Colonizing Last Frontiers: Energy Landscapes in the Chilean Patagonia

Colonizing Last Frontiers: Energy Landscapes in the Chilean Patagonia is a studio that will explore the material and ecological processes and byproducts of the highly controversial Proyecto Hidroaysén (PHA), a series of five dams in the Baker and Pascua Rivers in southern Chile that are to supply about 93% of the country’s future demand for electricity. In addition to the dams and their generating plants, the PHA will install 3,000 miles of power line corridors to connect to the existing grid, deforest and flood 5,900 hectares, construct many roads, landfills, temporary workers’ housing, gravel mines, etc. All of these raise questions of landscape, infrastructure, ecology, habitat, economy, recreation, and settlement in a remote and ecologically significant region of the world.

The PHA is a highly controversial project at a national and international level. On the one hand there is the apocalyptic discourse of environmentalists who claim that this project will have devastating effects on what is perceived to be one of the last pristine regions of the world. There is also a nationalist discourse from Chileans who want to protect the Patagonian region from the economic needs of foreign empires, in this case China. Third is the positivistic discourse, paradoxically financed by American philanthropy, that is working to turn the clock backwards, stripping little by little all human presence in the area, from wire fencing to small-scale agriculture, one post at a time, as if it were possible to turn back centuries of human occupation here. Finally, there is the pro-development discourse, one which claims this is necessary for the development of cleaner forms of energy and for the economic growth of the region. All of these are reactions two, or new forms of, colonization in one of the least developed parts of the world.

The objective of this studio is to calibrate a position somewhere in between all of these competing views on the PHA. We assume that the place where such calibration occurs is precisely in the landscape, that is in the interface between the hydroelectric infrastructure and the territory as it exists now. The construction of the five dams, their lakes, and the 2,253 km (1,400 miles) of transmission lines generate, engage, and have repercussions on a series of material, spatial, and ecological processes that have not been, and rarely are, explored in this type of infrastructural project. Rather than assume either the position of the environmental groups (which argue that the project should not be built at all) or the government’s (that it is the most efficient of all projects of this type in the world (and that this is sufficient argument to have it built as proposed), we will focus our investigations on the material and ecological byproducts themselves, deploying their productive, economic, aesthetic, and ecological potential in order to turn a mono-functional infrastructure into a multi-valent landscape. Our working hypotheses, then, will be that the operations associated with the development of an energy corridor are opportunities for synthesis and hybridization. Because the PHA will be constructed over mostly unpopulated areas it will become a prime colonizing element. This foundational character means that any site strategy implemented for the materialization of the project will also acquire a structuring force in the (inevitable) colonization of the area.

The studio will be a concurrent studio with the Pontificia Universidad Catolica, Santiago, Department of Architecture, under the direction of Professors Danilo Martic. Students at PUC and GSD will work independently on this topic, but will come together in a seminar at the PUC, in the field trip to Aysen, and at the end of term.