Indigenous architecture survives in the Aymara adobes of the northern altiplano and the thatched Mapuche rucas of the south. In the heartland, Spanish culture has left an enduring imprint on both official and vernacular architecture, as buildings with thick adobe walls and tiled roofs are common with all social classes; because of repeated earthquakes, these generally were larger structures of lower proportions.
In older cities and towns, there is little or no setback from the street; houses usually have a central patio surrounded by the various rooms, and share walls with their neighbors. Rural houses are similar but free-standing. In newer subdivisions, though, single-family houses fronted by lawns are becoming more common.
Norte Grande cities such as Iquique and Antofagasta, dating from the late-19th- and early-20th-century nitrate era, are distinguished by their balconied Georgian and Victorian buildings. Many consist of Douglas fir imported from California and Oregon (Douglas fir is widely but inaccurately known as pino oregón, Oregon pine).
In Sur Chico settlements such as Puerto Varas, 19th-century German immigration has left a legacy of shingled houses seemingly straight out of Bavaria. The Chiloé archipelago has become a UNESCO World Heritage Site for its churches and chapels—the diversity of shingle designs is truly extraordinary—but its remaining palafitos (houses on stilts or pilings) are another treasure of vernacular architecture.
Southernmost Chile, especially the city of Punta Arenas, is notable for wool-boom mansard mansions from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, but also for its simpler wooden-framed, metal-clad “Magellanic” houses. Some of the best are in the town of Porvenir, on the Chilean side of Tierra del Fuego, but many also remain in Argentine Patagonia and Tierra del Fuego.
In Santiago, many dignified French-style buildings remain from the 19th century, but contemporary architecture tends toward the functional and utilitarian. At its worst, it’s a clutter of shopping malls, but the newest office and apartment buildings are taking advantage of new design techniques.
© Wayne Bernhardson from Moon Chile, 2nd edition