Chiloé: The Life and Death of a House

“A building breathes through the mouth of its windows and the lungs of its air-conditioning system. It circulates fluids through the veins and arteries of its pipes and sends messages to all parts of its body through the nervous system of its electric wires. A building is protected by the skin of its façade and rests on the feet of its foundations. Like most human bodies, most buildings have full lives, and then they die.”

Matthys Levy and Mario Salvadori, ‘Why Buildings Fall Down’ (quoted in Jeff Young’s poem, ‘What If’, created for the event Dwelling and its Discontents, at ‘Protohome’, Newcastle upon Tyne, July 2016)


Like Levy and Salvadori describe above, a house is like a body. It is born, it breathes, it lives, it grows old and finally, it dies. Plaster cracks, concrete crumbles, roofs leak, and repairs are needed. The fissures in the skin of a building are pasted over, sometimes many times. But in the end the house dies. It falls down, or is pushed down. Like everything a house is always in a state of becoming, of living and dying. It isn’t static, nor is it permanent.

The place I’ve been for the last few days – Chiloé – an island in the south of Chile, contains houses in all stages of life. It is a place that is ephemeral and ever changing. Most houses on the island are made out of wood, which itself, as a material, has a finite quality. Timber is the materiality that makes up much of the labour of life in Chiloé. Everywhere I went I saw people chipping away at it, molding it, carving it, bending it, manipulating it. This is a timber culture where huge indigenous forests blanket the island creating a tradition of carpenters and boat-builders. Building homes is central to Chilote life, and this is an ongoing activity. In Chiloé houses aren’t built to last, instead they are allowed to die naturally, often outliving the dweller. And so it’s possible to see houses in every stage of life – some are just being born, their ribbed frames on show, others are in the midst of life – kids shout out first floor windows, dogs sleep on porches, roses bloom in gardens, whilst others are in the final stages of life, with sagging facades – gravity doing its work, weeds inhabit its cracks and worms devour it from within, and finally some houses are being buried, going back into the ground, bit by bit they are taken apart, body parts thrown into skips, whilst the earth is prepared for a new birth.


A house in its final stages of life, Castro, Chiloé

IMG_9303Chilote houses

In Chiloé people construct homes from scratch using carpentry traditions passed down through generations. The main town of Castro is famous for its fisherman’s ‘palafitos’ – houses built on stilts on the seashore, enabling fishermen to moor their boats to their homes. And due to the versatility and the varying characteristics of timber, different types of wood are selected for different structural and aesthetic purposes, from a building’s foundations through to its roof and decorative façade. And the use of handmade coloured timber shingles gives Chilote buildings a distinctive vernacular appearance. But this is not a static vernacular, it is not a remnant of the past but a vernacular which is living, that is constantly evolving, as builders try new methods and styles – houses reflecting the spirit of their dwellers.


Colourful handmade shingles


Fisherman’s palafitos, Castro, Chiloé

This also extends beyond housing. Chiloé is also famous for its wooden churches, themselves built entirely out of wood, without screws or nails, just using age old joinery techniques, and always, like the houses, built on stilts, their weight resting on large rocks. Jesuit missionaries built over 150 wooden churches scattered across Chiloé and its archipelago of islands. Of these, 80 belong to what is termed the Chiloé School of Wooden Churches, which culminated in 1912 with the construction of St Francis’ Church in Castro. In 2000, UNESCO awarded World Heritage status to 16 of these. But these churches are anything but grand. Indeed, it is the understated nature of these churches that I was so drawn to. They lack the ornamental audacity of typical Catholic churches – adorned as they so often are with gold plated reliefs and marble floors. Instead Chilote churches have a perfect, if perhaps austere, simplicity. The timber walls are bare, only an alter and some pews make up the furniture.


