The Open City: building as poetry

IMG_1022

Hanging Lodge, The Open City, 2006

The Open City of Amereida occupies 670 acres of dune fields, wetlands and pine forests along the Pacific coast immediately south of Ritoque, a small seaside town in Chile. Purchased in 1970 by teachers at the Faculty of Architecture of the Catholic University in nearby Valparaiso, the Open City was founded in 1971 and was inspired by a radical approach to architectural research, teaching and practice that used poetry as an inspiration to build. This method grew out of a lifelong collaboration between Chilean architect Alberto Cruz and Argentinian poet Godofredo Iommi. Reacting against the post-Enlightenment grounding of architecture in reason and science, Cruz and Iommi instead wanted building to be a poetic act. They believed that architecture, just as much as the other arts, could express interior truths that were apprehended intuitively. 

1971 - poetic act opening the site

Poetic act that founded the Open City in 1971

The Open City was founded after nearly two decades of experimentation in Valparaiso, as Cruz and Iommi gathered around themselves a cohort of artists, poets, architects, and engineers who shared their vision. Remarkably, they were supported by the Catholic University, who have funded their experimental approach for over half a century. Today, the project is paid for by the Corporación Cultural Amereida, an independent organisation set up by the University to ensure the continuation of the initial vision. No-one who builds or lives in the Open City owns the land or buildings and they live according to the anarchist principles of cooperation and mutual aid.

Towers Square, 2003

Gathering in Towers Square in the Open City in 2004

Hops Entrada

Entrance Lodge and sculptural pipes, built in 1982

The intuitive method that generates the buildings in the Open City is heavily influenced by the French Symbolism poets and Surrealists; techniques they pioneered such as automatic writing and the analysis of dreams form an important part of the working method of the Valparaiso School of Architecture. First, a ‘brief’ is determined by a poem composed on site (and there are photographs from the early 1990s of Uommi himself composing poems on blackboards amongst the sand dunes); then teachers and students work collaboratively to give structural form to the poem. Sometimes, this may result in a small-scale intervention: for example, the many ‘agora’ scattered around the Open City, marked in the sand by bricks, posts or a sculpture. Other-times, it will result in a habitable structure – a house or studio. Precisely what the end product will be is never known, as each project evolves in its own time. It’s remarkable that such a radical approach has been supported for so long by a higher-education institution. 

Wanderer's lodge

Wanderer’s Lodge, 1981-95

Compass card lodge

Compass Card Lodge, 1998

An early focus for building at the Open City were house-like structures named hospedería (literally ‘guesthouse’ or ‘lodge’ in Spanish), the first being the Banquet Hospedería (Banquet Lodge), completed in 1974. The most prominent, the Hospedería de la Entrada (Entrance Lodge), built in 1982, is a five-bay wooden structure whose enclosed spaces step up from the sand and three staircases descend back down to the ground. The slanting roofs are orientated towards the sun, not for the purposes of collecting solar energy, but rather as a poetic gesture of connection to the elements. The whole structure is raised high above the dunes on numerous wooden piles, allowing the sand to move under the building. Around this first ‘house’ lies a series of sculptural pipes that sing in the wind. Many other extraordinary hospedería buildings followed, including the Hospedería del Errante (Wanderer’s Lodge, 1981-85), the Hospidería del la Rosa de los Vientos o Las Celdas (Compass Card Lodge, 1998), and the Hospidería Colgante o del Taller de Obras (Hanging Lodge, 2006). Nearly all of these structures are built from a mixture of timber (usually the main structural element), brick and concrete; and their fragmented and angular forms resemble the salvaged buildings imagined by American architect Lebbeus Woods in his drawings from the 1990s. Yet, these are not entirely anarchic structures: teams of students work with skilled contractors in bringing the houses to realisation, so that habitable structures can at least be ensured. 

Hanging Lodge

Hanging Lodge, 2006

Hospedería de la Rosa de los Vientos o Las Celdas (House of the Rose of the Winds or The Cells), 1997

Lodge of the Rose of the Winds or the Cells, 1997

Although the Open City superficially resembles many other off-grid intentional communities, it operates under a very different rationale. Rather than being governed by political or ecological concerns, its rationale comes primarily through the imagination. Just how this operates at a communal level is difficult to ascertain because it must always happen in the very moment of practice – an ad-hoc response to a meld of subjective memory, the sensory apprehension of the environment, and an intuitive connection to building materials (often salvaged from other sites). This kind of improvised architecture was celebrated by Charles Jencks and Nathan Silver in their 1972 book Adhocism, a manifesto against the totalitarian approach to urban planning seen in post-war architectural modernism. Arguing that tabula rasa urban planning should be replaced by incremental approaches that integrate re-use into the lives of buildings, Adhocism looked to anarchist ideas to inspire a new kind of architectural freedom. Rejecting any kind of determinism in building – whether through drawings, plans, models or briefs – the Open City provides a thoroughgoing experiment precisely in the kind of adhocism advocated by Jencks and Silver. 

Bird watching shelter

Bird-watching hide, a recent addition to the Open City

Even though it is small in extent, the Open City demonstrates that a habitable built environment – one rich in meaning if not in facilities and conveniences – can be fashioned from human faculties we don’t normally associate with architecture, namely intuition and improvisation. This is more about an ecology of mind than of matter – a recognition that the freest parts of ourselves are those that are invisible and that the human imagination is so often left out of ecological thinking. The Open City also demonstrates the value of taking what would otherwise be regarded as extraordinarily irresponsible risks in terms of the freedom to build. Its long life demonstrates almost literally the truth of philosopher Immanuel Kant’s assertion that ‘freedom is the precondition for acquiring the maturity for freedom, not a gift to be granted when such maturity has been achieved’.

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