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A New City in the Patagonia

Student responses to the eruption of the Chaitén Volcano in Chile

By Paula Villagra-Islas
Photos by Paula Villagra-Islas (exhibition photos) and Sarah Macisaac (site photos)


In May 2008 almost 5,000 people were evacuated from the city of Chaitén in the Patagonia region of Chile when a nearby volcano erupted. Similar to the eruption of the Volcano Mount Vesuvius in Pompeii two thousand years ago, the Chaitén Volcano destroyed the city of Chaitén and its surrounding area. Students of the Santiago Travelling Studio which includes masters students from architecture, landscape architecture and planning departments from the University of Melbourne, Australia, took this phenomenon and its effects as a case study.

Image 1: View from the remnants of the city of Chaitén to the Chaitén Volcano.

Melbourne students in conjunction with students of similar programs at the Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile (PUC) worked together in Chile for a period of two weeks to develop feasible solutions for the strategic development of a new city for Chaitén. Students’ proposals were well informed by the preliminary research they undertook in Australia and a study developed by a multidisciplinary team in Chile about strategic guidelines for the reconstruction/emplacement and conceptual master plan for Chaitén. This information was complemented with fieldwork activity on site and a series of workshops and lectures given by academics of PUC in Santiago, Chile. The overall work aimed at developing a city with integrated urban, rural, ecological and transport systems taking into account sustainable, economic and social aspects. Moreover, students created concepts for a local architecture, for the management of the landscape and they also developed projects that range across a variety of scales. Despite the language and cultural diversity, the students from Australia and Chile were immersed together in a rich academic and social learning activity aimed at developing ideas for the new settlement. Their work was recently exhibited at the Faculty of Architecture Building and Planning of the University of Melbourne and is described in this paper.

Volcanic Eruption in Chaitén
Change has always been part of the landscape of Chile. Topography, vegetation density, soil type and landscape colours, among other aspects, are all subjected to change due to natural and man-made disturbances. Colours of the vegetation change because of the variation of seasons. The shape of the landscape can also change if we build in them when, for instance, agricultural areas are transformed into suburbs. In fact, landscapes can depict dramatic variations because of the effect of natural dynamics, or disturbances, such as volcanic activities, which are part of the natural development of the environment. Natural disturbances such as changes of seasons throughout the year, fires created by lightning activity, volcanic eruptions, droughts and strong winds, all can contribute to the modification of the landscape.

In Australia, for example, the effects of fire on the landscape are relevant for the ecological development of various natural systems. Seeds of native species sprout and new shoots can be observed in many plants after a fire. Such an event can create small scale changes which can be seen positively from an aesthetic perspective. The regrowth of the bush after months following a burn shows leaves in a bright green colour and this can be highly attractive for many people. In contrast, wildfires, or fires that get out of control and reach high intensities, can also affect vast areas of land and be perceived as negative such as the recent effect of bushfires in south-eastern Australia, on Black Saturday. During this event numerous hectares of land were destroyed and human infrastructure, ecosystems and human lives were lost.

In Chile, unlike Australia, volcanos are associated with many of the disturbances that take place in the country (i.e. volcanic eruptions and earthquakes). Chile is located in an area of the Pacific Ring of Fire where most of the world’s earthquakes occur. The Ring of Fire is also the result of the collision of crustal plates, action which in the case of Chile has contributed to the creation of approximately 2,000 volcanos from which 500 have been described by experts as active volcanos and 60 have erupted within the past 450 years. Approximately 3 million out of 16 million Chileans live in areas affected by volcanic activity.

Image 2: (top) Map of Chile indicating the active volcanos and the location of the Chaitén Volcano. Source: SERNAGEOMIN.
Image 3: (bottom) Area of Intervention. Source: Google Earth.

