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ARQ (Santiago)

versión On-line ISSN 0717-6996

ARQ (Santiago)  no.104 Santiago abr. 2020 


1979, Santiago year zero. The rasante regulations, the Japanese model and the formation of the Neoliberal city

Gonzalo Carrasco1 

1Profesor Asistente Adjunto, Facultad de Arquitectura, Diseño y Estudios Urbanos Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile. Santiago, Chile.


Analyzing the origins and implementation of the Chilean set-back regulation, this text explores its underlying ideas of city and society - under the assumption that, during the dictatorship, this regulation became a style typical of the local implementation of the neoliberal economy. For while the shape of buildings can be determined by regulations, they can also be dictated by ideologies or theoretical models: in this case, the search for the maximum possible profitability.

Keywords: laws; rasantes; high-rise buildings; urban planning; essay

In issue 48 of AUCA magazine, the architect Abraham Schapira critically exposed the economic,. constructive and plastic problems that the 1978 introduction of the rasante regulation30 was generating. From the establishment of a virtual volume defined by the application of slanted planes at a certain angle from the horizontal ground floor, this regulation limited both the height and the maximum volumetric arrangement to be built on a property. Schapira’s was one of the first criticisms of a measure that not only determined control over the built envelope but also, until its modification in 2000, defined the morphology in the urban sectors of greater economic dynamism in Chile.

Conceived after the arrival of neoliberal economists to the main offices of the dictatorship cabinet, this rule is part of a set of measures that were applied to the city through the new General Law of Urban Planning and Construction of 1975 (MINVU, 1975) and the promulgation of the National Urban Development Policy in 1979. Both texts defended principles that, in the end, were fundamental for the installation of the new neoliberal society: a national development model oriented by a social market economy, the installation of subsidiary state principles and urban land policies defined as a resource that is not scarce. This approach allowed a city of extensive growth, where “the supply of land cannot be restricted by delimitations and zoning based on theoretical standards and rigid rules” (MINVU, 1979).

Figure 1 AUCA issue 48, December, 1984. Special number “cities’ disOrdinances.” 

Through the modifications of chapters III and IV of the General Ordinance of Constructions and Urbanization (MINVU, 1978), the history of rasante regulations goes back to August 1978. In chapter IV and under the title “Of the grouping of buildings and their relationship with the ground” key rules were incorporated for the intensification of land use and, therefore, of the economic performance of the land.31 Within these modifications, article 479 appeared, introducing the rasante as a mechanism to control distances from mediators. While the rasante already existed in the ordinance before 1978 - and also had

a way to regulate the height of the bodies that could exceed the maximum defined,32 such as the height control in some of Santiago’s local ordinances33 - in the following modifications made in November of that year, it was established that “all facades of isolated or paired buildings, with or without openings,” must be inscribed under a slanted plane raised from the plot’s boundaries or the front-street axis. The inclination of these plans was set at 60º for constructions of up to two floors and 70º for buildings of three or more floors, in what was a national scale measure, regardless of geographical area. This generated buildings whose back and lateral facades were made of set-backs and terracings at best, and, more frequently, through battered walls and sloping planes that followed the volume set by the rasante. The only exception was the main facade, which always maintained its status as a vertical plane.34

This was precisely the norm that Abraham Schapira critically assessed in the AUCA pages of 1984. The first problem diagnosed pointed to the impact of this standard on constructability. For Schapira, the designer had two options: “a) that of optimum use of the buildable volume with the sacrifice of the aesthetics, rationality, and economy of the construction,” following the pyramidal volume resulting from the application of the ground plans. Or, “b) the considerable loss of property profitability in favor of project and construction optimization,” which was the alternative of a designer who decided to solve the volume disposition generating set-backs to rationalize the allowed volume, which caused, according to Schapira, losses exceeding 50 % of the authorized theoretical constructability.

Figure 2 Page from the Abraham Shapira’s article “Rasantes: a mistake turned into a style.” In the left superior side, the Edificio Parque photograph stands out, located on Vitacura Av., 3229, Santiago. Architect: Alberto Reitich Bordman, 1981. 

