Bewitched, besieged and rescued palaces: stories of a program of Chilean architecture (II)

In this second issue of the article by historian Nordenflycht dedicated to the development of palatial architecture in Chile, the different influences received by second half of nineteenth-century and early twentieth century architects for the development of the production of these noble constructions are described.

We hope you enjoy reading it as well as the interesting photographic material provided by the author.


2. Enchanted palaces: models of perfection

Everything is precise and given in the model; everything is more or less vague in the type. We can thus see that the imitation of types has nothing that feeling and spirit cannot recognise and nothing that cannot be denied by prevention and ignorance; this is what happens, for instance, in architecture.

Antoine Chrysostome Quatremére de Quincy (1)


There was once a time in which the homes of the most programmatic complexity began to be known as Palaces. On the basis of that vocative common to so many stories, one is led to wonder: what made these new buildings become palaces? Such a question is neither naïve nor rhetorical as the attractiveness and interest for such singular buildings raises one of the terminological problems that result from understanding of architecture as part of a cultural system. In order to answer this question, it will be necessary to examine the circumstances of the origin of these buildings from the very moment of their enchantment.

If we are to follow Quatremére de Quincy, a palace is just a model. One should add: a model of perfection. This is the reason for the image of these buildings, full of meaning.

Beyond the image, which, as part of this preliminary spell, places us before a pre-existing idea, we should distinguish between type and program, because it is difficult to support the idea that a precise type exists for a set of buildings which in our latitudes are referred to as palaces. On the contrary, it is quite plausible to observe how it is programs that are being repeated, to the extent of acting as models for the social groups promoting them as areas of domestic living.

The different traditions of which, in their semantic origin, refers to the idea of a palace in areas in which Spanish is the main language,  leads us to  an eclecticism with a fusion – and confusion – in language of the neo-gothic idea in the English case, placing the emphasis on the revival and picturesque romanticism of castles and town halls, the references to the German case with its Kunsthalle and Reichstag and the Italian case with palazzos and villas. At the centre of this we find the French case with a more decisive transliteration influence. This is the reason why in Chile the terms chalet, maison, hotel particulier, chateau and palais do not have exactly the same meaning, but still resist the same use in speech and written discourse, even in specialist texts on the history of architecture.

Some may think that this is just a matter of simple nominalism; but we have to remember that in the complex elaboration of historicist eclecticism codes, the composition, and disposition of the elements of the classic language of architecture will not be the same, and from that moment up to the first elements of modernism. Even if we have to take into account local factors which end up homogenizing the so-called “classical language of architecture” so much appreciated by nineteenth century academies and poly-technicians, various authors regard the country of origin of their architects as a clear sign of the formal patterns and influences on style. Thus, we could descriptively characterize the formal affiliations of, for instance, Palacio Errázuriz, projected by the Italian Eusebio Chelli, which now hosts the Embassy of Brazil, as opposed to Palacio Cousiño, also projected in Santiago de Chile by his French colleague Paul Lathoud, to cite only some references.

The impact of European architects in Chile during this moment has been seen as a decisive influence in moments in which the cultural socialization model directed the attention of the local elites towards France. There can be no doubt about that; however, we also know that it is not the same if somebody has been educated as an architect in France or Italy or in Germany or England. What is more: the internationalization of the “academic neoclassical” style after the second half of the 19th century was to owe much to the influence of the activity being carried out in the United States.

For this reason, when establishing affiliations in order  to explain design criteria and formal decisions, we should take this broader frame into consideration. Inasmuch as nineteenth-century projecting activity was developed by means of the circulation of works and architects, these actions shall become a direct reference beyond verbal nominalism because the transfer finds receptive conditions when it comes to establishing an architectonic language. This is how in the 18th century the Austrian architect Fischer von Erlach proposed a view of architecture that assumed memory as an invention and invention as a memory, reconstructing this in documents from drawings of the history of architecture of the world as was known to him, in a similar way that our American architects of the late 19th and early 20th century recognise in the invention of a tradition the chance to build an autonomous identity (2).

Although in the architectonic form used there is an undervaluing of the syncretism accomplished by architectural pre-existence and what was left of it in terms of town-planning, such as the strip façade, the interior patios or other elements of colonial and post-colonial nature, the result of the model erected is proportional to the perfection of its functioning, which in practical and material terms has to be adapted to the model images originating from other latitudes.

Figure 1. Palacio Ossa, designed by Manuel Aldunate, Santiago de Chile, 1862. Source: José de Nordenflycht Concha.

The models were transferred in two possible ways: travels and reading, or both, as the case may be.