Volcanic eruptions can change the landscape in a positive or negative manner. Most of the volcanos are concentrated along the Andes Ranges which constitute the border of Chile and provide the area with positive aspects. The shape of the Andes creates to the east a unique skyline for many cities which are located near the Andes. The view is highly attractive for many locals and tourists. In addition, volcanic eruptions in Chile have occurred since thousands of years ago and have contributed to the creation of the ‘trumaos’, or good quality soil used particularly for agricultural purposes. However, as in Australia, volcanic eruptions also can create high levels of devastation. Eruptions can cause injuries, deaths, displacement of entire communities, destruction of infrastructure, interruption of local activities and economic loss. When these types of events take place, the ‘lahares’, or a mixture of volcanic rock and water, flow through ravines and other types of depressions destroying in many cases nearby settlements. In addition, the ‘pyroclastic flow’, or material such as fine volcanic ash and volcanic gas which erupts into the air from the crater of the volcano, can extend up to many kilometres resulting in pollution and damage of distant human settlements.

The eruption of the volcano located 10 kilometres from Chaitén, had similar negative effects. Chaitén is located on the east side of the Reloncaví Sound in the Llanquihue Province, Los Lagos Region, Chile. At 2 AM on the 8th of May of 2008 the nearby volcano at 42.8 °S, began erupting. The ‘lahares’ reached the city and were the cause of a series of consecutives floods of the Blanco River over the city during May, June and July 2008. The activity of the Chaitén Volcano and its consequences destroyed almost the entire town, affected the aquaculture industry, shortened ecotourism and closed nearby national parks and natural reserves. Moreover, the ashes contaminated the area with toxic material. The city had a population of approximately 5,000 people and while most of them were evacuated and distributed in nearby cities, a few families continued to stay on site despite government warnings about the area being highly toxic and the possibility of future eruptions being high. Such a physically and socially devastated environment was the site students were asked to re-develop.

Image 4, 5 and 6: Chaitén after the eruption.

A New City for Chaitén: an Opportunity.
Chaitén was strategically located because it was the entrance to the Patagonia of Chile from the north and it was a point that provided access for ecotourism. Besides, due to its location in a coastal area there were opportunities for the development of local economies (such as fishing) as well as urban infrastructure such as schools and hospitals that were available for the ‘chaiteninos’ and inhabitants of nearby towns. A study developed by OCUC (Observatorio de Ciudades UC), an organisation based in the Pontificia Universidad Católica of Chile and focused on providing information and consultancy in terms of planning and urban aspects, suggests that these characteristics cannot be lost. The study, developed by over 30 professionals from different areas of expertise, was limited to evaluate new areas for the emplacement of the city and aimed to provide recommendations for the sustainable, economic, urban and social development of the new Chaitén. According to the study, the construction of the new city should be taken as an opportunity to reinforce the positive aspects of Chaitén in terms of tourism and location, as well as to explore new ideas for the sustainable and economic development of the area.

Image 7 and 8: Collage prepared by the students that reflects their impressions of the site in relation to the characteristics of local colours, materials, scenic views and activities (top) and image of local door and shingles (bottom).

Many of the outcomes of the study by OCUC were relevant for the proposals of the students. The best location for the new city was defined in an area 10 kilometres north from Chaitén, called Santa Barbara. The area has a diversity of landscape types (i.e. forests and beaches) and attractive views to natural landmarks (Morro Vilcun) which are positive aspects that will help to develop tourism. Its location in a coastal area can also be considered positive in terms of transportation as most of the inhabitants of the area commute by boat and ferry. In addition, the new city can be served by a nearby aerodrome and the coastal route of Chile, which connects Chile from north to south. Overall, its location can ensure connectivity and facilitate accessibility within the region and the rest of the country. The area of Santa Barbara is additionally protected from natural disasters such as volcanic eruptions and strong winds. It has a moderate topography and good lighting conditions which are favourable factors for the building of a city. On the whole, the vision of the new Chaitén proposed by OCUC suggests that it ‘can become an attractive access to the Patagonia, an extraordinary place, of low or zero environmental impact, based on a diverse economy that will contribute actively to enhance and increase the resources and development of the Province of Palena’.

Image 9. Views of the beach and Morro Vilcun in Santa Barbara: The New Settlement.

The Studio and Students’ Proposals
The Santiago Travelling Studio involved 12 students and two staff members from the Faculty of Architecture, Building and Planning (ABP) of the University of Melbourne and was developed in 17 weeks during the second semester, 2009. The logistics of the Studio started early in 2009 and included the development of a topic that could be achieved within a semester, as well as the coordination of international flights, accommodation and local transport in Chile.

