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ARQ (Santiago)

versión On-line ISSN 0717-6996

ARQ (Santiago)  n.73 Santiago dic. 2009 

ARQ, n. 73 Valparaiso, Santiago, December, 2009, p. 40-45.


The hidden waters of Valparaiso (1)

Marcelo Araya *

* Professor, School of Architecture, Pontificia Universidad Católica de Valparaíso, Valparaiso, Chile


The topography forces the modification of the regular urban weave and generates variations, such as the folds leading the waterways. Valparaiso is understood in its crevices, in the relationships between the hills, the waters and the sea. It is in this way that its inhabitants adapt to the geography and benefit from it

Key words: Chilean-Urbanism, topography, urban morphology, road works, hydrography, human types.

CREVICES AS ORIGINARY SPACES OF VALPARAISO / “Valparaiso is completely minimized” a habitant of the fifth sector of Playa Ancha once said to me a few years ago. The etymological dictionary defines the word minimized in referenceto the miniaturized texts of the Middle Ages, manuscripts of illuminated letters that were named minimized for being painted in the color minium, the color minuim probably coming from the Celtic mein (gold metal). Language, which always returns by recondite paths, confers to the settler the reason for the origin of the word. The minuims or gold of the mines, the galleries underneath the earth.
Valparaiso is entirely minimized or mined: refers to the waterways or the underground galleries that form part of the great system of vaulted gorges of the city, which were created when the hills were initially settled by the inhabitants and were confronted with the difficulty of ascending via the channel. The crevice is the original urban realm of Valparaiso, the first that was occupied and where the first houses were raised (Urbina, 2002). To begin with, the occupation took place on the sidewalks or on the paths at the rims of the crevices —still today their upper section can be found— and with time, considering that the crevice had no water great part of the year, its bottom started to be utilized, but always leaving enough space for water to flow. Thus, the vault is established, generating an artificial floor, the folds are smoothed and the intimate wrinkle becomes, in the extent that is possible, into public. The natural crevice is intimate and becomes not-intimate when it is covered with a slab. Therefore, the crevices were vaulted and gave origin to the squares at the foothills in Valparaiso. (Álvarez, 2001)
The crevices are a natural opening that in the extent that the city grows, they become underground, taking the waters, but are unseen, one perceives them but they are ignored.
This city, more than any other, is buried. Only when the sea wall does not contain the sea and when the collectors of the crevices collapse, is when the citizens begin to understand the old structures of the landscape.
THE CREVICE / To know Valparaiso normally it is said: "Lets go on the edge street, Errázuriz, then go up to Avenida Alemania and thus we’ll see the hills, to then go back down for a bay ride on a boat". These are all of the axis that in semicircles, illustrate the length of the city in direct relationship with the sea, with its edge. It’s always a view from the outside.
For the porteño(2) the relation that it has with the city is another one, it is to inhabit the fold. A view from the inside which embraces the urban weave, that particular trace that follows the paths designed centuries ago by the erosion of rain water, the abrasive sea, the animals, people.
Valparaiso is begun to be understood in its crevices, all of them transversal. That is where its essential order lies. In the same way that The Andes Mountain range is not understood in a drawing of its elevation —ignoring its valleys and foothill ravines—, in Valparaiso one has to go into the crevice, which is the deepest part of the hills. Then we will realize that the crevice is almost always blind, with no way out, at least no way out for a car; we have to get out from the car and walk. This normally happens at Alemania Avenue. Here we realize that the street we ascended on is hollow, that the crevice continues below the pavement, after avoiding some traps to stop sand, mud and litter —sand filters— allowing only water to flow. This avenue, the old Waist Belt, is the limit of the vaulted crevices that arrive at the lower landfill, crossing the landfill and flowing into the sea. The pilots of the current tourist boats, as well as the former fishermen of the coves, recognize these outlets one by one from the sea, that appear as a black squares in the corners of the cement band that elevates the flat plane of the city. They know each one and guide themselves by them: Yolanda, Argentina, Francia, Bellavista, José Tomás Ramos, San Francisco and others; all of them dark tunnels of 2 to 3 meters in height, clearly defined from the sea, constituting a drawing that Valparaiso only shows to the attentive eye.
These waterways recall the drainage system of the Arab cities in Northern Africa, although those existed in order to bring water into the city. In the case of Valparaiso, they exist to take the water away. However, they are related regarding the urban drawing they generate.
The Arab method of water extraction was to locate a humid zone in the land, establish its direction and construct an underground ceramic-tile tunnel, small at first, but larger later, that by means of the porosity of the baked mud, water would sweat. Therefore, sufficient liquid could be captured to supply a city. Madrid, which belongs to the Hispanic-Arab system, has a complex structure of underground waterways (Oliver, 1996). These waterways must have vents every certain meters to ensure its good functioning, which was controlled by a water watchman, who’d walk along the vents. This generated a path, that later made up a road, matching the water gallery, 3 or 4 meters below ground. This waterway path outlined the streets, therefore outlining the weave of the city.
In Valparaiso, it is the case that the waterway —the crevice— always existed, but towards the end of the 19th century, the streets that were at the bottom of the crevice, were covered with a stone and concrete vault, to separate the human traffic from the water, from the flat part to the 100 meter level. It is the same principle: a transit path over a waterway where the latter determines the first. This distinguishes Valparaiso from the majority of the Hispanic-American cities constructed on level land, where the urban organization is generated from the administrative division of the land. In these cities, the water ditch had to be incorporated into each one of the lots. Therefore the urban weave generated the route of the water.
The previously mentioned regarding the crevice, refers mainly to the first band, the one which unfolds from the sea border until Alemania Avenue that, constructed approximately over the 100 meter above sea level —the old waist belt— in a construction carried out in the 1870’s, unites the hills from Francia Avenue —the old Jaime crevice— up to Playa Ancha. In that avenue are located the network of sand filters.

