AR Faith 2016 Commended: Memorial 27F could represent a turning point in post-earthquake Concepción
Inside the first of the eight towers of the Brutalist memorial in Concepción, light falls from 23m above to illuminate text inscribed on oxidised steel plates on two monolithic rocks:
We find ourselves in a space of remembrance, in memory of the 548 victims who disappeared or died in the devastating earthquake and tsunami that struck at 3.34am on 27 February 2010 with the magnitude of 8.8 on the Richter scale and the epicentre in Cobquecura. It was the second most violent earthquake recorded in the history of Chile.
The city was seriously afflicted, in parts flattened, by the catastrophe and its aftershocks which affected more than eight million lives countrywide. The oppressive towers of the memorial starkly express the power of nature and human fragility in the face of it. The textual content of each tower, the names of those killed and reported missing, the cities and towns of the victims, testi-monies from survivors, and a poem by a widely popular Chilean artist Violeta Parra, all bring a natural equality to the visitors regardless of their connection to the event. Designed by architects Juan Agustín Soza and Ricardo Atanacio, there is a certain simplicity and a resultant weight in the charged spaces of the interiors as each tower communicates, plainly yet with grandeur, a different relationship to the earthquake.
‘The city was seriously afflicted, in parts flattened, by the catastrophe and its aftershocks which affected more than eight million lives countrywide’
The path through the cluster of towers, paved with stone sourced from the epicentre, is experienced as a corridor through soaring hexagonal columns. The solitude felt in the interior of the towers, although now greatly reduced by the urban clutter surrounding the site, is achieved by gradually sinking the corridor and so partially blocking off the visual noise (even if this is only really effective for a person of five foot six). Where two of the gigantic forms come within 100mm of contact, the wobbly detailing is revealed: the project’s deceptively sharp geometrical linearity gives way to dancing lines on the edge of each concrete casting. Although Chile is notorious for awarding construction contracts to the lowest bids, it is hoped that the dubious detailing of this project will set a precedent in preventing the motorway construction industry from monopolising the building of monuments. Memorial 27F shows how the precision of Burri’s Cretto di Gibellina or Eisenman’s Jewish Memorial should not be taken for granted.
Shortly after the inauguration by then president Sebastián Piñera in October 2013, the monuments’ perforated steel doors were locked. Whatever the explanations given for this closure – security, maintenance or cost – the underlying reason is the politics that have dogged the memorial from its outset. Concepción, known as the industrial capital of Chile, is a socialist hotbed, and wasn’t a stronghold for the right-wing president who had broken through the two decades of centre-left political leadership. Piñera was accused of exploiting the memorial by opening it before completion, just prior to the presidential elections. In the words of a local resident: ‘The memorial fails to reflect upon the people who suffered from it. It was used as a political argument from the beginning and hasn’t really moved on from that.’ It remains closed to the public in spite of its inauguration 30 months ago.
‘The memorial breaks apart or merges into a unified form, depending on the angles of certain vistas, due to the inherent geometry and irregular distances between columns’
The municipality spares little money for the maintenance of the scheme as it is the product of the opposition party. As large-scale memorials go, it’s not very expensive, with a construction cost of approximately £2 million (the Jewish Memorial cost just under £20 million). However, as media reports attest, at less than three years old, it is too expensive to be left abandoned, particularly in a city that sucked up a lot of cash for post-earthquake redevelopment including new housing for the homeless and infrastructural repairs. Many of the local people believe that the memorial wasn’t money well spent, as a recent visit to the site proves, with the graffiti message Políticos Ladrones (thieving politicians) scrawled on several columns. The victims’ families complain about the project and the fact that they were never consulted, some saying they weren’t even invited to the inauguration. The surviving residents of the Alto Rio, a 15-storey building which collapsed on its side like a matchbox in the disaster, had proposed a parkscape memorial: a living homage to the victims of the earthquake rather than yet another concrete structure. Some criticised the government for not having completed the reconstruction of homes before erecting memorials.
Siteplan and sketch
The 17th Architecture Biennale in Chile, held the same year as the earthquake, focused on the theme of reconstruction and encouraged the show to move away from the cliché of private-beach second homes, the involvement of politicians (the President had taken part for the first time), and advocated the ideas of young names emerging by means of national competitions rather than solely displaying the work of the heavy guns. Memorial 27F, a product of the Biennale, involved artist Fernando Feuereisen from the outset as a competition requirement, along with the architects Soza and Atanacio. In addition to the concept and development phases, Feuereisen worked on the visual communications of the project, such as the texts found in the towers.
The memorial is east of the city centre, on a site that has been landfilled over the years, just metres from the swamp of the Biobío River. The architects seem happy with the project location despite its disconnection: ‘The train tracks, the mall, the car park, the distance to the city centre are all problems, but how can you neglect one of the most important rivers in the country? This is the reason why we wanted the memorial as a strong point of departure to colonise this area, as a new project for connectivity.’ The project is part of the larger ongoing cultural and recreational development of Parque Costanera, which gives the municipality (the administrator of the whole site) another excuse to delay the opening of the towers to the public.
Adjacent to Memorial 27F, a theatre by Smiljan Radić is under construction, which is seen as the ‘big brother to the rescue’ that will put an end to the wait tolerated by Soza and Atanacio and see the towers opened. They view the architectural typology of the memorial as having the longevity and the means to reactivate parts of a city. ‘In Chile we have memorials for individuals who were killed in the Pinochet regime, we have a lot of small memorials in towns and villages, but we are lacking big structures of memorials in cities that can organise and reactivate spaces.’ Concepción’s role in the country’s economy, with its leading manufacturing industry and roughly a dozen universities, is let down by the dearth of cultural buildings. The lack of museums with more than just a couple of rooms, cultural centres, galleries, theatres, monuments and memorials means Concepción has only managed to secure two pages out of a total of 500 in the Lonely Planet travel guide for Chile.
Zooming out allows another formal reading of the project. The memorial breaks apart or merges into a unified form, depending on the angles of certain vistas, due to the inherent geometry and irregular distances between columns. Soza and Atanacio deny using the earthquake itself as a metaphor in their design approach. ‘It is impossible to simulate the earthquake and we never had such a desire. We just wanted to create a significant mark. In this case the amount of breathing space around the site plays a key role in augmenting the effect of the concept.’
The architects don’t regard their work as complete; they believe it is necessary to explore different approaches, through publications, academic debate and exhibitions, so that the government and the public can better recognise the opportunity the memorial represents for Concepción, a city buried in industry. ‘When we started working on the project we knew it was going to be a very long process, maybe 20 or 30 years.’ Besides the political and economic issues, the difficulties have been exacerbated by the fact that Soza and Atanacio are from Santiago – another problem in this context due to underlying rivalry that exists between the two cities.
‘The project is part of the larger ongoing cultural and recreational development of Parque Costanera’
It is difficult to conceive of the memorial liberating itself from its political knots, not least the local people’s unrelenting attitude to it. However, it’s unlikely to be torn down after representing a significant investment. Currently the poignant energy of the project remains stored in its closed towers and it is nothing more than a hefty, poorly detailed sculpture of eight giant columns. Peculiarly, Soza and Atanacio aren’t ranked among the culprits. The project augurs for brighter days and opening the towers is really the first step. The memorial shouldn’t have to wait for the completion of the adjacent theatre. Besides its function as a memorial, it could become the icon of the city. At present there is no Concepción fridge magnet, Memorial 27F memorialises lost lives but could also come to symbolise a sudden and drastic change in the blueprint of the city.
Architect: Atanacio & Soza Arquitectos
Artist: Fernando Feuereisen
Photographs: Cristóbal Palma