Tying Knots

Glimpsing global Harvard in Chile

On a dumping ground along a dirt road in Santiago's Renca municipality, Harvard-affiliated planners work to create decent housing for 160 struggling families. In the center of Chile's sprawling capital city, students at the College are in the front ranks of Harvard's study-abroad effort. Some 400 miles north, and 7,000 feet higher above sea level, University astronomers use remarkable telescopes to probe space and time with new clarity. Distant though these individual experiences may be from each other, and from Cambridge, they collectively suggest the depth and breadth of Harvard's global presence today, and how it might evolve.


Among maoi friends: Carlos Rojas '04 and sculptures on Easter Island, a Chilean possession.
Photographs courtesy of Carlos Rojas

Renca, just half an hour west of downtown by car, toward the airport, is hardly the least well off of Santiago's 32 comunas (municipalities). But it seems a world apart from the glass office towers of Providencia and Vitacura, the high-rise apartment blocks in fashionable Las Condes, north and east of the city center. At the base of Cerro Renca, the pavement suddenly ends and the SUV lurches on to a rough dirt road. On land too steep and dry for farming, one of Santiago's dozens of squatter settlements—founded through a toma, or land seizure—curves along the base of the mountain: homes cobbled together from scrap wood and developing countries' ubiquitous roofing, corrugated sheet metal. The only other vehicles, horse-drawn rubber-tired carts, carry a person or two, and loads of cardboard or wooden pallets for recycling, a principal employment. Across the road lies an arid pit excavated by a brickmaking factory, now the dumping ground for construction rubble.

Cecilia Castro, solid and formidable, welcomes visitors into the community building, one of two masonry structures the residents have been able to raise, its windows secured by grates of welded reinforcing bars. Seated around a table in the otherwise unfurnished room, she explains the settlers' long struggle for decent housing nearby, with access to transit and schools—not two hours farther away from the city center. "We want to live better," Castro explains. "We want to have a shower"—a luxury in a 40-year-old settlement that still lacks regular water, sewer, and electrical service. "We want our children not to be ashamed to have someone to their house."

Suddenly, that modest goal is in reach: the landfill pit can be reclaimed as the site for new housing. The vision comes from a network of Harvard-affiliated and -educated architects, planners, and public officials. Among her guests this late-summer day in March are the SUV's driver, Alejandro Aravena, design critic in architecture at the Graduate School of Design (GSD), and Pilar Giménez, a community organizer. Both represent the ELEMENTAL project (www.elementalchile.org) based at the Universidad Católica de Chile's school of architecture and supported by a Chilean government grant and GSD.

ELEMENTAL is bringing to life a "social housing" policy conceived by Claudio Orrego, M.P.P. '95, during his service as minister of housing and of public property in 2000-2001. In staffing the ministry and rethinking policy, he says, "the seeds of relationships" existed in his contacts at the Kennedy School and GSD.

Modular, low-cost "social housing" designs from the ELEMENTAL competition. Above, the scheme by Teodoro Fernández, the Chilean architect who will work at the Renca site. Below, the adaptable system created by Mónica Ponce de León and Nader Tehrani, of the GSD, who will assist a community in Valparaíso. Both offer options for residents to expand their homes.
Images courtesy of ELEMENTAL / Teodoro Fernandez

Perhaps 2.5 million Chileans (one-sixth of the population) are under- or ill-housed. Orrego focused on people too poor to qualify for even minimum bank loans and proposed granting funds outright to create debt-free housing units. The catch: developers would have to deliver sites and infrastructure and build the homes for $7,500 per family.

Pablo Allard, M.A.U. '99, D.D.N. '01, who runs the undergraduate cities, landscape, and environmental studies unit at the Católica architecture school, recalls that few private developers wanted to build such low-margin housing. Those who did produced poor-quality work. Orrego's initiative, Allard says, became a "policy in search of projects."

Urban planner Pablo Allard, who did his graduate work at the Design School, managed ELEMENTAL's worldwide competition for low-cost housing plans.
Photograph by Stu Rosner

But just then, GSD's Robinson professor of architecture, Jorge S. Silvetti, chair of the department of architecture from 1995 to 2002, had invited Aravena to begin offering design studios in Cambridge on a commuting basis. As they sought ways to probe more deeply into Chilean architecture, Andres Iacobelli, M.P.A. '01, drew on his experience running a nonprofit organization active in Chile's remotest communities to suggest a focus on housing. (Iacobelli now directs ELEMENTAL.)

