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Germán del Sol:
Architectures and landscapes in the Atacama desert

Part 1


I think I’m one of those Chilean architects who has been inspired by the spirit of indigenous or local traditions, updating them to connect them with the world, without remaining anchored in the folkloric or purely local, selecting from the local that which is most universal, following in the footprints of poets such as Jorge Teillier, Nicanor and Violeta Parra, Pablo Neruda, or Gabriela Mistral, of architects such as Carlos Martner, Fernando Castillo, Hector Valdés, Mario Perez de Arce, Alberto Cruz, and Jorge Elton, among may others, of painters such as Court, Burchard, Juan Francisco Echenique, Caco Salazar, Francisca Sutil, of philosophers such as Gastón Soublete and Ernesto Rodríguez, or of archaeologists, such as Carlos Aldunate, and so on and so forth.

My attempt to relate the city with the culture and nature of remote places is to find them their own sustainable destination, one which makes them unique or inimitable, without setting them in a global world, where the remote no longer exists. It has been a contribution which has been appreciated and followed, as has been the case with our proposals to ensure that Wines of Chile do not adhere to the French model of a mediaeval castle, rather their appeal be sought in the quality they can confer to the rite of coming together.

Generally speaking, I feel that we have helped to liberate the forms of architecture, with the freedom we have inherited from the modern world. All lines come out haltingly, as we follow the order of the steps, the order of life, and not order for order’s sake…If, for example, we wished to house the route of a shepherd who goes out in the evening to gather his sheep under one roof, its shape would most probably be more like the Nazca lines than a Mondrian painting…

As my brother, Patricio, says, in a project, in a neighbourhood, in a city, there is no need for everything to look good, rather the whole – everything together – must look good. And partly because of this, and partly due to looking for the common, which is what we erroneously call primitive, the truth is that we more often resort to rough tuning than to fine tuning, and we try not to dwell on the anecdotal details but in the resulting vital experiences…

I believe that architecture must never confuse the urgent with the important: having a house is urgent but the important thing is for that house to have dignity. Gracefulness doesn’t cost money.
It is the result of poetry, which is being open to finding the good that there is always in people and in things.

As it says in Saint Paul’s letter,  “hold fast… that which is good”.

Part 2


This is the picture of a procession in Ayquina, a village set in a gorge to the north of San Pedro de Atacama. The gorge has water, and that’s where the crops are, and above it is the desert plain, the wasteland of the Atacama. I think the people arrive with the Virgin of the Carmen, leave the church, climb the gorge, and walk across the plain in a place where there are tracks. And yet, as the priest doubtless goes ahead with the Virgin, and they all follow him with the same aim, the people form a unmistakable arrow, moving forward in one direction in the middle of nowhere.

What does that photo show me, and why do I show it?

That is another key issue of architecture: the direction, the purpose of something, which has to be maintained, which has to be sustained throughout the work. And it’s not just any old thing. It’s not a case of some going this way and others going that way. When the aims are the same there is an order, but not an order organised by physical structures. It’s not just the case that they move in that direction because that the way the street runs; nor because there are fences or because there is a path in the middle of the rainforest or in the middle of the paddocks in the only way; they move in that direction because their interest lies ahead of them and that’s what takes them. That photo has always inspired me to think, and that is what I try to show with it:  that order in architecture is taken from life, and not the other way round. (1)

Life in Atacama is open to the disposition of nature and time has a different meaning if it has one at all. Atacama has become evasive in many ways. Its vastness is impossible to embrace. Its culture which makes the most out of scarce resources, has survived more than 3.000 years, though it continues to adapt to foreign cultures and climate changes. Architecture in Atacama is challenged to get strength out of weakness, and joy out of the essentials. Thus, architecture may capture the lightness of precarious building which doesn’t pretend to be definitive; the grace of ruins that everyone interprets at will; the vagueness of broken line walls that enclose the space gently, because their forms are determined by real needs of life, not by abstract certainties.

The penetrating light of the Atacama wasteland creates an environment of sand that makes everything equal and where in my opinion, colour is a clear sign of life (probably because there are no flowers). Colour in Atacama is placed in the architectural elements that one touches like windows, doors, frames, and furnishings, while walls are left unfinished or painted white to be dusted over time with sand, by the wind. For me, building in Atacama is to preserve the spirit of its architecture rather than the form; to keep for example, massive walls, light roofs, small holes, light shadows, adobe banks facing the morning sun, etc.; to try to capture in each work, the lightness and the grace of a culture that makes a lot with little, with more wit than means, and which survives changes through its ability to negotiate and to adapt.

Part 3



Hotel Explora Atacama & Horse Stables

San Pedro de Atacama,
Chile, 1998/2000

San Pedro de Atacama is a 34,000 acres cultivated oasis, inhabited for more than two thousand years, in dispersed neighbourhoods called Ayllus. San Pedro’s town was founded instead, by the Spanish conquerors in 1500, as a square grid of long streets around the main square. The hotel takes some distance from existing settlements, to found a new town in Atacama. It also follows the pre-Columbian America tradition – south of Rio Grande – of buildings that stand isolated in big public spaces, and establish multiple relationships between them and the nature, creating towns without the use of  streets but dealing instead directly with the wholeness of the place.

