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Housing Project Alternatives in Santiago de Chile:

The Formation and Location of Community

Andrew Wade

MSc Building & Urban Design in Development Candidate

BENVGBU4 _ Housing Policy, Programme & Project Alternatives
Development Planning Unit, University College London
Word Count: 2,994
Date of Submission: 23 March, 2009

Housing projects, regardless of the targeted group of residents, must translate from a series of
drawings and quantitative data to a physical structure or series of structures which must, as one
condition of success, nurture a feeling of community and identity. The inhabitants of these projects
become defined by their physical proximity and the clear distinction between what is ‘within’ and
what is ‘outside’ the boundaries of their community, whether physical gates to the projects exist or
not. This identification of residents of housing projects as separate both isolates them from
surrounding communities while implying an internal cohesion and shared sensibility. The assumption
that similar aspirations, financial capacity, even aesthetic preferences draw together similar groups of
people into a single housing estate and bond them together in a community carries implications for
both high-end residential developments and heavily subsidized housing intended for the poor. The
importance of site location for housing projects is often under-represented, although it plays a key role
in the contentment of the residents. Both the ‘absolute’ coordinates of a chosen site either along the
periphery of a city or in the centre, and the ‘relative’ coordinates in relation to adjacent communities
are important factors in the nature of community created.

The entry point for analysis into this examination into the notion of community and siting in housing
projects is through the Barbican Estate in London. While this case study frames the questions of
community and location within the greater city, these ideas are then layered onto the context of the
developing city of Santiago de Chile. The choice of this particular city for the development of this
analysis is threefold: firstly, its location in a ‘developing’ country offers great opportunity for future
improvement to housing policies both in Santiago and in other low-income contexts, where the
majority of population growth will continue to occur (UNFPA 2007); secondly, Chilean housing
policy has been regarded as highly-effective and has served as a model for Latin America, making it
particularly noteworthy and influential (Aravena 2004, Rojas 2001); finally, the early 21st Century is a
potentially transformative time for housing projects in Chile due to the work of ELEMENTAL.
These factors combine to make Santiago rich and fertile ground for an analysis of the constraints and
opportunities in housing projects, offering a glimpse into the struggle to use housing as a tool to lift
vast numbers of people out of poverty. The issues of both location in relation to the greater city and
communal space in its potential to foster community and identity within housing projects must be
emphasized and resolved in the spatial realm to successfully address the non-architectural problem of
empowering and enabling the urban poor.
The Barbican Estate: A Fortified Outpost in the Heart of London

The residential portion of the Barbican Complex is stunning for its concept as a ‘small walled town’
conceived as a holistic entity, its lucid expression of the Brutalist architectural language, and its
location bordering the original Roman settlement of Londinium (Barbican Estate Guide, p. 4). The
Blitz of the Second World War demolished the area and created the opportunity for such a large scale,
utopian vision to be designed and implemented in Central London (see appendix 1). The estate was
completed in 1969 and consists of 21 separate residential blocks, with over 2,000 flats housing in
excess of 4,000 people. The understanding of this project as a gated community in the centre of a
world-class city opens up an analysis of life in such a designed community. Its location immediately
north of the City of London reflects its conception as housing for City workers (see appendix 2). A
contrasting architectural expression with its surroundings and the illegibility of the larger scheme
from a pedestrian perspective adds to its perception as an exclusive community that strictly defines an
‘us’ and ‘them’. “It may not be an armed encampment, but it does at first sight resemble a fortress or
defence” (Ackroyd, p. 2; see appendix 3). Many avoid walking though the complex because the
desired exit point is never clearly seen upon entry, adding to the exclusivity of the community.
Despite the physical cohesion of the buildings, it is important to see the underlying, internal
stratification and diversity among the residents. While the individual flats are now quite expensive,
ranging from £200,000 to in excess of £1 million, they were previously rental-only units. There is
also a vast array of different flats, with over 125 different types ranging from studio units to five-
bedroom penthouses (Barbican Estate Guide). Speaking in general of gated communities, but
applicable to most of them, is the observation that “at first glance, all gated communities' houses look
alike, suggesting the existence of just one social segment inside the enclave. However, there are
significant price differences in the houses for sale, and this implies that some social heterogeneity
exists among the new residents. In fact, significant social and cultural divisions exist” (Salcedo y
Torres, p. 36). There is little evidence of a sense of community within the Barbican Estate, despite
the Estate Office acting as a facilitator for activity groups. This may be in part to the massive scale of
both the estate and the landscaped spaces among the buildings (see appendix 4). It is clear that while
a housing project may be well defined as a separate entity from its surroundings, it should not imply
that a sense of community lies within the project. It is possible for a project to physically and
architecturally differentiate itself from its neighbours, while at the same time being large enough in
scale and diverse enough in tenant composition to also be fragmented from within. A similar lack of
community cohesion and strong definition of ‘inside’ and ‘outside’ in housing projects may be found
in developing countries.
Gated Communities: Segregation & Proximity in Housing