Aravena conducted two GSD studios, with field trips to Chile, on how to conduct an international competition to design very low-cost housing. Allard managed the competition, which yielded spectacular results last year, when a panel of judges led by Silvetti (who is a juror for the prestigious Pritzker Prize) winnowed through more than 500 entries. And Giménez identified communities in desperate need of adequate housing, consulting their leaders on the residents' wants—a precedent for such projects in Chile.

Seven professional and seven student teams were selected to create schemes for what Allard calls "dynamic housing without debt" at Renca and six other sites nationwide, each accommodating up to 250 families. The architects will have to provide the barest bones of housing and site plans that can accommodate growth—and then cede control to the residents, who will augment their new communities with whatever vernacular materials and methods they can command.

Ninety minutes west of Santiago, in the port city of Valparaíso, associate GSD faculty members Mónica Ponce de León and Nader Tehrani, principals in the firm office dA, are designing one of the ELEMENTAL projects. Tehrani describes the "Rubik's cube" constraints: detailed specifications of space (roughly 30 square meters per family), materials, and even how the "layouts were meant to perform." Given budgets "lower than low," he says, the design had to focus on "the most fundamental things that housing requires"—privacy, collective space, and community, as the project's occupants expand laterally or "implode" their homes (by inserting a loft floor)—all while delivering water and sewer lines and layouts that assure light and air in the future.

Out of this "radical economy" emerged a loft system that can be built in multiple configurations, like the varying patterns for a brick wall. Adapting it to a real venue will be challenging, but "I think it is possible." Tehrani says Aravena is both "an astute intellectual" who thrives in academia, and " a supple citizen" who knows how things are built.

As ELEMENTAL's design director, uniting international architects with the communities where they will plan actual housing, Aravena will need both sets of skills. Difficult as the Renca site already is, he learns of another obstacle from Cecilia Castro. The owner wants to double the agreed price for the land, putting it out of ELEMENTAL's reach. Aravena and Giménez talk about involving lawyers and politicians to exert influence. Castro remains composed; she and her neighbors have endured hardship for decades. Today, she says, "We never felt so close to finding a solution as now." Her confidence proves well placed: the seller later retreats to the original price; the project proceeds.

Adventure tourism is a Chilean growth industry. Carlos Rojas partakes—whitewater rafting on the Rio Trancura near Pucón, and walking in the lush Elqui Valley inland from La Serena.
Courtesy Carlos Rojas


ELEMENTAL may be unusually peopled with Harvard affiliates, but similar Crimson connections, academic and applied, extend across Chile. Many of those connections arose individually, as graduates returned home and took up careers, as professors pursued research. The David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies (DRCLAS, http://drclas.fas.harvard.edu), founded in 1994, has boosted those contacts institutionally, in Chile and across the continent. It has funded hundreds of student research fellowships; underwritten scholarly travel from the United States and convened conferences on subjects from gender and sexuality to health policy, conservation, and philanthropy; and brought Chilean and Latin American students (like Pablo Allard), scholars, and policymakers to Harvard.

Just before his swift spring-break-week trip to Santiago and São Paulo, Brazil, President Lawrence H. Summers said he was "struck by the extent of Harvard's connections" in the region, "the number of alumni that we have, the degree of interest" in fields from astronomy to education.

On the morning of his return, April 2, Summers said he "came away both inspired by what we've done and with a tremendous sense of the future benefits of exchanges and partnerships in Latin America." His conversations with government and business leaders, alumni, and educators, he said, were in themselves fruitful at a time of "particularly large misunderstanding" in the United States and Latin America of each other's interests. Harvard, Summers sensed, mattered to people he met "not just for training, but as an example." In the same way, Latin America is a prime example of one of his chief academic interests—the potential for Harvard students to study in other countries—and so he devoted an extended block of time to meeting with students in Chile.


That Santiago is the epicenter for Harvard's nascent study-abroad effort reflects another Rockefeller Center initiative. From 1996 to 2002, its work was managed by executive director Steve Reifenberg, M.P.P. '88. In 1982, a year out of Notre Dame, he had put aside plans to study law and instead began working at an impoverished Santiago orphanage. He stayed until 1984, witnessing the phase of the Pinochet era when economic depression prompted the first publicly organized opposition to the military regime. Reifenberg later maintained his Chilean contacts, personally and as director of a Harvard-affiliated program on conflict management in Latin America and of the Kennedy School's master's program for officials from developing nations.

