Unlike sizzling Rio de Janeiro or seductive Buenos Aires, Santiago comes off as South America’s more straitlaced capital city. Chile, the world’s longest country, stretching almost 2,700 miles from north to south, is packed with plenty of eye-catching landscapes, from the soaring Andes to the arid Atacama Desert. And it’s no wonder that visitors are easily lured away from sleepy Santiago. Many who descend on Chile’s sprawling capital see it simply as a convenient gateway to the country’s real highlights: the Lake District, San Pedro de Atacama, and Torres del Paine National Park in Patagonia.
As Chile’s financial center, Santiago hardly presents a thrill a minute. Its more subdued spirit, however, actually telegraphs the national character, one that still has a bit of a self-esteem issue as it gets beyond its long cultural and geographic isolation. But with a flourishing economy, this city that’s often better-known for its wintertime smog is now in the midst of a building boom. To better understand Santiago’s oft-overlooked architectural treasures and how an influx of wealth is affecting the city’s character, we enlisted the help of architect Sebastián Irarrázaval.
Irarrázaval’s eponymous firm, found in the leafy barrio of Vitacura, has amassed a diverse body of work that includes office buildings, residences, showrooms, and a winery (currently in development), but it’s his ultracool, natural material–driven Indigo Patagonia Hotel that put him on the world design map. He recently won a competition to build the new school of design at the Universidad Católica, where he teaches architecture. In this city, where his father also studied and taught architecture, it’s no wonder Irarrázaval has strong, and not wholly laudatory, opinions about where Santiago is going.