Of Valparaíso and La Ciudad Abierta

Valparaiso is a Latin American port city (though it feels more like a town) with a character entirely its own. Crowds of multi-colored houses on hills huddle together against the Pacific. Winding concrete staircases and funiculars let both itinerant visitors and locals alike climb up the hills to enjoy indescribable views of the city. There is a long running tradition of both mural painting and graffiti in Valparaíso that make it an ideal place in which to get lost. You make a wrong turn somewhere (which you are bound to do–Valpo is very difficult to navigate) and you stumble on colors you’ll swear you’ve never seen, palimpsestic paintings on walls, impossibly constructed houses clinging to the steepest slopes.

I wandered the hills, was lifted to views by the funiculars, climbed staircases and generally stared in awe. I visited Pablo Neruda’s favorite holiday house. He had an office on the final floor which might explain his great capacity to play with language. With a view of the ocean and the architecture below inspiration would come easier, I think.

I was granted the luck of a solitary travel in Valparaiso. I met a young woman, an architecture student from Romania who had been living in the city. She not only guided me around her favorite hills and took me to one of her preferred restaurants (I had Ostiones Parmesanas–Jesus they know how to make seafood in Chile) but also took me on a little adventure. We caught a bus that ran through nearby Viña del Mar and then up the coast. We stopped in what seemed to be nowhere along the highway and made our way onto the dunes that lead to the ocean and into the campus of La Ciudad Abierta.

The place has a short history. It began in the 70s as a sort of artists’ commune where poetry and experimental architecture could meet. It continues as an unusual satellite campus to the Universidad Catolica’s school of architecture. It is nothing less than awesome–in the original sense of the word. I offer no pictures of this place, as of yet, because my Romanian friend and I are planning to put together a lecture on this particular space and urban and extra-urban practice in Chile in general, but those Spanish speakers among you would benefit from a little online digging on the La Ciudad Abierta. There is a cemetery there which we reached just as the sun was setting. It might be the most beautiful place the dead have ever rested. The only folks buried there are former members of this esoteric and artistic community. They take their eternal sleep on the dunes, with a view of the sea. The architecture is simple and all in brick and concrete. I would not hesitate to say that their final home is among the most lovely spaces I’ve visited on the planet. Which is, I suppose, as it should be.

Tourists don’t normally get to visit La Ciudad Abierta. When, the next morning, I spoke with a couple from Santiago, both architects, about my visit they were shocked that I’d been able to go and get in. (Despite it’s name, the campus is closed to the public and, indeed, to all who don’t have a code to get through the gate and passed the barbed-wire fence that surrounds the community).

I met up with my Romanian friend again in Santiago upon my return from Valparaíso. But for the details of that adventure, you will have to wait.

Should you desire photographic evidence of my time in Valpo, go here.

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