An oasis in the Atacama

This stunning new centre combines intelligent design with a pleasing aesthetic to create a place where one can truly experience the desert

On a wind farm in Chile’s remote and inhospitable Atacama Desert sits an unexpected piece of striking architecture.

This, the driest desert in the world, covers a 1,000-km sliver of territory on the country’s Pacific coast, to the west of the Andes mountains. As well as being one of Chile’s major tourist destinations, it is home to a number of wind farms, including the first to be built in the north of the country, Valle de los Vientos (aptly-named Valley of the Winds).

Enel GreenPower (EGP) developed Valle de los Vientos between the small towns of San Pedro de Atacama and Ayquina. The international electricity producer wanted a visitor centre to help bring more tourists to the area, and as a place for local communities to come together. The firm commissioned Chilean architects Emilio Marín and Juan Carlos López in 2013 to design the so-called Centre for the Interpretation of the Desert.

Reflecting the landscape

Unusually for such a scheme, the client did not dictate the position of the new building. “We were lucky, we could choose the location of the project,” says Marín, who set up his eponymous practice in the capital Santiago in 2005. The duo decided to place the new centre on a dirt road that leads only to some small settlements. There, Marín explains, “one can experience the desert in a way that feels removed from any human intervention.”

Marín and López’s aim was to push the interplay between architecture and landscape, with the centre “exposing different layers of the meaning of the desert: nature, culture and energy.”

It was important to them to create a monolithic building, with the absence of domestic features, at least from afar. “This allowed us to see the building as an element of the landscape, not as something alien, like a house in the middle of the desert,” says Marín.

Resilient design

The centre, which has a steel structural base, comprises six wedge-shaped volumes connected by an internal corridor. The wedges that face the wind farm have blind facades, while the other sides have apertures with views on to the desert. Inside are two exhibition spaces, one of which explains EGP’s activities with local communities, and another which will be for use by local groups.

“The Desert Interpretation Centre (Centro de Interpretación del Desierto, or CID) is a space that promotes and offers people the chance to better understand the culture and heritage of the indigenous communities of the Alto Loa highlands of the Atacama Desert,” says Salvatore Bernabei, Head of Renewables Energies Latin America at Enel, “as well as a place to learn more about the unique nature of one of the world’s driest deserts. Communities will be able to use the centre as a platform from which to run ethnically inclusive tourism activities and expand their local entrepreneurship initiatives in cooperation with EGP in the Atacama Desert.”

“Weathering steel envelops the whole of the architectural form, causing it to look like a rock of molten steel in the vastness of the desert.”

The six roofs of the centre slope down towards the middle of the complex, which holds an internal courtyard surrounded by a covered concrete walkway. Because it is protected from the relentless wind, Marín describes it as “a small oasis in the desert”.

For the exterior, the architects sought out a hard-wearing and economic material, that also complemented the harsh surroundings. Steel was the obvious choice. The outer skin is clad in Quadroline panels from steel manufacturer Hunter Douglas. These are simple, versatile panels bent into ridges not dissimilar to corrugated iron. Marín and López specified these panels in COR-TEN, a weathering steel that forms a stable rust-like appearance when exposed to the weather, to achieve the centre’s distinctive colour.

“COR-TEN steel envelops the whole of the architectural form, causing it to look like a rock of molten steel in the vastness of the desert,” says Marín. What’s more, the material is low maintenance, and gives subliminal echoes of the volcanic peaks in the distance. Unsurprisingly, given the Atacama’s extreme climate, the centre, though only completed in 2015, is already changing colour.

This is a hugely significant commission for the studio. “For us, the project meets many ideas that have been in the office for some time, and that we could probably only partially try in other projects,” Marín says. “A single material, intrigue, an interior garden, a very regular plan but very irregular in its shape, these were conditions that can hardly happen again, and which we took full advantage of. The desert and the client came together to make this a genuinely unique project.”

 

Images: Felipe Fontecilla