The Avant-Garde Meets Ecology in the Open City

One of the residences made hospitable by the eucalyptus grove. The eucalyptus is visible in the background on the right side of the photo.

Walking along this stretch of the Pacific coastline, you can hear the crashing waves, but you cannot see them. A small range of sand dunes stand between you and sea, projecting the raucous calls of local and migratory birds. The outline of a mountain landscape looms in the distance. Situated in this border space, you come face-to-face with both the interior sea of the American continent and the maritime sea of the Pacific. Welcome to the Open City.

A 300-acre landscape of architectural experimentation located on the Pacific Coast of Chile, the Open City (Ciudad Abierta) is home to a collective of over 40 avant-garde artists, architects, poets, musicians, and one lone biologist. Founded between 1967 and 1971, the Open City over the past 50 years has garnered an international reputation for formalist architectural experimentation and a unique construction process in which improvised poetry and design are intimately linked.

Indeed, one can find various articles written in architectural blogs and magazines about this group. The collective’s most recent work, “The Pavilion of Hospitality,” an ephemeral construction built through architectonic and poetic improvisation as a space of congregation, celebration, and performance, was even showcased in the international art exhibition, documenta. For many, the Open City has come to be perceived as an eccentricity, a curious architectural utopia.

An angular concrete building rises out brown grasses.

One of the Open City’s many buildings. Photograph courtesy of Yelda Gin.

One might imagine that the stunning variety of ecosystems that comprise the 300-acre terrain—the sand dunes, the Pacific coastline, and the Mantagua Wetlands—are little more than a background for human creation. Yet despite their reputation as an “art for art’s sake” collective, some residents of the Open City have recently turned their attention to how their built environments interact with the nonhuman environments around them. Today, the Open City is embroiled in debates about how best to engage in environmental urbanism—a mode of architecture, construction, and urbanization that is conscious of its impacts on local ecosystems and terrains.

A proposal for the preservation of the Mantagua Wetlands is one topic that has opened extensive discussion. These coastal wetlands are a biodiversity hotspot, or, more precisely, were a biodiversity hotspot. Over the past 40 years, the biodiversity at the Open City has slowly been declining due to increased pollution, overfishing, the presence of invasive species, and the loss of habitat that comes with expanding urbanization. In 2015, the Ministry of Environment proposed opening a nature sanctuary to preserve this delicate and valuable ecosystem. The plan aims to prevent continued environmental degradation, to protect the many endemic and migratory species that call it home, and hopefully, to restore the environmental health of the wetlands.

In 2017, I moved to the Open City for an extensive stay to study their ideas of poetry, architecture, and art. Yet I quickly became intrigued by this particular external proposal for a nature sanctuary and the diverse responses it has generated within the Open City. Over the course of six months I familiarized myself with the varying relationships with this proposal and the possibility at the Open City of creating a type of environmental urbanism formed by an interdisciplinary dialogue between architecture, poetry, the arts, and ecology.

A horse grazes on grass near a blue marsh.

The Mantagua Wetlands at the Open City. Photograph by Maxwell Woods

Within the Open City itself, resident Sergio Elórtegui has championed the nature sanctuary proposal. A biologist by training, Elórtegui moved to the Open City in 2013 and became the first natural scientist to have ever lived with the collective. Upon arriving to the Open City, his assessment of the environmental health and integrity of the site was troubling: “From the biological perspective, the site was anthropized.” The Open City’s non-human environments had been altered and sometimes with dire effects.

To demonstrate this human-induced transformation of the non-human environment, Elórtegui spoke to me about the disappearance due to overfishing of the ensis macha, a type of mollusk that once covered the floors of local shores. As he made sure to note, however, this particular environmental transformation—as well as others—was largely out of the hands of the Open City, with responsible parties coming from surrounding urban and rural areas. Nonetheless, Elórtegui also identified a few instances in which a lack of knowledge about the ecological functionality of the site led to the degradation of the Open City’s ecosystem. As he explained, “The anthropization is not only from external people…but also [due to] activities realized by residents that, in the moment, they perceived as positive for the environment. Due to a lack of knowledge, they ended up harming the environment.”

