The Zanzibar and Other Building Poems

Roman Mars: This is 99% Invisible. I’m Roman Mars.

There comes a time in the life of a modern city where it begins to grow up, literally. Ever since bridge frames were upended into soaring towers and elevators were equipped with reliable safety breaks, if there are a lot of people in one place, it just makes sense for us to stack ourselves on top of each other. Santiago, the capital of Chile has been going through a tremendous growth spurt since its economic boom of the mid-1990s.

Daniel Alarcon: It happened fast. In just a few years, single family homes all over the city were replaced with high rises.

Roman: That’s Daniel Alarcon. He’s an award-winning author and host of Radio Ambulante.

Daniel: I have a friend in Santiago named Rodrigo Rojas.

Rodrigo Rojas: Well, hello. My name is Rodrigo.

Daniel: Rodrigo played a small part in Santiago’s upward mobility which wouldn’t be that remarkable if he were an engineer or real estate developer or an architect, or something like that. But he isn’t.

Roman: Rodrigo Rojas is a poet.

Rodrigo: I’m a literature professor. I wrote poetry.

Daniel: So the thing about Chile is that everyone is a poet. I don’t know if you have read Belana but it’s like poets are Chile’s superheroes.

Roman: So do you write any poetry?

Daniel: No, man. I’m Peruvian.

Roman: This is the story of how Rojas’ poetry altered the physical shape of Santiago’s rapidly changing skyline.

Daniel: This is how it worked: A developer bought an old house, tore it down, had an architect draw up plans for high rise and then Rodrigo stepped in.

Rodrigo: And my job consisted of very simple things. I had to give a name to the building.

Daniel: He worked early in the mornings and his job is like this: He had to get into people’s heads.

Rodrigo: I had to walk around a lot, know the different neighborhoods, and see what characteristics that neighborhood had and what characteristics would the people who could buy those apartments would be looking for in that neighborhood. So, people aspired to be something else. They wanted to have a better life. So, they had a dream and I had to walk around the neighborhood thinking about what kind of dream that person was looking for, and I have to devise a name for that dream.

Daniel: Rodrigo worked for a public relations firm. It’s one of ten or so in Santiago that were doing this kind of thing. As far as I know, no other firm has a poet on staff. Rodrigo was in school at that time working three jobs to support himself and his family, and in the course of a little over a year, he named more than 40 buildings all over the capital. Basically, dozens of little poems he wrote are now embedded into the design of his city.

Rodrigo: Well, to be honest, I wouldn’t confess this in Spanish. You see, I don’t feel quite proud although you might consider as you suggest, my first publications. [Chuckles] Of very short poems but I think it now, I’m listening to myself as I speak. I think it is a story that should be told because it is a story of dreams of people.

Daniel: Proud or not, he wrote hundreds of building name poems. He conjured the names from myths, from history, from literature, and even at some field research. One time, he had to name a few buildings going up near Santiago’s polo club but there was a catch: He couldn’t use the words polo or club. So he snuck into a party there to look for just the right name.

Rodrigo: The first thing that I learned is that you don’t dress up for polo because if you dress up, you’re just trying too hard.

Daniel: But of course coming up with names was just the half the job. The other half was negotiating with developers.

Rodrigo: I would choose the best 10 and give them a speech of what characteristics or what kind of dreams were behind each of these 10 names, and they would yawn.

Daniel: Until he said their own name.

Rodrigo: I said, well, any townhouse would be called Don Jorge. He said, “Wow! That’s great!”

Daniel: So yeah. Not poetry that would win awards necessarily, but like all good poetry, some of his work could be transformative. There’s this one neighborhood, El Llano, that’s particularly cold and humid. Thanks to Rodrigo, it now has buildings that make it seems almost tropical. He imagined that to forget the weather, residents might sit on their balconies, staring at the slate grey sky, and dream of beaches. So for names….

Rodrigo: Cancún Uno. Cancún Dos. Cancún Tres. Cancún Cuatro. The fifth one, I couldn’t pull it off. And the developers were so excited about this that they bought palm trees and planted them in front of the building.

Roman: I take it there aren’t huge groves of palm trees in Santiago?

Daniel: No, there are not.

Rodrigo: It is not a natural thing to have palm trees in Santiago. We have a Mediterranean climate. We are not a Caribbean country.

Daniel: Still, the Cancúns were some of the first buildings in the area and they sold really well. So, the other developers followed suit.

