How would I like to see Chile?
In democracy …
I’d like to see it in democracy
I just love asking the impossible. [1: p. 210]

Under the now weathered Cor-ten steel façade of the Gabriela Mistral Cultural Centre (GAM) lies a building that has been at the heart of Chile’s modern history (Figure 1). Its form, a palimpsest of architectural alterations, embodies several historical shifts that have affected the entire nation: Salvador Allende’s government, General Augusto Pinochet’s military dictatorship, and the recent democratic period. Nicanor Parra’s mischievous poem, quoted above, reflects the apparent unfeasibility for the nation to assimilate democracy after 17 years of authoritarianism, while also reminiscing on the latent forces that have historically diminished democracy in Chile. Likewise, GAM’s transformations symbolise a loss in collective memory and its impact on a convoluted process of democratisation.

Figure 1 

Two perspectives of the UNCTAD III/GAM building. The UNCTAD III sketch (top) is by Hugo Gaggero, while the GAM sketch (below) is by the architectural team that won the renovation competition [Courtesy of Archivo Digital GAM/Cristián Fernández Arquitectos + Lateral Arquitectura y Diseño. All rights reserved].

Originally known as UNCTAD III, the building’s construction was an emblem of the Unidad Popular government that lasted from 1970 to 1973. In 1971, President Salvador Allende requested the United Nations to host the third United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) in Santiago. The conference, scheduled for May 1972, aimed to ‘facilitate the integration of developing countries into the world economy’ [2: p. 135], while showcasing the progress of under-developed nations on the global stage. This representational aspect was crucial for Allende, whose tenure was followed worldwide due to its experimental approach to democracy – the ‘Chilean road to socialism’ – being an alternative to the Cold War’s capitalist/communist dichotomy. In fact, it was this global interest that allowed Chile to act as the host, despite its lack of infrastructure to hold this event [3: p. 81]. Consequently, in an effort that united state institutions and private corporations in a frenzy of political optimism, the 40,700-square metre building was designed and completed in only 275 days [4: p. 82]. The design accommodated the program requested by the UN in a tower-and-podium typology, in which the low-rise element contained the conference halls, assembly rooms, dining halls and other public services, while the 23-story tower hosted administrative offices. Its architectural expression was the materialisation of modernist tendencies in contemporary architecture and architectural education in Chile [4: p. 84–85], time-efficient design and construction, and an almost exclusive use of national materials due to a fragile economic situation hindered by international blockades [2: p. 138]. Furthermore, the design considered future programmatical change to avoid obsolescence. Two months after the end of the conference, the building was turned into the Gabriela Mistral Metropolitan Cultural Centre [5], fulfilling its new role as Santiago’s largest cultural centre [6: p. 2], part of the government’s programme of cultural democratisation [7] and social cohesion [8: p. 75]. This phase was short-lived however, as it was truncated by the US-funded military coup headed by Pinochet that took place on 11th September 1973. The building was occupied by the military junta as its command centre; its name was changed to Diego Portales, and it was transformed accordingly for its new function.

In 2006, some 16 years after the end of the Pinochet regime, a fire caused by a lack of maintenance destroyed 40 percent of the building [9: p. 9]. Opponents of the dictatorship cheered as part of the structure collapsed, revealing its negative symbolism within popular perception [10: p. 246]. After a major public competition, the building was radically renovated as Chile’s largest cultural centre, regaining the name of Gabriela Mistral. The process that led to the renovation also sparked a renewed interest within Chilean academia. Local architectural historians focused upon unearthing the history of UNCTAD III – commonly obscured by its martial past. Additionally, detailed accounts on the junta’s alterations were uncovered, such as studies of how the cultural aspects of the military regime were reflected in the re-signified building. Furthermore, the renovated GAM was covered extensively in architectural magazines, although very few researchers have studied it regarding its presence as a memory object and an example of difficult heritage. Hence this essay will explore this aspect, framed by the shifting socio-political terrain that has augmented issues of collective memory in Chile in the twenty-first century.

Across South America, the upsurge of interest in memory within academic writing during the 1990s was influenced by a general turn towards democracy after years of brutal dictatorships. Inquiries into the democratisation of these nations were channelled through debates that featured memory as their centre [11: p. 6]. From this perspective, South American historians aimed to revise the memory struggles that were shaping the formation of national identity after long traumatic episodes. According to Claudia Feld, one of the most distinctive features of South American memory studies is an interest in the political as an integral element of memory. A concern that goes beyond the political uses of the past, but instead focuses on the ‘public representation of collective memories and memory as a political action’ [11: p. 10]. In Chile, this dual focus can be exemplified in the two-fold significance of the term ‘memoria’ (‘memory’). On the one hand, it is considered an ‘articulated retelling of the past in the present’ [10: p. 239] that varies with each individual and is possible to agglomerate into collective or emblematic memories that circulate in the public realm through mass media, institutional ceremonies, popular demonstrations, and other non-governmental networks [12: p. 106, 113]. Currently, clashes between conflicting emblematic memories continue to permeate political discourses and societal identity in Chile, shaping the cultural terrain through differing interpretations of the military era. These emblematic memories are present simultaneously in different public arenas and vary depending on the actors who embrace them and the operative use they are given. Moreover, as pointed by Manuel Antonio Garretón, ‘[a] national project cannot exist in the absence of a collective memory that transcends these current divisions’ [13: p. 215], referring to the necessity for a consensus on the past that can counteract what Andreas Huyssen calls the ‘politics of forgetting’ – a strategy pursued by post-authoritarian governments either through official amnesties that enable impunity or through silencing and imposition of certain emblematic memories to justify traumatic past events [14: p. 15]. Yet on the other hand, ‘memoria’ is considered a cultural code-word that evokes ideas of truth and accountability [15: p. 119]. Between the late-1970s and early-80s, ‘memoria’ emerged as a cultural expression against the already present expression, ‘olvido’ (‘oblivion’). At that time, the vanished victims of the Pinochet junta were not acknowledged publicly, thus generating a pervasive culture of olvido based on physical and memorial erasure. In an act of resilience, relatives of those victims organised into communities and fought against olvido through activism and self-support [15: p. 122], thus searching for the lost memory that they had been deprived of. Advances were made in Chile after the democratic transition, especially in the realm of human rights, although presently, memory issues have shifted towards attacks on the legacy of the Pinochet regime, focusing upon the implemented neo-liberal system that dominates to this day [16: p. 147] and a general distrust towards the old political class who were part, either directly or indirectly, of the former dictatorship [13: p. 226]. In turn, this leads to increasing criticism by Chileans towards imposed official memories within governmental narratives.

The radical renovation of the GAM building is thus influenced by emblematic discourses of Chilean national union, based upon concealing and overlooking – reflecting Steve J. Stern’s stimulating idea of Chilean collective memory as being ‘a closed box’ [12: p. 108–112]. Considering that memory represents a power struggle that is defined by the agents who get to decide the future [17: p. 43], the route taken towards this major change in image seems evident within the contemporary context. GAM’s overwriting was supposed to create a clean slate that would turn attention away from its problematic past, by creating a new form that responds to the current neoliberal logic of architectural consumption. Stamatis Zografos claims that ‘architecture operates as an archive in which a reduced memory of its entire past is stored … New buildings only carry knowledge that has been previously proven to be useful’ [18: p. 156]. I argue that the definition of ‘usefulness’ is closely related to institutional power in the case of GAM, in the sense of it being a way to control the memory narrative. In this sense, GAM can be seen as a bastion of selective remembrance and forgetting that conceals the power structures behind its refurbishment. Understanding the archival properties of architecture helps to revise the cultural, political and social structures that lie behind these selective memory operations and the impact of the renovation in collective perception.