In the case of Santiago de Chile, it is important to see the constraints and opportunities that gated
communities might bring as a concept for housing. Certain persistent criticisms of these communities
are that they are sources of segregation and social inequality, and that they feed the disintegration of
society. By contrast, opportunities are found for some in the promise of security, a fashionable
lifestyle, exclusivity, better basic services, and an expectation of community integration. Ironically,
with security being the most highly-expected benefit of living in a gated community, greater
insecurity tends to result in reality. This is due to a sequence of broken logic whereby an obsession
with security leads to enclosure (within the new community – sometimes physically with walls and
gates), which leads to mistrust, thus furthering insecurity (Salcedo y Torres).

A case study of Huechuraba’s Barrio Alto tests these theories, and demonstrates the effect that a gated
community may have on the neighbouring urban poor. Barrio Alto was constructed next to Villa la
Esperanza, a poor residential area on the outskirts of Northern Santiago. While it may be expected
that such an enclosed typology in proximity to a lower-income neighbourhood would cause
resentment and frustration, this was not the case. Rather, the inhabitants of Villa la Esperanza cited
many benefits due to the new Barrio Alto. Among these were improved quality of life, better job
opportunities, less social stigma based on geospatial location, increased value of land and improved
security conditions. The gated community brought with it increased recognition of that area by the
State, leading to improved lighting, sewage systems, drinking water, and retail outlets (Salcedo y
Torres). It increased the political weight and influence of the region, including Villa la Esperanza,
slightly empowering the poorer communities. While it is unlikely that all cases result in similarly
positive outcomes, this example does provide a case for interspersing communities of varying socio-
economic levels, at least for further market integration of the poor. The physical proximity of Barrio
Alto did not, however, result in community integration, with the mental barrier of ‘other’ remaining
firmly in place. It is clear from this case that a gated community may be able to use its existing
political and financial capital to benefit neighbouring low-income areas, however the notion of
separating a community by a wall or gate not only does not improve security, it further cements the
isolation of those with a different socio-economic background. The removal of these physical barriers
and the incorporation of well-designed public spaces could serve as a catalyst to further community
integration, benefitting both communities.
Land & Housing: Site Selection as a Solution for Integration and Inclusion

A key consideration in housing projects aimed at alleviating poverty is the physical placement of the
project in relation to the greater city. How will each proposal tie into the urban fabric? Will the
policy and framework mechanisms encourage them to blend seamlessly with the overall composition,
or will each project be awkwardly attached to the periphery, without clues as to their contextual
relevance? The World Bank Urban Research Symposium of 2007 provides data that clarifies relevant
issues to siting. For instance, a constraint is identified in the fact that land prices in Santiago have
risen over 1000% from 1986-2007 due to rapid income growth, and as a result almost no social
housing has been built in Santiago since the late 1990’s, causing widespread urban segregation. The
persistence of these problems despite the noted rapid income growth indicates concerns in the
inequitable distribution of income across the many sectors of society. The Chilean Government,
however, has taken steps to interfere in this situation, instigating corrective measures in several ways.
Firstly, a new ‘location subsidy’ has been formed to make areas of high land value affordable for
social housing projects. Secondly, new legislation has been enacted requiring all new developments
to cede 5% of land for social housing (although this may be covered in a monetary equivalent, rather
than producing a separate typology). Finally, new legislation has been passed allowing the location of
social housing to override planning regulations, removing that restrictive barrier for low-income
housing (World Bank 2007). This reflects not only the identification of prohibitory mechanisms in
achieving successful siting of social housing projects, but also a sequence of corrective actions aimed
directly at ensuring continued spatial integration. It is clear for the past twenty years of social housing
development in the greater Santiago Metropolitan Area that general income growth and economic
expansion does not translate directly to addressing poverty or furthering the effectiveness of housing
programmes. The benefits for all groups must be designed into legislation and policy in an age of
increasing globalisation and emerging world economies.