Iglesia Huyar Alto, Isla Quinchao, Chiloé


The interior of Saint Francis’ Church, Castro, Chiloé

Whilst I don’t have any religious faith, or any belief in any god, these churches make you feel that if there was a god they would be a living, breathing part of the world, not envisioned as ‘on high’. Perhaps this aspect in itself has roots in Chilote indigenous culture and its people who worshipped the sun and the earth, rather than any man or god. Indeed Chilote culture, like much Chilean culture, is hybrid – its indigenous people were from both the land and the sea. The Chono and Guaiteca people were fisherwomen and men – they were nomads, touring the archipelago’s channels in search of shoals of fish, whilst the Huilliches and the Williches were sedentary farmers, who reared sheep and grew potatoes. It was these people of the land, derived from the Mapuche (who still exist and, to a certain extent, flourish in Chile, despite persecution and the removal of their ancestral lands), that gave a spiritual meaning to nature, who worshipped the sun, the earth and the rain for feeding and growing their crops and themselves. As the poet Lionel Lienlaf said, “The Mapuche people did not build cities because creating a city always means killing a river”. And so to build large settlements (and large houses) meant using the earth’s resources too intensively and impacting on the natural balance of a place. Thus the Mapuche and the indigenous people of Chiloé, tread lightly, working in reciprocity with and alongside the natural resources that surround them – their existence not being separate to nature but part of it.


Boat-building in Castro, Chiloé

And so the simple home, constructed from timber, and left to sink back into the ground from where its materiality first emerged, connects to a wider indigenous philosophy which connects humankind to the rest of nature. But the process of building is also central to this – the relationship between the hand, the material and the land upon which the building rests. I have always been fascinated by timber building because of the possibilities for the hand made in construction of this kind. These processes are not ‘efficient’ in the modern sense of the word, they are often long and arduous, they often require skill and are often tough on the hands and the body. Inevitably, the elements that make up a house can be constructed much faster in a factory, and can be mass produced using new systems and timber technologies (such as CNC machines). Yet these processes seem to miss the point. They disregard what happens the moment when the hand touches the material, and the way that learning and processes of sociality emerge through this.

In Chiloé the home is a central facet of sociality. People build together, but even more distinctively, when they want or need to move the location of their home they do so physically (built as they are on stilts). This collective practice is called ‘la minga’ (collective work), whereby a community helps a family in separating the house from its foundations, laying a path of tree trunks in order for the house to slide along, pulled by oxen. Once the house has reached its final destination the community celebrates with a party, the family providing food and beverages to those that helped during the moving process. Thus housing in this tradition is connected to the building and the extension of sociality and a real sense of reciprocity – work in exchange for food. But furthermore, when thought about within the context of housing as ‘property’, as a ‘financial service’, to be bought, its cost inflated and then sold, the concept of physically moving home through ‘la minga’ seems to radically challenge the idea of a property market altogether. Further to this, if you’ve built your home with your time, your labour and your money then you may be less willing to part with it.

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A path of tree trucks for moving the house

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Chilote house moving

Chiloé has a hybrid and evolving form of vernacular life. In their tradition of house-building Chilotes look back in order to move forward. But here movement is key. The traditional Chilote culture, as I saw it during my time there, isn’t pastiche, it isn’t ‘dressed up’ for tourists or wealthy retirees. It doesn’t emerge as a parody, instead it is something that is living, existing and real. Seeing this prompted me to think of how we in the England ‘do tradition’ – what this means for us and also what has become of many (often ex) fishing and farming towns and villages in the UK (indeed Chiloé looks a lot like the UK with its rolling green fields, sheep and wet climate). The ‘quaintness’ of these places seems only to appropriate a livelihood and culture that is long since lost. Whilst people are perhaps searching for something ‘genuine’ when they visit these places, increasingly, what people find is dressed up pastiche and a whole lot of tourist tat (probably made in China). In Chiloé the modes and methods of housebuilding are part of a living tradition, one that is not stuck in some imagined past but one which is central to living in the present day, in a world which never stands still.

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