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ARQ (Santiago)

versión On-line ISSN 0717-6996

ARQ (Santiago)  no.86 Santiago abr. 2014 


Chalk Urbanism


Francisco Quintana *(1)

* Architect, Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile, Santiago, Chile.


Frei Montalva promoted the "Operacion Sitio" program and Villa La Reina by Fernando Castillo Velasco is an exemplary case of it. Given scarcity, the people got only what they could not obtain by themselves: urban design and connections with the city.

Keywords: Urbanism - Chile, social housing, self-build, urban design, housing policies.


Operation Site and Villa La Reina (1965-1970)

Between 1940 and 1960, the population of Santiago doubled and produced a housing crisis within the capital. While President Eduardo Frei Montalva (1964- 1970) set out to combat the housing shortage, the government would have neither the money nor the time sufficient to achieve this objective with traditional public policy. So they implemented a plan, nicknamed by its opponents as "Operation Chalk" in the mid-sixties politicians and planners decided not to build houses for those living in extreme poverty, but to give them ownership of a site outlined in chalk. Given the urgency and lack of funds, they opted to provide that which the people could not obtain themselves: urban design, access to services and basic infrastructure and connection to the city networks. Despite difficulties (and not without mistakes) over a period of five years "Operación Sitio" –Operation Site– (the official title of this policy) gave close to 71 thousand sites to more than 380 thousand people, extensive urbanized areas on the outskirts of Santiago during the second half of the '60s.

Villa La Reina, a large neighborhood in the Eastern Santiago, is a self-built project developed during this period. Unlike "Operation Site," this complex was developed at a local scale, led by the architect Fernando Castillo Velasco, mayor of La Reina from 1964 to 1968. The collaborative work between the mayor's office, the local community and the Universidad Católica, was one of the key aspects of this project. The organization of its residents was not only relevant to the construction of the project, but also to the design process and the creation of an integral neighborhood with adequate public space, provided with educational facilities, close to new sources of employment and connected to the structure of the city.

While "Operation Site" and the self-construction seemed like viable strategies for reducing costs and accelerating the supply process, they were severely criticized. In terms of location, it was foreseen at the beginning of the '70s that "Operation Site" would result in large-scale social segregation. In terms of self-construction, Salvador Allende's government would opt for eliminating this type of program, stating that it was an inefficient process and that it discriminated against a population with scarce resources.

First Half of the 20th Century: Migrations and Housing Deficits

Large migrations to the cities characterized the first half of the 20th century in Chile. If in 1907, only 38% of people lived in cities (1.2 million), by 1970 this percentage had increased to 71.6% (6.4 million) (Geisse, 1983). This is largely due to migrations from rural areas and the bankrupt saltpeter mines(1). Santiago, the financial and administrative capital of the country, attracted the majority of these migrants. The result was a huge shortage of housing in the mid-sixties.

The city of Santiago, since the early 20th century, was gradually transformed into the largest industrial center of Chile. In 1916, 45% of public investment in infrastructure was concentrated in the capital, a city with just 18% of the country's population (Geisse, 1983) (fig. 1). The following generation of employment in Santiago was an attractive destination for relocation. In 1907, the city had a population of 300 thousand inhabitants. In 1940, this figure had increased to 950 thousand and by 1960, this number had doubled to 1.9 million people: 58% of the urban population in the country concentrated in Santiago producing a housing crisis. Those with scarce resources arrived at the capital seeking employment and education opportunities and had no alternative but to live in tenements or in so-called "poblaciones callampa", shanty-towns.


Fig. 1. Country and urban population in Chile between 1865 and 1970. Author's diagram.
Information source: Geisse, 1983, p. 185.

The tenements were precarious dwellings by developers who rented to low-income people. They consisted of two rows of rooms sharing a small alley. The lack of ventilation, clean water and plumbing was common in these developments and over-crowding was part of daily life (CORVI, 1962) (fig. 2). Meanwhile, the "callampas" were informal and illegal settlements on public or private land, generally in deteriorated spaces in the city. In 1952, close to 35 thousand dwellings made up different shantytowns in the country's cities, occupying vacant lots mostly in Santiago (CORVI, 1962). The main objective for these settlements was to be able to live closer to employment and education opportunities offered in cities (fig. 3).