The first Chilean Housing Agency, Caja de Habitación Popular, was established in 1936, and has
recently taken steps to mitigate socio-economic segregation in Santiago. Before these steps were
taken, Caja maintained a spatially marginalized portfolio of projects (see appendix 5). The Agency
later evolved to emphasize the importance of site-selection in the heart of the city:

“Although, the Caja housing proposals at the time were concentrated at the edges of the city, they
made a clear allusion to new urban spaces in between the city and the house. Rather than building
affordable housing projects in the remote periphery, as repeatedly happened in Europe, North
America and Latin America, the Caja designs were meant to be integrated into the urban growth of
Santiago” (Valenzuela, p. 283)
Fortunately, the importance of the location of land in social housing is now seen as a true opportunity
for successfully meeting housing demand in a way that enables communities rather than further
constraining them. This is illustrated in an initiative begun in the 21st Century by Alejandro Aravena,

Areas of Opportunity: ELEMENTAL & Rethinking the Housing Equation

Often the success of Chilean Housing Policy in meeting the housing demand through provision of
low-cost housing masks the overall inadequacy of the current solution. Housing is more than a simple
equation of units provided in response to an evaluated need, and recent statistics display this very
clearly. In a survey conducted by the Government on residents of social housing projects, “64.5% of
residents want to ‘leave the housing’. The motives behind this intention are social in nature: 52.6% of
residents cited difficulties of coexistence with neighbours, perceptions of security, delinquency and
drugs as reasons they want to leave” (Rodríguez & Sugranyes, p. 256). In July 2006, the Government
recognized the poor quality of existing social housing policy, and began a more thorough architectural
critique of what it was providing. It was determined, in general, that both the quality of construction
materials and the quality of life were poor in the social housing projects.

“The massive production of social housing – has created an unsatisfactory situation for the
beneficiaries in terms of the appearance and design of the units and their environment, particularly
with respect to the family and social conditions in the developments and their isolation from the city.
The housing stock today is not only a housing problem, but a social one as well.” (Rodríguez &
Sugranyes, p. 150)

ELEMENTAL has also recognized these failures and is attempting to address the many constraints
encountered in low-income housing in several ways. Firstly, architect Alejandro Aravena has
identified the failed typologies of ‘one house per lot’, row houses that are 3-4 metres wide, and tall
buildings. These approaches have been tried and proven inadequate in addressing the housing
problem. In working with the Government’s Progressive Housing Project, he has set the goals of
prioritizing payment for sites that are connected to the city (location is crucial), finding an
architectural typology that results in high-quality urban space (thinking on multiple levels of scale),
and incorporating opportunities for expansion within the design (adaptability as a prerequisite for
sustainability). How these ideals have been translated into physical forms may be understood from
the first ELEMENTAL project, Quinta Monroy, in Iquique, Chile (see appendix 6). A restriction of
$7,500 USD per family was set by the Government for the provision of land and housing. Aravena
reconceptualised this constraint in a collective way, imagining a $750,000 budget for 100 families
together, with 60% of the potential building volume to be added on as extensions by the inhabitants
over time. This reduces the cost of building to be provided to merely the essential part, leaving space
within the structural framework in anticipation of further extension. In this way, more money could
be spent on land that is central, well-connected and integrated into Santiago, while the collective
building can be constructed at minimal expense. The initial house claims only 36 square metres of
space, while the expanded house can reach 70 square metres of enclosure (see appendix 7). The
houses were provided in clusters of around 20, to address the social need of community. This is an
attempt to create clusters of communal space at a scale that will encourage residents to feel ownership
and use of the space (see appendix 8). It is this spatial definition of community that provides great
promise for the future of social housing (Aravena 2004).