First by means of foreign architects developing projects in Chile and bring along in their baggage the testimonial experience of having known and inhabited originals that were characteristic of them. On the other hand, we have those architects educated in the country by means of the empirical in situ knowledge of their most prominent seedings, and travelling played an essential role in such cases, because they had to move to the monuments and cities in which they were located. We should not forget that the educational historiographical accounts emphasised the revision of monumental examples of Antiquity, the Middle Age and, barely, the Renaissance, travel representing a verification with the originals, the knowledge of which had only been possible via drawings and book illustrations belonging to the canon of others, in which the pre-Hispanic and colonial architecture did not have a place.

In second place, they will have their references nurtured by libraries in which we may find all kinds of publications which finally transmit an architectonic culture with universal pretensions (3). Here, the illustrated publications, the ancient treaties divulging the rules and the canon with their lithographs give way to the books about the history of architecture and to illustrated magazines, in addition to specialised publications and monographs. In this latter means of transfer, one may remember that in Santiago de Chile, the French architect Brunet Debaines published the first Treaty of Architecture published in South America. We can even find the reference to this text in those architects educated in the country during the second half of the 19th century (4).

Figure 2. Palace Interior National Museum of Fine Arts, designed by Emilio Jecquier, San- tiago de Chile, 1910. Source: José María León (dir.and photographer) Chile al Día. Álbum fotográfico de vistas de Chile, Hume & Walker Editores, Santiago de Chile, 1915. n/p

We cannot forget that finally the classicist academicism and later the eclectic historicism are codes have a universal pretension, with effects through the expansion of the European colonialism in all continents and the well-known success in the former colonies to such an extent that, as we have mentioned, the architecture of young countries like the United States of America cannot be understood without this referent, as deduced from its most canonical tales.

Figure 3. Palace facade. National Museum of Fine Arts. Source: Archive Architecture Directorate, Ministry of Public Works, c.1910.

To these formalist readings we should add the generalised interpretation whereby palaces function as devices for class imposture, being used to represent an aspiration and take care of the interests mobilizing the invented traditions – the same ones shown by Hobsbawm – in which the hegemonic groups in fast economic rise as a result of their mercantile, extractive and speculative activities wish to build the home of their dreams. Only from this point of view do palaces become the staging of a probable story, even for those designing, building and inhabiting them, in a context in which the incipient Latin American urban structures lagged far behind those in Europe (5). What remains more or less stable as an indicator of this are the denominations associated to the surnames of those ordering the construction: Palacio Eguiguren, Palacio Iñiguez, Palacio Astoreca, Palacio Braun, Palacio Concha, Palacio Cousiño, Palacio Elguin, Palacio Irarrázaval, Palacio Pereira, Palacio Ross or Palacio Rioja, among others in a list as conspicuous as it is brief.

To these formalist readings we should add the generalised interpretation whereby palaces function as devices for class imposture, being used to represent an aspiration and take care of the interests mobilizing the invented traditions – the same ones shown by Hobsbawm – in which the hegemonic groups in fast economic rise as a result of their mercantile, extractive and speculative activities wish to build the home of their dreams. Only from this point of view do palaces become the staging of a probable story, even for those designing, building and inhabiting them, in a context in which the incipient Latin American urban structures lagged far behind those in Europe. 9What remains more or less stable as an indicator of this are the denominations associated to the surnames of those ordering the construction: Palacio Eguiguren, Palacio Iñiguez, Palacio Astoreca, Palacio Braun, Palacio Concha, Palacio Cousiño, Palacio Elguin, Palacio Irarrázaval, Palacio Pereira, Palacio Ross or Palacio Rioja, among others in a list as conspicuous as it is brief.

Once this social interpretation is established, what comes next are the attempts to classify these singular buildings, which – as we have anticipated – have began with their formal characteristics. Regardless of whether are copies, imitations or replicas, one palace always resembles another palace. This is how in Chile replicated images were directly introduced, as in the case of the Palacio Ossa  and his Patio de los Leones (Lions Court) and the Palacio de Bellas Artes, inspired by the Petit Palais in Paris. All of this represents a time arch occupying little more than the second half of the 19th century, inscribing its influence in the first decades of the 20th century. This is the reason why other options have simply been those of arranging the catalogue of palace buildings on the basis of the moment when they were built. However, this chronological and lineal arrangement can be a somewhat misleading, because “historicism”, when “eclectic”, combines ages into one single age, as in the well-known paint “Sueño del Arquitecto” (“Dream of an Architect”) by Thomas Cole.

Figura 4. Palacio Edwards, designed by Juan Eduardo Fehrman, Santiago de Chile, 1888.
Source: José de Nordenflycht Concha.