This explains why most of the buildings with more than three floors built after this norm followed the first option, producing pyramidal volumes and faceted faces, which drastically transformed the profile of Chilean cities. This measure also generated deep economic contradictions on one of the main characteristics of the tower-building: as the ground level rule contravened the construction efficiencies of the ‘type plant,’ favoring singular solutions instead, the rationalization of technical resources35 was reduced, which turned the tower into the typical architectural solution in the second half of the 20th century. That is to say, while the tower-building favored a Taylorization of the tasks - based on repetition and standardization - the rasante-building with differentiated plants meant a more artisanal constructive solution. Schapira (1984:26) shared this diagnosis, since “when alterations of verticality are present in the project, the standard or average construction cost for the same built surface will rise by twenty or more percent, depending on the complexity and extension of the variants.”

Source: Centro de Documentación del Ministerio de Vivienda y Urbanismo.

Figure 3 Perspective of planes and rasante cones application. Picture n°3, “Rasante surface perspective, back view.”Diagram included in: Ministerio de Vivienda y Urbanismo. Circular Ord. Nº8. Ant. Decreto Supremo Nº225, del 30 de julio de 1980. Santiago de Chile, 26 de agosto de 1980. 

The implementation of the rasante generated a type of sloping building with profound plastic problems. Initially known in Chile as ‘tongo-buildings,’ later - appealing to the similarity between the prismatic planes of its facades and the briefcases of street shoe polishers - they were called ‘shoe shine boxes.’36 Thus, the architects, trying to propose a coherent and, at the same time, profitable form, applied a whole repertoire of solutions where the slopes of the volume became mansards, pyramids or, in some cases, miniature reproductions of foreign buildings that, in this way, were part of the new postmodern architecture current that in those years arrived to the country.37 In this way, the rasante regulations not only implied profound transformations in the practices associated with the generation of the tower-building but also became a typical Chilean architectural style of the 1980s and 1990s. In addition to Schapira, this phenomenon was also noticed by the academy, especially in the study of Sofía Letelier, Ana Rugiero and María Inés Arribas, who, between 1993 and 1996, analyzed the typologies of the upper finishes of Santiago’s high-rise buildings from a semiological approach (Letelier et al., 1997). Among them, they highlighted the different solutions offered by the mansard type finishes, “that of habitable roof (for service) and palatial proportions, was adopted in Chile for low, medium and high altitude in any socioeconomic stratum like no other country of Latin America” (Letelier, 2001). The responses to the regulations were “allusive to mansards,” “telescopic” finishes, “pyramid-like forms” - regular and irregular - “perimeter skirts” and “various other ways of prism truncations” (Letelier, 2001).

Source: El Mercurio de Santiago.

Figure 4 In the photograph (from left to right): Subsecretary from the Ministry of Housing and Urbanism, General Jaime Strada; and, chief from the Urban Development Division from the MINVU, Marco Antonio López, in the closure of the National meeting of Authorities from the housing area, 1980. 

But it was in the 1990s, coinciding with the construction boom experienced in municipalities such as Las Condes and Providencia, when the controversies surrounding the implementation of rasante regulations increased.38 These criticisms led to the addition of articles 2.6.11, 2.6.12 and 2.6.13 of the General Urbanism and Construction Ordinance in 2001, through which, although the rasante was not terminated, its implementation was detailed, allowing to break the theoretical volume established by the rasante if it was demonstrated - through a shadow study - that the proposed volume did not exceed the theoretical. Although this amendment put an end to the norm’s sloping buildings, it did not terminate the discourses, practices and protocols that operators, institutions and professionals deployed since the late 1970s when producing these buildings. After all, still today there is an idea of i ntensive occupation of urban land, a production of urban space focused on the creation of capital gains, a strong relationship between the built volume and the land and, also, professional practices where many of the project decisions are left to the will of the regulations in force.

Source: Centro de Documentación del Ministerio de Vivienda y Urbanismo

Figura 5 Cover Planning of Tokio 1979. Tokio: Tokyo Metropolitan Government, 1970. 

1979, Santiago Year Zero

But where did the rasante regulations come from? What were the motivations, objectives, and models behind their implementation? First of all, it is necessary to underline the difficulties involved in tracking discussions of urban laws and regulations in Chile because, when promulgated by decree and without parliamentary discussion (even less during a dictatorship), these emanate directly from the Executive and its various technical bodies, and are constantly modified by means of circulars. In the period in question, this condition was exacerbated by the marked technocratic profile of the new neoliberal bureaucratic bodies that were installed in the Ministry of Housing.39 Hence, in the following, we try to recompose some pieces that can illuminate what some of the interests, references, and challenges would have been at the time of conceiving and implementing the rasante regulation in Chile.

