Surprisingly, the world’s driest place, Chile’s Atacama desert, isn’t entirely barren of bold architectural expression, for this vast expanse is home to Auer Weber’s acclaimed European Southern Observatory (ESO) residence.

Expansive, arid and unrelenting, the area is undeniably beautiful, making it one of the country’s chief tourist destinations. The landscape also works remarkably hard: for a start, it hosts some of the best stargazing conditions in the world, thanks to a combination of altitude, geography and remote location, a fact exploited by the two ESO installations at La Silla and Paranal (where lucky scientists get to stay at Weber’s spectacular residence). Atacama is also host to some of Chile’s key wind farms, including the first in the north of the country, tucked away in the dusty hillsides between the small towns of San Pedro de Atacama and Ayquina. 

To help lure and orientate tourists to the region, a new visitors’ centre by Emilio Marín and Juan Carlos López has been built as part of the infrastructure for the wind farm. Commissioned in 2013, the Corten steel building makes a strong but welcome intervention on this windswept plain.

The architects describe the project in terms of the relationship between landscape and architecture. Six ‘wings’ – perhaps better understood as petals arranged around a central core – form wedge-shaped structures, linked by an internal corridor but reading as an abstracted series of forms from a distance, united by the common cladding material. ‘It introduces some kind of riddle to the landscape,’ Marín admits. ‘It seems a bit radical, unprecedented.’ 

Tasked with providing a basic set of functions, Marín and López’s structure does nothing to conceal itself, echoing instead the peaks of the surrounding volcanoes, while also framing the landscape from within. ‘The strategy is not so different from what can be found in the archaeological remains of settlements in the area, like those at Tulor,’ Marín continues, pointing out that these Mesolithic sites often featured circular enclosures arranged around a central space. With the plan established, a tough material was needed. Corten steel wasn’t just a functional and economical choice, it also evoked the blank solidity of the surrounding rock formations. 

While the structure might appear stark and raw, with its deliberate juxtaposition of angles, shadow and unrelenting colour, it sits as lightly on the ground as possible, with a natural ventilation system focused on the internal courtyard. ‘It’s spatially connected to all the rooms and allows the distribution of fresh air into the exhibition rooms and administration, cooling the building during the summer,’ says Marín. In the cold winter months, the large windows make the most of solar heating. Most importantly of all, the building is designed to go completely dark at night. ‘The richness of the night desert landscape is in the sky,’ Marín enthuses. ‘The only light at night comes from the moon and the stars. The project respects this.’ 

Detailing was kept as simple as possible, the complexity coming from the shape itself. The new building’s claim to represent a new approach to landscape is most clearly made by the internal patio space, described by the architects as a ‘small oasis’, encircled by a covered concrete walkway. ‘This serves as a viewpoint to the sky and creates the conditions for an intimate experience between vegetation and visitor,’ says Marín.

A disciplined, rigorous response to an open brief, the visitor centre is a concise and coherent freestanding structure. It’s as if this brooding, rusty sculpture has always been there, solemn and timeless in the quiet desert landscape.

As originally featured in the May 2016 issue of Wallpaper* (W*206)