In the mid-1990s, for instance, the Open City was gifted hundreds of eucalyptus trees by a forest management engineer. These trees would be planted throughout the Open City, with one large grove planted on the dunes immediately next to the Wetlands and with a specific purpose in mind: to block wind and make a section of City behind these trees more habitable. Almost three decades later this grove proved successful. While wind had previously made life where this grove is situated nearly unbearable, today two residential buildings have been erected in the space behind the eucalyptus.

This eucalyptus grove, however, also drastically transformed the dune landscape. As Elórtegui explained, the eucalyptus’s success in blocking wind prevented the regeneration of dunes caused by the constant movement of sand by the wind. As a result, plants could more easily take root on the dunes. One significant example of this transformation of the landscape is the arrival of lupine, an invasive plant from Portugal. Previously this species had never had the chance to take root in the Open City due to the wind, but the planting of the eucalyptus provided just the opportunity lupine needed to dominate the landscape.

In the twenty years since the eucalyptus has been planted, the dune landscape immediately behind the eucalyptus grove has been drastically transformed. A basic comparison of an image of the dunes near one of the Open City’s buildings from the 1990s, versus an image of that same site today demonstrates the difference. The bald sand dunes from the 1990s are now covered with lupine and other species.

A sand dune now covered with vegetation.

A sand dune unable to rebuild itself, now covered with vegetation. Photograph by Maxwell Woods.

Elórtegui’s solution is therefore simple: embrace the Ministry of Environment’s proposal to construct a nature sanctuary within the bounds of the Open City via a dialogue between architecture and ecology. In other words, he is interested in the possibility of an environmental urbanism within the Open City that is founded on an architectural practice tied to ecology. In this way, the Open City would continue constructing architectural works, but would do so with an environmental consciousness that precludes the poor understanding of the ecosystem that led to environmentally degrading projects like the planting of the eucalyptus grove.

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This proposal of a nature sanctuary therefore appears to be common sense: responding to environmental degradation, a sanctuary would be a powerful tool to reverse environmental destruction already done and prevent further degradation in the future. Not all residents, however, have welcomed the proposal.

Some living at the Open City are more hesitant about processes of environmental planning. For instance, the Open City is often characterized as a place wherein terrain is poetically opened through phalénes, collective and improvised poetic acts wherein the particular characteristics of a place are revealed and subsequently given form through architecture. That is, in the phaléne the participant experiences a change of life, in which they cross to a new mode of understanding reality. The Open City has often been dedicated to the poetic revelation of the profound meaning of place.

What is significant about the phalène is that it is historically the primary mode of investigation at the Open City. In 1971, some members of the Open City described the phalène in relation to a mode of investigation:

Public economy of study that is, essentially, the not-learnable through transmission. Study is that which is received in an act and through the act. The unique study that we have done until now are the Phalènes.1

Through the phalène, learning—the result of an investigation of a topic, concept, or entity—becomes a consequence of an open and poetic encounter with the unique qualities of a place. The phalène, the poetic revelation of a place through an open encounter with the earth, therefore forms a key practice of the Open City.

The proposed plan for a nature sanctuary therefore potentially represents a short-circuiting of practices like the phaléne and the poetic opening of the terrain. More precisely, the politics of using an environmental planning instrument, i.e., the installation of a nature sanctuary, come to supplant the poetic foundation of the Open City that explicitly critiques such a concern for politics and planning. In contrast to the Open City’s drive to poetically open the terrain, the idea of the nature sanctuary is a technical instrument that is predefined by external sources.