Although the norm came into force during the second half of 1978, its implementation experienced considerable difficulties. Both municipalities and architects found very hard to understand and incorporate these new measures and, above all, set aside previous conventions used when defining distancing and projected volumes.40 This made it necessary, in July 1980, to rewrite article 479, in an attempt to make the norm more explicit both in its definitions and in the methodology to build the ‘rasante cover.’41 However, it was still not enough, thus the MinVU Urban Development Division had to prepare a circular to illuminate unclear aspects in the application of the new standard.42

Source: Centro de Documentación del Ministerio de Vivienda y Urbanismo.

Figure 6 Rasante application diagram as specified in Japanese norms. In: City Bureau, Ministry of Construction. City Planning in Japan (Tokio: Japan International Cooperation Agency, s/f). It is worth noting that this publication is Pedro J. Salas's classbook, which includes his annotations and underlined paragraphs. 

This circular was written by Marco López Tobar, head of MINVU’s Urban Development Division. Between 1970 and 1972, this architect had been an advisor to the Housing and Urban Planning Institute of Panama, as part of the Technical Assistance program of the International Development Bank in the early years of the Torrijos military dictatorship, after the 1968 coup d’etat. There he was linked to the outline of housing and urban development policies aimed at the creation of the Ministry of Housing of that country. López Tobar’s ideas were marked by the modernization of the institutional structure and the search for stable and permanent financing mechanisms, highlighting a commitment to a greater role of the State in housing, even considering measures such as the regulation of the price of rents (López Tobar, 1973) or an approach to urban development where the rural was not an area that encloses the urban, but rather an active space in the future expansion of cities without which it was not possible to think about planning in the long term.

Figure 7 Japanese rasante norms application effect. Drawing by Macarena Díaz made from an image included in: Yoshimura, Yasutaka. Chuougouhou Kenchiku Zukan (Super Legal Buildings) (Tokio: Shokokusha, 2006). 

Source: Municipalidad de Las Condes. Ordenanza MR-80 y su modificaciones. Departamento de Asesoría Urbana, I. Municipalidad de Las Condes, 1980.

Figura 8. Rasante diagram for high and medium density zones, as stated by Las Condes' municipal Ordinance from 1980 

Upon entering the MINVU, however, López Tobar’s ideas were modified. At that time, the heads of the ministries43 were occupied by economists trained at the University of Chicago, who encouraged a rather horizontal city that would grow in expansion, subject almost exclusively to the fluctuations of the supply and demand of the urban land market44 and that had its foundational stones in the drafting of the National Policy of Urban Development and in the preparation for the Study of the Urban Area of Santiago of 1979.45 Considering that the withdrawal of any type of ‘artificial’ state interference - through regulations and other

legal tools that had sustained urban planning until then46 - was the best mechanism to avoid imbalances in the values and availability of developable land, in June 1978, the Division of Urban Development directed by López Tobar defined the preparation of a study aimed

at extending the urban limit of Santiago towards a ‘proximal limit’ or area of expansion, which would come to “normalize the land market through of an increase in supply, operating flexibly according to the expression of demand” (MINVU, 1979: 36). This paradigm shift displaced the architects, who, through the intervention of Ángel Hernández, president of the Architects Association, came out to criticize measures that they had learned only from the press, exposing the deep theoretical schism on how to think the future of cities.47 This new paradigm also represents the neoliberal turn of López Tobar, who completely aligned with the guidelines formulated from Odeplan.48

Source: El Mercurio de Santiago, 1980

Figure 9 Parque Building advertisement. 

Source: El Mercurio de Santiago, 1980

Figura 10 Parque Building advertisement. 

Thus, the rasante regulation appeared at a crucial moment in contemporary urbanism: the rise of the neoliberal city. In this sense, 1979 was the year Santiago became a city thought from the logic of capital, that reality - paraphrasing Thatcher’s famous phrase - “without alternatives.”49

Source: © Macarena Díaz

Figura 11 Axonometric drawing of current urban settlement. 