Fig. 2. Tenement, c. 1920.
Source: Montoya, J. Luces de modernidad: Chilectra photographic archive. Enersis, Santiago, 2001.

Fig. 3. Shanty town in the Zanjón de la Aguada, c. 1954. Photography: Domingo Ulloa.
Source: Biblioteca Nacional de Chile.

In 1953 the Corporación de la Vivienda (CORVI) was created to provide housing solutions throughout the country; at that time, the housing deficit in Chile would reach more than 145 thousand units (CORVI, 1963). The institution would address the needs of both the middle class and the settlements with scarce resources, and the projects promoted by this entity would include housing projects, like Salar del Carmen in 1960 –designed by Mario Pérez de Arce Lavín and Jaime Besa (fig. 4)– to tower complexes and blocks, like the Unidad Vecinal Portales, designed in 1958 by the office of Bresciani, Valdés, Castillo and Huidobro (fig. 5).

Fig. 4. Salar del Carmen housing, Antofagasta. Architects Mario Pérez de Arce Lavín and Jaime Besa.
Source: CORVI, 1963, p. 21.

Fig. 5. Unidad Vecinal Portales, Santiago. Architects Bresciani, Valdés, Castillo, Huidobro. Photography: René Combeau.
Source: Sergio Larrain García Moreno Archive, Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile.

By the mid-fifties, the corvi began to apply strategies that would be the precursors to "Operation Site". The self-construction and eradication programs consisted in the elimination of the "callampa" settlements, motivated by the unhealthy environment in which the inhabitants were living. corvi acquired the land needed to eradicate the inhabitants and give them the title to a new site. The lot contained a small bathroom and kitchen installation connected to basic services. The settlers themselves would build the most of their definitive dwellings (CORVI, 1963) (fig. 6).

Fig. 6. Operation San Gregorio, c. 1959. Close to 25,000 exresidents of "poblaciones callampas" from Santiago cooperate in the construction of their homes. They used a pre-fabricated wood panel system to accelerate construction.
Source: CORVI, 1963, p. 99

Self-construction emerged informally in several Latin American countries during the '50s and '60s. These settlements were called "barriadas" on Perú, "villas miseria" in Argentina, "favelas" in Brazil, and "poblaciones callampa" in Chile(2). The architect, John Turner, studied the self-construction process on site and promoted it internationally as a feasible solution to the housing problem of those in extreme poverty. According to his observations in Lima, the strategy behind self-construction was more appropriate than the solutions provided by the government and private enterprise. First, it was a more economical solution than those by traditional means. The settlers supplied the labor for building the homes that responded more precisely to their needs and not just a type house. Finally, during the process the necessary social networks were developed for the future development of the complexes. Turner argued that all kinds of public institutions should support these constructions by means of technical support, urbanization, sites and building materials (Turner, 1976; Turner and Fichter, 1972).

The Right to Housing in the Eduardo Frei Montalva Administration.

During the Eduardo Frei Montalva administration, housing was defined as "a primary need that every family has a right to... whatever their socio-economic level may be" (Haramoto, 1980, p. 29). Following this plan, the State would economically assist the low-income families that would be unable to acquire housing alone. In the case of people living in extreme poverty, the state would not only finance the whole dwelling, but also would undertake part of the self-construction process. The idea seeks to integrate the population with the city networks, preventing that they continue living in informal settlements with inefficient spatial distribution, unhealthy conditions given their precariousness and the absence of utilities such as clean water and plumping. This would be promoted as "Operation Site".

In 1965 the government created the Chilean Housing and Urbanism Ministry (MINVU), responsible for, among other things, developing housing and urban plans. The programs elaborated at this time were not aimed at reducing the housing crisis to a housing deficit problem, but had the objective of creating integrated building complexes, thus building the facilities necessary for social development. Schools, clinics, sport fields, among other infrastructure, were understood as part of the housing problem (Palma y Sanfuentes, 1979). Meanwhile, the CORVI became an institution within this ministry and its responsibilities were limited to public housing.

