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Lessons we can learn from Santiago

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A visit last week to Santiago in Chile again reminded me that it is all too easy for us to take for granted the benefits of the physical and institutional infrastructure that we have inherited here. For example, the intervention of military dictatorships inevitably affects the independence of the judiciary, and curtails the autonomy of the professional organisations, universities and colleges. In the wake of such situations a lengthy period of transition is inevitable: it takes time for the trust and co-operation that is essential to the effective functioning of these elements of a free and democratic society to be re-established.

Chile, whose major exports are copper and wine, does not comply with the stereotypical view of Latin America. The country has a 90 per cent adult literacy rate and a declining population. Of its 16 million people, 4 million live in the capital, Santiago. The city, nestled beneath the Andes and projected to expand to some 6 million people, suffers chronic pollution. Air quality is so bad that restrictions on car use are routine. Daily news bulletins ban vehicles identified by the final digits on their registration plates - sometimes up to 60 per cent of cars.

In such circumstances a good public transport system and effective land use transport policies are essential, and here the Chileans have made some bold decisions. A metro system that will ultimately comprise some 100 miles of track is under construction. To complement this, new satellite towns are planned, each linked to the capital by high-speed rail.

The suburbs positively bristle with new condominium blocks, comprising private apartments that offer high levels of security within grounds that frequently also contain extensive leisure facilities.

It's good territory for architects: the conservation and heritage lobbyists are well at bay and there is a real sense of confidence and ambition in the way new forms of building and lifestyles are being adopted.

But the cost of all this is enormous - the metro system involves 'cut and fill' construction under the main streets of the capital. Adjoining buildings must be underpinned and a maze of services relocated, with consequent high levels of disruption to cultural and business life. Hopefully, however, these initiatives will stem the current suburban exodus of commerce from the downtown districts, which will otherwise lead to yet greater traffic- generated pollution.

In contrast to these mighty endeavours, we in this country only have to maintain and upgrade our underground system, and we squeal about the costs of that!

The Chilean universities are increasingly aware that meeting these challenges involves a different kind of education for the construction professions. 'Cities are falling apart all around us - we need to train architects for a wider role in the management of urban fabric,' said one professor.

And here lies the real challenge: a breed of urban designers is needed who can understand the city in physical terms. Such designers must embrace the wider agenda of issues beyond that of discrete buildings - they must understand the city in all its complexity.

Architects, by virtue of their aptitude and training, have the essential creative qualities required for this challenge but their education and training has traditionally been too narrow. Adjustments to the existing courses, combined with the introduction of postgraduate specialisms, is essential if the next generation of Chilean architects is to be adequately prepared for their demanding roles. Education cannot stand still - here or there.

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