WATER AS THE GENERATOR OF THE ORIGINAL FIELD / In Valparaiso, water is one of the important generators of the layout of the city; another is the effort to ascend. And how could it not be so if the hills are considerable geographic entities that must be ascended, climbed, surrounded, perforated and must also hold. This climbing of the hills is so significant, that it is most likely why they each became so characteristic as neighborhoods. The settlement started below, at the flat portion, which is reason why from the very start there is a difference. Lets not forget that the hills are different below; above they are only one geographic entity. The exception is the Playa Ancha Hill, that started to be inhabited from the top and its growth was towards the bottom instead of towards the top. Therefore, there was no differentiation of its hills, and today we refer to Playa Ancha as a group of hills completely geographically indistinguishable one from another. The neighborhoods of Playa Ancha are: Alejo Barrios Park, Evangélicos, Porvenir, Loma Larga and others not registered as hills in folk memory.
Thus, mean while the water divides the geographical entities as it descends, the inhabitant divides them when he ascends.
If one climbs from the sea to the hills, we encounter the first cliffs, and four types of situations take place regarding the roads:
I. The street that arrives between two hills and is incorporated into the crevice. In this case there is always a gallery underneath it to evacuate the water.
II. The street that arrives at the head of the hill and mounts it by its hillside. There are not many; one example of this type of street is General Mackenna.
III. The street that arrives in the front of the hill, crashing into it, transforming into a stairway or a lift —or a type of mechanical stair—.
IV. The street that arrives at the head of a hill and incorporates into it by means of an underground gallery, to then ascend by a lift and appear at the hillside. There is only one example of this type: Almirante Simpson in the Polanco Hill.
All the streets of the city arriving at hills corresponds to variations of these four examples.
The streets that climbs on the hillside, or the lifts and stairways, that then become long streets on the center of the hills, continue ascending always on the hillside. In turn, Alemania Avenue normally interrupts the street that ascends from the bottom of the crevice on the 100 m level. At this point, the street, that wasn’t more than a cover over the crevice, stops being a cover and gives way to the natural crevice. Here something unique happens, because at the sides of the crevice dirt-paths ascend. These paths later transform into footpaths and don’t abandon the gorge until it disappears. From the 100m level until the 200 m more or less, it is a normal dirt road, then a pedestrian way until the 250 m or 300 m. From there on upwards, it is a path of pezuña de ciriaco(3), horses and footpath. After these, small vernacular paths still continue, as well as paths of runway dogs —wild or fierce— rabbits and rodents. These paths always come out at the top of the hills, and with time they return, converting progressively into larger paths, sidewalks, dirt roads, passages and streets.
In this realm, an intimacy with the landscape is generated that, even though urban, has a lot of relation with rural feedbacks. The firewood for cooking and the firewood for sale come mostly from illegal extractions of the eucalyptus or hawthorn forests that surround the city at the 300 m level upwards. Horses or donkeys drag the trunks until the place where they are crumbled and broken down in sizes according to the furnaces of the bakeries or the domestic heating machines.
THE SPACES OF THE CREVICE AND ITS HUMAN TIPES / Over the line of the sand-filters appears once again the intimate un-covered crevice. In this second band the differences of the inhabitants are established in relation to the place in the hills where they reside: the inhabitant of the bottom of the crevice —the quebradeño— and the ones who live on the hillside —el lomero—.
These two cases correspond to two landscapes formed mainly by water, be it in its condition of rain erosive element —that constitutes the transversal gorge— or as abrasive water mass in the different glacial stratas, that constitutes the longitudinal terraces at 50, 100 and 140 meters above sea level (Álvarez, 1963).