Between 1964 and 1970 the housing policies aimed at building sixty thousand units a year, that is, 360 thousand definitive dwellings (Haramoto, 1980). By the mid-seventies, the average Chilean family was 5.4 people, that is, if you wanted to end the housing crisis, they need to build a city for close to two million people in six years. Of these dwellings, 213 thousand corresponded to low-income areas. The situation worsened after the strong storms of 1965 that had devastating effects in the central valleys: the social pressure for housing increased steeply and the untraditional yet necessary measures were taken to answer the deficit in a short amount of time and with a limited budget.

From Operation Site to Operation Chalk

"Operation Site" began in 1965 as an emergency plan in response to the damage caused by devastating storms. Two years later, with the Low-income Savings Plan, it would become a formal channel to provide housing to low-income citizens. The program essentially consisted of providing loans to buy single-family plots with utilities and connected to the city where the inhabitants would build their own homes. Following the tenets of the MINVU, these complexes would be planned with proper education, recreation and health facilities. Between 1965 and 1970 around 71 thousand sites were delivered to benefit more than 380 thousand people (Garcés, 2002, p. 308). However, the quality of these plots was inconsistent so that residents and opponents of the policy began to call it "Operation Chalk" as in some cases these sites consisted in no more than a chalk outline.

By 1962, the CORVI reports indicated that 76% of the housing construction investment was spent on building, while the site cost 5% and urban development cost 19% of the total investment (CORVI, 1962; CORVI, 1963). Thus, the self-construction process would reduce the initial investment to provide a solution to low-income settlers that had no capacity for savings to access a definitive dwelling by traditional means. "Operation Site," therefore, would accelerate the distribution process of the sites, bringing housing access to the masses through incremental construction by the settlers.

The Low-Income Savings Plan consisted in five options(3), the first and most basic corresponding to "Operation Site". The first stage consisted in a 160 m² lot, which in the best case could have a mediagua(4) located at the back. Urban development was reduced to gravel roads and water lines on pylons and electrical lines providing street lighting and energy. The facilities were defined as a school, community center, local shops and open space. In the second stage the development would be completed with the installation of plumbing, water and electricity. The construction of the dwelling would be the owner's responsibility (Labadía, 1970).

The CORVI fulfilled the function of providing the necessary sites to develop the operations. The subdivisions built between 1966 and 1970 were homogeneously distributed in the peripheries of the capital, the majority along the Américo Vespucio loop, and inter-district freeway that enabled city expansion (Palmer y Vergara, 1990) (fig. 7). In these subdivisions urban design was reduced to the minimum to achieve maximum economic efficiency. The objective was to distribute the greatest quantity of lots and public spaces in the smallest area possible, maximizing the number of sites that would be serviced by the streets they faced. Increased efficiency is achieved with a rectangular lot with the smallest possible front to connect the most houses possible to plumbing and electrical lines, reducing the construction costs of linear meters of urbanization (fig. 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13).(5)

Fig. 7. Locations of Site Operations built between 1965 and 1970 throughout a plan of Santiago from 2010. Author's diagram.
Information Source: Hidalgo, 2005, p. 293.

Fig. 8. Operation Site Plan: Población Conchalí, 1965-66. Published scale 1: 10.000.
Source: Haramoto, 1985, p. 84-85.

Fig. 9.

Fig. 10.
Fig. 9 and 10. Operation Site: Población Conchalí, 1965-66. 450 homes were built for 2,000 people together with private companies that provided prefabricated panel systems and concrete pillars for some houses, and pine and plasterboard for others.
Photography and information sources: Haramoto, 1985, p. 84-85.

Fig. 11. Operation Site plan: Población El Bosque, 1970. Published scale 1: 10.000.
Source: Haramoto, 1985, p. 88-89.

Fig. 12.

