After the Spaniards took control of Chile, they instituted an overt policy of congregación or reducción, which meant concentrating native populations in villages or towns for political control and religious evangelization. For most indigenous peoples, who lived in dispersed settlements near their fields or their animals, this was an inconvenience at best, and it contributed to land disputes within indigenous communities and between indigenous communities and Spaniards.
Still, in many areas, the need to be close to one’s fields or animals has reinforced a dispersed rural settlement pattern—in the altiplano, for instance, apparently deserted villages have become ceremonial sites where people gather for their patron saint’s festival. The traditional house is an adobe, usually with a thatched or tiled roof, and small windows to conserve heat; the frequent earthquakes, though, have encouraged concrete-block construction, and galvanized roofing is simpler to install and easier to repair.
Some unique vernacular architecture survives in the south. Many Mapuche still inhabit traditional rucas, or plank houses with thatched roofs customarily erected with community labor. On parts of the Chiloé archipelago, some neighborhoods of palafitos (fisherfolk’s houses on stilts or pilings) have withstood earthquakes and tsunamis. In Patagonia, 19th-century “Magellanic” houses often affect a Victorian style, with wooden framing covered by metal cladding and topped by corrugated metal roofs.
Cities, of course, differ from the countryside. Traditionally, as in Santiago de Chile, colonial houses fronted directly on the street or sidewalk, with an interior patio or garden for family use; any setback was almost unheard of. This pattern survives, though building materials have mostly shifted from adobe to concrete. At the same time, many wealthier Chileans have built houses with large gardens, on the North American suburban model, but surrounded by high fences and state-of-the-art security.
Northern mining towns like Iquique are notable for their Georgian-style gingerbread architecture, but the most distinctive urban style belongs to the spontaneous, organic city of Valparaíso, which has adapted itself admirably to the contours of its hilly terrain.
© Wayne Bernhardson from Moon Chile, 2nd edition