Added to these  taxonomic efforts, we should finally consider a classification based on the determination of their function and their institutional character, especially in the case of all those not fulfilling a residential function. Here, we have the Palacio de La Moneda, the Palacio Arzobispal, the Palacio de Tribunales or the Palacio de Septiembre, to mention only the best known. One was the venue of the Government, the other was the venue of the archbishop, the third that of the General Council of the Judiciary and the fourth, the venue of the Diplomats Academy. From this logic, it is agreed that the first palace in Chile was the Palacio de La Moneda, even if its typology is distinct from those of half a century later (6). In this case, the charm of its exemplary state lies in its manifestation of the classic as a “mythopoeic” value of architecture, meaning that this is defined in a generative and legitimatizing discourse. We know that the explanation about the origins of Greek culture by means of its reading, definition and transfer to the theory of 18th century architecture sanctioned by the explanation of the famous  image of the “Cabaña Primitiva“ by Abbot Abate Laugier became a model for specific practice in the projection and construction of architectural works (7). The cliché of the origins becomes a functional and even proto-rationalist model in western architecture, with a theoretical model and a well-defined praxis (8). It is this justificatory discourse about the origins of architecture which becomes the great meta-story of theory of architecture of the 18th and 19th century, sufficiently comprehensive to range from the biblical versions to the most rational functionalist explanations. This origin generates a new origin, or as Argan explains: “the past as the present”(9). The works  of  this period of architectural modernity turn to the origins, to a situation prior to the archaeological recognition and the stylistic date of the neoclassical academic revival.

Figure 5. Palacio de La Moneda, designed by Joaquín Toesca, Santiago de Chile, 1785.
Source: José de Nordenflycht Concha

This or the reason for the spell bewitching entire social groups over several centuries, an effect to which Latin American societies were not immune. Rather on the contrary, they were to become the most southern echoes of those models in palaces even reaching the Patagonia, as shown by Palacio Braun Menéndez, which we still can visit in Punta Arenas.

Figure 6. Palacio de la Moneda, interior hall.
Source: José María Leon (photographer): José María Leon (fotógrafo) Chile al Día. Álbum fotográfico de vistas de Chile, Hume & Walker Editores, Santiago de Chile, 1915. s/p.

These were to serve as the ideal sceneries for practices of sociability practices ranging from domestic intimacies to the most public uses. Or a combination of both, as in the case of palace scenes documented by records and chronicles of costume parties, such as those of Palacio Concha Cazzote, where the costumes and masks conceal a representation of non- existent royal court scenes and inexpressible glitz, symbolic vanities nourishing the imagination of the elites. These amenities and their endless anecdotes were not only to mean private vices but also public virtues. The most important of the public festivities of that generation was to be that to become established in the yearning of celebrating the Centennial of the Republic in 1910. An occasion in which Palacio Urmeneta was to be used as the place for staging history as a space for exhibiting the collection of the National History Museum (10). When the intimate private space becomes the space for public memory, the feast of history wears the disguise of its own narrative. Both palaces have disappeared, and it seems that only the image of their representation survives in the manner of the shreds of a lost disguise.

Figura 7. Palacio Braun Menéndez, designed by Antoine Beaulier, Punta Arenas, 1903. Source: José de Nordenflycht Concha.

Many of these buildings were located on already urbanized land, embedded in the cities; for this reason, they meant the confrontation of a replacement project on pre-existences. Some of these with more density and others – as is the case with the young city Viña del Mar – with less density.

Thus, conventional mansions of colonial origin, with continuous façades on a strictly perpendicular construction line, with their interior patios and one- floor volumes, were transformed both vertically and horizontally; the former with more resolution, including baseboards and stairs at a distance from the street, regularly constructing two floors, bringing height to the morphology of a colonial town. Another key element to consider is the incorporation of a garden or perimeter park which, placed before the façade, leaves the continuous façades behind.

In this regard, the comment of Pererira Salas (11) is quite lucid as he accepts, after reading the comments of the architect Manuel Eduardo Secchi (12), that there is no a massive process of discarding, demolition and break with  the domestic architecture of colonial origin, but rather, a transformation that occupies its sites, plots and foundations to make way for new projects based on this wish of continuity. Moreover, from the point of view of urban economy, it is quite clear that this continuity was given by the ownership system, which had just started to show a subdivision and fragmentation on the basis of new investments in the last quarter of the 19th century. For this reason, it was not only a “change of façade” but also a change of ownership.

Figure 8. Palacio Concha Cazzote, designed by Theodoro Burchard, Santiango de Chile, 1872. Source Photographic Archive National History Museum.

