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In Chile, Modern Housing Fit For Ancient Customs

Architects near Santiago are building a new kind of housing in Chile, both modern and adapted to the ancient culture of the Mapuche community.

A Mapuche woman near the housing units built by architects from Undurraga Devés in Huechuruba, near Santiago.
A Mapuche woman near the housing units built by architects from Undurraga Devés in Huechuruba, near Santiago.

SANTIAGO — This new kind of home combines practicality with cultural understanding. Chilean architects from Undurraga Devés have recently worked with members of the indigenous Mapuche community in Huechuruba, near Santiago, to help build a very specific type of housing: a place that would not only meet their basic needs, but also respect their traditions and ideas.

The goal is to help the housing units' residents "participate in modern society without discarding their identity," as the architects from Undurraga Devés put it. This has become a major focus of the studio, founded in 1978 — launching "low-tech" and culturally sensitive housing projects in Chile.

Architects have built a total of 25 housing units, within a larger complex comprising 415 "standard" council houses. Together, they attempt to reconcile two styles, and two ways of life — global and aboriginal. The idea came directly from the Mapuche community, whose members wanted to be a part of modern society without losing their identity.

The housing units built by architects from Undurraga Devés in Huechuruba, near Santiago in Chile. Courtesy of the Undurraga Devés studio.

The way these housing units are conceived embodies this quest for a cultural — and stylistic — compromise. They are aligned and their facades face east, which respects the Mapuche tradition of "opening the main door to the rising sun." That aspect was one of the community's main requests. A large corridor then separates the houses from the cliffs besides them, constituting a shared, public space.

Each unit has an area of 61 square meters, spread on two floors. Cooking is done on the ground floor — where the Mapuche have always kept the stove — and bathrooms and beds are upstairs.

The community has very specific notions of privacy. Architects observed while building the units that the Mapuche reject any form of continuity, or transparency, between the inside and the outside. The interior must remain in the shadow, to "create a perception of its own time, different from the time that passes outside, in the city."

Building techniques have combined the traditional use of bricks with reinforced concrete for the main frames. In this seismic zone, the front and back sides of every unit are fortified with a diagonal wooden beam, designed to hold the side walls in case of earthquakes — a daily possibility no Chilean could ever forget.

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