Santiago, three vantage points: I

Because we remained in Santiago longer than we had planned, we ended up staying in three different apartments. So we settled into the city as itinerant Chileños – okay, turistas—and kept a light footprint throughout the duration. For the first couple of weeks, we lived in Providencia, a mostly upper-middle-class neighborhood, largely filled with mid-rise buildings set at a distance from wide, lazy streets, in well-tended lawns edged with tropically lush-looking plants.

The design of these residential blocks was often not at all bad, prompting me to muse on temperate climates’ architectural advantages. Strong light makes a superb design tool. Even perfectly ordinary buildings looked good, with rhythmic patterns of projecting bright lines alternating with rectangles deep in shade, cast from generous balconies.

Tucked into a triangular slip of land, our first Providencia residencia was at its edge, in a compact, low-rise enclave set between three icons of modernity: a highway; DSC05429_DxOa busy two-way street corralling cars onto a different highway, this one headed north toward the airport; and the Gran Torre Santiago, a 64-story tower designed by Cesar Pelli, the tallest building in South America. DSC05437_DxOOh, also: between us and Pelli, the heavily banked, mud-filled, brackishly yellow Mapocho river gushed and rushed, its elevated banks lined with strips of parkland.DSC05436-Edit_DxO

From afar the Gran Torre looked handsome enough, an iconic figure to the pictorial ground of the majestic Andes encircling the city. DSC05477_DxOBut at street level, the Gran Torre crashed into la Costanera, South America’s largest, monstrous, indoor shopping mall. Anyway the Pelli tower proved a convenient landmark, forfending all manner of navigational ruptures, and marking the transition from Providencia’s mid-rise apartment blocks to the beginning of Santiago’s newer business district, to the northeast of the city’s historic center.

Our first Providencia residencia sat in a sleepy, forgotten little neighborhood. DSC05425_DxO

A long, two-and-one-half story brick building packed into a tight site that looked as though, in former life, it might have been the area’s horse stables. 20171216_124942_DxOThe architect-owner (coincidence? Not likely),  Mabel, had meticulously restored the exterior 20171216_124639_DxOand carved the vast interior into three loft-ish apartments which she kept nearly continuously occupied through Airbnb.


20171216_123953_DxOA “centrally located, luxury alternative” to Santiago’s expensive hotels.

I don’t know about that luxury bit. (Wouldn’t luxury require a dishwasher? Or at least a bottom floor (read: basement) bedroom that didn’t reek of mold?) Still, Mabel’s place, charming as it was, was a nice-enough landing pad after the very long plane ride from Auckland. 20171216_123547_DxOEven when her design taste veered toward over-the-top-Latina, 20171216_124122_DxOMabel’s gesamtkunstwerk was gratifyingly distinctive in the way that three-to-four-star chain hotel rooms and hotels never, ever are. She had brightened up the dark interior by cutting in a double-height window in the back and lofting the second story bedroom area over the first. Some of the art hung inside was better than decent, too.

Our second-to-last day there, Mabel left me two or three phone messages and texted once, saying she urgently wanted to talk. She’d Googled me, and, discovering that I write about architectural experience, declared us simpático. We spent half an hour looking at her project book (she designs, her husband and son build), which showed many spirited, high-quality renovations of historic properties that most people would declare beyond repair. She exhibited a vivacity, passion, and determination that almost always makes me feel warmly toward people. She detailed what she’d done in each property, pointing at in-process pictures as she spoke — only some of this I understood (my Spanish comprehension quite unequal to her rapid-fire expression) — but still, it was a touching moment, and a nice way to end Santiago, I.

— Sarah

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