Fig. 13
Fig. 12 y 13. Operation Site: Población El Bosque, 1970. 744 homes for 2,976 people.
Photography and information sources: Haramoto, 1985, p. 88-89.

It must be noted that "Operation Site" is not considered as just housing construction, but included, at least in plan, the construction of schools, health centers, sporting areas, public space and commercial areas among other infrastructure. A prefabrication system would be tested for the construction of schools, while the Ministry of Education would supply the teachers (Garcés, 2002). The biggest problem was that the promised facilities were not built in all cases (Hidalgo, 2005); it would not be until the '80s and onwards that different administrations would slowly improve the urban conditions in which these subdivisions were found.

"Operation Site" received severe criticism, not only because self-construction was considered discriminatory to those with scarce resources, but also for its location. Authors such as Manuel Castells (1971) argued, at the beginning of the '70s, that this was the beginning of a massive social segregation. This fact increased exponentially due to the public policies adopted in the following decades and the continued expansions of Operation Site of socially homogenous tracts devoid (in many cases still today) of facilities, infrastructure and the minimum services for human development: education, health, employment, commerce, green spaces, etc.

A Case Example

Villa La Reina(6) is a neighborhood of 1,592 houses built entirely by their owners: from the houses to the green areas, schools, churches and public spaces, including streets and plumbing and water lines. It is the largest of the assisted self-construction project in the '70s, not only in Chile but also in all the developing countries. The collaborative work between the mayor, the community and the Universidad Católica, differentiates the Villa La Reina from the other complexes built by "Operation Site" or later programs such as "Sites and Services"(7) that, developed by national governments, distanced themselves from the local problems of the communities. The participation of the architect, Fernando Castillo Velasco, in the collaborative work was particularly relevant, who being the mayor of La Reina Municipality, professor and, later, President of the Universidad Católica, was able to summon political and academic institutions with the needs and expectations of a community organized to demand their right to housing.

The Creation of The La Reina District: Social Tension and Segregation

During the '50s, the Nuñoa district grew rapidly with the arrival of diverse social classes, the majority coming from middle and upper class areas. Its proximity to the central districts of Santiago, where the greater sources of employment and commerce stood, attracted people to build homes in this area. On the other hand, and quickly, industrial areas emerged, providing jobs and attracting low-income settlers who began to illegally occupy public and private sites.

Over time, the social tension among the various residents of Ñuñoa began to increase. Middle and upper class groups settled down in the Andean foothills and began to demand different treatment from the mayor. Their demands escalated to the presidency of Alessandri, who in 1963 decided to definitively separate the area from the rest of Nuñoa to found the Municipality of La Reina. This was not the only act of segregation. Oscar Castro, the first mayor, ordered the sites occupied by illegal squatters to be fenced, forcing them to relocate and avoiding new illegal occupations in the district (San Martín, 1988).

In 1964, President Eduardo Frei Montalva appointed Fernando Castillo Velasco, also a member of the Christian Democratic party, mayor of La Reina. His first actions as mayor had the objective on one hand to eliminate the segregation imposed in previous years, and one the other to promote social development in the district. Thus the Castro's decree was repealed and the Municipality began to develop the District Development Plan together with the Universidad Católica(8). During his administration Fernando Castillo established the basis for an inclusive, integrated development for all socio-economic levels, incorporating industrial, institutional and cultural activities in the area of the city that was originally formed as a bedroom district. In his own words, "one day I came across 1,600 families that had no home and lived on the banks of the San Carlos Canal on vacant sites. I called to them and told them that they are members of the district and have the same rights as any other; they were people in extreme poverty, and I told them that I was committed to doing everything possible to make them the owners" (Cociña, Quintana, Valenzuela, 2009, p. 127). Thus, the settlers illegally occupying the degraded landscapes of the district were able to obtain a home. The incorporation of low-income housing within the development plan was fundamental to the incorporation of additional land-use in the area (Castillo, 2013).