To structure this essay, I will focus on three major ‘memory knots’ related to the GAM building. Conceived as a regional adaptation of Pierre Nora’s well-known theory of lieux de memoire (‘sites of memory’), Steve J. Stern observes that ‘memory knots are sites of society, place and time so … conflictive that they move human beings, at least temporarily, beyond the homo habitus’ [12: p. 121] – thereby forcing issues of memory and oblivion into the public realm. Admittedly, Stern took his term from a metaphor related to bodily sensation: that is, a knot in the stomach that breaks our regular habit and demands response [12: p. 120]. However, parallels can also be drawn towards a more architectural reading of the concept of ‘knot’. Lebbeus Woods pondered on the epistemological and physical aspects of knots, regarding ‘knotty problems’ as ones that are ‘never formulated … clearly enough to understand exactly what needs to be solved’, and as such he visualised them as ‘knot[s] without apparent ends’ [19]. For Woods, solving a knotty problem did not equate to something as simple as untying the knot or cutting it in half. Instead, he proposed a method of analysis that focused on separate observation to reveal the knot’s complex structure.

In his drawing, Knot and Cube, Woods initially depicts a knot that does not show its ends since these are inside a gridded cube, symbolising respectively the unmeasurable and measurable [19]. As the knot transforms into a more measurable state, one begins to see the inseparable relation between both elements inside the cube. In the same manner, I would consider the GAM building, as a physical entity, as constituting the measurable, while the memories and socio-political discourses that surround it are represented by the unmeasurable. By looking at the memory knots through the measurable, the aim here is to disclose the connection between both realms. Hence, this essay chooses to investigate a particular theme within each memory knot. The first memory knot is the fire, in which politics and memory played a key part in shaping the framework of the building’s renovation and the subsequent call for a design competition; the second memory knot is the design of the renovated building, with ‘design’ being understood both as a product and as a process, showcasing the role of architecture in institutional memory discourses; and finally, the third memory knot is the appropriation of the building during the October 2019 social protests, an act that focusses upon alternative remembrance related to an overwritten memory object – as performed through a revision of the relationship between GAM as an institution and protestors who used the building’s façade as a large canvas for political art, amid a social movement that was demanding the changing of the still-extant Chilean Constitution imposed by the Pinochet dictatorship.

Previous writings in architectural history have tended to overlook how memory issues have moulded processes of renovation, thus missing the role that architecture has in the shaping of collective memory. Therefore, I intended to expand the analysis by locating the renovation of GAM within a theoretical framework that addresses the socio-political aspects of memory, both through the conception of the reshaped building and its subsequent popular appropriation and perception. Archival research for this essay consisted of a close reading of governmental documents, press releases, and architectural drawings to trace the institutional narrative that surrounds GAM. Additionally, I conducted a search of newspaper articles and television clips to find out more about popular perceptions. I also interviewed three figures related to different aspects of the renovation: Christian Yutronic, one of the architects responsible for the redesign; Felipe Mella, the current director of GAM; and a prominent street artist, Caiozzama, who was a central figure in the social protest movement and who has transformed the building’s façade with his artwork.

Fire: politics, memory, and the shaping of the conservation framework

On 11th September 1973, the Chilean army bombed La Moneda, the presidential office, and ousted Salvador Allende’s democratically elected government. The military junta seized control of Santiago [20: p. 2], disrupting ‘the socio-aesthetic perception … of the city, its streets and scenery’ [21: p. 137]. Through what has been described as an ‘aesthetic-cultural coup’, the Pinochet junta attempted to eradicate the previous government from national memory, instead installing an ideological framework that would justify, through historicism and nationalist sentiment, the dictatorship’s interests [21: p. 153]. The occupation of the Gabriela Mistral Metropolitan Cultural Centre fell within this logic of erasure. Given that the presidential office was too destroyed to be usable, and that political parties were outlawed, and Congress had been dissolved, the junta swiftly took over the UNCTAD III building as its central headquarters – thus taking full advantage of the structure’s flexibility and monumentality [20: p. 19–20]. The podium became the seat of the executive power, while the tower was used by the Ministry of Defence, becoming a tall symbol of authority in the minds of Santiaguinos. The tower’s internal organisation reflected the power hierarchies of the regime, as the offices of General Augusto Pinochet and Admiral José Toribio Merino, Pinochet’s second in command, [22] were placed on the topmost floor [23: p. 92; 24]. Furthermore, the building was forced to suffer a series of alterations aimed at olvido. Its renaming as Diego Portales [23: p. 68–69] was part of Pinochet’s attempt to overwrite collective memory by a nationalist history that celebrated military ‘heroes’ [20: p. 19]. The building’s fabric was also changed: its glazed ground floor was completely hidden by tall masonry walls; fences were situated around the entire complex [6: p. 3] to eliminate the free urban circulation that had been a key feature of the original design; and its artworks were either destroyed or modified. If the cultural centre had once represented a symbol of spatial freedom for Santiago’s residents, the new Diego Portales subverted this notion by becoming a continuously guarded fortress.

Citizens now walked past the building quickly under the constant surveillance of armed guards, unable to look at it for more than a glance. Perceptions of the building were fragmented and controlled, since representations of it were scarce, only ever being published by the junta’s press office. Photographs of Diego Portales did not even highlight its architecture, but rather the ceremonies held within it, with the building acting as a mere backdrop (Figures 2, 3), in stark contrast to the previous celebratory media depictions of UNCTAD III. The building was thus turned into the ‘symbol of the power of the military junta as well as its most important public stage’ [25: p. 12]. Its architecture became an ideological representation of the Pinochet regime, intertwined with the authoritarian figures who gave speeches and addressed the press within its interiors [24]. Diego Portales acted as an urban panopticon that expressed authority through its monumentality, hermeticism and fragmented representation. Citizens could only see its interior through events that extolled the power of their rulers, thus diluting architectural form from collective memory by dislocating interior and exterior. The representation of Diego Portales permeated Chilean consciousness at the time, creating a symbiotic visual relationship between the junta and the building that added to the overall authoritarian imprint.

Figure 2 

Photograph in El Mercurio that shows General Augusto Pinochet speaking in one of the conference halls in what was then renamed Diego Portales [Courtesy of GAM, reproduced with permission of the publisher].

Figure 3 

Photograph by Kena Lorenzini showing Pinochet and other members of the military junta on stage in a ceremony in the main assembly hall of Diego Portales in 1988. At the back there is a large inscription, installed by the junta, which reads ‘Chile: 1810–1973’ as an attempt to establish an analogy between Chilean independence and the coup d’etat [Courtesy of Museo Histórico Nacional, in the public domain].

