Urban Modernity: the building of Santa Lucía level crossing

13 de June de 2016

The building of Santa Lucía level crossing looked for “getting Santiago out of the ‘Chinese shoe’ (to be involve in a trouble which is very difficult to get out) that constitutes its colonial and narrow streets and where the path from paso1Plaza Italia to San Antonio was taking from 20 to 15 minutes, between 8 and 10 am” . This happened because of the rigid street layout and colonial structure of the city do not adjust to the urban issues appeared in 60’s Santiago. A progress in that sense was the opening of Diagonal Paraguay Street to reduce traffic congestion due to the confluence of Santa Lucía Hill adjacent streets to Alameda; one of the main routes of the city. Diagonal was opened on November 2nd, 1966, facilitating the circulation of automobiles , and being the beginning of an ambitious project of remodeling of the sector.

The necessity of giving continuity to Santa Lucía Street from under Alameda Street became urgent, due to the congestion generated in the crossing between Carmen Street and Santa Lucía Street. Moreover, the work had to consider the underground section for the future Metropolitan Railway- nowadays, the Subway- and it was integrated to the remodeling of San Borja that considered 21 apartment blocks.

Role of CORMU in the project

To take over the Project, the Housing Ministry –created during the government of Frei Montalva- requested to the Corporation of Urban Improvement (CORMU in spanish) to deal with the master plan and the construction works that began in 1968 in parallel to the remodeling of the sector in San Borja neighbourhood.

CORMU was an innovative institution that counted with broad powers, as is described in its article: “The Corporation of Urban Improvement is in charge of urbanizing, remodeling, subdividing properties, out or inside urban limits; reserving building land to supply housing plans, urban development and community equipment, from the public sector as well as private sector; propose to the Ministry of Housing and Urban Development the setting, expansion or reduction of the urban or districts limits, the modification of the corresponding district and intercommunal zoning plans and the change of destination of domestic goods of public use that be necessary for the fulfillment of tasks; to collaborate and associate with city halls and private enterprises in the implementation of development projects and urban improvement; to grant loans for this purpose, oversee and inspect its implementation and set, within urban areas, the limits of urban improvement zones and procure its development and regulation.”

CORMU was in charge of the renewal or urban areas. “Unlike the conventional projects that are developing in wastelands, the renewal takes place in inhabited areas which demands the participation and agreement with resident families in order to prevent the renewal process prejudices instead of benefit them”.

The entity concieves the level crossing as an extension of the construction of Diagonal Paraguay and the widening of Rancagua Street towards east, crossing the center of the remodelling of San Borja neighbourhood, where between Portugal and Vicuña Mackenna street was the hospital of the same name . The challenge became in one of the most important housing and urban projects of Chile during 60’s. With reinforced concrete towers of 21 and 20 levels, it was intended to maximize the residential density, giving a modern answer to the residential demand but creating, at the same time, a neighbourhood in the center of the capital. The remodelling of San Borja, considered comercial premises, parks, green areas and parking lots, with the capacity of engage 10 thousand inhabitants attention, being one of the most innovative projects that CORMU was making in Metropolitan Region along with the construction of north- south highway in western Santiago and Villa San Luis sector, in Las Condes district .

180 days of work

The Project of Santa Lucía level crossing was ambitious at all scale, as it was its execution. The works began in January, 1970. According to the press of that time, it doesn’t count on updated plans of underground networks, sewage, gas and electricty so new studies has to be made on that area. Likewise, the depth would consider Metropolitan Railway future work, the divertion of a drinking water matrix, the reinforcement of the slopes of Santa Lucía in its western zone, along with the interior illumination project and also its ornamental aspect. The initiative counted on a technical plant conformed by three engineers and two civil engineers of “Obras y Construcciones” (“Building work and construction”) enterprise. CORMU, for their part, was counseled with a Technical Inspection that counted with and engineer and two civil engineers. To develop all this in good time, it was used, on average, 240 workers who worked in two shifts per day, equivalent to 45,000 man per day , concluding the main structural work in July of the same year after, exactly, 180 days.

The level crossing opening ceremony was headed by President Eduardo Frei Montalva on July 18th, 1970, accopanied by Housing Minister (Andrés Donoso), Interior Minister (Patricio Rojas) and the Minister of Public Works (Eugeneio Celedón). In addition, there were Santiago’s Mayor, Manuel Fernández, the Executive Vice President of CORMU, Jaime Silva; and Cardinal Archbishop, Raúl Silva Henríquez. It was carried out at the plaza located in the intersection of Moneda and Santa Lucía street , and the file is preserved in the phographic archive of Casa Museo EFM. It can be noted how the former President greeted one by one all the workers who said words as “We congratulate you, President”, “This is your work, President”, “We will be waiting for the next, President”. So, that July Thursday at 12:40 am, the level crossing was officially opened. The press and a large audience, “since before the ceremony set time, began to place in the hillsides of Santa Lucía Hill and over the recently finished walls of the Pass to witness the Head of State’s arrival, and the moment the first vehicles cross under to the entire width of Alameda” .