López Tobar presented these approaches in November 1979 at the VII Inter-American Housing Congress held in Panama. There he defended the ‘natural’ growth of cities, nullifying any planning attempt50 and denouncing the intervention on supply and demand trends of urban goods and services as “a temptation to intervene technically,” in a process “too big for bureaucrats, thereby introducing distortions difficult to correct later” (López Tobar, 1981:31). From there, one can understand the double justification that supported the introduction of the rasante regulation. While in the August 1980 modification of article 479, it was affirmed that the spirit of the norm sought to “ensure minimum conditions of sunning and privacy, both to the inhabitants of neighboring properties and to their occupants,” in the clarification circular drafted by López Tobar in August of the same year it was specified that “the application of this norm acquires special relevance in the sectors of greater dynamism, in which the existing constructions are replaced by high-rise buildings that border plots where medium-sized or low height constructions are still maintained” (MINVU, 1980b).

This clarification appeals to the draft announced on October 24 of that year for the new ordinance of the Las Condes Municipality, a true laboratory of the neoliberal city where a radical version of the rasante regulation was applied in areas of high and medium densities.51 This crucial role of the rasante was recognized by the mayor Juan Martínez Rodríguez, who indicated that “Chile’s historic fate is being written in the Las Condes Municipality. Here, the investor looks for the sectors with the highest expectations” (El Mercurio, 1980b).

However, the remaining question is from where did this relationship between the rasante regulations and the model that saw the city as a space for business opportunities - taking advantage of Chile’s bustling capital market of the early 80’s - come from. For this, it is necessary to review the interesting connection that existed between the preparation of the new norm and its Japanese equivalent.

Source: © Macarena Díaz

Figure 12 Edificio Parque. Axonometric drawing of current plot situation. 

Shasen-seigen: The Japanese Connection

Although the rasante regulations have predecessors in both 1916 New York and 1923 Chicago, the Chilean case differs from these in several aspects.52 In that sense, the search for a referential model for the Chilean norm of rasante led to an unexpected connection: the Japanese regulations.53

In the MINVU’s Documentation Center, there is a report prepared by the official Pedro Salas after his return from Japan, where he conducted a training course in local urban planning thanks to a scholarship funded by an agreement between Japan and the Chilean Government (Salas, s/f). Despite the report dates back to 1980, the exact date of his return to the country cannot be specified. Nevertheless, considering the textbooks he brought back - which can also be found in the ministry and where the Japanese rasante regulation is explained extensively - the date can be set between 1978 and 1979.54

Since 1950, from the study of Western regulations, Tokyo had introduced a norm very similar to that of New York in 1916, which incorporated set-backs defined by the implementation of rasantes or shasen seigen, which literally meant “diagonal regulation lines.”55 According to Kenichi Nakamura, this regulation would have had its first motivation in the need to ensure that people could dry their clothes in the sun for at least a few hours a day (Daniell, 2008a).

Varying according to their location and orientation, there are three types of shasen: the rasante applied to the north facade (kitagawa shasen); the one facing the street (douro shasen); and, the one enforced on the plot’s boundaries (rinchi shasen). They generally have a slope of 1:0.6 or 1:1.25 in residential areas. Of these planes, the most important is the north, applied to all buildings higher than 5 meters from the ground level in residential areas and 1:1.5 in commercial areas, which allows it to be drawn from 10 meters. While the slopes of the facades that face the street are taken from the ground level, those of the partitions are drawn from 20 or 31 meters above ground level, thus practically irrelevant. However, if the height exceeds 10 meters in residential areas, other volumetric controls, known as “shadow regulations” or nichiei kisei, are applied. These studies must prove that the amount of shadow cast by the building on the winter solstice, between 8 a.m. and 4 p.m. (or 9 a.m. and 3 p.m. if it is next to a street), is similar to the rasante. In contrast to the New York sky exposure plane regulation, set-backs are scarce in Japan; just like the Chilean case, the buildings follow the pyramidal shape of the slopes described by the shasen seigen,56 generating in some districts an urban profile very similar to the neighborhoods of the eastern sector of Santiago.

Source: © Macarena Díaz

Figure 13 Edificio Parque. Axonometric drawing and rasante mantle. 

