"It's not just about a box in the landscape"' says Emilio Marin with some frustration. He's talking about the perception of contemporary architecture in Chile. Over the past decade the international press has swooned over the proliferation of second homes dotting the country's dramatic mountains and beaches. Marin feels this is reductive, and he is making a name for himself as an advocate of Chile's alternative design culture – shifting attention away from photogenic houses to the public realm.
Marin has carved himself a career that balances public commissions – including a memorial, a university building and a library – with a series of art projects that range from video to graphic design. With his singular trajectory, he is averse even to being labelled an architect. But his role as a maverick is not entirely by choice, and the architect can be defensive about his work – particularly when pressed about his place in Chile's exclusionary design culture.
We meet at a circus-like ice cream parlour in Santiago's upscale Providencia neighborhood. Marin is dressed in all black among the bubble-gum youths gazing at their beloveds over giant candy-colored sundaes. His responses are abrupt at first. "I felt bad after our meeting, realising that you had met many architects here in their fancy offices," he later admits. "I thought it was a bad mistake we met there." But he is soon warmly describing his work and giving me posters and buttons he's designed.
From the outset, one thing has set Marin apart from the architectural stars of his generation: his education. He attended the Universidad de Chile en Santiago, the country's best-known public university. "My father studied engineering there", says Marin, "and I liked that it drew students of different economic backgrounds from all over the country." The choice may seem pedestrian to a non-Chilean reader – as Marin reminds, there are 44 schools of architecture in Chile. But in the context of the local architectural culture, he passed up the golden ticket.
The majority of Chile's architectural elite – Cecilia Puga, Sebastian Irrarazaval, Smiljan Radic and Alejandro Aravena (icon 067) to name a few – all went to the private Pontifica Universidad Católica de Chile. Católica fosters a tight-knit community of practitioners who work for and study under each other, get privileged access to certain competitions and feed into the international publishing community – Chile's most famous architectural magazine, Ediciones ARQ, is based there.
Offices at the rear of the library
Marin knew this, but also knew some of the pitfalls of ending up in that culture. "The majority of architects who gained international fame outside of Chile did so through designing second homes for the rich," Marin says. He's not far off the mark. Owing in part to a strong economy in the 1990s and the sheer number of architects coming out of the schools each year, those with connections to the rich are the only ones guaranteed work.
Because of the country's beautiful terrain, it's understandable that the international press would be easily seduced by richly detailed houses on the beach or along cliffs, and so these architects – who are of undeniable creativity and quality – earned critical acclaim for such projects, creating a self-perpetuating model of design.
Many of those architects, however, resent being pigeon-holed as residential architects. At best, as seen in the careers of Marin's enormously talented peers Cecilia Puga, Sebastian Irarrazaval and Pezo von Ellrichshausen, this niche can lead to hotels and apartment buildings – leaving coveted public projects for others.
"Many architects are disappointed they don't have public work", he says. "The system of second residences doesn't create opportunities outside of houses." And even those that find those opportunities may be disappointed by their lack of freedom. "The system can be complicated to participate in when you make contracts with the state – it's a vicious cycle", he concludes.
Marin considers his breakthrough one such project. After studying architecture he began a master's in visual arts. He never finished the degree, but it led to a commission to design a memorial for the women "disappeared" and tortured under Pinochet's 1972 revolution.
"I remember I was reading [Jeffrey] Deitch's Cultural Geometry—and realised that the vigil has its own geometry", Marin recalls. The essay, from the late 1980s, related geometry to social expression. He adapted it into a memorial that reworked the protest placards that loved ones made in memory of their lost women. The result was a large wall of partially opaque glass with rectangular transparent cutouts distorting and framing the city beyond. "This project didn't have a big impact through its location or size, but allowed me to work through a lot of concepts," he adds, simplifying his answers for my rudimentary Spanish.
Part of Marin's success in the public realm comes from the fact that he's not precious about his work – which he has learned to use as an advantage. In a subsequent project to design a trail of furniture and follies outside the coastal city of Valparaiso, he and collaborator Nicolas Norero came up with an adaptable system rather than rigid architecture.
"Most of our decisions were determined by its variability as a public project – we wanted to make a strong visual statement that could change with the project", he says. The team settled on a system of small, modular hexagonal frames that could be added to or subtracted from by the client without changing the aesthetic of the project. The frames would define terraces, outdoor furniture and small pavilions. The result is an oddly stark but certainly distinct set that complements the ruggedness of the surrounding landscape and architecture.
This type of collaboration is common for Marin, who as a one-man band is always looking for people to work with. Recently, he collaborated with the artist Nicolas Rupcich on Big Pool, a video art piece documenting the San Alfonso del Mar pool in Chile, listed by the Guinness Book of Records as the largest pool in the world. The six-minute film, for an exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Santiago, comprises static shots of the pool, which has one long boundary at the sea-shore. The filmmakers used shots that emphasised its similarity to the ocean – emphasising the absurdity of the world's largest swimming pool being located in a country that is almost all coast. Still frames of a boat gently floating across the deserted pool are as damning as they are melancholy. The graphic pleasure of the shots mitigate any sense of didacticism, though there is a constant backdrop of a cynic's arched brow.
This same attitude pervades the tongue-in-cheek project Public Library, a "publishing house" begun by Marin and his friend, designer Diego Cordova, in 2008. The online store sells "artist publications and fanzines" alongside small objects including buttons, posters and even a clock.
That Marin continues to work on these side-projects while fighting for (and winning) larger work indicates the extent of his curiosity. There is a softness to him –around the eyes, in his speech, in his posture – reminiscent more of an artist's sensitivity than a power broker's drive. He's at his most intense when defending his work: "Buildings can be a priority because I'm interested in building at another scale, but I think art and graphic design are a necessary complement," he argues.
Marin's biggest project is his most recent, the Biblioteca Municipal Ilustre Municipalidad de Licantén, near the middle of the country's 6,400km coastline. The building is part of a government scheme to create 21 new libraries for each province of Chile between 2007 and 2009. It's a reclamation of an existing train repair facility, and based on the existing shell of the building, the preserved part of which is demarcated by a prominent sawtooth roof and which is sandwiched between two small extensions. From the exterior, a glazed wall with an installation of embedded steel-plated circles predominates. This wall emerged from a regional typology of ornamental screens – for safety and privacy, according to Marin – in country houses.
Additionally, Marin included artisanal tile flooring and ornament throughout. Clerestory glazing in the sawtooth roof and the decorative window arranegement fills the space with light, which reflects off the white-plastered, gallery-like walls. The result is a building that weaves together the building's own history and its surroundings – a design strategy resonant with its function as a local library.
It's easy to see why Marin is so successful at public projects – he is an aspirational pragmatist: fighting for hard-to-get projects but accommodating enough to ensure their completion. He remains wedded to a discourse of architecture that blurs its categorical definitions and reaches out, through and between art, design and politics. After years in the international spotlight for its sensitive regional modernism, with practitioners like Marin at its helm Chilean architecture is poised for its second act.
A frame from Big Pool, by Emilio Marin and Nicolas Rupcich