This issue subsequently complicated the aspirations of the democratic governments that succeeded the military regime from 1990. Up until 2006, the entire complex remained occupied by the Ministry of Defence. Unaltered, it was used as a rentable conference centre [20: p. 19–20], revealing the government’s interest in profit in lieu of acknowledging the building’s reality as a piece of ‘difficult’ heritage. The decaying structure became an unintentional monument which featured two of Alois Riegl’s memory-values: its ‘historical value’ was recognisable since it clearly represented its conflicted past, and its ‘age value’ was noticeable as its deterioration showed the passing of time – thus indeed refuting Riegl’s judgement that both these values were oppositional [26: p. 77–78]. Nevertheless, decay indicated the abandonment of the past in Chile’s new democratic era and synthetized the negative connotations of the building as a visible phenomenon within Santiago [27: p. 35]. Although this state of deterioration added to negative perceptions of the building, its conflicting memories carried a greater imprint.

The 2006 fire was the predictable culmination of 16 years of near-total disregard for the building’s fabric. Reports concluded that the fire had been caused by lack of maintenance, attributed to insufficient funding. A failure in the electrical system ignited the flames, which spread throughout two-fifths of the fabric because the fire protection system malfunctioned [28]. Rumours about plans for complete demolition – including also the totally unaffected parts of the structure [29: p. 13] – to build private dwellings or a commercial complex angered those who defended the historical value of the building [30: p. 6]. With the future of the building now in the public realm, an eruption of collective memory roused repressed issues, albeit expressed covertly to avoid political polarisation. Architects who were calling for complete demolition and rebuilding were especially carefully to avoid political inferences [31]. It created a condition of selective remembrance, as exemplified in an open letter by the president of the Chilean Society of Architects, in which he pleaded for an investigation into the causes of the fire to upgrade safety regulations rather than questioning the real reasons for the disaster [32]. Furthermore, given that the built environment can be understood as an archive of memory, its relationship to power must be considered. Zografos notes that an ‘archive is … the place where power is exercised … The archive decides what is worth remembering. And this selection process automatically determines what is to be forgotten.’ [18: p. 24] How an archive ‘decides’ can be equated to the struggle between emblematic memories of UNCTAD III/Diego Portales. This politico-cultural conflict, amplified by the pressure from plural voices in the public realm, complicated the process of deciding the conservation framework for the building’s renovation. Still, as ‘democracy amounts to a form of institutionalized uncertainty’ [33: p. 29–30] that exists through the frictional dynamic between the represented and the representatives, this disruption of the social habitus reflected the democratic context of the Chilean nation coming to terms with its traumatic past.

As was noted at the time, fire damage ‘may be considered catastrophic … Yet its effects are also conducive to processes of reorganisation.’ [33: p. 46] The 2006 fire thus represented the beginning of the dichotomic process of remembering and forgetting – framed within a culture of overlooking. Total conservation of the building was never publicly considered, even if it might seem practical from a cost-saving perspective [27: p. 273]. Remembrance turned into turmoil, as evidenced by the political debates about the approval of the law to change the building’s name back to Gabriela Mistral. Supporters mostly omitted the building’s past, alluding to the vindication of Mistral’s unrecognised legacy [34: p. 3–6], while those aligned with right-wing ideologies preferred to keep the current name of Diego Portales, thus advocating for preservation of a symbol of olvido and erasure while concealing the junta’s past actions [35: 63–64]. Indeed, the Pinochet dictatorship was now mostly forgotten within Chilean political circles since it would otherwise only unravel memories and allegiances at a time when processes of public accountability were exposing the massive human rights violations during the regime and destroying the image of General Pinochet as a ‘national saviour’ [1: p. 297]. Open support for the junta was inhibited, and right-wing politicians could only laud the neoliberal modernisation legacy from that era [1: p. 298].

Conversely, there was no real attempt to resolve the conflicted past of the former UNCTAD III building. Given that any preserved building ‘aims at fixing memories in space’ [18: p. 79], what was seen as needed – under the veil of social reconciliation – was a new architectural proposal that could overcome polemics. This conservation framework was later institutionalised in the brief for a 2007 international competition to redesign the podium level. This brief encapsulated the discordant voices of the period. It featured an extensive historical review of the building, based upon the writings of David Maulén [30: p. 6], which touched upon the Pinochet regime yet without mentioning any impact on popular perception. Negative aspects were attributed to the building’s scale and enclosed layout, thus acknowledging its militarisation, while concluding that the structure did not possess ‘an identity based in recognisable positive aspects, except its monumentality’ [29: p. 11]. Participants in the design competition were this asked to ‘commend the value of the building due to its importance as a symbol … of the history of our country … through recognition and creation of a new image that is coherent to current times’ [29: p. 16]. Puzzlingly, this new image had to demonstrate ‘the importance of the building as a modern work and its historical and political relevance’ [29: p. 19], although only by keeping and reusing the existing structural elements irrespective of their iconic associations.

This campaign for renovation reflected Chile’s political climate in relation to issues of memoria. Other contemporary Chilean projects from the 1990s, such as the construction of a Museum of Memory and Human Rights, and the listing of former torture sites as protected heritage [25: p. 4], exemplified the way in which the early role of architecture in Chilean memory struggles was focused on human rights issues. This however had begun to change by 2006, when ‘the unfinished memory question had stretched to include socioeconomic injustice more insistently … One result was a … revised perspective on the 1990s transition’ [1: p. 339–340]. This widening of the remit now represented an institutional narrative of social conformity: memoria was better contained if it addressed bygone human atrocities, not by any questioning of Chile’s present condition [13: p. 228]. Consensus had been reached on the violence of the Pinochet dictatorship, even if its ideological aspects and its continuing legacy were still points of dispute. Conservation of ‘difficult’ heritage that represented the politico-cultural aspects of the past in central Santiago meant a continuous opening of the memory box that might otherwise have destabilised a social balance rooted in olvido and forgetting.

Design: the role of architecture in institutional memory discourses

The ambivalent brief for the 2007 competition was understood as an opportunity for architects now to enforce their own agency and ideas [36]. A common position was informed by a shared architectural assessment of the ruin, exemplified in an incendiary article in El Mercurio in which five well-known local architects were interviewed. They bitterly attacked the building’s vast scale for causing disconnection in the urban context, with mentions of its history being mostly absent – only Cristián Boza highlighted its original heroic construction, while also depicting the building as ‘ugly … and improvised’ [31]. Albena Yavena and Brett Mommersteeg have identified two frequent trends in architectural theory, one focussing on architecture’s response to financial and material limitations, and the other relating to how architecture expresses social and cultural traits [37: p. 227]. However, the opinions of the Chilean architects in this instance revealed a third kind of discourse in which architectural critique is defined by spatial and formal concepts seemingly in a vacuum [38]. As Manfredo Tafuri pointed out, the apparent sense of autonomy is only possible due to the denial of architectural ideology of ‘its propelling role in regard to … structures of production’ [39: p. 136]. Bearing this in mind, the neoliberal economic system that now links Chile into the global economy ‘has become incorporated into the common-sense way we … understand the world’ [16: p. 145], and it is this reality that is most clearly demonstrated by the 2007 redesign competition. It is in line with observable developments across the world: as Douglas Spencer observes, architecture is now focused ‘on making the existing framework … work more effectively within … “the (global capitalist) constellation that determines what works”’ [40: p. 48].