In this manner, an environmental requalification process can be noted, deriving from apparent original continuous uses in the housing programs. Considering the location of the palaces on the main streets and roads, like  La Alameda in Santiago or Calle del Camino a Qauillota in Viña del Mar, associated with the use of animal traction transportation means, with the need of coach houses, stables and space to drive and park the coaches, certainly of importance given the turn radiuses, the height of the nearby platforms, and the ups and downs. All of this is done taking into account the convenience of men and women invested in the ornamental condition of their clothes, which needed to be protected from damages. Even if the first palaces of Chile appeared when cars had yet to exist, possible needs were announced when the coach houses and stables begin increasingly to share their space with the new garages. Later palaces assume in their design the confrontation of accesses to an area shared by coaches, trams, bikes and cars, unmistakable signs of an epochal change for the city and its inhabitants (13).

Let us now go from the recognition of the exteriors of the public to the interiors. We must imagine for a moment how the practices of sociability of these places, referred to with so much pageantry and pomp, were more diverse when inhabited by the complex society of the changing century. The palaces not only hosted mono-familiar groups and their needs, mostly sumptuary and formal, but also all those working for the correct operation from the perspective of this formal regime.

Indeed, the service staff could easily double in number the family living in the palace, regardless of how numerous these may seem to us nowadays. A contingent of butlers, coachmen, cooks, gardeners, wet nurses, governesses, janitors, colliers and their families were an integral part of the families, and had therefore to be taken into consideration in the circulations and precincts included in these palaces. In this case, it will not be a court that gives density to the occupation and use of the precinct, as in Europe´s Ancien Regime, but more a clear proof of the division of work in which the domestic staff shows a process of late transition of the domestic tasks and works, as well as a demonstration of power based on class domination.

The expression of the architecture of this terminal crisis of the classical and the advent of modernity will be the formal correlative of a complex social moment, at the core of which the decadent obsolescence of some served as the seed for others. What this historical process makes evident is the transition from  the old properties of  colonial origin to the appearance of  all kinds of palaces, the change from craftsmanship to industrial technique, from the singular piece to the type produced by an inalterable matrix, in which repetition was to multiply the access to forms that were becoming increasingly rhetorical and abstruse as well as diverse. A society was born, imposing the decoration over ornament in its streets, which disseminate urban life at a massive scale The palaces of a few remain, besieged amid the new cities of many.


(1) QUATREMÈRE DE QUINCY, Antoine-Chrysostome (2007): Diccionario de Arquitectura. Buenos Aires: VocesTeóricas, Nobuko, p. 242.

(2) An issue we have advanced in NORDENFLYCHT, José de (1994): “El discurso de la modernidad en el programa de construcción jesuita en Chiloé”, Published in CA magazine of the College of Architects of Chile, num. 78, Oct./Nov./Dec.

(3) We have already referred to this is NORDENFLYCHT, José de (2011): “Historiografía del arte chileno: el estante, la arquitectura y el  canon”en MADRID, Alberto Revisión/Remisión de la historiografía de las artes visuales chilenas contemporáneas, Santiago de Chile: Ocho Libros Editores.

(4) BRUNET DEBAINES, Claude (2008 [1853]): Curso de Arquitectura, Santiago: FAU Universidad de Chile.

(5) HOBSBAWN, Eric and RANGER, Terence (eds.) (2002): La invención de la tradición. Barcelona:  Editorial Crítica.

(6) On Toesca’s work, see GUARDA, Gabriel (1997): El arquitecto de La Moneda Joaquín Toesca 1752-1799. Santiago: Ediciones Universidad Católica de Chile, and MODIANO, Ignacio (1993): Toesca, Arquitecto itinerante de la tradición clásica del siglo XVIII. Santiago: Ediciones del Pirata.

(7) This has been adequately dealt with in the architectural historiography of the time, VIDLER, Anthony (1997): El espacio de la Ilustración. Madrid:Alianza Forma.

(8) This hypothesis has been raised in the historiographical debate, starting with the pioneering works of KAUFMANN, Emil (1974 [1956]): La arquitectura de la Ilustración. Barcelona: Gustavo Gili, and it is dealt with by RYKWERT, Joseph (1979): Los primeros modernos.Los arquitectos del siglo XVIII. Barcelona: Gustavo Gili.

(9) ARGAN, Giulio Carlo (1974): El Pasado en el Presente. Barcelona: Gustavo Gili.

(10) ALVARADO, Isabel and MATTE, Diego (eds.)  (2011): National History Museum. Santiago de Chile: Directorate of libraries, Archives and Museums.

(11) PEREIRA, Eugenio (1956): La arquitectura chilena en el siglo XIX. Santiago: Ediciones Anales de la Universidad de Chile.

(12) SECCHI, Eduardo (1941): Arquitectura en Santiago. Siglo XVII a Siglo XIX. Santiago de Chile: Empresa Editora Zig-Zag.

(13) ERRÁZURIZ, Tomás (2010): “El asalto de los motorizados: El transporte moderno y la  crisis  del tránsito público en Santiago: 1900-1927”, Historia, 44, 2: 357-411.

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