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The Public and the Poplars

Posted On November 29, 2017 | 15:55 pm | by baileyt | Permalink
Romy Hecht unearths the history of landscape design in Santiago, Chile

Romy Hecht, an associate professor at the School of Architecture, Universidad Católica de Chile, is a fellow in Garden and Landscape Studies. Hecht’s research has focused on the botanical, political, and economic factors influencing the history of Chile’s landscape projects. On October 16, Hecht delivered her research report, “Botanical Practices and Urban Reform in Post-Colonial Santiago, Chile.”


Q&A with Romy Hecht

An important subject in your talk was the Lombardy poplar. Why was this tree so important?

It was the first foreign tree that was purposefully planted in Chile’s capital city. We could say it’s a sign of one of the first projects of urban beautification in the city, though originally it was simply meant to create a façade for the Franciscan convent, which was right next to what would become the Alameda de las Delicias. These priests decided they should have a more attractive entranceway, so twenty little scions were brought and planted there. The thing about the poplar tree, though, is that it’s very easy to reproduce. In time the authorities realized that, and began to propagate it. It was a very simple, observational decision.

But it’s also a species that, because its roots are very shallow, tends to break up the surface of the soil. After they noticed this, they realized that they needed to widen their botanical palette. They started experimenting with different plants and species in the Quinta Normal de Agricultura in the western part of Santiago, Chile’s first and only acclimatization garden. The Lombardy poplar is the beginning of everything, in a way, but it’s important to note that its introduction as part of a large-scale planting plan wasn’t premeditated. It’s not a symbolic thing. It just happened.


You described how a systematic method of working with plants almost accidentally entered Santiago, through the public gardens and the Alameda, rather than through a classic botanic garden. What factors caused this?

First, we have been—and still are—in many respects a conservative society. That doesn’t mean you can’t have scientific developments, but it did slow everything down, and not just in academic areas. It’s true that we got our independence in 1810, but it took us at least twenty years to get settled as an actual republic. Second, you have to consider that Santiago wasn’t the capital city of a viceroyalty, like Lima or Buenos Aires. We didn’t have gold; we were almost the last territory of interest for the Spaniards. And that’s before even talking about the geographical obstacles—the mountains, the sea, the desert if you’re coming from the north.

We were never really on the radar of the scientific community in Europe, so we were a little late with all of our cultural institutions—we didn’t have botanical gardens or established scientific communities like those in Peru, or even Argentina.


How do the republican ambitions of Chile relate to the development of these public spaces? How do Chile’s efforts compare with what other countries were doing at that time?

Since my talk I’ve been turning over a similar question in my mind, which is, why Chile? Why is it relevant or important, especially in the context of Latin America? There are certainly connections I can draw. In both Argentina and Chile, for instance, French culture was incredibly important for the development of open space, especially toward the end of the 19th century. And there’s a very specific connection between Chile and Peru that concerns the person who created the Quinta Normal, Luigi Sada di Carlo. He developed this agricultural and horticultural institution in Chile, but he only managed to build part of it. Then he went off to Peru, and in Lima he set about working on a very similar project, the Hacienda Normal de Agricultura, and he was able to build it.

In historical terms, I’d like to contextualize the region, because I think all of us faced the same problem of how to become a republic, and how to set our country apart from Spanish influence while at the same time trying to find our own voice. And often that didn’t happen as easily as we would like to think. But my central argument is that we can talk about Santiago as a laboratory for the development of republican institutions not only from an architectural and infrastructural perspective, but also through the lens of landscape.