Otherwise known as the Office of practice and research on Architecture and Territorial Design, UMWELT carries an exotic yet unpronounceable name in its homeland of Chile. In the five years it has existed, the passionate founding-fathers Ignacio García Partarrieu and Arturo Scheidegger have participated in the Venice Biennale, won the Santiago version of MoMA/PS1’s Young Architects Program, built several inspiring structures in Chile, been nominated for the Iakov Chernikhov prize and the MCHAP Emerging Architecture Award, and most recently, opened an installation in the LIGA architecture gallery in Mexico City – enough of a reason to sit down with them in Lisbon, where they just received the Début Award for architects under the age of 35 at the Architecture Triennale.

If it works it’s fantastic, but many architect duos don’t last very long. “A clash of egos”, the two young architects say, laughing. The fact that the office name doesn’t incorporate their own names might suggest García Partarrieu and Scheidegger don’t have much of an ego issue. Another reason for their good collaboration is that they’ve taken ample time to become a professional pair, as it started from when they were still at the Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile (where they are currently teaching). “Our first project was our own office, which we conceived before graduating. And during the first three years of UMWELT, we did everything together – from meetings with clients to writing emails.” They also decided on the working process, the projects they wanted, and their office’s future. “We have great architects in Chile, and many of them start by building fabulous houses on the beach. We wanted something else, though – we wanted to go beyond what architects in Chile usually do. To work in cities, on a big scale and without making a distinction between research and building.” Those first years of close collaboration have ensured that the two are able to read each other’s mind. “We have a complementary way of thinking about architecture.” However, their collaboration is not a babbling brook. “At the centre, there are always discussions and arguments. Each of us has to show, prove, discuss, convince, write down.”

Cancha Deserta, 2012 UMWELT + Pedro Alonso Atacama Desert, Chile
ENVIRONMENTALLY SOUND

Nevertheless, the two tend to unrestrainedly complete each other’s sentences. For instance, when they explain the concept behind the name – which is no less than a mission statement. “In German, umwelt literally means environment, but it’s also a broader concept, which we inherited from Jakob von Uexküll.” Jakob who?! “Ehm, yes... The only person we’ve met who had heard of him was Yoshiharu Tsukamoto from Atelier Bow-Wow. We were impressed!” Jakob von Uexküll (1864-1944) was an Estonian-German biologist whose theory about how living beings perceive their environment was picked up by philosophers like Heidegger. “He described how the spatial perception of clams, birds, bees, ticks, etc. as well as humans, is determined by their senses, nerves, and brain. The result is that every living creature has its own personal ‘umwelt’ that it takes for ‘reality’, from where all interaction with others departs.” This ‘subjective environment’ is the starting point for García Partarrieu and Scheidegger’s architectural practice. Every city is therefore a place where successive generations of residents interpret and reinvent their umwelt again and again, and where architecture means more than simply creating physical housing – it’s rather about how to expand our umwelt and change our experience.

Infrastructure or the annihilation of the Antarctic, 2012 UMWELT+ Pedro Alonso
Upon graduation, UMWELT collaborated with Pedro Alonso on two large territorial research projects: one about Antarctica (Infrastructure or the annihilation of the Antarctic: the mapping of ice and water in the first continent discovered by photography), and another about the Atacama Desert in Chile (Cancha: Chilean Soilscapes at the Venice Biennale 2012). These explore the possibilities of territorial integration between natural and artificial occupying agents. “A desert looks like a postcard: it always seems to be a virgin place. But in fact it’s a territory that has experienced a lot of intervention. The same goes for the ‘untouched’ frozen landscape of Antarctica. Our research aimed at understanding the effect of human intervention, natural changes, industrial activities, and economic transactions. These projects served to issue a more critical reading of nature: it is not a postcard.” This research shaped their future. “It helped us to be ambitious – to consider how architecture can enable us to understand a territory and how it can add to a country’s development. Instead of only designing fancy buildings.”

POWER TO THE PEOPLE

UMWELT: Ignacio Garcia Partarrieu and Arturo Scheidegger giving a talk at the Lisbon Architecture Triennale, 2016 Photo: Michael Paul Romstoeck
Central de Transmisiones, 2014 UMWELT+ Juan Manuel Sepúlveda Cerro San Cristóbal Santiago, Chile Photo © Felipe Fontecilla
Regarding construction, they are fortunate to be situated in Chile, where the economy is moving forward and companies and private parties alike are investing in contemporary architecture. “This enables us to do interesting projects.” One of the first was an office building, an extraordinary opportunity for a young firm. Another advantage they have is that in Chile, architects are allowed to sign their work straight after receiving their degree, whereas in many other countries they must first complete a lengthy internship. But Chilean graduates are well prepared. “Because of the many earthquakes, we receive excellent technical training, and the regulations are strict.” Santiago, where UMWELT is based, opens even more perspectives, as it is a fast-growing metropolis with a vibrant economy, attracting immigrants from all over Latin America. And the Andes Mountains can be seen from most every point in the city. “We don’t have history, we have geography”, is what many architects in Chile say. But García Partarrieu and Scheidegger aren’t satisfied with this attitude. “It is too static and conservative for us. We desire openness in urban planning; that can’t only be determined by nature. For example, citizens are becoming aware of the negative consequences of our economic growth, as actions held for free education and healthcare for everyone illustrate. Chileans are becoming active citizens. The question is: how can architecture deal with this.”

UMWELT tries to play it smart. “In every project we do, we take a position to safeguard the public interest in a privatised world.” The duo cites the memorial they created at the Cementerio General – the oldest cemetery in the city, where the rich and poor, the important and nameless are buried, as well as victims of the military dictatorship. “This cemetery is as segregated as the rest of our city: not only are the graves of the rich and the poor separated, the service and maintenance they receive also differs. Again, these are the things you don’t see on the postcard...” They chose to build an L-shaped structure in the ‘poor’ part of the cemetery. “It was not just a memorial; it also included a new stretch of pavement and benches. Thus, a new public space was created and the necessary services in this part of the cemetery are now also being provided. We used this historical monument as an opportunity to compensate for a lack of public services and to upgrade this part of the cemetery with an infrastructure.”

This how, through architecture, UMWELT has been creating a new, more shared reality in which various umwelts can co-exist peacefully. Perhaps architecture cannot save the world, but UMWELT definitively enables us to reflect on things.

This article appeared in DAM60. Order your personal copy.
Edificio Integra, 2014 Osorno, Chile Photo © Felipe Fontecilla
Edificio Integra, 2014 Osorno, Chile Photo © Felipe Fontecilla
Cementerio General
Ambient 30-60, 2014 Parque Araucano Santiago, Chile Photo © Cristóbal Palma
Energy & Territory, 2016 Studio at Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile Visit to Hydroelectric facilities in Alto Bío Bío commune with students Photos: UMWELT