Visiting Cambridge, Steve Reifenberg returns to the Rockefeller Center, where he was executive director from 1996 to 2002, when he relocated with his family to open the Santiago office.
Photograph by Stu Rosner

When the Rockefeller Center decided to establish Harvard's first full-service, University-wide academic office abroad (see the DRCLAS website), focused on the five southernmost Latin American countries, Reifenberg, his wife, and their three young children relocated to Santiago. The international outpost he set up now operates, appropriately, from the most international of addresses: Av. Dag Hammarskjöld in the Vitacura district, hard by the regional United Nations compound. (In a neat play on words, the reserved parking spaces underneath are marked "Exclusivo Harvard.")

From its early activities, "The most amazing thing we learned was how many Harvard faculty and students are engaged in some project of scholarship or learning with counterparts in Chile, which is a small, isolated country far away," says John H. Coatsworth, Gutman professor of Latin American affairs and DRCLAS faculty director. The local office in Chile has made it a high priority to facilitate faculty and student "discovery of things they would like to do." (Summers noted that he and Coatsworth, who joined the trip to Chile and Brazil, discussed ways the DRCLAS could expand its presence.)

With passion, Coatsworth ticks off "the extent to which experience in a foreign culture can affect how students see their own country, the concentration choices they make, the honors theses they write, and the career choices they make"—the rationale for charging the staff in Chile with devising a workable undergraduate study-abroad program.

On Monday, March 8, their first day of Santiago classes, six of the eight undergraduates studying there during this Harvard term meet for Cokes and conversation at the Universidad Católica student lounge. During the prior two weeks, DRCLAS Santiago student-programs coordinator Aníbal Sepúlveda had settled them with their host families, secured the requisite paperwork, shepherded them through their orientation to Chilean Spanish and to the city's layout and buses and subway, and then turned them loose.

Outwardly, they seem to have adjusted just fine: 5,500 miles from Cambridge's waning winter, shorts or skirts and rubber flipflops are de rigueur, and familiar student chatter fills the air.

But other experiences and themes emerge as well from their brief exposure to a new culture. One student has had her backpack stolen at an Internet cafe. Laura Troyani '05 is taken aback by the limits to political discussion—by the fact that Chile appears "so divided." Eric Price '05 is struck by "the level of classism," by the "shocking" fear of seeming "low class" in appearance or manner—a theme Alexandra Hynes '05 echoes. Melissa Dell '05, who worked in rural Peru last summer, sees similar attitudes in the relatively homogeneous Chileans' seeming disdain for darker-skinned Peruvian immigrants.

Road trip: photographs by study-abroad student Flora Lindsay-Herrera '05 on her visits to the altiplano, the high Andean plateau in northern Chile, and Buenos Aires.
Courtesy Flora Lindsay-Herrera

In the next few weeks they report vivid political debates, fresh cultural encounters, and experiences that challenge their American assumptions. By semester's end, they will likely make discoveries similar to those of the two study-abroad classes who preceded them: four students each in the spring and fall 2003 terms. All had some facility in Spanish, and wished to perfect it. Some spent lots of time with their Chilean families. Others traveled nearly every weekend, to the northern desert, the Yosemite-like parks in Patagonia, the Andes, Easter Island, Buenos Aires. Most report lighter academic loads than in Cambridge. Flora Lindsay-Herrera '05, in Chile last fall, found the term "a lot less stressful than Harvard," with fewer extracurricular demands and smaller classes. It was "nice just to have a break," she says. The students praise the DRCLAS staff for help from their arrival through arranging high-level internships.

A few had transformative experiences. Government concentrator Lucas Tate '05 (a risk-taker who spent the fall semester of his second College year bicycling across America) immersed himself in poor Santiago communities and in farm communes during the spring of 2003, coming into touch with "amazingly different ways of life. That was what I really wanted." He emerged with a sense of "people who fight for social justice, for some sense of fairness in the way you structure society and you take care of people," even with scarce resources. "Having seen that, it's emboldened me to be more demanding of U.S. politicians and policymakers to do something decent with the embarrassment of resources we have." Brian Matthay '04, an environmental science and public-policy concentrator in the first Chile cohort, had an eye-opening internship in the Chilean environmental agency, working on Santiago's "disastrous" air pollution. Despite having lived abroad before with his parents, the Chile experience resonated: "It's really important to understand the way things are by being in a place."

Carlos Rojas '04, a history concentrator, considered his course work "secondary," so he traveled everywhere and "loved it. It was my best semester of college." Having lived in a community unlike Harvard (with its "very specific type of people,") Rojas has succumbed to wanderlust: after graduation, he heads to the Marshall Islands for a year with World Teach—an interest new since his semester abroad. "I'd like to separate myself," he says, before returning to America.