Given this altered ideological framework for the building, it is little surprise that the majority of the 50 entries for the GAM competition sought to change its historical image completely (Figure 4) [41: p. 114–137]. This approach carried the unspoken idea that many architects adhered to – namely, that overwriting meant disregarding the building’s polemical connotations. As displays of architectural spectacle, the design proposals revealed the disposability of the structure. Preserved elements were treated as pieces to be merged with the new, echoing Huyssen’s thoughts about the commodification of ruins in a time when authenticity can be disregarded if seen to challenge neoliberal capitalism [42: p. 19]. Additionally, the reasons for radical renovation were informed by other factors related to Chilean modernism, such as the typical disregard for twentieth-century buildings by national conservation bodies, indicating how low their age-value is seen as being. Modernist architecture, produced right before the dictatorship years, represents what Stern terms a ‘living environment of memory’ [12: p. 4], and thus they cannot be considered part of the distant past. Furthermore, the professional education received by many of the Chilean architects who participated in the competition was based upon modernist teachings. Given that ‘the modern movement …aimed to “erase the traces”’ [18: p. 173] whenever it was faced with historical environments, Chilean architects were simply equating prudence with fear and instead opting for high-impact alterations.

Figure 4 

Snapshots of each of the 50 competition entries for remodelling the building into the Gabriela Mistral Cultural Centre (GAM). These drawings correspond to the first stage, after which five finalists then entered a second stage to decide the winner [Curated by the author and sourced from Cuatro Concursos De Arquitectura Pública, Dirección de Arquitectura, Ministerio de Obras Públicas, 2007: 115–121].

The winning design by Cristián Fernández, Christian Yutronic and Sebastián Baraona was hailed by the jury for achieving ‘a reinterpretation of the low-rise elements … allowing a connection between past and present, while replacing the image … of the enclosed building to one that is open to all citizens.’ [43] When I interviewed Yutronic, he mentioned that they felt their project’s approach to memory was being legitimised by the jury members, given that some of the latter were architects who had originally designed UNCTAD III [36]. However, it needs to be pointed out that this understandable need for validation by the original architects also raises questions about decision-making in creating spaces for public memory. The almost total lack of public discussion about the renovation competition, obscured by the expertise of the original architects, is yet more evidence of the closed atmosphere in which the built environment tends to be formed. Moreover, the ideology and capacity of representatives in the process is influenced by their own professional background. When asked about the Chilean government’s view on the political connotations of their renovation scheme, Yutronic stated bluntly that the designers had led all aspects of the scheme, often in face of apparent indifference by unquestioning government officials [36]. Yet, architects, while in some sense the ‘scenery-makers of everyday life’ [44: p. 296], are also always part of a socio-cultural context that influences their ideas and actions. Furthermore, they shape their proposals within a politico-economic framework that precedes their design decisions.

In this regard, Christian Yutronic and Sebastián Baraona are clearly part of the ‘transition generation … that was not … very affected by the dictatorship’ [36]. Their generation of Chileans grew up in the 1990s at a time when ‘the making of a nation comprised of individual consumers, not political citizens … rendered all metanarratives less persuasive and relevant.’ [1: p. 261] For them, memory, as a plural experience, produced a culture of common sense that sought above all to avoid confrontation. Moreover, Chileans who came of age after the democratic transition were shaped under an official discourse that portrayed ‘memory as a drag on the future’ [1: p. 149]. These cultural aspects undoubtedly informed the apolitical approach taken in the renovation competition [45]. Politics were thus brushed aside since they would only slow down the design process. Memory issues could thus be overshadowed through architecture; once built, the renovation would be ‘so powerful that everything else would be left in the background’ [36]. However, the futility of isolated architectural discourse is invariably revealed over time. To quote Garretón’s response to claims that the redesigned GAM would be a neutral structure aimed at social unity, in truth it ‘could never be neutral’ [8: p. 78].

Instead, the conservation framework that shaped the GAM redesign competition was marked by inexperience from all those involved. GAM, as a cultural investment, was clearly intended as the first of its kind to be built in Chile [34: p. 10] since the National Museum of Fine Arts around 100 years ago. Therefore, the historical significance and representational potential of the renovation made ‘success’ imperative. The main directive was to avoid creating a ‘white elephant’ – a fear that was widely discussed at the time [36] – and so efforts were aimed at the commodification of the ruin: both in giving it the necessary program and a ‘fresh image that would … attract the amount of people that visits the cultural centre today’ [46]. Furthermore, the overwriting of negative connotations informed the programme requested by the brief, since it did not align with the existing structure, prompting architects to disregard preservation and opt for reconfiguration. The winning team adopted a radical take on Viollet-le-Duc’s conservation principles, namely the transformation of the building towards ‘a condition of completeness, which may have never existed at any given time’ [18: p. 67]. Although ‘completeness’ here referred to the use of new technologies to prolong the building’s lifespan, GAM’s renovation can be understood best as an attempt to create it as an entirely new entity. The winning architects understood that the building could not be demolished due to its historical value, so instead they only preserved those elements that prominently influenced its iconic image – namely its massive roof structure and concrete columns – while demolishing all other pieces in an act of selective archivism. This approach coincided with the original design strategy for UNCTAD III, which consisted of a table-like superstructure would allow flexible spaces underneath to be built simultaneously [3: p. 82]. Accordingly, the original architects had conceived the enclosure ‘of the low-rise elements as a provisional solution’ [2: p. 140]. Thus, the preservation of the original structural framework and the remaking of the modifiable spaces below seemed to recapture the essence of UNCTAD III’s design. However, this is a strategy that also promotes forgetting, considering that the memory of buildings ‘is stored in their form, in the typology and materials’ [18: p. 171].

Aldo Rossi, when discussing the value of monuments, asserted that ‘a city has never intentionally destroyed its own greatest works of architecture’ [47: p. 92]. This claim might be contested if we look at GAM’s renovation. The designers, while acknowledging the historical relevance of the ruin, also understood that change was needed to liberate the building from its past. Rossi’s definition of ‘greatest works’ thus depends on the cultural context in which change may occur, inasmuch as perceived value can always be warped by architectural and material elements. After the 2006 fire, the edifice was depicted negatively as machine-like [31], or a ‘transatlantic liner parked in the middle of Alameda’ [36], alluding to its modernist expression and massive urban scale. The winning design counteracted these perceptions by devising new facades of weathered Cor-ten steel sheets, perforated using intricate patterns to a achieve permeability – in emulation of Herzog and de Meuron’s de Young Museum in San Francisco (Figure 5) – and to divide the new building into sections, creating large void spaces (Figure 6) [36].

Figure 5 

Left, photograph by Armindo Cardoso showing UNCTAD III from Alameda Avenue in 1972; right, photograph by Nico Saieh of the same building after its 2010 renovation [Courtesy of Archivo Digital GAM, in the public domain/Courtesy of Nico Saieh, reproduced with permission of the photographer. All rights reserved].

Figure 6 

Diagrammatic plan of GAM’s reorganisation, with the existing situation on the left and the proposed alterations on the right [Courtesy of Cristián Fernández Arquitectos + Lateral arquitectura y diseño. All rights reserved].

