Issue 13: The Split Wall

Fernando Portal

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Creation of Alternative and Provisional Architecture and Design Archives in Chile

Fernando Portal recapitulates two of his research centered in the reconstruction of a documentary body, since the seventies, of material culture and exhibition practices of architecture in Chile.

Creation of Alternative and Provisional Architecture and Design Archives in Chile
Design, understood as an act that brings together the knowledge and practices of various disciplines, meddles deeply in the production of our physical and social environment. From language to avenues, everything that is “designed”—regardless of whether it is the work of architects, artists, designers, artisans, or engineers—is subject to a definition that, even when it declares itself as “autonomous,” is marked by cultural processes and situated in a specific political, economic, and social context.
In this way, both objects and spaces are the result of specific cultural processes—processes that are in turn transformed by the use of these objects and the occupation of these spaces.
Researching the exchange between process and cultural transformation through objects and spaces has been the focus in the development of two studies centered, respectively, on the material cultures proposed by the socialist government of Salvador Allende and the exploitative architectural practices during the first years of Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship.
Both studies deal with cases that were strongly marked by the cultural transformations in Chile since the 1970s: the first explores the concurrence of modernity, developmentism, counterculture, and Marxism unique to the Chilean path to socialism during the first three years of the 1970s; and the second, the subsequent interruption of democracy with the imposition of a series of political, economic, and subjective measures through military force that gave form to what we today recognize globally as neoliberalism.
To this end, both projects have mobilized the concept of the archive (and its exhibition) as a vehicle to construct a new documentary body. The dissemination of these archives, comprised of objects and texts, has allowed us to recognize and interrogate a series of episodes and relations that due perhaps to the very absence of such archives have remained invisible to history, theory, and media.

The First Archive: Design and Politics. The Case of Chile’s Technological Research Commission, 1970–1973

In Pursuit of Elusive Objects
Between January 1971 and September 1973, a group of Chilean and German designers [1] working for the Chilean state developed a series of design projects for agricultural machinery, domestic objects, and equipment for public servants as part of a modernization process aimed at technological emancipation, in line with the provisioning of basic goods and services for the “production of cheap, high-quality popular consumer goods” in order to “resolve immediate problems for the vast majority.”
These projects were part of a program of industrial nationalization, which reached a scale never before seen under Allende’s government. While the Chilean state had historically facilitated the creation of diverse companies since the founding of the Production Development Corporation in 1939 (CORFO in Spanish), during the nearly three years of Allende’s government, the number of companies whose ownership the state participated in rose from sixty to 507.
The Design Group, housed in the CORFO’s Chilean Technological Research Commission (INTEC in Spanish), worked at the intersection of modernization, culture, and design, developing objects that would give a purpose to this productive platform, as well as offering a series of tools that would allow for the gradual transformation of society and its power relations through material culture. This process involved production but was particularly focused on the use of design objects in domestic and public service spheres.

The objects to be produced by the national industry would be distributed through the market as well as distinct state programs.

In this context, design can be seen as a force capable of putting public and private modes of production into motion in the formation of a noncompetitive market.

However, the majority of the more than one hundred objects designed by the group were never produced. The few that were—tableware and measuring spoons for powdered milk—were part of a government milk distribution plan, while the rest of the production was violently interrupted by the September 1973 military coup, an interruption that led to the destruction and loss of the project’s documents and prototypes.
Because of this, the Design Group’s work has been relegated to a limited number of drawings and photographs, mainly circulated through a specialized bibliography. What remains are images from personal archives that portray the destroyed and lost prototypes of a counterculture project initiated in the context of the development of a democratic socialist government.

«Public Goods»
How can we add the knowledge contained in these objects to our collective consciousness in this moment of Latin American modernity? How can we expand the scope of this experience within an image complex? [2] And from there, how do we go back and learn what these design-based public policies had to teach?
To answer these questions, the project Bienes Públicos [Public Goods] has sought to reconstruct these objects as a means of restoring the set of ideas, trajectories, and displacements that were developed in Chile to provoke an original reflection on the relationship between industrialization, everyday life, technology, design, and public policies. In practice, this attempt was developed through different actors and institutions that successfully interwove their own conceptual approximations of postwar European modernity into the unique political projects of Latin America in the context of the Cold War.
When possible, producing a new body of work to accompany these histories has implied following the instructions set out after the discovery of the original documentation, developing a series of objects, furniture, and functional electronic prototypes.