By establishing an academic "embassy," says Jane Edwards, director of the Office of International Programs in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, DRCLAS has made successful experiences much more likely. The initial language training with Marta Mella (a Chilean who formerly taught Spanish at Harvard), cultural orientation, help in housing and course registration, and involvement in internships and in the office's academic programs for visiting scholars, replicate the services available in Cambridge. Meanwhile, students are enrolled in excellent indigenous universities with broad curricular choices. Done in venues where the College wishes to encourage term-time study abroad (versus summer courses), and in concert with other academic facilities like the DRCLAS office, Edwards believes the Santiago model can be cloned affordably. (Reifenberg's staff includes two other professionals and a part-time receptionist.) The resulting "huge gains in language skill and cultural immersion" add up to "increased global competence" for the students who go to Chile, she says—the ultimate aim of international study.


A local presence benefits the extended Harvard community informally as well. It also enables connections beyond the disciplines common among the ELEMENTAL staff or the early crop of undergraduates abroad, most of whom are social-sciences or history concentrators.

At a lunch arranged by the Santiago staff, Dr. Marco Nuñez Lozano, M.P.H. '98, former governor of Valparaíso and now director of healthcare in Santiago's northern quadrant, meets students Joaquín Blaya and Clara Han. Blaya, a doctoral candidate in the Harvard Medical School-MIT division of health sciences and technology, is spending a volunteer year researching patients' motor problems in pediatric clinics; an engineer, born in Chile but raised in America, he hopes to return home to establish a manufacturing business for rehabilitation and prosthetic products. More immediately, Han, pursuing both an M.D. and a Ph.D. (in anthropology), describes an unexpected limit on access to records vital to her research. Nuñez Lozano asks a few questions and suggests that with a call the next week, he can resolve the problem, so Han's work can resume. (With access to decisionmakers, and the capability for language instruction, the DRCLAS office has also launched clinical rotations and summer Spanish-immersion courses in Santiago for Harvard medical and public-health students.)

Much more help of this kind might be forthcoming. Financial adviser Georges de Bourguignon, M.B.A. '88, past president of the Harvard Club of Chile, talks about the recent growth in membership to 300 alumni, many of them eager to connect more closely to the University—and more able to do so since the local office opened. When Marcela Rentería, faculty programs director for the Santiago office, mentions how many professors and students are visiting Chile, Ellen M. Guidera, M.B.A. '86, marketing manager for Portillo Ski Resort, suggests that club members might offer to house them and to arrange small dinners. Alumni would enjoy the kind of intellectual outreach available at domestic club events, and their guests could get some sense of Chile unavailable from a hotel room.


Among those visitors might well be the most other-worldly of Harvard scholars. With clear Pacific air blowing directly toward the Andean foothills, Chile has become the world center for astronomical observatories. Reaching one of them, the hilltop complex of Las Campanas, requires an hour flight 300 miles north from Santiago to the coastal town of La Serena, followed by a 120-mile drive up the Pan American Highway and then inland, ultimately climbing up gravel roads to an altitude of nearly 8,000 feet. There, the Observatories of the Carnegie Institution of Washington (www.ociw.edu/lco) operates a multi-telescope facility. Its crown jewels are the twin optical Magellan telescopes, with 6.5-meter mirrors, completed in 2000 and 2002 with support from the University of Arizona, Harvard, the University of Michigan, and MIT.

Eyes on the sky: the twin Magellan telescopes, with 6.5-meter mirrors, at Las Campanas observatory

Courtesy of Robert Kirshner and Las Campanas Observatory

The route has become familiar and rewarding for Clowes professor of science Robert P. Kirshner and colleagues. On ideal nights, the enormous Magellan machines, gliding on oil bearings with quiet ease, afford deep-space imaging equal in quality to the Hubble space telescope's—despite the intervening atmosphere. Harvard's investment stake entitles University scientists to one-fifth of the Magellan telescopes' time (some 140 nights per year). Kirshner uses his allotment to measure supernovae, seeking to document the expansion of the universe and the curious "dark energy" that is propelling an unexplained acceleration of that expansion—the subject of his recent The Elegant Universe, and of intense work by astronomers and astrophysicists worldwide.