“. . . it is generally the case that when no one is prepared to take responsibility for a public space, it is
the collective space (a common property with restricted access) that can successfully take urban living
beyond the private realm and ensure its maintenance. Collective spaces work well at the scale of about
twenty families. Perhaps the most significant element of this housing effort is that it supports its
residents’ future self-defined design and building and thus also their sense of pride and ownership.
This, together with the implications of its design operations— extended families living in collective
spaces, urban centrality, and the creation of public spaces—might make out of housing not an aim in
itself but a tool for overcoming poverty . . . for families, but also for Chile.” (Aravena, p. 3)


The spatial relationship of housing projects to the wider city, their relation to neighbouring
communities and their internal configuration and scale are crucial to their success. This addresses
notions of community through spatial relationships at the city, local, and internal scales, recognizing
each as being a location of opportunity in enabling successful low-income housing. These spatial
relationships have imbedded in them power relationships, and therefore also the ability to define and
either reinforce or transform those power relationships, which is critical in transforming constraints
into opportunities (Foucault 1980). It is in this realm that the provision of physical housing can
potentially deepen to address social needs and become empowering to the urban poor.

“This new urban emptiness, substantially different from the city derived from the Spanish colonial
Leyes de Indias, denoted new spatial associations in which the further utilization of the collective
space demonstrated a maturity and complexity in the conceptualization of housing’s morphological
definition of the city. In fact, the space between the private and public realms also provided some
solutions to the controversial discussions of community identity. It became an identifiable place
where community dwellers symbolically imagined themselves circulating through in the course of
their daily lives. The idea of the dwelling itself, was enlarged from the private domestic confines to
the collective image of a modernized and developed way of living within a social community: a leap
from house to housing” (Valenzuela, p. 288).

Appendix 1: Chamberlain, Powell & Bon Barbican Proposal: 1956, from (accessed 18 March 2009)

Appendix 2: Location of the Barbican Estate along the North border of the City of London
Adapted from Google Earth
Appendix 3: Cromwell Tower, 07 February 2009, Photo by Andrew Wade
Appendix 4: View of Lake in Barbican Estate Showing Scale of Open Space
07 February 2009, Photo by Andrew Wade

Appendix 5: Locations of Caja de Habitación Popular Projects in Santiago

Adapted from Mass Housing & Urbanization by Valenzuela, Luis, p. 272
Appendix 6: Quinta Monroy by ELEMENTAL, Iquique, Chile

Appendix 7: Quinta Monroy Project after Residents’ Self-Extensions

Appendix 8: Communal Space formed by Cluster of 20 Homes, Animated by Children
Photos from Appendices 6-8 are sourced from, (accessed 15 March 2009)

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Aravena, Alejandro, 2004, “ELEMENTAL: Building Innovative Social Housing in Chile”, Harvard
Design Magazine, No. 21, pp. 1-3.

Cummings, Jean & DiPasquale, Denise, 1997, “The Spatial Implications of Housing Policy in Chile”,
City Research.

English Heritage & The Corporation of London, 2005, “Barbican Listed Buildings Management
Guidelines”, Available online:
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Foucault, Michelle, 1980, “Power Knowledge: Selected Interviews and Writings 1972-1977”,
Pantheon Books, New York.

Glaeser, Edward L, 2003, “Understanding Santiago de Chile”, ReVista: Harvard Review of Latin

Rodríguez, Alfredo & Sugranyes, Ana, 2008, “The Emperor’s New Clothes: Social Housing
Financing Policies in Santiago, Chile”, Analysis, pp. 245-260.

Rojas, Eduardo, 2001, “The Long Road to Housing Sector Reform: Lessons from the Chilean
Housing Experience”, Housing Studies, Vol. 16, No. 4, pp. 461-483.

Rosenberg, John S, 2004, “Tying Knots: Glimpsing Global Harvard in Chile”, Harvard Magazine, pp.
65-72 (May-June).

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International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, Vol. 28.1, pp. 27-44 (March).

Trivelli, Pablo, 2007, “No New Housing for Low-Income Families in Santiago, Chile”, World Bank,
Washington D.C.
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[], (Accessed 20 March 2009)

Valenzuela, Luis, 2008, “Mass Housing and Urbanization: On the Road to Modernization in Santiago,
Chile, 1930-60”, Planning Perspectives, Vol. 23, pp. 263-290 (July).