Thursday, March 4, 2010

Santiago Still Stands Tall

One of the things that delighted me when I visited Santiago, Chile, a few years ago was the forest of highrise buildings that adorns parts of the city, many of them strikingly original and interesting to look at. Happily, nearly all still stand, despite the magnitude 8.8-point earthquake that shook the city of 6 million on Feb. 27. That panorama of skyscrapers against the backdrop of the Andes Mountains gives Santiago one of the most impressive appearances of any city, especially any inland city.

Highrise condos, apartments and office buildings have been put up since the 1970s, when Chile's military forcibly ousted the country's elected leftist president, Salvador Allende. The military - now seen handing out supplies and restoring order in ruined towns across the South American nation - imposed an often-bloody regime until democracy returned about 20 years ago, in conjunction with capitalist free-market economics.

Although critics have spoken out in recent days, charging that Chile's progressive building codes were unenforced under the dictatorship and free-market surge, most highrises escaped serious damage. Damage was widespread in Conception, near the epicenter, to be sure, but many buildings wiped out were older structures, according to media reports.

Chile has created a prosperous middle class in recent years, although it co-exists with deep poverty, easily glimpsed from major highways, in Santiago as elsewhere. In affluent areas such as Santiago's Las Condes district, the city looks like a developed first-world metropolis. Las Condes boasts broad boulevards lined with cafes, shops and restaurants and office buildings stocked with corporate headquarters. When my wife and I visited Santiago, early in the Southern spring, it was a pleasant place to stroll at leisure.

The Chilean earthquake was an estimated 500 times stronger than the 'quake that devastated Haiti a few weeks ago, yet there were far fewer casualties in Chile (the latest estimates say 800 people died, compared to tens of thousands in Haiti). Santiago native Eduardo Kausel, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, accounted for the difference this way in a brief interview posted on the MIT Web site,

"The most fundamental reason ... is that Chile has been taking into account the effect of earthquakes and designing for them since at least the beginning of the 20th century. Chile's building codes are comparable to those of the United States, Japan, Turkey or Mexico, and rank among the most stringent and demanding. They have to, because strong earthquakes are a fact of life in Chile. In Haiti, however, virtually no construction is earthquake-proof, not even government buildings or the houses of the affluent.''

Any number of cities around the world are stuffed with boxy highrises, lookalike structures unappealing and even oppressive to behold. Not Santiago. Leading Chilean and foreign architects have created imaginative tall buildings, pyramidal or spiral, glass and steel and marble, airy and washed with light. It's good to know, amidst the suffering and chaos of the first days, that Santiago still stands tall.

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