The first eight weeks of the Studio were undertaken in Melbourne. During this time the students looked at references in respect to the ecology, culture and history of the area of Chaitén, sustainable energy, characteristics of the local architecture and studies in relation to responses to similar natural disasters. At the same time in Chile, similar studios, including approximately 40 students and 11 staff members (including lecturers and tutors), were being undertaken at the Faculty of Architecture, Design and Urban Studies at PUC. In September 2009, Melbourne students spent two weeks in Chile and during this time they formed work groups with students from PUC, visited the site and studied the surrounding areas (Chiloe Island and National Parks). Melbourne and PUC students together explored a suitable strategy for an integrated system of the area between Chaitén and Santa Barbara.

During the last seven weeks, Melbourne students worked in Australia and the Studio took the form of a professional office where everyone worked toward the same aim. This was to create a city within a remote area of high ecological value by considering a sustainable economy and social and tourism integration. The final work was exhibited during one week at the ABP Faculty of The University of Melbourne. Overall, students’ responses for the new Chaitén and its surrounding area were developed in different scales of intervention and were thought to be achieved over different time frames.

Image 10 and 11: Students at the workshop in Santiago and at the exhibition in Melbourne.

Some of the students emphasized the creation and evaluation of a new type of energy infrastructure that would sustain the overall area. With the high volcanic activity of the area in mind, they proposed a ‘geothermal corridor’ between Chaitén and Santa Barbara. This included the physical infrastructure to obtain geothermal energy, or that renewable energy which is obtained from the heat deep below ground, and which would then be distributed among public and private premises. This seemed to be an appropriate solution for an area surrounded by volcanic activity.

The energy strategy was complemented with a ‘time strategy’ where students proposed to restrict the growth of Chaitén and expand the growth of Santa Barbara over time. In this case, the population would slowly settle in Santa Barbara while Chaitén could be re-designed as a disaster museum and/or transformed in a research facility in relation to volcanic issues. The large amount of ashes accumulated in Chaitén also led to the idea of capitalizing on the fertilizing properties of ashes. For example, flowers such as tulips can be grown and a green industry nursery can be established to reforest the area.

Another group of students suggested the ‘necklace strategy’ as a way to link Chaitén and Santa Barbara in terms of economic and tourist activities. In this context, a series of nodal points were proposed between both areas. These nodes would provide access to trails into the forest, ‘plazas’ or areas where to exchange local products, views to the landscape, and ecotourism stations where visitors could learn about, for example, geothermal energy. A port was also proposed near Chaitén as a gateway to the Patagonia and also as a node of local transport. According to the students’ work, the ‘transport strategy’ that would be most suitable for the area should integrate roads, boat routes and hiking trails to include tourist activities. In keeping the use of the geothermal energy in mind the use of electric vehicles was reinforced.

In terms of urban form, the students acknowledged two main factors; ecology and social cohesion. The land of the new city corresponds to an area through which a river flows and spreads in different branches upon reaching the ocean. Based on the topographic characteristics of the site and the study by OCUC, it is very unlikely that future eruptions of the volcano would reach the city through the river. Taking this into consideration, the students’ proposal involved establishing the city around the river along with its wetland areas. The city could then be managed as a ‘green corridor’ where fauna can travel, ecosystems can be conserved and people can enjoy nature. The city could grow around the river in different stages of development in response to a future increase in population. At the same time, the river was proposed as a natural element that can be used to distribute the main areas of the city, for example, by separating tourist, commercial and civic areas from residential areas.

Image 12: Students’ posters at the exhibition showing the ideas in relation to the overall strategy and the organization of the city.

Students’ proposals were also aimed at restoring social aspects that were lost after the eruption. A documentary developed in Chile by a TV Channel after the eruption of the volcano in Chaitén, suggests that the eruption brought many negative social consequences to the community. People were homesick and angry because they had lost their properties as well as their jobs. They also felt sad and upset because they missed the family life, tranquillity and the silence of Chaitén. Before the volcanic eruption, children were able to cycle and play in the public areas without danger. Members of the same family (i.e. cousins, aunts and uncles, grandfathers and grandmothers) lived nearby and the community was involved in various local and cultural activities. After the eruption, the social situation for most of the ‘chaiteninos’ changed after the government relocated the population in different and bigger cities, including the nearby city of Puerto Montt that has approximately 175.000 inhabitants.

