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Students marching in front of GAM. A large banner of Nicanor Parra hangs on GAM’s facade in celebration of his 100th birthday. Photograph by César Carrasco, 2014.

‘How would I like to see Chile?

In democracy …

I’d like to see it in democracy

I just love asking the impossible.’ [1]


- Nicanor Parra (1996)



The Gabriela Mistral Cultural Centre (GAM) is the latest iteration of a building that has been at the centre of Chile’s modern history. Its form, a palimpsest of architectural alterations, embodies several historical shifts that have affected the entire nation. Nicanor Parra’s mischievous poem reflects the ostensible unfeasibility for the country to assimilate democracy after 17 years of authoritarianism. Similarly, GAM’s transformations symbolise loss in Chilean collective memory and its impact on a convoluted process of democratisation. Originally, the building was erected to host the third United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD III) in 1972. However, its status as an icon of Salvador Allende’s tenure was truncated by the military coup of 11th September 1973. After the military bombed the presidential office, the UNCTAD III building was occupied by Pinochet’s junta as its headquarters and it was transformed accordingly for its new function as the dictatorship’s public stage. Years after, following a major public competition originated by a fire in 2006, the radically transformed building reopened in 2010 as Chile’s largest cultural centre. Latterly, due to the October 2019 social protest movement, the building has been re-politicised by activists who have converted it into an impromptu platform for protest art. Previous studies in architectural history have mostly overlooked how memory issues have moulded the process of renovation and the role that its architecture has in the shaping of collective memory. Therefore, this dissertation aims to expand the analysis by locating the renovation of GAM within a theoretical framework that focuses on the socio-political aspects of memory, both in the conception of the reshaped building and its subsequent popular appropriation and perception.


In South America, memory studies increased within the academy in the 1990s due to a shift towards democracy after long periods of vicious dictatorships.[2] In Chile, memory studies have determined that the term ‘memoria’ (‘memory’) possesses a two-fold significance. On the one hand, it is considered an individual re-enactment of the past in the present that is capable of agglomeration into emblematic memories. Presently, conflicts between groups with opposing interpretations of the authoritarian era continue to permeate political discourses and societal identity in Chile. This leads to cultural divisions that undermine the possibility of a national project that can counteract what Andreas Huyssen calls the politics of forgetting – initiatives pursued by post-authoritarian governments either through official amnesties that enable impunity or through the imposition of certain emblematic memories to justify traumatic past events.[3] Yet on the other hand, ‘memoria’ is widely understood as a code-word evocative for truth and accountability.[4] ‘Memoria’ emerged during the Pinochet regime as a cultural expression against the already present term, ‘olvido’ (‘oblivion’), which represented the physical and memorial erasure of the disappeared victims of the dictatorship. In an act of resilience, relatives of victims organised into communities and fought against olvido through activism and self-support,[5] thus searching for the memory that they had been deprived of. Advances have been made in Chile after the democratic transition, especially in the realm of human rights, although presently, memory issues have shifted towards the legacy of the regime: the implemented neo-liberal system that rules to this day and the apparent societal stability produced through silencing and overlooking.


The radical renovation of GAM is thus influenced by emblematic discourses of national union that aim to close the memory box via a narrative of progress. GAM’s overwriting was supposed to create a clean slate that would turn attention away from its problematic past, through a new form that responds to the current neoliberal logic of architectural consumption. Following Stamatis Zografos’ claim that ‘[n]ew buildings only carry knowledge that has been previously proven to be useful’[6], I argue that the meaning of ‘usefulness’ is related to institutional power and its quest to control the memory narrative in the case of GAM. Furthermore, the archival operations that shaped the building’s renovation conceal the power structures behind its refurbishment. Hence, this dissertation seeks to understand the archival properties of GAM’s architecture in order to revise its underlying cultural, political and social context and the impact of the renovation in collective perception.


This dissertation is structured through the study of the three major ‘memory knots’ of GAM, using the definition of the concept by Steve J. Stern, who describes these knots as conflictive sites of society that force issues of memory and oblivion into the public realm.[7] The first memory knot is the fire, in which politics and memory played a key part in shaping the framework of the building’s renovation; the second memory knot is the design of the renovation, showcasing the role of architecture in institutional memory discourses; finally, the third is the appropriation of the building during the October 2019 social protests, which will focus upon alternative remembrance related to an overwritten memory object – as performed by protestors who have used the building’s façade as a large canvas for political art, amid the continuing social movement that demands the change of the still-current Chilean Constitution imposed by the dictatorship.






[1] Steve J. Stern, Reckoning with Pinochet: The Memory Question in Democratic Chile, 1989–2006 (Durham: Duke University Press, 2010), 210.

[2] Claudia Feld, ‘Trayectorias y desafíos de los estudios sobre memoria en Argentina,’ [Trajectories and challenges of memory studies in Argentina.] Cuadernos del IDES, no. 32 (May 2016), 6,

[3] Andreas Huyssen, Present Pasts: Urban Palimpsets and the Politics of Memory (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2003), 15.

[4] Steve J. Stern, ‘Memory: The Curious History of a Cultural Code Word,’ Radical History Review, no. 124 (January 2016), 119,

[5] Ibid., 122.

[6] Stamatis Zografos, Architecture and Fire: A Psychoanalytic Approach to Conservation (London: UCL Press, 2019), 156.

[7] Steve J. Stern, Remembering Pinochet’s Chile: On the Eve of London 1998 (Durham: Duke University Press, 2004), 120-21.

Copyright of image: © César Carrasco, reproduced with owner’s permission

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