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Open City: Ex Cárcel Parque Cultural by HLPS in Valparaíso, Chile

An excitingly muscular adaptation of an old prison – where Pinochet’s victims were once tortured – gives the Chilean port of Valparaiso a new cultural centre

A labyrinth of narrow streets courses down a steep escarpment to a narrow strip of coastline and the port of Valparaíso. Beginning with the Spanish settlement and especially in the 19th century, it flourished as an essential stop for ships routed around the Horn. In the 1910s, it was devastated by an earthquake and bypassed by the Panama Canal. Today it’s a colourful relic, its trading activity much diminished, its mansions and vintage funiculars quietly decaying.

A gargantuan parliament building marks Pinochet’s clumsy effort to reinvigorate downtown. A far better symbol of the city’s continued vitality is the new Ex Cárcel Parque Cultural, located halfway up the slope, which combines open space for recreation and public events with a performance venue and studios for creative activities.

HLPS Arquitectos - Christobal Palma

Internal patios are enlivened by strong colour

The Spanish levelled the five-acre site to build a fort, and this was later converted into a jail where political prisoners were confined and tortured during the years of dictatorship. It had stood empty for 15 years when the city’s department of public works sought proposals for its reuse, stipulating that the exterior of the cell block be preserved, along with a barrel-vaulted brick armoury that is a protected colonial monument.

Four former classmates at the Valparaíso campus of the Pontifical Catholic University joined forces to enter the competition and they beat 120 established firms. It may have helped that Alejandro Aravena and Smiljan Radic − two of Chile’s top architects, who teach at the Santiago campus of PUC − were on the jury. Both embrace innovation and socially responsible projects − hallmarks of the Valparaíso school. Most likely the quartet won because, in contrast to other entrants, they maximised the amount of open space, by clearing encumbrances and limiting new construction to one corner of the site.

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To realise their design − in two years at a cost of £10 million − Jonathan Holmes, Martin Labbé, Carolina Portugueis and Osvaldo Spichiger formed HLPS Arquitectos, and brought in Paulina Courard to supervise the landscaping. The challenge was to turn a place of dread into a friendly oasis − ‘a flowerpot in the Valparaíso hills’ as the architects call it − opening a once impenetrable site to the city. They’ve achieved this through varied landscaping and by concentrating the performance and service spaces in a single concrete block that doubles as a point of entry, with a ramp leading over the roof and out to the street further up the slope.

The windowless block was conceived as a floating beam with minimal points of support and cantilevered ends. It shades a portico and its roof terrace is a belvedere from which to survey the park and the sweep of the city cascading into the Pacific. Within is a large black-box theatre, a mediatheque, restaurant and library together with an upstairs dance studio; functional spaces that are intensively used.

HLPS Arquitectos - Christobal Palma

One of the new studios at ground floor level

The facade of this new structure complements the linear cell block that defines another edge of the park. As many as 1,600 prisoners were crammed into 200 tiny cells flanking a central walkway on three levels. This warren had to be gutted but not entirely erased. Inspired by Gordon Matta-Clark, the architects cut everything away until they were left with a roofless shell and a patchwork of colour, pin-ups and inscriptions on the inner walls, which provide a moving palimpsest of prisoners’ lives.

They inserted a steel frame to support a new skylit roof, and seven organically-shaped concrete studios for dancers, artists and musicians. Their curved forms complement the orthogonal frame, enhance interior acoustics, and provide additional seismic reinforcement for the outer shell. Two of the five ground-level studios have sunken floors to add height, and they are flanked by an open-sided concourse to the rear and a glass-fronted museum of local history on the park side. Two upper-level studios and community meeting rooms are accessed from a mezzanine gallery.

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The layers of the building’s history can be still read in its latest incarnation. (Click to zoom)

A small colonial-style villa, formerly officers’ quarters and set at an angle to the jail, has been converted for use by administrative staff, and the armoury at the centre of the park has been reinforced with arched steel beams and a new concrete portal to serve as a second museum. A grid of jacaranda trees to one side of the armoury defines an area for passive recreation, and clusters of magnolia, ceibo and palms enrich the park. The largest area is turfed for soccer and popular gatherings.

As beginners, working fast on a tight budget, HLPS had limited options, but it’s remarkable to see how well they’ve succeeded in balancing the claims of past and present, passive and active, creative and recreational. The four buildings anchor the space, and the balancing act of the concrete block complements the white facade of the jail with its repetitive punched openings.

HLPS Arquitectos - Christobal Palma

One of the tall, light-filled exhibition spaces

The artists’ studios offer privacy but open onto a public walkway, and the layered spaces of the concourse and steel mezzanine gallery are barred with natural light to convey a sense of mystery, even menace. These are tough buildings for a community that has more than its share of poverty and crime, but can aspire to a brighter future. And they open up vistas of a city that can rarely be seen as a whole.

It’s clear why the Spanish located their fort at this ideal vantage point for surveillance. From here you can appreciate the density and diversity of Valparaíso, from the Beaux-Arts and Art Deco monuments at the base, to the fanciful use of colour and fretted metal facades of the houses and tenements higher up.

‘As a fledgling firm, we share the belief of established firms that it’s better to be good than novel,’ says Carolina Portugueis. ‘We are very conservative.’ It’s a surprising admission from one so young but it puts her practice in the mainstream of Chilean architecture, which has long valued strength and sobriety over irrational exuberance. And it’s an apt stance in a country at the edge of a continent, constantly shaken by devastating earthquakes, and grappling with a host of social problems.

Fact File

Architect: HLPS
Photography: Cristobal Palma

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