In response to this phenomenon, students used the beauty and utility of plants, especially that of native vegetation such as its medicinal and horticultural properties, in various public spaces within the city to recover the social interaction within the community. Students proposed a series of public and private ‘green infrastructure’ for the city of Santa Barbara. Wider streets, as wide as in Chaitén, were aimed at facilitating the congregation of people during local festivities. Houses with semi-open spaces accessible from the street were also proposed as a strategy to promote social interaction among neighbours. In addition, shared gardens (i.e. community gardens) were distributed within the city for similar purposes. It is, therefore evident, that the students laid a great emphasis on public involvement in the design of these public areas.

The development of architecture with identity was another factor that was considered by the students. The large amount of native forest in the area provided the possibility of creating an architecture based on wood. Indeed, most of the local architecture has been built with this material. The entire region is well known for the diverse types of shingles used in the roof and wall of houses as well as in many of the world heritage churches located across the Reloncavi Sound on Chiloe Island. Students’ proposals for buildings were based on the use of this material as well as on local traditions that add flexibility to the process of settlement. For example, a group of students studied the concept of ‘minga’, a community practice that takes place on Chiloe Island and that involves the entire community in a social and collaborative activity in favour of a particular family. The ‘minga’ consists of transporting a house with the help of bullocks from one site to the other. This activity usually takes place when a family needs to move from one side of Chiloe Island to the other. Students took this concept and created a series of flexible modular houses named after ‘patacasa’ (‘pata’ means foot and ‘casa’ means house). These modules were built in wood and could be aggregated and eliminated over time in response to the change in numbers within a family unit.

Image 13: Students’ proposal, ‘Patacasa’.

Learning Outcomes
Overall, the main issues explored by the students related to the process of settlement in terms of sustainable, economic and social issues. The workshop successfully provided the students with a platform to discuss and propose bold ideas to improve the remains of Chaitén. It also helped to develop hypotheses with respect to the future development of Santa Barbara and the region.

The decision taken during the organization of the Studio with regard to mixing the students from Australia and Chile and from different disciplines provided fruitful outcomes in several aspects. Such decision brought benefits to the students and to the project itself. Students gained work experience in an interdisciplinary and cross-cultural environment. Students from architecture, planning and landscape architecture were asked to work together and were forced to participate in multidisciplinary teams. This action encouraged discussion of the ideas in a wider context. For example, students from architecture explained their proposals not only as an object but also in respect to the landscape and the region. Planners, who are usually focused on providing solutions for the city and regional scales, were also interested in the design of ‘plazas’ and architectural details. Additionally, students with a background in landscape architecture were able to recommend solutions for the development of the architecture and the region based on their knowledge about ecology.

Students’ projects integrated not only the context, both physical and social, but also global issues of discussion such as the use of sustainable economies and the development of sustainable cities. Such a multidisciplinary approach was a challenge for the teachers of the Studio. In many cases, students’ ideas went beyond the expertise of course coordinators and tutors; however, this situation was overcome by the interaction that occurred between Melbourne and PUC students and educators. Students’ work was discussed and evaluated among a multidisciplinary team that included planners, architects and landscape architects. This work was also informed by ecologists, economists, historians and environmental psychologists who gave several talks to the students in Chile.

The Chilean government is currently working on the design of Santa Barbara and the first stage of the city is soon to be developed. During the activities of the Santiago Travelling Studio in Chile, the government provided information during an informal talk in which officials explained the ideas they have for the city of Santa Barbara. The talk focused on the description of the concepts the government has for the new city. It also included a summary of the outcomes of several community workshops that the government has undertaken with the ‘chaiteninos’ and local authorities. However, it was not possible to further engage the Chilean government with the activities of the Studio due to time constraints and also possibly because of the lack of significance they might see in the work of the students. The outcomes of the Santiago Travelling Studio described in this article show that students’ work can be of great import. Students’ were able to elaborate a greater variety of design and strategic solutions in respect to issues that arise when building a city. Also, they explored how the impact of a new settlement would affect the development of local economies, tourism and the region. Hence, their proposals can provide preliminary and innovative ideas that could be then further developed by more specialized teams. It is relevant for future and similar academic activities to ensure a closer and timely collaboration between university activities and the government as this could contribute to creating better responses to natural disasters such as the eruption of the volcano near Chaitén.