However, as much as the building’s negative perception was influenced by its polemic past, the positive reception of the renovation project was informed by a contemporary neoliberal context that expects an image of ‘progress’ [48]. Whether GAM’s new façade still resembles a giant machine, or not, depends on one’s viewpoint. Nevertheless, its perforated patterning does relate to what Spencer calls architecture’s ‘turn to affect’, whereby the design objective ‘is to absorb the sensorium in an environmental patterning with which the subject can identify, recognizing itself as … a neoliberal subject as … efficient as are the forms with which its milieu is increasingly saturated.’ [40: p. 159] Visual patterning hence seeks to captivate the eye, training it to marvel at its sensuousness [40: p. 158], while also nullifying critique in the promotion of effortless consumption of a new architectural object. Additionally, the reshaping of the building unravels discussions related to the perceptual aspects of scale. The new voids in GAM do generate much needed roofed open spaces. However, due to the constant modification of the programme by the Chilean government [36], the building now spreads outside its iconic columns, eliminating its original veranda area. This severs the link between the renovation and its past image – a fact lamented by Miguel Lawner, who had been the coordinating architect for UNCTAD III [49]. At a stroke it replaces the ethos of a roof-and-column superstructure with a more rock-like expression that seems impenetrable due to its flatness.

That said, the positive reception of GAM’s new form was due to the much-disliked opaqueness of the building in its Diego Portales era. Although the building’s hermeticism arose then from alterations made by the Pinochet junta, simply replacing those masonry walls with glass is no longer a satisfactory solution. Instead, the renovation pointed to a shift in the concept of transparency, from visual to physical freedom, prioritising large open-air spaces rather than the glazed interior spaces when initially built as UNCTAD III [36, 50]. Still, this new concept of transparency hides problematic matters of representation in relation to collective memory. Whereas UNCTAD III’s monumental expression seemed too imposing, in urban terms it acted ‘as a bridge between San Borja Park and Forestal Park … without any fences or walls that could obstruct pedestrian traffic.’ [6] Conversely, while GAM’s new open-air public spaces can be appropriated by its users, the project’s aspirations towards free-flowing movement are hindered by the presence of the tall tower that still stands as a symbol of past military rule. The tower, currently unoccupied, continued to host the Ministry of Defence until January 2017 [51]. Security measures required the instalment of fences, spatially dividing the plot and preventing circulation from Alameda Avenue to the rest of the neighbourhood, and thus destroying one of the merits of the competition-winning scheme [6]. Indeed, the tower still spoils GAM’s intended utopic image, since it reflects one of the most troubling aspects that still make democracy incomplete despite the ousting of Pinochet – namely, the remaining authoritarian enclaves which entrench the power of the armed forces and majorly influence political debates to this day [52: p. 150]. Thus, the hopes of the winning architects for memory resolution turned into concealment instead. Yutronic said that they actively tried to hide the tower visually from the street by positioning their new volumes in front of it [36]. Hampering the goal for ‘completion’, the tower continues as an element of dispute. Currently targeted by real estate developers, it is an awkward ruin that still sparks memory struggles almost ten years after the podium was renovated [24; 46].

A central aim of the renovation scheme was to recuperate several art pieces destroyed during the junta’s occupation. UNCTAD III had featured 36 artworks by distinguished national artists and craftsmen [27: p. 230]. Most were integrated into the building, acting as architectural elements such as doors, handles, or lamps – an unprecedented feat in any building in Chile at that time [50]. GAM’s overwriting thus often necessitated their relocation. However, as the conception for GAM was not to act as a site of memory, but rather to function as a contemporary cultural centre, the repositioning of these artworks within the building represents an approach based on the commodification of memory [14: p. 19]. Decontextualized artworks have now become de facto museum objects that promote easily consumable modes of remembrance by ignoring the building’s period of military occupation. Baudrillard defined musealization as

the pathological attempt of contemporary culture … to dominate the real in order to hide the fact that the real is in agony due to the spread of simulation. Musealization is … the opposite of preservation: … it is … sterilizing, dehistoricizing and decontextualizing. [53: p. 30]

However, Baudrillard’s somewhat sweeping assertion must be nuanced by realizing that not ‘every commodification banalizes … an historical event … Much depends therefore on the specific strategies of representations and commodification pursued and on the context in which they are staged’ [14: p. 18–19]. Pieces that have been repositioned within GAM to recreate their original spatial qualities and intentions, like the reconstructed piece called Volantín, offer a closer experience of the past. Conversely, de-territorialisation means that other items have lost their meaning. For instance, Pez de Mimbre, a replica of Alfredo Manzano’s giant wickerwork fish that is now situated in the building’s main plaza [54], is the object of visitors’ snapshots even though its actual political symbolism has vanished: originally it had been used to celebrate the abundance of Chilean gastronomical resources in UNCTAD III’s restaurant (Figure 7) [27: p. 230–234]. Juan Egenau’s cast-iron door, originally positioned at the building’s west entrance, is now redeployed to give access to an underground conference room [27: p. 230–239; 54]. Protected from environmental and manmade threats, the door becomes a secondary, invisible element. Nonetheless, the reuse of these older elements emphasises their historical importance through display, thus managing ‘to lift the object out of its original everyday functional context … [as] an act of memory’ [14: p. 33].

Figure 7 

Top, photograph of GAM’s main plaza today, featuring the recreated Volantín and Pez de Mimbre artworks; bottom-left, a 1972 photograph by Roberto Santandreu of Alberto Manzano’s original wicker fish for Pez de Mimbre above UNCTAD III’s restaurant; bottom-right, a 1972 photograph by Roberto Santandreu of the original coloured glazing panels of Volantín above UNCTAD III’s main entrance [Courtesy of, Creative Commons CC-BY-NC/Courtesy of Archivo Digital GAM, in the public domain].

The intricate relationship between ‘design’ as a verb and noun permeates through architectural discourse, being both directive of the process and embodied in the object [55: p.136]. Through the de-politicization and de-territorialisation of memories, GAM’s renovation prioritised the need to become a profitable cultural hub while ambivalently dealing with its memory, reflecting the prevailing institutional approach towards memory issues in Chile [56: p. 14]. However, during the design process, it became clear it would be impossible to achieve complete reconciliation with GAM’s past through its architecture. The key drawing in the winning competition entry optimistically showed the tower integrated as part of their proposal, thus mirroring old depictions of UNCTAD III in popular memorabilia, whereas the official photography of the renovated project tries to hide the tower away (Figure 8).

Figure 8 

Top, depiction of UNCTAD III on a commemorative envelope from April 1972; bottom-left, digital render of the competition-winning scheme; bottom-right, photograph by Nico Saieh of the first phase of the GAM cultural centre [Courtesy of Archivo Digital GAM, in the public domain/Source: Cuatro Concursos De Arquitectura Pública, Dirección de Arquitectura, Ministerio de Obras Públicas, 2007: 130/Courtesy of Nico Saieh, reproduced with permission of the photographer. All rights reserved].

The renovation scheme’s attempt at political tabula rasa was even more noticeable during its inauguration event. GAM was supposed to be opened at the end of the tenure of the socialist president, Michelle Bachelet, who had been the propeller for the renovation project. However, due to the devastating earthquake that hit Chile in February 2010, GAM’s opening needed to be postponed until September [27: p. 92]. As a consequence, it was inaugurated by right-wing president Sebastián Piñera, who – under dissenting chants – gave a short speech that did not even allude to the building’s troubled history [57]. Projections onto GAM’s façade, devoid of any political significance, marked the event. Heavy policing restrained memoria when songs composed by Víctor Jara, a famous dissident killed by the Pinochet dictatorship [58], were played [27: p. 92]. This innocuous inauguration ceremony of GAM sought to dispel any traces of its controversial past and dubious renovation, by presenting the reshaped building as a turning point. Spencer, channelling Marx’s concept of phantasmagoria – in other words, how a given commodity appears while obscuring its process of making – notes how the ‘real work of architecture, as a commodity, is to positively express the abstract structures and concepts of neoliberal capitalism while mystifying its actual conditions of production’ [40: p. 74]. The main objective of GAM’s phantasmagoria was to keep shut the memory box, a great contract to the original representations of UNCTAD III as an object of national modernisation (Figure 9) where its production was depicted as a politically performative act [59: p. 28–29; 60].

