of the Plaza de la Constitución, these tactics were not merely a sign of general complacency with neoliberal market forces, but ways to emphatically push a particular regime and its desired image of itself. Similar examples of how Post-Modernism served propagandistic purposes by various regimes can be found globally and are of growing interest among architectural historians.16 Together, the various readings of Post-Modernism insist on a broader narrative for the history and theory of this type of architecture – one that is more attuned to the complex relationships between built environment and state and in which economic and political developments are quite different from those familiarly traced in studies of Western Post-Modernism.17
There is no comprehensive definition of Post-Modern architecture that can be applicable to every realisation considered Post-Modern. In Chilean architecture, which is the focus of this article, the interest in Post-Modernism is especially prominent in the 1970s and 80s, and is founded upon the critique of dogmas associated with Modernist architecture and urban planning. The interest in Post-Modernism in Chile is manifested in various ways and each architect interprets this notion differently. Despite differences, the common features of Chilean Post-Modernism include a renewed interest in history, image and storytelling as opposed to promoting technocratic approaches to solving spatial problems.
See National Urban Development Policy (Política Nacional de Desarrollo Urbano) announced in 1979.
For example, see views by architects Smiljan Radic and Alejandro Aravena in Carolina Miranda, ‘Rough, yet poetic: Chilean Architecture has its moment’, Los Angeles Times (17 May 2015), www.latimes.com/entertainment/arts/miranda/la-et-cam-chilean-architecture-goes-international-20150515-column.html.
Díaz, Francisco, et al., Docoposmo: Documentacion y Conversaciones Sobre el Posmoderno, independently produced and distributed leaflet (Santiago, 2008).
The official presentation of the project in CA magazine characterised Plaza de la Constitución in a completely different way – as an effort to ‘respect history, the city, and, above all, its inhabitants’. See Cristián Undurraga and Ana Luisa Devés, ‘Remodelación Plaza de la Constitución’, CA, 29 (1981), 8.
Steve J. Stern, Reckoning with Pinochet: The Memory Question in Democratic Chile, 1989–2006 (Durham: Duke University Press, 2010), 266.
Alfred Stepan, ‘The Last Days of Pinochet?’, New York Review (2 June 1988), www.nybooks.com/articles/1988/06/02/the-last-days-of-pinochet/.
Paolo Portoghesi, Postmodern: The Architecture of the Post-Industrial Society (New York: Rizzoli, 1982), 11.
Germano Celant, ‘“Strada Novissima” in “The Presence of the Past”’, Artforum, 19 (1980), 84–5.
Portoghesi, ‘The End of Prohibitionism’, in Paolo Portoghesi, Vincent Scully, Christian Norberg-Schulz, et al., Architecture, 1980: The Presence of the Past, Venice Biennale (New York: Rizzoli, 1980), 11.
Portoghesi, Postmodern, 11.
Charles Jencks, What Is Post-Modernism? (London: Academy Editions, 1986), 47.
Portoghesi, Postmodern, 8.
McLeod, Mary. “Architecture and Politics in the Reagan Era: From Postmodernism to Deconstructivism.” Assemblage 8 (1989): 22–59.
Examples of propagandistic uses of Post-Modernism can be observed in regions outside of South America as well as in Eastern Europe. In Poland, for instance, the late socialist regime saw Post-Modern architecture as a tool to appease increasing social unrest and provide a new, more open and democratic image of the government, in contrast with the homogenous late Modern housing estates associated with the oppressive socialist regime.
Portions of this essay are excerpted from my article ‘Between Propaganda and Dissent: Postmodern Architecture in Pinochet’s Chile’, Architectural Histories, 11/1[special issue ‘The Geopolitical Aesthetic of Postmodernism’, eds. Maroš Krivý and Léa-Catherine Szacka] (2023), 1–29, and my book 'Political Postmodernisms: Architecture in Chile and Poland, 1970–1990' (London: Routledge, 2023).