Recreating these designs has required the creation of an alternative archive in which the holes in this (still unfinished) story can be filled based on a series of works that can be studied, not just on aesthetic terms but also through process-oriented, artistic, and forensic lenses. This story allows us to link fragmented stories concerning the mutual influence of central and peripheral countries in the context of modernity, and the development of alternative political systems in the context of the Cold War.
Their new presence also permits the development of lines of questioning that prospectively advance the formation of a new material culture—a material culture that involves redesigning not only the relationships between people in terms of function, property, debt, and capital, but also our relationships with things and the natures that inform them.
Perhaps, however, the potential of these objects doesn’t come from the specific histories they contain, but rather from the effects and conflicts situated beyond them, through which they come into being as manifestations as they pass from an immaterial to a material condition. In the end, as objects designed to define the material culture of a new social project, they have wandered as ghosts with no physical constitution.
To remedy this absence, Bienes Públicos has concentrated on giving the objects a material presence through a form of patrimonial spiritualism: an action in which human and nonhuman agents (in this case, artisans and designers, as well as materials, parts, and tools) have acted as mediums so that the spirit (in this case, an idea) can manifest, taking control of another body. [3]

Second Archive: Expositive Practices in Architecture. The Case of Architecture Biennials, 1977–2017

Neoliberalism, Urbanism, and Exhibitionism
After the 1973 coup d’état, the first years of the dictatorship set the stage for the implementation of a neoliberal economic model, beginning with the development of a series of policies aimed at market deregulation, the reduction of the state, and the weakening of civil organizations.
These three vectors of neoliberalism discovered urban space to be a key resource. The commercialization of urban space, and the consequent emergence of “neoliberal urbanism,” [4] involved an encounter between these policies and modes of city planning that modernity and its conflicts had succeeded in installing throughout the state and Chile at large.
In this political and economic context, just four years after the coup, the Architecture and Urbanism Biennial in Chile called for the disciplines to meet in the “neutral” zone of a cultural space to discuss, as publicly as possible, the ethical, cultural, political, institutional, and economic transformations involved in the transition to neoliberalism.
During the years of the dictatorship, the biennial, a space intended for architectural exhibitions and debate, became a space to denounce the limits the new government policies had imposed on the discipline (and for some architects, a space to announce their departure from the discipline). While the first stage of the biennial under the dictatorship laid the foundation for its structure and public function today, more than forty years later, the biennial still does not have an archive that allows scholars to conduct historical research that could help us interweave Chile’s architectural and social histories. This would allow us to search through public discussions on the built environment for tools that would allow us to trace the origins of the contradictions between architectural practice and capitalist markets that have defined the built environment for the last four decades.

«A Provisional Archive»
With this vision in mind, over the last four years, an expansive team of students and architects has collaborated to develop a series of research and exhibition projects that have allowed us to recognize, construct, and disseminate the biennial’s documentary history.
While each edition of the biennial has been proudly documented, from its production to its catalogues and specialized publications, these works correspond almost entirely to editorial projects developed prior to the event which fail to address their subsequent implementation, or the reactions provoked by the execution of each biennial’s specific projects. In order to supplement this vision, it has been necessary to refer to various press sources, the biennial’s production archives, as well as numerous institutional and personal archives.
The construction of this provisional archive has had a two-fold objective: first, it seeks to produce a physical record of information generated by and for the biennial; and second, it aims to develop an understanding of the biennial as more than a fleeting event, framing it as an institution that is still being shaped and is capable of serving as the foundation for new readings of recent architectural developments in Chile and their relation to the public sphere.