Figure 9 

Photographs of the construction of UNCTAD III in 1972. Left, the famous countdown to the building’s completion that was visible from Alameda Avenue; right, a photograph by Roberto Santandreu of a banner on the main tower proclaiming the popular UP chant ‘Venceremos!’ (‘We will win!’) [Courtesy of Enterreno Chile/Courtesy of Archivo Digital GAM, in the public domain].

Protest: Alternative remembrance and appropriation in relation to an overwritten memory object

The public success of GAM’s renovation can be related to the equation between remembrance and failure at the time. Felipe Mella, who has been director of GAM since 2016 [61], said, when being interviewed, that an image change was necessary for the cultural centre to thrive, since ‘it would have been much more difficult to direct otherwise’ [46]. He fully supported the renovation programme, declaring that the structure, formerly ‘the place where the dictator spoke to the country’ [46], carried a psychological burden that would have potentially affected visitors. Consequently, visitors nowadays generally do not remember the building’s past [62], since they mostly are part of a younger generation that only knows the building as a converted cultural centre and whose memory is thus fixed by its current form. According to Paul Connerton, ‘images and knowledge from the past are transferred to the present through the practice of … bodily rituals … [and] through specific language, postures, gestures and movements’ [18: p. 33–34]. Thus, while appropriation of GAM’s public spaces by K-Pop dancers and jugglers [62] might seem to be reminiscent of the musicians and poets who practiced in the cultural centre in the early-1970s [41: p. 140], the architectural reconfiguration of the building’s spatial and material qualities has irremediably disrupted the experiential transmission of memories.

Research into remembrance based upon material absence serves as a theoretical framework to revise citizens’ approach to memory regarding GAM’s newly acquired form. Susanne Küchler speaks of ‘a new understanding of the place of memory not in objects, but in the space created by rendering absent the products of memory-work’ [63: p. 54]. Her studies thus focus on ‘animatorical remembering or the collapse of past, present and future in the space of a single moment’ – a performative memory experience exemplified by ‘new electronic means of reproduction, which involve the at least figurative burning of the object’ [63: p. 60, 61], displacing the notion of deliberate crystallisation of the past through material remains. GAM, as an institution, has claimed from the outset that its mission is to promote ‘the encounter between people and culture’ as a ‘space of social transformation’ [64: p. 5], hence recalling the original intentions for the cultural centre. This quest for cultural democratisation is however linked now to the neoliberal marketing of iconic architecture that portrays ‘an uplifting story about liberty, equality, or whatever … sounds best as part of public relations campaigns which sell cities partly by making visitors feel good about themselves morally and politically’ [33: p. 21].

Furthermore, GAM’s attitude towards memory has been influenced by a shifting politico-cultural context that is reshaping and intensifying memory struggles in Chile. Initial memory-work was institutionally pursued either through ephemeral acts or abstract interventions under a pervasive culture of overlooking, as illustrated by the state-sponsored curatorial memory project called 275 días. One project within this initiative offered a timeline of the building that was exhibited in GAM’s library in 2011 [65: p. 29], containing detailed information about the historical processes leading to the construction of UNCTAD III while also timidly mentioning its role as the command centre of the Pinochet junta [27: p. 208]. Additionally, Some new artworks were commissioned to generate a dialectical relationship with the recovered/relocated artworks from UNCTAD III. Exemplified by Leonardo Portus’s Lápida, an allegory that reinterprets the lost plaque that once celebrated all the workers who built UNCTAD III (Figure 10), these new artworks subtly hint at the building’s concealment of the past by pointing out the existence of absence.

Figure 10 

Lápida by Leonardo Portus. Its silhouette is a replica of the destroyed plaque designed by Samuel Román that once gave credits to the builders of UNCTAD III. A peephole with the same shape contains a photograph of the plaque inside [Courtesy of GAM, reproduced with permission of the photographer. All rights reserved].

Therefore, many years after the refurbishment, evolving memory struggles are now slowly eroding the tendency of memory suppression. This changing mentality is embodied by new actors within the institution, such as Felipe Mella, who – as an architect and arts administrator – is interested in showcasing publicly the building’s historical relevance [46]. It is a claim made official in GAM’s 2019–2022 Programme Plan, which aims to promote the building as ‘difficult’ heritage through guided tours, archives and other media events [66: p. 13]. Notwithstanding this intention of GAM, these acts of memory-work do not yet begin challenge the form of the building’s renovation. Considering that ‘the built environment is a primary medium for the techniques of establishing … ideology at every scale’ [67: p. 45], GAM’s approach towards memory is still too much framed within power structures that enable instances of dissent and representation of conflictive memories, while disabling other behaviours that are considered problematic. Nevertheless, the emerging new vision is central to the impact of GAM’s latest memory knot, with many people who visit the latest installations feeling a greater sense of ownership and belonging towards GAM [62]. It is a change that explains the subsequent appropriation of its facades by artists and activists during the October 2019 protest movement.

This movement, popularly named the ‘Awakening of Chile’, started on 18th October 2019 after a metro fare increase of 30 pesos triggered accumulated social unrest created by unrealisable social and economic expectations of the inherited neoliberal system [68]. In a legitimacy crisis based on memory struggles, demonstrators personified their widespread distrust of Chile’s political class through a series of protests that escalated due to the government’s overly violent response. Following a presidential order by Sebastián Piñera, troops were deployed in the streets for the first time since the return to democracy in the 1990s, thereby triggering memories of the junta years [68]. Furthermore, the movement’s demand for a new Chilean Constitution (replacing the current one that was introduced by Pinochet’s regime) was a clear attack on the neoliberal system imposed by the dictatorship [62], and on the inability by the political elite even in the democratic era to address the country’s fallacious basis. The protest therefore pointed out the responsibility of Chile’s current government in forming ‘an incomplete transition that gave rise to a limited, low-quality democracy riddled with authoritarian enclaves’ [52: p. 146].

The key actors in the movement revived historical tactics that added to the living experience of memory in Chilean cities from October 2019, echoing politically polarised times in which ‘evanescent urban action allowed urban residents to … create languages of political analysis through which they could fashion themselves into active citizens’ [20: p. 6]. These ‘ephemeral urban acts … transformed the city into a contested public arena where political discourse was made material’ [20: p. 2], a characteristic feature of politics during Salvador Allende’s campaign and subsequent tenure. In destroying left-wing public artworks, Pinochet’s regime had sought to eradicate any trace left from Allende’s government from the streets, while projecting a ‘clean’ representation of Chile that aimed to counter negative perception of the regime on the international stage [23: p. 28]. Alameda Avenue, the main artery of Santiago, has historically hosted marches that begin at Baquedano and finish at La Moneda. Erasure of political imprints in this area during the junta defined an image based on criminalisation of urban art that lasted for almost 30 years after the transition. However, since the ‘Awakening of Chile’, public art – hitherto practised clandestinely in peripheral urban areas – reoccupied its place within the centre of Santiago [62], transforming the central district into a palimpsest of social manifestation [69]. Echoing the times when Brigada Ramona Parra, the Chilean Communist Youth’s muralist organisation founded in the 1960s painted their political messages across Alameda Avenue, Baquedano Plaza and around the UNCTAD III construction site [20: p. 95, 104–105], once again from October 2019 a series of street artists emboldened by the socio-political climate took over the streets of central Santiago, reclaiming it by painting and pasting posters containing political messages [62].