The construction of Villa La Reina was an opportunity for those in extreme poverty to continue to live in the district, avoiding the relocation to places where they would lose the social and employment networks that had been created over the years. Thus, the first objective of the mayor was to find an affordable site for the settlers. Moreover, given the scarcity of resources, the self-construction through the organization of the local community appeared to be a feasible solution for reducing investment costs.

Location: Connection to City Resources

The area selected for implementing part of the District Development Plan and the subsequent construction of the Villa was the estate of La Reina found in the center of the district. The site, a practically inactive agricultural area, contained 220 hectares belonging to the Social Security Service. Fernando Castillo, after meeting with different institutions and politicians, among them the then senator Salvador Allende, acquired the sites at a low price (Castillo Velasco, 2008, p. 25; Cociña, Quintana, Valenzuela, 2009, p. 127). The deal specified that 20% of the total area must be designated for the economically unstable population (Alvarado, 1967).

The District Development Plan established the construction of an industrial park made up of close to 100 low-impact industries and small enterprises, compatible with the housing development (Eliash, 1990). In this way, Villa La Reina would be located adjacent to a source of employment that would give work to the first generation of residents. The access to this new source of employment would greatly reduce one of the largest urban inequalities suffered in traditional social housing projects both in Chile and the world.

While La Reina is a peripheral district in Santiago, the Villa was located along Av. Larrain(9), and inter-district artery that connects the neighborhood with the Américo Vespucio loop and with the more central districts in the capital. With the passage of time and with proper planning, this area was transformed into a sub-center annexing educational, cultural, recreational, and health facilities. Adding to this programmatic variety, the district has maintained through time its socio-economic diversity unlike the vast, isolated and socially homogenous tracts resulting from the abuse of "Operation Site" in areas such as Pudahuel and on the sites that today make up the district of Cerro Navia.

Urban Design: The Basis for the Incremental Construction of a neighborhood

Participatory design involving professors and students of the Universidad Católica School of Architecture and the future residents of the Villa La Reina was able to improve an urban design that pursued the same objectives of economic efficiency as those developed by "Operation Site" (fig. 14). In this case it was an urban design that was not only dedicated to the efficient distribution of lots but also to the appropriate distribution and design of streets, pedestrian paths, boulevards, plazas and the designation of commercial zones, schools and markets, along with other facilities. One of the objectives of the academic studio conducted by Fernando Castillo Velasco and Mario Pérez de Arce Lavín with the residents was to avoid the problems presented in other social projects of the time but to turn the Villa into "just another neighborhood," integrated into the city (San Martín, 1992; Castillo, 2013). The architect Renato Parada continued the result of these studios. An important figure in the administrative, design and construction processes was Eduardo San Martín, Project Director of the Municipality during this time.

Fig. 14. Plan of the Villa La Reina. Published scale. 1: 10.000. Source: Haramoto, 1985, p. 87. Redrawn by the author.
Leyend: 1. Plaza; 2. Commerce; 3. School; 4. Interior plazas; 5. Market; 6. Chapel.

Villa La Reina would not be made up of just houses, but would have other facilities such as a school built within the first year (fig. 15) and commercial areas. These community spaces would be located along Av. Larrain, the district's main street, with entrances into the Villa, with the goal of creating a better relationship between the neighborhood and the immediate urban context of the city (San Martín, 1988). Other facilities like the market and church, also built by the residents, were located within the Villa together with its main street.

Fig. 15. Villa La Reina School, c. 1967.
Source: Alvarado, 1967, p. 34.

In terms of public space, architects and residents decided to avoid large square plazas that generally deteriorated into delinquent areas. On the contrary, small plazas were distributed with the houses and pedestrian paths toward the interior of the Villa. The main green space would be a wide, tree-lined sidewalk located along the neighborhood's main street, concentrating urban transport and the majority of urbanization costs (San Martín, 1988). This greenbelt distances the houses from the street while its width allows for it to be maintained by the neighbors themselves. These public spaces are relevant given that they are natural extensions of the dwellings and facilitate even more interaction among residents. The social cohesion and urban identity are relevant in the care and progress of the neighborhood.