Far beyond Santiago: Chile's spectacular natural attractions lure weekending student travelers. Here, Rano Kau crater on Easter Island, and La Portada sea stack, near Antofagasta.
Courtesy Flora Lindsay-Herrera and Scott Rechler

The mountaintop community moves to its own distinct rhythms. Visiting scientists—one in a black T shirt with a Rolling Stones logo—have dinner, head to their telescopes as daylight fades, bearing box lunches, and then breakfast at dawn or simply go to bed. Whether studying galactic collisions or examining the structures at the edge of black holes billions of years back in time, as two observer teams were on a recent night, their viewing is often in the infrared spectrum, and on computer screens. The resident technicians are much more likely to identify a glowing planet or to pick the satellites out from the Milky Way's belt of stars.

In prospect is an even more ambitious program at Las Campanas: a "Giant Magellan" with six huge mirrors ringing a central reflector. Miguel Roth, the Carnegie Institution's director, almost winces at the thought of erecting a containment building large enough to house the instrument, casting the mirrors in Arizona (one per year at top speed), and shipping and trucking them up the mountain. But design work is under way; subsoil and wind studies are being conducted at the site. Kirshner and other scientists are eager for this quantum leap in accessing the elemental universe and understanding its formative forces. As the work advances, it is possible to imagine the increasing traffic of faculty members, graduate students, and advanced undergraduates shuttling back and forth between Cambridge and the Andes.


A different kind of time travel, wholly terrestrial, has already borne fruit in downtown Santiago. In 2001, anthropologist Gary Urton, then at Colgate but in the process of moving to Harvard, received an invitation from director Carlos Aldunate to visit the Museo Chileno de Arte Precolombino (www.precolombino.cl). He hoped Urton would interpret a huge and especially intricate khipu—the knotted-string devices used by the Inca for quantitative recordkeeping, long studied for possible clues to some form of written language in that far-flung empire (scholars yearn for the "Rosetta khipu"). It was Urton's first trip to Chile, despite years of studying khipus and the Inca, whose domain reached beyond Santiago.

Anthropologist Gary Urton, a scholar of Incan khipus, helped organize an exhibition at the Museo Chileno de Arte Precolombino; Harvard was recognized as co-sponsor. This cotton khipu, in the Peabody Museum collection, is likely a census or tribute record from south coastal Peru, circa 1450-1500.

With a collaboration launched, Reifenberg arranged Rockefeller Center support to nurture it. Urton, now Dumbarton Oaks professor of pre-Columbian studies, visited Santiago again at the end of 2002, so he and Aldunate could plan the world's first comprehensive exhibition of khipus. The exhibition aimed to "explode the mystery" of Incan communication, Aldunate explains, and proved a surprise sensation. Local alumni were invited to a private reception, and the public opening, in July 2003, coincided with an international conference of Americanists in Santiago, and so put the museum, which opened in 1981, on the scholarly map. Thereafter, the public became "fascinated" by the aesthetics and obvious utility of the delicately woven and knotted strings as sophisticated recording devices, Aldunate says—so much so that the show's run was extended through April and the museum had to open on Mondays, when it is usually dark, to accommodate demands from tour companies. For its efforts and support, the "Universidad de Harvard" is recognized as the Museo's cosponsor of the exhibition.

Having met Aldunate—and perhaps inspired by the historic vision of Incan unity—Reifenberg then drew him into a different kind of collaboration, with great contemporary import. Since Chile seized its northern desert territories in an 1879 war, cutting off Bolivia's access to the Pacific, the two countries have not had diplomatic relations, and coexist, barely, in a complicated threesome with Peru (which also lost land). Aldunate's own archaeological research focuses in that disputed area, so he seemed a natural participant in a Reifenberg-mediated conversation among Bolivian, Chilean, and Peruvian diplomats, journalists, and military and cultural leaders. Two sessions in Cambridge with Harvard negotiation experts revealed vast differences in perceptions. "For me, it was important to hear the Peruvian and Bolivian feelings about Chile," Aldunate says. Another participant describes the deep cultural changes that must precede any institutional progress toward better relations—and yet a conversation that had not existed before has now begun.

Is it too much of a stretch to draw lessons from Incan unity and communications among diverse pre-Columbian peoples for modern international relations? Perhaps not: at the end of the first meeting, each participant received a modern "khipu," with three strings and three knots, meant to symbolize the three twenty-first-century nations, their common heritage, and the potential for new kinds of ties today. Many of the Bolivian and Peruvian discussants traveled more than 1,000 miles to attend the exhibition opening.

As for the exhibition itself, Urton says the connection to the Santiago museum and its staff "really gave another dimension to my work"—a rare opportunity for a scholar "to share what you've devoted your life's work to." Optimists may read this specific collaboration as a symbol for the value of crossing boundaries around the world in pursuit of the research and teaching in Harvard's future.

Read more articles by John S. Rosenberg

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