The hotel aims to preserve the spirit of Atacama architecture, not the form; and at the same time, aims to relate the interior of the hotel with the vastness, enticing visitors to venture beyond San Pedro oasis, to experience life as it is lived in settlements in the Atacama, open to the infinite space and to the rhythmic passing of the days. The hotel’s architecture mediates between the dispersion needed to become acquainted with the remote, and daily vespertine gatherings in a setting which relates that experience with the city. The hotel is spread out around a tree-filled stone square, raised one meter over the natural level of the land, so the square and the rooms overlook the paddocks, in the privacy of a first line of sun and views. In the common areas, the floor is raised to a height of four metres, so that the decks in the rooms offer a horizon in which the vastness of the Atacama appears in all its splendour. Striking a balance between the direct sunlight of the Atacama and shadow, certain areas on the roofing are wooden trellis-work, and the walls cast shade on each other, through the trembling movement of their form.

The eventful nature of life in the remote, is somehow revealed, when one motionless contemplates the apparent change of things. When quiet, one is attracted by the movement of light that, like ocean waves, or fire flames, leads to nowhere. Forms that come and go away, appear and disappear, in constant fascination. Naked concrete walls are finished with brushed plaster to soften its rough texture, but the plank moulds were left unfinished, in order to reinforce the sense that the total form is more important that the parts. And the details are solutions for the large size, not small aids to reach a wrong “perfection”. In other words, if it was perfectly built in standard terms it would not be the right experience, and the building would run against its cultural place in Atacama.

Horse stables take some distance from the existing hotel, and are open around a second empty, irregular-shaped plaza. Broken line walls gently enclosed the plaza in a trembling sequence of light and shades, giving the feeling that the walls belong to the place, that they will be improved by the dust that wind carries about, instead of decaying over time. The concrete roof reinforces the continuous imprecise form of the walls. It is dotted with holes that let fine sunbeams penetrate its penumbra to see the resting horses inside. The concrete walls and slab roofs of horse stables are mixed with light wooden trellis that provide light shade, to keep the continuity of the whole as do the guest rooms around the main building. Soft shades of wooden trellis, and long drinking fountains, temperate the place, and keep the rhythm that make the place feel alive.


Hotel Explora

Total Built Area: 5.481 sqm.
Site Area: 17 hectares .
Basement Level: Storage 1.680 sqm .
First Level: 54 Bedrooms 3.690 sqm.
Terrace: 110 sqm.
Horse stables: Surface 1800 sqm.


Thermal Springs of Puritama

Puritama river
San Pedro de Atacama,
Chile, 2000

This thermal river flows generously in a secluded valley, 30 miles from the small town of San Pedro de Atacama. Along its lengthy course, it creates many natural pools that have been used to bathe in since ancient times, as the two existing Inca houses prove. The baths stretch for more than one kilometer from the gorge of the Puritama River, which flows from the mountains, downstream from the point where the hot springs emerge and where thermal pools were naturally formed, in a canyon full of natural life in the desert. The landscape work intends to lend  splendour to the place, poetically, and make the sustainable use of the pools, possible. Raised boardwalks treat the riverside grasses gently, and reveal the unique beauty of the river’s long winding course, and the pools within. Two basic white concrete structures house all the facilities, and make the wild nature of the place stand out.


Thermal Springs of Puritama

Surface: 1190 sqm.
Site Area: 3.8 hectares.
Changing Rooms and Bathrooms (2): 88,5 sqm.
Pools (8): 493 sqm.
Wooden Paths: 501 m long.

Architect: Germán del Sol.
Colaborators: Horacio Schmidt, architect, Nicole Labbé, architect, Carlos Venegas, architect, Hernán Fierro, graphic arts.

09.Feb.2016 4493 views
Germán del Sol

Germán del Sol (Santiago de Chile, 1949) graduated from ETSAB in 1973. He established his own architecture studio in Barcelona from 1973 to 1979, and in Santiago de Chile in 1981. His main works are the Chilean Pavilion at Expo 92 Sevilla, the Hotel Explora and the Puritama hot springs in Atacama, the Hotels Explora and Remota in Patagonia, the Geometric Hot Springs in Villarrica and the Seña Vineyard in Aconcagua. Between 1988 and 1999, he founded and directed the project “Explora”, whose aim is to promote trips to remote places in South America. Between 2001 and 2008,he has been teaching at the School of Architecture of the University of Chile and in the Andrés Bello National University. He was awarded among others, the first prize in seven Latinamerican Architecture Biennials, the Arup World Architecture Award to the “Best Work of Architecture” and National Architecture Award of Chile in 2006.
Edited by Transfer

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