The definition of the housing and its distribution are the results of academic studios and the work of the residents and architects of the municipality. The community rejected the first two designs because the houses were too small (Alvarado, 1967). Continuous blocks like row houses, similar to those of Operation Site, were not accepted either given that the residents aspired to detached houses. Because of this, the lots were rotated with respect to the streets they face (fig. 16) with the objective of overlapping and separating the units from each other (Castillo, 2013). The houses are 36 m2, with two bedrooms, a living-dining space, kitchen and bathroom. The sites (fig. 17) have 165 m2, and would be 7.5 m in the front and 22 meters deep (Alvarado, 1967). The houses would be built close to the front of the site occupying almost the whole width so as to maintain a certain order along the street facade. The back patio is left as an available space for future expansion.

Fig. 16. Homes in Villa La Reina, c. 1967.
Source: Alvarado, 1967, p. 36.

Fig. 17. Plan and elevation of Villa La Reina housing. Published scale. 1: 500. To the left, the original housing plan. To the right, the proposed on-site expansion.
Source: Haramoto, 1985, p. 87. Redrawn by the author.

Self Construction: Organization and Social Development

At the beginning of 1965 the residents began to organize the "Federación de Pobladores", made up of the 1,600 families in 16 committees who would be in charge of the development and construction of their own homes. Collectively, they laid down statutes, establishing, among other things, that one or two people per family would work only on Saturday, Sunday and holidays without knowing which dwelling would be theirs until they were all finished. The houses would be distributed by means of a family ranking according to their involvement in the construction and administration of the work. Technical assistance was provided at the beginning by the Municipality and later would be joined the technical institute, INACAP; civil engineering students from the Universidad Católica collaborated by overseeing construction. In May of 1966, the residents finished the model house and in August of the same year began construction on the rest of the complex (Alvarado, 1967).

The self-construction process was planned as an opportunity for the residents two learn new job schools as well as for creating companies by the neighbors themselves. INACAP conducted weekly training courses for site managers and assistants. Meanwhile, the municipal authorities encouraged the community to form their own industries and thus began the installation of factories for windows, doors, plasterboard, plumbing, prefabricated flooring and trusses. With the earth on-site they manufactured their own bricks (fig. 18, 19, 20, 21, 22). As the companies emerged to build the houses and develop the neighborhood, they produced a surplus of materials to be sold to other housing developments in Santiago and became involved in the construction of other projects in the district such as banks and supermarkets and even the Parque Industrial neighboring the Villa (Alvarado, 1967; Haramoto, 1980; San Martín, 1988; San Martín, 1992).

Fig. 18. Fernando Castillo Velasco during housing construction.
Source: Castillo Velasco, 2008, p. 32.

Fig. 19. Fabricación de los ladrillos con tierra del lugar, c. 1967.
Fuente: Alvarado, 1967, p. 39.

Fig. 20.

Fig. 21.

Fig. 22.
Fig. 20 to 22. Men and women building their future homes, c. 1967.
Source: Alvarado, 1967.

Self- construction was established in Villa La Reina as a way to create a sense of belonging and commitment to the project while also instilling the people of their own capabilities (Márquez, 2006). What began as a technical strategy for minimizing investment costs became a channel for social integration for low-income families into both the national economy and political spheres for the development of their social and built environment, overcoming marginalization (San Martín, 1992; Castillo Velasco, 2008; Zerán, 1998).

The Right to a Decent Home. The Salvador Allende Administration

Salvador Allende, like Eduardo Frei Montalva, established during his administration (1970-1973) that housing would be an inalienable right for the people, but unlike the previous administration, he added that "it is the obligation of the State to provide housing for the people and that it should not be a source of profit" (Haramoto, 1980, p. 33). The new position of the government sought to deliver housing and eliminated this form of self-construction and incremental housing. "Operation Site" was criticized during this period for the reduced quality of the solution delivered and the lack of involvement by those affected in the design process (Hidalgo, 2005). Self-construction, on the other hand, was understood an unnecessary delay in the execution of the work and an inefficient use of economic resources (Palma y Sanfuentes, 1979).