The intervention this research produced was displayed in the exhibition Archivo Provisional [Provisional Archive], which, in a single volume of nearly twenty-thousand pages, includes all the documents produced by different actors involved in the biennial since it began in 1977. This exhibition, presented in conjunction with the twentieth edition of the biennial in May 2017, was intended to promote collective research by various communities, including the audiences brought together by the architecture biennial—in which architects, historians, students, and artists were invited to develop a new layer of information based on their reading of the compiled documents—or more specific communities of scholars, union actors, or artists.
New readings made possible by the circulation of our archives [5] have allowed us to activate the memory of these episodes and events in public, offering, in the case of INTEC, a repertory of objects and images that have been disseminated widely and quickly via mass media, thereby contaminating and socializing the history of these objects. This project thus generates long-term memory for a periodic temporary event that, in the absence of an archive, has taken place every two years but been erased from collective memory by amnesia and fragmented recollection.

New archives
Through this patrimonial spiritualism, these new archival collections open the possibility of engaging in totally new dialogues with the ideas contained therein. By exploring their content, we will be able to produce a historical overview whose interest will be proportional to the distance we maintain from the shores of nostalgia. By questioning their scope—on the atemporal borders of their existence/non-existence—we will be able to speculate freely and define the field we wish to explore based on empirical conditions.


  1. This intersection of cultural transformation, design, and public policies was implemented by a group of professionals whose collaborative work proposed the union of diverse modern trajectories. On one hand, the group was made up of former members of Hfg Ulm, the German design school founded in 1950, which acted as an international point of reference for the integration of design into processes of industrial development and whose “critical theory” implied questioning the professional role of design in the process of commodification and its instrumentalization as a hegemonic agent of control aimed at driving consumption. The other half of the group was a group of young students and graduates from the first generations of industrial and graphic designers in Chile, who had been agents and witnesses of the adjustment of the discipline’s curriculum in the context of university reforms. The group was composed of: Gui Bonsiepe, Guillermo Capdevila, Pedro Domancic, Alfonso Gómez, Fernando Shultz, Rodrigo Walker, Werner Zemp, Michael Weiss, Gustavo Cintolesi, Sergio Ahumada, Evelyn Weisner, Mario Carvajal; and graphic designers, Eddy Carmona, Jessie Cintolesi, Pepa Foncea, and Lucía Wormald.

  2. An image complex can be understood as “the whole network of financial, institutional, discursive, and technological infrastructures and practices involved in the production, circulation, and reception of the visual-cultural materials.” Meg McLagan and Yates McKee eds., Sensible Politics: The Visual Culture of Nongovernmental Activism (New York, NY: Zone Books, 2012).

  3. Through this action, the project could effectively give substance to what William Gibson calls semiotic phantoms: “bits of deep cultural imagery that have split off and taken on a life of their own.” William Gibson, “The Gernsback Continuum” in Burning Chrome (Westminster, MD: Arbor House, 1986).

  4. “Neoliberalism refers to the interaction of processes of neoliberalisation and urbanisation and how such ideology are shaping and producing the form, the image and the life in the cities… Neoliberal urbanism is then a descriptive category that is able to depict the spatiotemporal material and discursive practice and its operative analytical capacity of producing urban space. A material condition that designates governmental technologies, discursive and spatial dispositifs that fueled a political imagination locally and globally that ‘‘penetrates the bodies of subjects, and governs their forms of life’ (Agamben 2009:14).”
    Camillo Boano, “Foucault and Agamben in Santiago: Governmentality, Dispositive and Space,” in Neoliberalism and Urban Development in Latin America: The Case of Santiago, eds. Camillo Boano and Francisco Vergara-Perucich (London: Routledge, 2018).

  5. Bienes Públicos had the support of José Hernández as a co-researcher, while Archivo Provisional has been developed in collaboration with Pedro Correa, Fernando Carvajal, and Rayna Razmilic. Both archives have been shown in various contexts in Santiago de Chile: Bienes Públicos: (1) “Homenaje a INTEC”, 11ª Bienal de Artes Mediales, Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes, 2013; (2) “Las necesidades del consumo popular”, 13th Bienal de Artes Mediales, Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes, 2017; (3) Galería NAC, Santiago. Archivo Provisional: (1) XX Bienal de Arquitectura y Urbanismo, Valparaíso, Chile, 2017; (2) “Estudio Común,” Gallery in the Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile School of Architecture, 2017; (3) Galería NAC, Santiago, 2017; (4) Campus Providencia, Universidad de las Américas, 2018; and (5) Impresionante, Feria de Arte Impreso, Museo de Arte Contemporáneo, 2018.


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