Importantly, GAM’s closeness to Baquedano Plaza is one of the legacies of Allende’s government. He chose the building’s central location among the possibilities given by the architects’ committee, due to its representational potential [50]. Moreover, in considering that ‘architecture gives form to the singularity of place’ [47: p. 7], Allende’s decision acknowledged and reshaped Santiago’s historical public stage – thus producing a new imprint on the collective memory of Santiaguinos. The building has therefore witnessed Santiago’s social manifestations since its construction. While GAM actively mirrored social issues manifested on the streets within its stages and display rooms [46], the popular retaking of the city centre converted the building into an essential memory object for the ‘Awakening’ movement. Its front façade has since become a palimpsest of political messages displaying a variety of symbols and styles that ‘cannot be relegated to epiphenomena, to products or representations of the “real” conflict’ [70: p. 184]. In the first week after 18th October 2019, artists – enraged by social injustice and violent repression – assembled outside GAM to paint and voice their contempt. Initially, messages were only located in the temporary enclosure of the construction site of GAM’s unfinished concert hall, although activists eventually started using the cultural centre’s weathered Cor-ten steel façade after they ran out of space, breaking the threshold determined by urban hygiene [62].

This creative usage of the new façade’s materiality disrupts its role as a hostile surface – ‘designed to … offer customised, built-in rejection of nonconforming signage’ [71: p. 198] – which helps to protect private ownership in Chile [36]. Since the patterned perforations of the Cor-ten panels hinder the visibility of small-scale graffiti, the protest artists decided to explore other ways to exploit the renovated façade’s flatness [62]. One of the most frequently used techniques is paste up – favoured by Caiozzama – which involves the pasting on of digitally produced collages to allow fast and reliable results [72]. Many activists chose instead to take advantage of the façade’s perforations: some used them for hanging large-scale banners and painted canvases, whereas others filled the holes with rolled-up papers to pass on messages that could be taken out and read [62] (Figures 11, 12).

Figure 11 

Photograph by Paulina Arriagada Vilches of GAM’s main façade with its graffiti artworks on 8th November 2019 [Courtesy of Paulina Arriagada Vilches, reproduced with permission of the photographer. All rights reserved].

Figure 12 

Composite close-up photograph of GAM’s main façade as it existed on 17th January 2020 [Curated by the author and sourced from a video recording by Nicolás Valencia, reproduced with permission of the videographer. All rights reserved].

Above all, this newfound occupation of GAM reconfigured memory issues in terms of scale. Mella describes how the 145-metre-long main façade became hugely inviting for artists to deploy as an urban canvas within the current political climate [46], countering past concerns about the perceived massiveness of the building during its Diego Portales phase. Additionally, the street art embodies the bodily acts of its makers and their production methods. Most pieces echo a typical human reach, although some notable exceptions clearly required considerable amounts of climbing. Bodily rituals are thus shifted in relation to the façade: the readability of the enclosure now benefits from close-up examination, in opposition to the somewhat monumental feel of the renovation design. Bodily interactions are thus also promoted, due to the tactile qualities of some of the displayed objects. Furthermore, GAM’s appropriation questions the limits of political agency bestowed to that institution. Like the removal of the ‘media wall’ of Paris’s Centre Pompidou, for political reasons, the notion of memoria in GAM is something that is permitted within galleries and stages – engendering a ‘passive mode of reception’ [40: p. 112] – yet becomes problematic when it involves active participation within public space. Ever since October 2019, GAM’s facade has thus essentially become a grassroots social wall in which neoliberal design strategies can be critiqued and reconfigured. The patterned façade is now the support structure for clearly displayed political messages that promote activism and revive memory struggles. Opposing the renovation’s efforts to overwrite history, the building’s enclosure has been transformed to an ephemeral monument that effectively disturbs the homo habitus in a continuously changing animatorical act of remembrance.

On the night of 19th February 2020, regrettably, four unknown figures swiftly got out of a pick-up truck and covered up GAM’s façade protest art using red and grey paint (Figure 13) [46]. This attempted censorship was quickly denounced by the institution as an act which ‘erases part of the history that Chile was writing’ [73]. Furthermore, this incident revealed the conflicting memory struggles that clearly still respond to triggers instilled by the Pinochet junta. For example, this attack by right-wing Chilean figures [46] on the validity of GAM’s street artwork seems to echo Jeff Ferrell’s concept of the ‘aesthetics of authority’, whereby he points out:

Assertions as to graffiti’s ‘ugliness’ vis-à-vis ‘well-groomed’ communities … expose an important dimension of authority. They reveal that graffiti threatens not only the economic value of private property, and the political control of property and space, but the sense of ordered style, the aesthetic authority, that is intertwined with them. [70: p. 179]

Figure 13 

Photograph by Kena Lorenzini depicting the crude over-painting of GAM’s main façade in February 2020: the counter-message in red on the bottom image reads ‘there is no paint that will erase injustice’ [Courtesy of Kena Lorenzini, reproduced with permission of the photographer. All rights reserved].

In the contemporary Chilean case, the alleged lack of value of street art [74] is related to the dictatorship’s ‘aesthetic-cultural coup’. The military regime equated Unidad Popular with failure and uncleanliness, and indeed, for Pinochet and his supporters, national culture was threatened by foreign ideologies that had to be extirpated [21: p. 140, 148]. Consequently, the junta aimed to ‘eliminate any link between artistic creation and political ideologies’ [23: p. 31], enforcing the idea of urban hygiene by ‘“sanitising” the image of cities … from ideological propaganda’ [21: p. 140]. These notions were engraved into collective memory, embodied in a pervasive culture of self-censorship that persisted for many years after the ending of the Pinochet regime [23: p. 129]. The result was the de-politicization of everyday life and the compartmentalisation of art within neoliberal logics of consumption, excluding political street art altogether as a ‘valid’ art form. However, supporters of the ‘Awakening of Chile’ movement describe the process of erasure as ‘a Visual Hygiene that exercises symbolic violence.’ [73] Links between the attempted censorship of GAM’s façade art and olvido were also clear to the public, since ‘erasing murals … with grey paint is a staple of the dictatorship’ [75]. Furthermore, the deletion of GAM’s public art reveals the continuing ideological conflicts present in collective memory. According to Sabina Andron, graffiti and public art are urban spatial productions that generate surfaces that are ‘cumulative and layered’; this thickened surface ‘is therefore qualitatively different from private and public spaces. It blurs these urban ownership regimes and embodies collective spatial production and use’ [76: p. 7].