The new policies adopted by the socialist government weakened state support for the Villa La Reina while social dynamics were fragmented and politicized (Márquez, 2006). However, the self-construction of the Villa did not stop thanks to the state of advancement and the social organizations that did not want to modify their work structure (San Martín, 1988).

Informal settlements continued to appear in the capital despite the efforts of Salvador Allende's government to reduce the housing crisis. These occupations had been on the rise since the Frei administration, increasing from 4 sites in 1968 to 104 in 1970 with an approximate population of 350 thousand people. By 1973, the quantity of people living in camps reached 500 thousand (De Ramón, 1990).

Housing and Consumerism. The Dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet (1973-1990)

With the arrival of Augusto Pinochet to power, housing ceased to be an inalienable right and became a "right that is acquired by effort and savings" (Haramoto, 1988, p. 35). In the '70s and '80s, as the neo-liberal economic model was adopted, the state began to take on a subsidiary role with respect to social housing and private enterprise became responsible for finding the land for new construction. Under this logic the land market is liberalized in 1979, arguing that the increase in available land will lower prices and facilitate the construction of more social housing, which did not occur (Hidalgo, 2005).

The social segregation that had germinated with Operation Site was greatly increased after the liberalization of the land market. The speculation that brought this measure considerably increased land value toward the center of the city, particularly affecting the informal camps located in these areas. A policy for eradicating the camps was implemented to move these communities away from the city center and towards the peripheries, concentrating poverty in districts that lacked the necessary health and education facilities and the necessary employment for development. Between 1979 and 1985 more than 170 thousand people were relocated, expanding Santiago at a rate of 3,000 hectares annually (Hidalgo, 2004). During this time, the leaders of Villa La Reina were persecuted, the neighboring industries closed and the organizations dissolved (San Martín, 1988; Márquez, 2006). The residents finished individually the few houses that were still to be built in 1973, located toward the east of the complex, having some support from the administration (Castillo, 2013, p. 98).

Hidden in Formality

The migration to the capital in search of work and educational opportunities continued to increase during the '70s and '80s. The formation of new informal settlements was prohibited and the cities were controlled severely by the military. The people, facing the social housing deficit and the impossibility of taking over vacant land, began a densification process within the small housing solutions provided in previous years by Operation Site and other policies. A single lot could receive two or three families on their property. A strong densification in low-income neighborhoods began. The social segregation described continued to grow, now from overcrowding, and the necessary infrastructure or connections with city resources were still unbuilt.

Villa La Reina was not exempt from this densification dynamic. Over time, lightweight expansions appeared in the back patios and later they became permanent; the original residents received the families of their children and other relatives (Castillo, 2013) (fig. 23). The socio-economic data shows that in Villa La Reina, by 2002, close to 40% of the residents that continued living in the Villa had joined the middle class. According to the investigation by Francisca Márquez, between 2006 and 2009, social mobility and professionalism could be observed by the second generation, but they continued to live in the same district (fig. 24, 25, 26, 27, 28, 29).

Fig. 23. Expansion scheme of the Villa la Reina dwellings, from the original house to the enclosure of the front yard and expansions in the patio and second floor. Not to scale.
Fuente: Source: Author's drawing.

Fig. 24. Original houses without additions, 2014.
Photography: Stephannie Fell.

Fig. 26. Wide, treelined sidewalk built more than 40 years ago, 2014.
Photography: Stephannie Fell.

Fig. 26. Vereda ancha con los árboles plantados hace más de 40 años, 2014.
Fotografía: Stephannie Fell.

Fig. 27. Interior passages of the Villa La Reina, 2014.
/Photography: Stephannie Fell.

Fig. 28. Helena, founder of Villa La Reina, lives in the pilot house (built in May, 1966), 2014.
/Photography: Stephannie Fell.

Fig. 29. José Ramón, founder, resident and builder of Villa La Reina, in front of his home, 2014.
Photography: Stephannie Fell.

