07 December 2012

Santiago’s elegant edificios

I’ve always been a fan of elegantly designed buildings and, here in Santiago, I’ve found no shortage to point my lens at. Here are a few that have appealed:

The Museo de Bellas Artes (the Fine Arts Museum) is Chile’s principal art gallery. Designed by Chilean architect Emilio Jéquier as an approximate copy of the Petit Palais in Paris, the gallery displays contemporary and past Chilean art as well as playing host to visiting exhibitions. Not only is it a stunning example of classical architecture on the outside, it also has an amazing steel and glass roof. Begun in 1905, the building was finally inaugurated on 21 September 1910.

El Correo Central (the central post office) is located on one corner of the Plaza de Armas. I found conflicting information about the building in guidebooks and on line, so I will paraphrase what Professor Wiki has to say on the subject. According to Wikipedia, ‘The building was built in 1882 by architect Ricardo Brown on the foundations of the old Palace of the Governors, one that had been damaged by fire in 1881 and had been the residence of the presidents of the Republic until 1846, when the seat of government moved to the Palace of La Moneda. In 1908, the architect Ramón Fehrman transformed the facade, adopting a neoclassical style influenced by the French. In 1976, the building was declared a historic monument and, since 2004, the ground floor has housed the Post and Telegraph Museum.'

On the corner of the Plaza de Armas adjacent to the post office is Santiago’s Cathedral, the fifth such building on this site. The first edition was destroyed by fire following an attack by the local indigenous population and the following three incarnations were each destroyed by earthquakes, in 1552, 1647 and 1730 respectively. Although work on the current building began in 1747, the final design, by Italian Joaquίn Toesca, was not devised until the 1780s and building had not been completed prior to the architect’s death in 1799. A century later, the twin towers were added by another Italian Ignacio Cremonesi. Inside, the cathedral is lavishly decorated, its ceiling in particular a sumptuous work of art.

The newly restored building below was re-inaugurated in 1981 as the seat of government, though it has an interesting and somewhat tragic past. The Palacio de la Moneda is so called because it was originally designed by the Italian architect Joaquίm Toesca – who also designed the Cathedral – as the country’s mint. It was built between 1788 and 1805, functioned as the Mint until 1929, part of that time also housing Chile’s presidents, who lived here between 1846 and 1958. When General Augusto Pinochet led the military coup here in Santiago, on 11 September 1973, then president Dr Salvador Allende committed suicide here, and the building itself suffered severe damage as a result of being bombed by Chilean Air Force Hawker Hunters and the fires which followed.

The Museo Nacional de Historia Natural, or National Museum of Natural History, lies within Quinta Normal, a large and beautiful park on the outskirts of downtown Santiago. The exterior of the building, originally designed by French architect Paul Lathoud for the First International Exhibition in 1875 but subsequently rebuilt following a devastating earthquake in 1927, is quite plain and, on the day I visited, the museum was playing host to large numbers of noisy school children, all vying for their turn at the interactive displays it houses. Its one redeeming exhibit – the enormous skeleton of a blue whale – was in the process of being dismantled behind large screens. But I found the building’s interior design quite charming, if mostly inaccessible, completely under-appreciated and largely ignored.

The Museo Artequin sits on one of the busy boulevards that surround the Quinta Normal park and is a delightful example of quirky architecture. The building, constructed of iron and glass, was designed by Frenchman Henri Picq for the International Exposition in Paris in 1889, and brought back in pieces to be reconstructed here in Santiago following the exhibition. I had read negative reviews of the museum itself, which uses replicas of famous artworks to educate Chilean children about the world’s art, so didn’t bother going in but enjoyed photographing the building’s colourful exterior.

Terraza Neptuno or Neptune’s Terrace is located on Cerro Santa Lucίa, a rocky outcrop in the central city where Santiago’s founder Pedro de Valdivia and his 150 men first encamped. These days it is a haven of green amidst towering steel-and-glass skyscrapers and concrete apartment blocks but it also includes remnants of its fascinating past: bits of its original fortifications, a plaque to commemorate a visit by Charles Darwin, a small chapel which can no longer be visited due to the earthquake damage that plagues this city, and Castillo Hidalgo, now an events centre. It also has a wonderful folly, dating from the late 1870s, when city mayor, Benjamίn Vicuña Mackenna, decided to place his own stamp on the small mountain by creating sweeping terraces and grand curving stairways, a triumphal arch topped off by a grand dome and a classically inspired statue of Neptune, riding the waves of his very own fountain.

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