Hence the censorship of GAM’s façade has been portrayed as a political provocation, given that the institution openly wished to maintain the art on the building’s façade [62, 77]. Hence, the disregard for private ownership by the would-be censors exposes their ideological position. Since the act of ‘inscribing surfaces re-politicises property, participation, public and private spaces’ [76: p. 8], similarly the attempted erasure of the re-politicized façade can be understood as a dialectical process that echoes memoria and olvido. As the criminal investigation into the act continues, speculations about the perpetrators’ identity range from right-wing extremist groups to agents of the current government itself [46, 62]. Either conjecture means that the red and grey paint symbolised the would-be silencing of the collective voice inscribed in GAM’s façade, thus pointing towards the historical tendency towards cultural de-politicization of Chile’s right-wing factions [78]. However, as has been noted, ‘public texts formulate a live public debate that relies on the … ephemerality of public writing under the threat of censure. Even the erasure of public texts creates the sense of ongoing political practice’ [20: p. 193]. Political street art in Chile, plucked out of obscurity after October 2019, fulsomely reoccupied GAM’s walls in just a day after the erasure attempt – proving the ineffectiveness of whitewashing [62]. Far from ending the political agency of GAM’s façade, the censorship only provided a new layer in which to continue the ongoing conversation [79].

Jan Assmann argues that ‘cultural memory has fixed points; … fateful events of the past, whose memory is maintained through cultural formation (texts, rites, monuments)’ [18: p. 35]. By altering the architectural form of GAM, the protest artists disrupted a ‘fixed point’ within the Chilean democratic era, generating re-signification through re-politicization. In challenging the established categorisation of art within spaces of consumption, GAM’s public art operates ‘outside political or corporate control, and by its presence reclaims public space from … the aesthetic of authority’ [70: p. 185]. Christian Yutronic, echoing the statements made by Fernández [80], states that he supports the activist appropriation of GAM and deems it as logical [36]. However, an analysis of the factors that led to the current state of GAM’s façade and its impact on collective memory reveal the many complexities that surround the life of the renovation after its opening. After October 2019, the agency of demonstrators coincided with an institution that was embodying democratic ideals in a memory knot that intertwined historical, cultural and political aspects within a frame of social unrest. Furthermore, the lifespan of GAM’s protest art has been sustained by the institution’s interests, which fluctuate between supporting protestors and adhering to governmental policies for urban hygiene [81]. The ephemeral qualities of street art might yet cause the disappearance of all artworks from GAM in the future, a potential circumstance that has ignited efforts to record and preserve some pieces [82]. However, it is evident that the imprint of GAM’s protect art on collective memory will not fade as easily [83: p. 409; 84]. Under the socio-political scenario caused by the ‘Awakening of Chile’, the building has now regained its status as a symbol of democracy and as a piece of popular national identity.


In 2017, Caiozzama presented a work titled Todas Íbamos a Ser Reinas in the visual arts gallery of GAM (Figure 14) [85]. As a piece, it depicts the key eras of the building through three collages that feature Gabriela Mistral dressed according to each period, accompanied by metaphorical figures set against a mandala-like background of historical politico-cultural icons. Through these montages, the artist manages to create a memory object that exposes the layered and nuanced components of GAM’s complex existence – defying, within its walls, any attempt at overwriting pursued by the building’s renovation. This piece is framed within the shifting memory context that reveals and increased interest in showcasing the building’s controversial past. Conversely, GAM’s renovation was conceptualised in a period that institutionalised traumatic symbols and sites, while simultaneously eliminating their evidential value [25: p. 8]. This reshaping of GAM comprised intricate archival operations based on a political context that sought to close entirely the memory box. By opting to evoke the building’s egalitarianism metaphorically, its architectural form was rendered disposable. Thus, after the 2006 fire, the new cultural centre aimed simultaneously to recover the lost memories of Salvador Allende’s era and to render 17 years of dictatorship as a lapse that was best forgotten. Furthermore, this cultural quest for memory suppression pervaded architectural discourse at the time, showcasing how the neoliberal context in Chile had become intertwined with olvido. The building’s ruined structure was viewed negatively by Chilean architects after the fire, with them listing its supposed architectural and spatial ‘fallacies’. However, that isolated discourse disregarded the political and cultural structures that clearly still permeated every connotation of the building.

Figure 14 

Todas Íbamos a Ser Reinas by Caiozzama, as exhibited in 2017 in GAM. This photograph of the artwork by Nicolás De Sarmiento depicts the different visions of Gabriela Mistral during the building’s three phases [Courtesy of Caiozzama/Courtesy of Nicolás De Sarmiento, reproduced with permission of the artist and photographer. All rights reserved].

Inscription, as a performative act of remembrance, came to reignite memoria in the absent remains of UNCTAD III. GAM’s appropriation by the October 2019 movement radically challenged its condition as commodity and transformed it back into a political entity. Caiozzama, when asked if he had thought about updating Todas Íbamos a Ser Reinas, simply said that the current form of GAM did not entail a new version of Gabriela Mistral. Instead, he considered his artwork as an evolution of the third stage that had elevated GAM’s building into a popular icon [62]. This assertion reflects the retroactive relation between architecture and memory, insofar as architectural artefacts shape the cultural memory of a city whereas, simultaneously, their conception and perception are moulded by bodily rituals and the political, economic and social factors that encompass urban culture. Therefore, although studies of memory through material absence are highly relevant in the current neoliberal culture which commodifies memory and produces urban amnesia, the importance of architectural form in memory studies cannot be understated. As noted by Sharon Macdonald, while ‘physical absence does not inevitably equate with forgetting … continued material presence … can make forgetting more difficult’ [86: p. 53].

The degree of political agency now achieved by the recent appropriation of GAM complicates the relation between the institution and the government. Although GAM has been given complete autonomy to create its socially conscious theatrical and arts programme, it clearly still strongly depends on government funding [87]. Currently, this strained relation is manifesting itself in an uncertain situation regarding the completion of GAM’s concert hall [46]. First announced in 2014, its construction has been stretched out for 6 years with no deadline in sight, while political decisions have cut the finance destined for the construction [88]. Still shrouded in uncertainty, the topped-out structure of the concert hall embodies the fears of producing the kind of ‘white elephant’ building that plagued the 2010 renovation – although, this time around, inexperience is not the cause, but instead the problematic symbolism of GAM ever since October 2019.

Following the intensified memory struggles that have culminated in the ‘Awakening’ movement, the re-politicization of GAM (as an emblematic example of national modernism) could change further the assessment of modern architecture in Chile, given that its perception is influenced by historical logics of erasure. The popular perception of Chilean modernism is directly related to the institutionalization of ‘national heritage’, propelled by the Pinochet dictatorship as part of its endeavours towards national reassertion. But because modernism carried socialist connotations from the 1930s onwards, the junta’s initiative actively disregarded all public architecture from that period, and buildings erected during Allende’s government were altered and de-politicised [25: p. 4]. Thus, the legacy of olvido within architecture informs the genealogy of modernism as taught in Chile’s architectural schools based on the connections between local modernists and international figures such as Le Corbusier and Walter Gropius, in lieu of any deeper political and ideological aspects that in fact pervaded Chilean architecture at the time. The isolated discourse that permeates architectural education in Chile currently must be reconsidered by understanding the historical structures that have shaped it. As memoria has irrupted into the social habitus – questioning every present societal structure in the country – Chilean architectural discourse must likewise reassess its own epistemology. Henceforth, architectural discourse in Chile needs to look beyond the ‘aesthetics of authority’ as part of questioning its relationship with collective memory and identity formation.