Urbanizing with chalk

Facing the urgency and lack of resources, the strategy behind "Operation Site" and Villa La Reina sought to resolve the housing crisis by providing the basics for people that could not obtain them on their own. The population living in extreme poverty and illegally would be land owners, and without the fear of eviction, could improve their home over time along with the urban surroundings. If the site they were granted happened to be where they already lived, they could maintain their social networks and employment. Access to basic services such as clean water and plumbing would improve the quality of life of the residents. Urban design, as simple as it was, could maintain a certain order to further developments within the neighborhood and could avoid inefficiency, unsanitary conditions and insecurity typically found in spontaneously generated informal settlements (United Nations Human, 2003). It would also plan the construction of community facilities such as schools, sport fields, green spaces commercial zones and health centers that would promote social development. The land, within and connected to the city, would create the possibility of accessing job opportunities generated in urban centers. The self-construction process would provide new professional tools to the population while the collective work would encourage the creation of an urban identity of social networks and mutual aid.

Large urban migration continues to be a problem today, maybe not in Chile, but in the rest of the world. In the last decades, cities in Asia, Africa and Latin America grow by 800 thousand, 230 thousand and 150 thousand new inhabitants per week respectively (United Nations, 2012, p. 29). Strategies similar to "Operación Sitio" continue to be implemented in countries such as Pakistan and India to avoid the formation of informal settlements. We hope they repeat the successes and not the mistakes.



1. In 1930, agriculture employed 37.5% of Chilean work force, but in 1970 –because of industrial farming– that ratio went down to 25%. In the early '20s, saltpeter mines in the north of the country had attracted more than 65 thousand people; most of them moved back to the central valleys once the nitrate mining industry went bankrupt a few years later (Geisse, 1983).

2. In Rio de Janeiro, currently 20% of the population lives in "favelas" whilst informal urban areas in Caracas and Lima correspond to 60% and 70% respectively (Jáuregui, 2009).

3. These five options would be: semi-urbanized lots, urbanized lots, self-construction basic housing, single-storey 45 m2 units and apartments within 4-storey blocks (Labadía, 1970, p. 429).

4. In Chile, a "mediagua" is a basic dwelling unit intended to be used mostly for emergencies. It consists in a single slope roof wooden structure that encloses an area of 6 x 3 m. The interior space is barely finished.

5. The book El lote 9 x 18 en la encrucijada habitacional de hoy, by Montserrat Palmer y Francisco Vergara, showcases a detailed research on the architecture of popular urban developments built in Santiago between 1959 and 1988.

6. The most documented research on the history of Villa La Reina –from its foundation until the '2000s– is available in the doctoral thesis research notes by María José Castillo Couve (2013). (See also Alvarado, 1967; Castillo Velasco, 2008; Eliash, 1990; Márquez, 2006; San Martín, 1988; San Martín, 1992; Zerán, 1998).

7.In the '70s and '80s the World Bank promoted and funded the "Sites and Services" program throughout a number of developing countries in Latin America, Africa and Asia. The program, just like "Operation Site", provided urban lots to the poorest families of each country.

8.At the Universidad Católica School of Architecture, "the students Enrique Browne, Carlos Buchholtz, Sven Jacob and Nicolás Manase developed the plan as part of a undergraduate seminar led by professor Nicolás García and the professor and mayor of La Reina Fernando Castillo Velasco" (Castillo, 2013, p. 89.

9. Villa La Reina is located within the polygon defined by Larrain Ave. and Diputada Laura Rodríguez St., Talinay St. and Cordillera St.



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1. Francisco Quintana. Architect and Master in Architecture, Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile, 2010; Master in Design Studies: Urbanism, Landscape, Ecology concentration, Harvard University, 2014. Fulbright scholar, 2012-2014. Since 2005 his work has been related to the publishing: he is the founder and co-director of Cientodiez, BARQO y Volúmenes Independientes and co-editor of the book Agenda Pública: Arquitectura > Ciudad > Desarrollo (2009).

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