Further Reading
Annen, C. and J.-J. Wagner (2003). "The impact of volcanic eruptions during the 1990s." Natural Hazards Review: 169-175.
Aravena, F. (2009). "Los expertos tras la Nueva Chaiten." Revista El Sábado 545: 16-10. Available from:
Bradstock, R. A., J. E. Williams, et al. (2002). Flammable Australia: The Fire Regimes and Biodiversity of a Continent. NY, Cambridge University Press.
Carn, S. A., J. S. Pallister, et al. (2009). "The Unexpected Awakening of Chaitén Volcano, Chile." Transactions American Geophysical Union 90(24).
Castro, J. M. and D. B. Dingwell (2009). "Rapid ascent of rhyolitic magma at Chaitén volcano." Nature 461(8): 780-784.
Gonzalez-Ferran, O. (1994). Volcanes de Chile. Santiago, Chile, Instituto Geográfico Militar.
Horwell et al. (2008). Report on the mineralogical and geochemical characterisation of Chaitén ash for the assessment of respiratory health hazard. International Volcanic Health Hazard Network (IVHNN) report. Available from:
Hull, R. B. and M. M. McCarthy (1988). "Change in the Landscape." Landscape and Urban Planning 15: 265-278.
Lara, L. (2009). "The 2008 eruption of the Chaitén Volcano, Chile: a preliminary report." Andean Geology 36(1): 125-129.
Latz, P. (1996). Bushfires and bush tucker: Aboriginal plant use in Central Australia. Alice Springs, IAD Press.
Martin, R., S. Watt, et al. (2009). "Environmental effects of ash fall in Argentina from the 2008 Chaitén volcanic eruption." Journal of Vulcanology and Geothermal Research 184: 462-472.
Observatorio de Ciudades UC (OCUC) (2009). Consultoría para el Desarrollo de Lineamientos Estratégicos de Reconstrucción/Relocalización y Plan Maestro Conceptual Post-Desastre Chaitén. Santiago, Chile.
Pienovi, N. (2008). Las Huellas del Chaitén (Documentary). Viňa del Mar, Cineteca UVM. Parts of the documentary can be accessed from:,e404e73d4f13404003e9.html,
Servicio Nacional de Geología y Minería (SERNAGEOMIN). (2009). "Volcanología." Available from:
Stewart, W. P., D. Liebert, et al. (2004). "Community identities as visions for landscape change." Landscape and Urban Planning 69(2-3): 315-334.
Villagra-Islas, P. (2002). Ruta de las lavas: representar el movimiento de los lahares en el paisaje, con la exploración de una nueva tecnología. Faculty of Architecture, Design and Urban Studies. Santiago, Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile. Bachelor of Architecture Thesis.
(2008). "Public concern erupts after volcano dumps ash in South America." Geographical 80(8): 10.

Paula is an Architect and a Landscape Architect from Chile. Her project undertaken to obtain a Bachelor of Architecture involved the study of a volcanic area in the south of Chile including the exploration of how to build in such area and how to use lava as a construction material. Paula’s work experience in Chile involves the development of architectural projects, public parks and landscapes for hospitals. During her stay in Australia (2006-2010), she has taught various subjects at the Faculty of Architecture, Building and Planning of the University of Melbourne, including the ‘Santiago Travelling Studio’ in 2009. She recently submitted her PhD thesis at the University of Melbourne, entitled ‘Perception of the Visual Effects of Prescribed Burning Regimes in the Context of Botanical Gardens: A study in Australia and Chile”. Contact:;

Sarah was a student of the Santiago Travelling Studio and she is now back in Chile working in an architectural office, learning Spanish and travelling. Sarah got the Bachelor of Architectural Studies at the University of Melbourne and she is completing a Masters of Architecture at the same university.


arch-peace said...

I was lucky to have seen the exhibition. The proposals were unusually 'mature', in the sense that they were based on actual needs and real conditions, rather than indulgent fantasies. Congrats to the organisers!

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