This hesitancy, however, does not signify resistance to environmental urbanism. Quite the contrary. Many hesitant residents have welcomed ecological ideas at Open City. Indeed, many have shown a keen interest in what mode of environmental urbanism a poetic revelation of environmental ethics would create at the Open City. This hesitant position, then, represents not a rejection of environmental urbanism nor of ecology. Instead, it expresses a hesitancy towards a type of environmental urbanism tied to planning. They hesitate in front of the nature sanctuary, wanting instead to discover an environmental ethics tied to the poetic revelation of the terrain.

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The worries voiced by some Open City residents are not unfounded. Within the United States, at least, environmental planning has often privileged the science of ecology at the expense of humanities-oriented and ethics-based approaches when organizing urban spaces.

The landscape architect Ian McHarg is of particular note here. His now-classic 1969 treatise, Design With Nature, seeks to understand how landscape architecture can utilize tools developed by ecology to construct more sustainable architecture as well as urban and regional plans. Within this work, he sets himself directly against types of environmental urbanism embodied by groups like the Open City:

We will agree that science is not the only mode of perception—that the poet, painter, playwright and author can often reveal in metaphor that which science is unable to demonstrate. But, if we seek a workman’s creed which approximates reality and can be used as a model of the world and ourselves, then science does provide the best evidence.2

McHarg’s position, in which the science of ecology is privileged over other disciplines, is reflected by numerous others. Most notably, in 2010, the famed environmental biologist, James Lovelock, claimed that in order to deal with global climate change, “It may be necessary to put democracy on hold for a while.” In practice, ecology has a problematic history of privileging its own disciplinary interventions and rejecting open dialogue between science and the humanities.

A chalkboard on a wooden wall, on which is written

A blackboard hangs on the wooden wall of a residence, listing a few of the fundaments of the Open City. Photography by Maxwell Woods.

The Open City today represents a reexamination of this privileging of ecology at the expense of other disciplines and relationships with the environment. Most notably, the Open City is currently opening an interdisciplinary dialogue between ecology, architecture, and poetry in regards to a mode of organizing urban space that responds to the needs of local ecosystems. On the kitchen wall of one residence, for instance, a blackboard announces these fundamental tenet of the Open City: “Rejecting: accumulation of riches; dominion over others; all aggressive violence,” as well as, “sustaining the dignity of every discipline and type of work.” Lying at the foundation of the Open City is the potential for creating a dialogue between architecture, poetry, and ecology, which many architects of the past have denied.

It is in this dedication to interdisciplinary dialogue, difficult as he recognizes that it may be, that Elórtegui finds hope:

Never before has the Open City been confronted with other disciplines [outside of architecture and poetry]…At least I believe I am the first that comes not from the arts but from the sciences. Then it becomes important to me to try and construct a dialogue with these architects.

In this sense, this 300-acre landscape is potentially moving beyond the planning paradigm, as embodied in the external proposal of the nature sanctuary. Against an ecological planning that precludes open questioning between disciplines, the Open City today is the site of an exciting dialogue between the arts, architecture, and ecology that represents the possibility for creating a new mode of environmental urbanism.

Featured image: One of the Open City dwellings made habitable by planting a eucalyptus grove to block the wind. Photograph by Yelda Gin.

Max Woods is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Comparative Literature and Folklore Studies at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. His work focuses on the overlap of urban design, environmental studies, and modernism and has previously appeared at Species and Class. His last contribution to Edge Effects was “‘Stop Calling me Resilient’: Addressing Environmental Degradation in Louisiana” (May 2017). Prior to coming to UW–Madison, Max co-founded Orchestrating Diversity, a high-level orchestral music program for underserved youth in the St. Louis area. Contact.

  1. Amereida Cultural Corporation. “Notas a propósito de vida, trabajo y estudio y el real sentido contemporáneo de la hospitalidad como forma de vida cotidiana en la ciudad abierto.” Trans. Maxwell Woods. Collective essay, Valparaíso, 5 February 1971. TS. Archives of the Open City. 

  2. McHarg, Ian L. McHarg. Design with Nature. (Garden City, N.Y.: Published for the American Museum of Natural History [by] the Natural History Press, 1969), 29. 

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