Rodrigo: So, there’s a whole neighborhood with names of islands and beaches. It looks like Hawaii or something like that.

Daniel: He learned to read the taste of his clients.

Rodrigo: The meetings were usually in the office of the developer, which gave me a lot of information of what he wanted to be seen as in the society.

Daniel: One time, he went to a developer’s office that was just lousy with Greek columns.

Rodrigo: Very tacky. Lots of imitation of marble and everything had a Greek column. Even like, Greek columns in order to get to the bathroom and so….

Daniel: So when they sat down to talk names, Rodrigo abandoned all the research he had done going in. And he said….

Rodrigo: How would you like the building called Athenas?

Roman: That’s Athens.

Rodrigo: Oh yes! Sparta. Oh yes! Even there’s a building called Olympiadas. Everything Greek-sounding again. And he said, “You’re so creative. How do you come up with these?” [Laughter] Well, I’ve been working on this for a very long time. It was so funny.

Daniel: Rodrigo even fabricated whole stories in the service of building an identity. He came up with one story about a ship called the Zanzibar.

Roman: The Zanzibar.

Rodrigo: Zanzibar was a ship built along with the Titanic but it was slightly smaller.

Daniel: But the Zanzibar never sank.

Rodrigo: Never had an accident. Survived two wars and it was always known as a discrete but fairly luxurious liner. And they really liked that and they said, “Oh, it sounds so elegant.”

Daniel: It worked so well, he used it again and again and again. He actually can’t even remember how many time he used the same trick.

Rodrigo: Yeah. I can’t remember at this time. I think I made up Zanzibar, I made up Normandy, which is a French name. This was the competition of the Titanic. It’s always the same story. It’s a ship built with the Titanic and it survives. And, the thing that, when you mix luxury with the survival of tragedies, that’s very important for Chile because that’s a search of status and the survival of earthquakes.

Daniel: And if a developer rubbed him the wrong way, he’d sneak in a joke. There’s a building in Santiago named Infantes de Carrión, which sounds nice even noble. Infantes means Children of Kings in Spanish.

Rodrigo: And Carrión has the double R, which gives it prestige.

Daniel: Sure it does, unless you’d know that the Infantes de Carrión are villains in El Mio Cid, one of the most famous epic poems in the Spanish language and these are not any villains.

Rodrigo: They were real bastards. They raped a girl in the book. It’s not really something that you would be proud of but the developer, he really liked it and in that session, he wasn’t accepting any single name. And I was angry and I said, “Okay. You might as well call it Los Infantes de Carrión.” And he’s, “Yes! That’s what I want!” So, there’s a building named after these…

Daniel: Named after these rapists.

Rodrigo: Yes, some rapists but literary rapists.

Roman: But when he wasn’t tricking his clients, Rodrigo was interpreting dreams.

Daniel: And that’s important because he was naming buildings that hadn’t been built yet. They were nothing but drawings in on a piece of paper. Choosing the name was the last step before the brochures could be printed up. And those brochures were what the buyers took to the bank when they ask for a loan. If enough apartments were sold, the buildings went up if not the project was abandoned and the entire city was remade this way. Families taking a chance on imaginary buildings with made up names. The same process repeated thousands of times in hundreds of neighborhoods. Husbands and wives looking at a picture, reading a poem, and taking a chance.

Roman: And Rodrigo did the same thing.

Daniel: He lives in one of these buildings now.

Roman: Although unfortunately, the namer of his building was decidedly lacking in imagination.

Daniel: He owns an apartment on Calle Chile España in the district of Ñuñoa, in a building called–

Rodrigo: It’s called Chile España. [Chuckles] So I bought a redundant building.

Daniel: But so what if it is redundant? It’s a name and names are how the anonymity of a place is called. It’s how we push back.

Rodrigo: Every building has the name exhibited usually in bronze and if it has a concierge, they shine it every day.

Daniel: No one says I live in that rectangle or poured concrete over there. No, they say things like, I live in Cancún Cuatro. I live in Don Jorge. I live in the Zanzibar named after a ship as luxurious as the Titanic and No, you’ve never heard of it because it never sank.

Roman: 99% Invisible was produced this week by Daniel Alarcón from Radio Ambulante, with Sam Greenspan and me, Roman Mars. It’s a product of 91.7 local public radio KALW in San Francisco and the American Institute of Architects in San Francisco. Support for 99% Invisible comes in part from the Facebook design team, who believes that design can bring positive change to the world. Visit them at Facebook.com/design.

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