The Chilean White Elefant
Film, Architecture, Article, Critic.
“Santiago de Chile as a City has traces of its history impregnated in its architecture. In contrary to the capitals of the first world, here generally the monuments acquire involuntary features from important periods that remind us mainly of fractures and defeat. A big difference from the gothic cathedrals in Europe that are witnesses of unity and community realization. Here some buildings and places dramatize the dividing elements of a young and inexperienced society.”– Leonardo Pontus.
It was in the year 1966, when christian democrat president Eduardo Frei Montalva, put the project of a main hospital for the south area of Santiago on the table. The project remained a plan until the end of Frei’s government. The realization started when the socialist president Salvador Allende Gossens came into power, a president who by coincidence was a physician himself. The intention was to build the biggest public hospital of Latin America at the time, specially conceived for the public worker. It was the year 1970. Construction was planned and the building should be finished within 45 months from the day the construction permission was issued, on January 25th, 1971.
The construction went on for 30 months, up to the installation of the elevators, when all work came to a sudden halt on September 11th, 1973. A bloody coup d´etat lead by general Augusto Pinochet and a military junta took power of Chile for seventeen years.
The completion of the hospital´s construction was discarded by the junta, arguing that the project was unviable and that the operational costs were unjustified for the amount of people that was to be served. So they decided to build a new hospital in the south-east part of the city. The Ochagavia Hospital project was definitely discarded.
Ochagavia Hospital reached a size of 83.000 square meters, consisting of a large 220×68 meters four story high basis of cast concrete floors, supported by a large gridded pillar structure that acts as the foundation and support of two eight story high towers. The towers are linked by a transit tower containing all staircases and enabling circulation between towers and elevator systems. The building faces a twin plot that has remained as empty as the building. This twin plot was considered to be a mitigation area for the impact of the building in the urban tissue, a consideration that was obligatory by the urban regulations at the time of construction.
The hospital building remained in the hands of the state for almost 27 years, which did not develop any plan to recover nor transform the building and the area. In 1999 after ten years and almost three democratic governments, president Ricardo Lagos Escobar decided to alienate the building. It was sold to a private developer who purchased the building for around the 1% of the real value. And it was agreed to develop the plot by demolishing, building or recycling it, to give space to new uses like housing, leisure, offices and commercial spaces. An especially notorious ideas was a shopping mall, a delirious tendency replicated around the city since the return of democracy.
The building was constructed within the populous commune of San Miguel, in the south of Santiago. A commune formed by middle class workers, public servants and young professionals, that was one of the fast flourishing middle class communities and also one of the larger communes within the metropolitan area at the time. Over the years the commune´s structures have been redesigned and reorganized by the junta´s new plans. So the commune of San Miguel gave birth to two new communes: San Joaquin and Pedro Aguirre Cerda. The unfinished hospital building now was located in the newly formed Pedro Aguirre Cerda commune. The building was now part of a commune with a very different face. The new commune was formed by peripheral fractions of three bigger communes, Three peripheries joined into a commune without a center. A headless urban territory.
The population living in the commune today are mainly medium-low to low income families. And especially in the surroundings of the hospital building, the population grew old progressively, causing a decline of interaction between the residents in the public space, which translates to decay of the community resilience.
The low level of incomes, the high levels of unemployment together with the lack of production areas within the commune creates a place of low interest for further development.
Additionally, low levels of education, safety, available public space and services for the resident population have contributed to a reduction of the population of around 15% within the last 15 years. An opposite trend is observed in neighboring communes.
Some of these issues are treated in “El Elefante Blanco” (the white elephant) a documentary by Felipe Egaña about the building through the eyes of the neighboring inhabitants and how their lives had moved in parallel with the abandoned hospital building. This documentary won the first prize for national short documentary during Arqfilmfest in Santiago de Chile last year.
The dream that was not
The impact for an area like Pedro Aguirre Cerda for having a first class hospital within its territorial limits, could have been a powerful element of urban development for this community. However, after more than forty years standing there and due to its size, the building represents a monumental piece of wasteland that by not having any use produces an adverse effect on the community. The scale of the building stays unmatched by any construction in the near surroundings until today.
The building suffered every case of looting and crime, drugs and illegal activities within its walls. It is said that the population living in the surroundings, looted the building in order to obtain materials to use in the construction of their own houses. Recognizable pieces and materials can be found today as part of the neighborhood constructions.
Several plans for partial and total demolition of the building plus new constructions were presented to the local authorities by the developer, all of them approved and none of them executed. Unfortunately all of them reflected a distorted reality. No development plan considered the original inhabitants, everything seemed to be planned to become high rises and homogenizing glass-cover facades. A Chilean style of a new and excluding reality.
The Ochagavia Hospital is a monument of Chile’s turbulent history. In this article Manuel Toledo provides context to this abandoned building and introduces the beautiful award-winning documentary by Felipe Engaña, “The White Elephant”, about the neighbours of this building. The article was published on AFFR.nl, the online platform of Architecture Film Festival Rotterdam, in ENGLISH and DUTCH.