The total cost of the work was 18 millions escudos- the currency of that time- and it was calculated that 19 thousand vehicles per hour cross the full path that started 60 meters from Moneda street with an expansion of 230 meters long, while the tunnel measured 52 meters long and 14 meters wide with two exists to Diagonal Paraguay and Carmen Street, calculating to that date that 19 thousand per hour would cross the brand-new level crossing . The illumination was also an important element, noted by the press as a modern “special photocellular interior light control system for the drivers not to suffer visibility problems when entering through the pass”.

The Housing Minister highlighted the role of CORMU “heading to development and remodelling as an organic whole, and not as a juxtaposition of dwellings and streets, a development that must be done along with an equipment and facilities in accordance with progress” together with “improving the quality of life in the cities, refurbishments, Street widenings, land acquisition with technical and reasonable sense, and creation of insdustrial parks”. After ribbon cut, the President and his entourage went through the construction work and then headed the procession of cars that passed the level crossing for the first time .

A mural to watch at 50km per hour

The project considered the decoration as a very important factor. A public hiring competition was opened and was adjudicated to Eduardo Martínez Bonati, Carlos Ortúzar and Iván Vial, who studied, at Universidad de Chile, a public art project workshop beyond museums and galleries, granting aesthetical democratic experiences to the community .

The design consisted in coating the walls with “tiles specially designed for this work” , where a set of lines of blue, light blue and white tones cover the level crossing and tunnel while going through, producing a sensation of motion. Vial himself explained: “My project have extended forms that induce the driver to take one direction when coming out the tunnel. In short, I could say the mural is composed of easy reading directional forms”. So, the work is placed within geometric and kinetic art currents of national art scene in the 60s. These are based on the aesthetic of movement to create in two-dimensional surfaces, optical illusions and vibrations from the color and contrast. Therefore, this option turned to be attractive to give visual and decorative continuity to the modern tunnel. Carlos Ortúzar, explained this concept to the press, when the winners of the project were anounnced: “the design is essentially functional, and give a sense of mobility and space because a drawing excessivily nest to other is very difficult to be watched at 40 0r 50 km per hour at which the vehicles drive”.

Vial clarified the sense of simplicity of the coloured lines that go through the tunnel: “In respect of the drawing itself, it was neccesary to display the space, matching up the arcades of the Santa Lucía hill. As this is going to be a continuous vehicle transit, it should motivate the driver to follow a route. Hence the design that motivates move forward”20. On his part, Eduardo Bonnati explained the choice of the white background that predominates the mural due “a great part of the pass is illuminated by natural light and, in minor part, the tunnel itself”. The design was especially commended by Minister Donoso who refered to it as “a mural of high aesthetic quality that would give an image of double enjoyment”, while Vice Chairman of CORMU, Jaime Silva, asserted that “its great dinamic sense will not distract the attention of drivers”. The work for the mural to be done started 3 days after the opening of the job, and they weren’t less busy than the construction of the level crossing. As newspaper La Nación noticed: “vehicles pass at high speed. 25 operators make the thorough work of the placement of the tiles that will cover the entirety of Santa Lucía’s underpass”. He also detailed: “workers are glueing mosaics, climbing in scaffolds and drivers of all types of vehicles have taken the underpass as a racetrack… A car yesterday bumped into one of the scaffolds, leaving four workers hurted on the floor”.

All in all, the mosaic has a surface of 2695 square meters . Its pieces were made by the Company IRMIR, the same that manufactured Line 1 Subway’s mosaics. As slogan the press said: “broad fields of blue range mosaics, and rusty red range and other of white range: white and milky, snow- white, white yellow” . Even though the mural was expected to be finished in September, 1970, it was finally finished in 1971 .

The level crossing involved a complete refurbishment of the adjacent area next to Santa Lucía hill, which included improvements in Vicuña Mackenna Plaza- that was used as warehouse during the construction. The improvements also considered the building a pedestrian bridge that connected the hill and plaza, “so this green area becomes in an only and attractive stroll”, said La Nación, managing to be a complete center of interest and reference point of the city . Santiago’s City Hall tasked the artist Fernando Daza to create a big painted mural, in tribute to Gabriela Mistral, in one of the sides of the main entrance to the hill, was made of tiles painted with an special clay, and was opened in October, 1970 .

Santa Lucía’s level crossing achieved the objective of not just reduce the traffic of the center of the city, it was also a successful urban renewal project that became surrounding sectors in a epicentre of urban modernity at the beginning of 70s. This project tuned in with the concept of the involvement of different actors and the confluence of diverse disciplines as engeneering, urban planning, art, design and aesthetics. All this was to give a response to the challenge of creating new and modern architectural landmarks, that be in accordance with Chile’s modernization and social development of that time.

Until today, Santa Lucía’s level crossing sitill be a relevent landmark in capital and urban art’s transportation.


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