Street Life, III: Santiago’s Benches

Of all the distinctive ways that street life is enlivened in Santiago, the most artistically enticing concerns the city’s myriad cast-iron-supported wooden benches. For the past decade, art dealers have been commissioning local artists — a dash of the internationally known, a smattering of the well-established, and many neither– to choose a bench and do their thing. The program spread from a single commissioning gallery on a single street to many benches spread through three neighborhoods. You may now set down your derrière and lounge on works of art in the city center, Las Condes, and Vitacura.


Some artists have adopted the shout-it-out, Peter Max approach, indulging themselves in the wavy shapes, lilting lines, and acid-inspired colors that also recalled Hans Eidelmann’s 1968 Yellow Submarine album cover for the Beatles. My favorite was the quintipartite-structured composition enlivened with flat, child-like images of faces and hands, and inscribed with awkward script that exhorted: nada mas noble que VIVE HOY (nothing more noble than to live today). Words which, if lived by, forfend the kind of melancholy perseveration that destroys too many people’s days.

Animals and insects appeared repeatedly, sometimes diaristically (as in “Oh my gawd, don’t you think my wonderful dog is SO cute!!”), but more often than not, artistically. Whatever that Alice-in-Wonderland insect is on the left, I like it. The bench on the right elicited thoughts of a well-painted detail from a historic Japanese landscape.

In several instances, folk art provided inspiration.

My favorites, I suspect predictably, were mainly abstract, though the bottom right bench does hearken back to the ever-popular dog motif.

And the absolute, all-time winner, with its allusions to earth, horizon, sky, and water, its hasty, indecipherable script, and its slightly skewed perspective, almost a quirky modern riff on a scene by Piero della Francesca:Bench 17

In all, these benches rarely failed to delight and give pause, prompting me to muse, yet again, on the potential for cities to offer moments of vitality by aesthetically enriching even the humblest of public places.

I could show many more, but then, that might discourage you from heading off to see and enjoy them for yourself.

— Sarah

Street Life, the Santiago Way: II

Between the high-rises, Providencia is dotted with colonial-era aspirational mansions stuccoed orange and pink and yellow and blue

and occasionally, white.


Only a few of the newer buildings were special, but as Danny has written, the overall design (and construction) quality is of a level most Americans can only yearn for.20171227_160200_DxO


And the streetscapes and landscapes!

Those Chileños devote more loving attention to the many different ways they can vitalize their public spaces than I’ve ever encountered, anywhere. Yes, it was Christmastime, and the country’s Catholicism was on display in full regalia, with creches everywhere.

But in higher-end neighborhoods, 

and in lesser neighborhoods (including where Pablo Neruda lived with his partner), deliberate design was everywhere. Even the street art was impeccably maintained.


After Mabel’s, we moved to a different place in a different part of Providencia, and then to an even tonier neighborhood called El Condes, a bit further out still from city center, closer to the mountains. From our second, 20th-floor perch we enjoyed those canonical Santiago views, mountains plus smog.

We could also see just how green the city is.


View from Residencia #2. Alcalde (mayor)’s mansion at center.

Our second place was situated near the mayor’s mansion (Providencia, like El Condes, is separately incorporated), a grand old Victorian pile set into a plaza that progressively filled with kids as the day went on. At dusk, the mayor’s mansion glowed in neon purple and lime green,

surrounded by streets twinkling tiny Christmas lights wrapped round the Avenida’s parade of trees.

Chile’s capital is huge: the population of the metropolitan area numbers around 7 million. An aerial view from 2014 of its 250 square miles reveals how, over the centuries, settlers have seeped across the entire valley and up into the foothills. Satellite_image_of_Santiago,_Chile_-_October_24,_2014But every part of the city that we saw – even the poorer, more downtrodden neighborhoods– bore the character of an invitation. Walk here. Look at this sculpture, this fountain.20171225_180945_DxO

Come hither, to this sidewalk, to enjoy the shade of these old, old trees; have a seat in this plaza; listen to the fountain roar. Shop down here, beneath this kite-like awning slung over a pedestrian mall– it’s cooler.DSC05421_DxO

Slow down.

DSC05452_DxO_DxOSlow down. Perhaps an espresso in an outdoor café?DSC05544_DxO

DSC05396_DxO.jpgLike so many Latin cities, Santiago’s urban fabric and streetscapes were designed with strong bones, the scaffolding of a robust, unending public life. DSC05515_DxO.jpgWhat did these streets look like during the Pinochet regime, I wondered? As we explored the city, I couldn’t but imaginatively replace what we were enjoying with scenes from the last part of Isabelle Allende’s House of the Spirits, when terrorized aristocrats hid behind lace curtains while learning of disappeared friends and acquaintances. What did Santiago feel and look like then?

— Sarah

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