To make sense of a bit­ter and com­pli­cated his­tory in a re­mote re­gion of Chile, lo­cal ar­chi­tect Su­sana Her­rera’s Yepun As­tro­nom­i­cal Ob­ser­va­tory di­rects the eye to­ward the skies Text by Su­san Ner­berg

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An ob­ser­va­tory in Chile seeks to bring ri­vals to­gether to ob­serve the stars By Su­san Ner­berg

“Ar­chi­tec­ture is not an end;

it’s a means by which we can ask ques­tions,” says Su­sana Her­rera. The Chilean ar­chi­tect is ex­plain­ing the in­tel­lec­tual frame­work for the Yepun As­tro­nom­i­cal Ob­ser­va­tory, a tower for stargaz­ing in Arauco prov­ince in the coun­try’s south. As Her­rera talks, she sweeps an arm in the di­rec­tion of the forested hills that sur­round this new ad­di­tion to the Quelén Cen­tro Turís­tico, an evolv­ing ho­tel project that her firm, Fac­toría, has been in­volved with for nearly 15 years. The ques­tion she was ask­ing here was not about the heav­enly bod­ies above, but about how to bring to­gether the In­dige­nous Ma­puche and set­tler pop­u­la­tions in the re­gion. “There was no way I could do this project with­out ac­knowl­edg­ing and in­cor­po­rat­ing the Ma­puche cul­ture, wisdom and view of the uni­verse,” she ex­plains.

Her­rera’s Con­cep­ción-based stu­dio favours col­lab­o­ra­tion with clients and with lo­cal com­mu­ni­ties, and it gets in­volved in projects on a gran­u­lar level. On the week­end that we visit Nahuelbuta, we set out from an in­dus­trial port area in Coronel, where Her­rera and a few other ar­chi­tects have just com­pleted a three-day work­shop in the mak­ing of cross-lam­i­nated tim­ber. In this re­gion, the main re­source is wood, pri­mar­ily for pulp and pa­per ex­ports. Along the high­way, quick-grow­ing pine and eu­ca­lyp­tus planted by multi­na­tion­als have largely re­placed the na­tive for­est. “De­spite all these big com­pa­nies, Arauco prov­ince re­mains one of the poor­est in the coun­try,” she says.

Forestry in Nahuelbuta re­mains a pri­mary cause of un­rest. But the fric­tion goes back more than two cen­turies, when the area was re­ferred to as the “ul­tima fron­tera” (the last fron­tier) be­cause of its re­silient re­sis­tance to Span­ish colo­nial forces and, af­ter 1810, to the new na­tional gov­ern­ment.

Al­most 15 years ago, when Pe­dro Durán, the owner of the Quelén Cen­tro Turís­tico, com­mis­sioned Her­rera to re­design the coun­try house that would be­come the be­gin­ning of the grow­ing ho­tel, Her­rera was shocked to see the state still de­ploy­ing the mil­i­tary, os­ten­si­bly to pro­tect the pulp in­dus­try from in­sur­gents. “I couldn’t be­lieve it,” she says. “There were tanks and ar­moured ve­hi­cles pa­trolling the area. It was as if I’d been thrown back to the time of the Pinochet dic­ta­tor­ship. That’s when I re­al­ized I had to be part of cre­at­ing pos­i­tive change, cre­at­ing a rap­proche­ment be­tween In­dige­nous and non-in­dige­nous peo­ple while pro­mot­ing sus­tain­able eco­nomic op­por­tu­ni­ties.” She nudged Durán to de­velop not just the ho­tel but also other ac­tiv­ity cen­tres – in­clud­ing the new ob­ser­va­tory – of­fer­ing em­ploy­ment and skills de­vel­op­ment.

The ob­ser­va­tory rises from an el­lip­ti­cal foot­print in­serted into a steep hill­side that cas­cades down to the shore of Lanal­hue Lake. A zigzag­ging wooden deck, which serves as a pub­lic plaza, con­nects the tower to the re­cep­tion build­ing and an event space that form part of the Quelén Cen­tro Turís­tico. As we en­ter the pri­vate sphere of the ob­ser­va­tory, Her­rera tells me it used to house the re­cep­tion desk for the ho­tel. “It was de­stroyed in the 2010 earth­quake,” she says of the room, “but we de­cided to re­pur­pose the struc­tural frame­work.” Un­like the for­mer build­ing’s glazed skin, the Ore­gon pine pil­lars man­aged to with­stand the mag­ni­tude 8.8 quake, which de­stroyed most of the ho­tel as well as many build­ings in the re­gion. She has in­serted a ramp, rather than stairs, to lead to the tele­scope at the top of the tower. “A ramp of­fers a slow,

smooth tran­si­tion; it pro­vides time to re­flect,” she ex­plains as we start our own slow as­cent past images of con­stel­la­tions with their names writ­ten in both Span­ish and Ma­pudun­gun.

“In the end, it’s such a sim­ple struc­ture that when you travel through it, you can dis­con­nect from the out­side world,” says Her­rera. “It’s not that it is the most avant-garde in terms of form – it isn’t. But it re­sponds to the cul­ture of this area, the tra­di­tional crafts and wood­work­ing.” This ad­her­ence to speci­ficity of place stands in con­trast to the large metal­lic ob­ser­va­to­ries in Chile’s arid north, where the tele­scopes aim to re­veal clues to the be­gin­ning of the uni­verse.

“The role of the ob­ser­va­tory is to put time into per­spec­tive,” Her­rera says. “It is a way to tran­scend time – it lets us see that hu­man pres­ence is merely a frac­tion in the time of the uni­verse. Col­o­niza­tion and con­flict go back

200 years; the Nahuelbuta range is 580 mil­lion years old. The ob­ser­va­tory rep­re­sents a meet­ing of worlds that can seem very far apart but that nonethe­less share a spe­cific place on this planet. In the cos­mos, we all share a com­mon space.”


A ramp of­fers a slow as­cent to the ob­ser­va­tory’s tele­scope. The ply­wood-skinned walls are lined with maps of con­stel­la­tions named in Span­ish and Ma­pudun­gun.

The hill­side ob­ser­va­tory aims to bring to­gether the In­dige­nous Ma­puche and set­tler pop­u­la­tions in the re­gion.

↓The struc­tural frame­work was re­pur­posed af­ter the 2010 earth­quake, with new work fo­cus­ing on tra­di­tional crafts and ma­te­ri­als.

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