In the smaller paths abound the huaches(4), providing rabbit or hare meat for the land takings that surround the city and that are located from the last point where drinkable water is available —300 m— until where the forest begins —350 to 400 m—.
In these levels is where slope-springs or small rivers appear, which manage to remain wet in the driest months of the summer. In the places where these appear, wells are built to protect them from animals and trash. These small, relatively clean water fountains are used to feed animals, to water kitchen gardens and small farms, as well as occasionally for domestic use, be it for the family themselves or for the closest neighbors. The owner of the well is the quebradeño, a person who inhabits the crevice from Alemania Avenue upwards. His main characteristic is that he’s more rural natured than the rest of the porteños, he has load-bearing and consumption animals, goats, horses and perhaps even pigs, he has basic plantations, a small kitchen garden, gets firewood from the forest nearby and has his own water; the crevice protects him. It can be assumed that his father or grandfather, who chose Valparaiso at the beginning of the century, selected this greener place with water available, because it reminded him of the interior country valleys from where he came from. More than the view to the sea, he was interested in planting meadow trees. As such, poplars, characteristic of the Chilean countryside, appear here amongst the sclerophyll endemic boldo, peumo, litre and arrayán.
Neighbor to the quebradeño, at not more than the 100 m level, lives the inhabitant of the hillside, the lomero. This is a more public citizen that looks to the bay from the heights, controls the traffic from the center of the hill, the buses ascend via his streets, doesn’t have water but knows how to get it and preferred connectivity than the possibility of irrigation. His street is infinite, being born at the edge with the sea and extends indefinitely towards the upper part of the city, this being what really connects him to the world. This same relation makes him a retailer; he is the owner of the store of the hill, which is almost always located at the intersection of the central street with the one transversal to the hillside. The community center, or the committee —if related to inhabitants of a land taking— is generally located in this space of the hill.
If we visualize the relationship amongst both personalities we would say that the spatial occupation of the land in which they settle is by way of a gear, in which the urban advances ascending on the hillside —neighborhood administration, paved streets and drinking water—, but contracts in the crevice. In the same way, the rural, which is what surrounds the city, advances in the opposite direction descending onto the crevice and introducing itself in the urban.
What is of interest is the coexistence and interaction between these different typologies that, different to what would normally happen in a flat land in which polarization would take place establishing a solid barrier between both, here as a consequence of the slope, the passage from one to another is completely gradual, so much so that the majority of them don’t recognize themselves in any of the two realms.
Thus, one of the more important cultural and significant aspects of Valparaiso is hidden at a first glance and is found from Alemania Avenue upwards; this is where takes place this singular manner of establishing the limit, arising the slope, between the constructed and the rustic.

1. The drawings presented in this article were done by the final year students of the Object Design major of the Pontificia Universidad Católica de Valparaíso, Sandra Ureta Marín and Pedro Garretón Izquierdo.
2. Porteño is a native of Valparaiso.
3. Low height donkeys used for load transport.
4. Small sliding steel loops that are put in the tracks of the prey to catch them by the neck.


Álvarez, Leonardo. Geología del área Valparaíso-Viña del Mar. Instituto de Investigaciones Geológicas, Santiago, 1963.         [ Links ]
Álvarez, Luis. "Origen de los espacios públicos en Valparaíso". Revista de Urbanismo, N° 4. Universidad de Chile, Santiago, 2001         [ Links ]
Oliver, Jaime. Historia del nombre de Madrid. Agencia Española de Cooperación Internacional, Madrid, 1996.         [ Links ]
Urbina, Ximena. Los conventillos de Valparaíso, 1880 - 1920. Fisonomía y percepción de una vivienda popular urbana. Ediciones Universitarias de Valparaíso, Valparaíso, 2002.        [ Links ]

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