Comparing the Japanese and Chilean norms proposed between 1978-1980, differences and similarities stand out. While in Japan the grade of the rasante was based, like in New York and Chicago, on the outline of a plane with a slope achieved through proportion, in the Chilean case this was measured in constant sexagesimal degrees, regardless of the facade orientation. Another difference is that, exceeding a certain height, in Japan, the volume should be supported by a study of shadows, a condition that did not exist in Chile at that time. Thus, the Chilean rasante regulation can be understood as a simplified and highly unsophisticated case, compared to the preceding standards. However, one point in common between the Japanese and Chilean regulations is the role they played on economies that underwent important neoliberal transformations. Precisely towards the second half of the 1970s, Japan was entering an intense period of trade surplus that especially affected a real estate market intensely related to a capital market (Soreensen et al, 2010). In this case, the valuation of real estate companies had an increase in the price of the shares of those companies, which in turn fed the system and increased the value of the properties. Thus, between 1955 and 1989, Japanese real estate increased 75 times its value. That until the crisis of 1992, when the real estate bubble burst (Daniell, 2008b).

That could explain the interest of Chilean technicians in understanding urban growth models that promote áreas of high economic dynamism where the State had a minor role, translated into the urban planning replacement for a rather managerial model of accompaniment and regulation of the economic-game rules. In that scenario, the rasante - with all its improvisation - appeared as a tool to achieve an intensive occupation of the property and thus give way to the hyper-accumulation process that the bustling Chilean capital market was experiencing.

Source: © Macarena Díaz

Figure 14 Edificio Parque. Sectioned axonometric drawing showing the differences between each floor plan, as affected by the east and west rasantes. 

Like many of the measures implemented by economists trained in Chicago, this model was more theoretical than practical. It was a dogmatic approach - an abstraction of the urban space in a macroeconomic key - that, despite lacking a spatial vision, also influenced the professionals of the Urban Development Division of the MINVU, seduced by the neoliberal ideas of dictatorship’s ruling elites.57

It would be wrong, however, to consider the rasante regulation without considering complementary measures, such as the incentives of local ordinances (that was the case of Las Condes in 1980) and of other laws that favored real estate development and capital market. For example, the Bank Law (1975), which allowed the monetarization of these entities and, with it, the possibility of offering mortgage loans at preferential rates (one of the causes of the collapse of housing cooperatives that had financed more than three decades of homes in Chile); the AFP Act (1980), which put fresh capital into circulation to boost investment; and, of course, the 1980 Constitution, which generated a legal bolt to protect the models of a subsidiary state and a neoliberal economy.

Source: © Macarena Díaz

Figure 15 Edificio Parque. Sectioned axonometric drawing in the northeastern corner of the building, showing disadjustments on each floor plan due to rasante plane application. 

The improvised implementation of the rasante regulation can be interpreted as a symptom of the profound contradictions of a radically theoretical system - literally conceived inside the classrooms of the schools of Economics - and that until then had not had a validation in reality. That is, an architectural and urban regulation based mainly on an economic criterion: the maximization of profitability. The banking crisis of 1982 and the paradoxes evidenced in both the extension of the urban limit of Santiago58 and the conflicts of the Local Ordinance of Las Condes, showed the failures of this approach. These conflicts, however, did not call into question the argument underlying this norm: the decline of urban planning and the beginning of new modes of city administration characterized by an urban land market of monopolistic tones. A long period that is not over yet.


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* Research developed within the framework of the first year of the Fondecyt Postdoctoral Project N 3190516, “Vernacular- Capitalist: Development of the Tower Building in Chile (1978-2001). Architectural Transformations of a Technological System, a City Model and a Market Product.”


Gonzalo Carrasco. Architect, Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile, 2001. Doctor in Architecture and Urban Studies, Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile, 2015. His research topics have focused on the links between architecture theories and the history of technology, domesticity and relations between architecture and capital. He was the curator of the Uruguay Pavilion “Panavisión: prácticas diversas, miradas comunes” at the 13th Venice Architecture Biennale. He is the researcher responsible for the Fondecyt postdoctoral project “Vernáculo capitalista. Desarrollo del edificio torre en Chile (1978-2001). Transformaciones arquitectónicas de un sistema tecnológico, un modelo de ciudad y un producto de mercado.” He works as Assistant Professor at the Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile.

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