Red wine and Gangrene: Subterranean Santiago

A project

In the 1960s, the Santiago Metro system began construction in Eduardo Frei Montalva’s mind’s eye. The idea had been contemplated since the 1940s, but only then was it a possibility from a fiscal perspective. In May of 1969, ground was broken in the concrete: Line 1 (San Pablo-La Moneda).

Official Site: Santiago Metro

Digital legend, scattered throughout Google’s search engine, recounts that at the beginning of the 1970s, Salvador Allende visited the construction site of Line 1 of the Metro; it was a visit in which he would coin one of his most famous phrases. Instead of a quote expounding directly on the contours of the Metro as a social project, the censorious apothegm that has become associated with this visit is of a more intimate nature: “There are some Chileans that would like at least three pipelines installed in their homes: one for cold water, another for hot and a third for red wine.  And that is unacceptable and against them we must fight;”[1] available here, among several dozen other sites: This quote has been reproduced time and time again, becoming part of the ineludible repertoire of the public appearances of the president. The image of the pipelines is potent, not only because of the difficulty in imagining the maintenance of the third pipeline allowing wine to arrive at residents’ homes without a disagreeable aftertaste of lead, but also because of the forcefulness with which Allende appears to illustrate a certain social logic by placing emphasis on the public and social event that occurs upon turning on a kitchen sink. To speak of pipelines, despite its articulation as censure, in a public address regarding the Metro, posits an interconnected social body that extends from the intimate angle of private property to that of the most public. The metro represents an extension of this system that goes from the most private of spaces –the kitchen sink– to the most public, redefining and unifying the barriers of public and private; of the political and the quotidian.

The first train did not exit the station until 1975, however, due to the economic upheaval of the Allende era (1970-1973) and the vast bureaucratic and structural imperatives that a public transportation system of such magnitude entails.  The gesture was accompanied by other complementary interventions in the national space and imaginary under military rule: first, the 1974 conversion of the age-old provinces in thirteen regions numbered with military precision (eg.,Valaparaíso would no longer be Valparaíso, rather Región V); and, second, the extension of the Colonial Alameda (the groundbreaking was celebrated within weeks of that of the Metro’s) into a new branch called Avenida Once de Septiembre, an urban thoroughfare whose name remains on the street signs of Santiago to this day.[2]

Placed within Pinochet’s nominal topography, the Metro, which would have been a symbol of liberal democracy under Frei Montalva or revolutionary zeal paired with Space Age idealism under Allende—transporting the workers’ city—, was instead baptized as a military-neoliberal marvel.

The press of the era treats the opening of the Metro with a strange mixture of reverence and unease.  On the one hand, it is described as “one of the urban engineering works of greatest magnitude and ambition realized in the past years,” “a novel and important idea,” an act of “dynamism and imagination;”[3] on the other, it constituted an endeavor that had required the expenditure of $300 million; $250 million of which were devoted to a mere 8 kilometers (approximately 5 miles), in the middle of an economic crisis in which industrial production in Chile had fallen by a third.

The controversy that surrounded the metro’s economic repercussions was not enough, however, to hamper a two-page spread on the Metro’s opening on September 15th, 1975 in El Mercurio, in the middle of the Fiestas Patrias, famously commemorating Chile’s independence from Spain and the First Junta of 1810.

El Mercurio, September 15, 1975

In the photo [above] of General Pinochet shaking hands with Domingo Paredes, Pinochet’s military cap directly parallels Paredes’ hardhat like a mirror image; in the photo’s caption, the smiling Paredes is referred to as a “técnico,” or technician, and not as a ‘worker.’  Bleeding through from an advertisement on the previous page—combining the patriotism and capitalism that was so essential to Pinochet’s regime, we see the words “Dieciochera”—in retro-style san-serif black bubble letters.  Referring to the barbecues and patriotic celebrations of the third week in September, these words visually brand both Paredes and Pinochet generating a psychological effect akin to that of a watermark, indicating provenance.

In the years that followed the Metro system’s opening, the Director and theoretical architect of the Metro, Juan Parrochia Beguin —with professional experience in France, and not insignificantly the U.S. Agency for International Development— fortunately for posterity, was extremely prolific in terms of essays and conferences. The essays and conferences have been compiled by the University of Chile and published within several collections.  Through these texts, one can glimpse the intellectual armature behind the concrete Metro System.  The texts detail anything and everything from the reasoning behind the use of the term “metro” rather than “subway” or “subterráneo” (the term used in Argentina) to the chromatic palette of the seats and passageways.  Parrochia insisted time and time again, in his typical high-flown language, that the Metro was irreducible to a “simple work of engineering;” rather, it was a manifestation of the “infinite derivations born of the individual and collective human being” (El futuro 129). (See: El futuro de ayer y el futuro de hoy (1987))

In one text from 1976, “Experiencia chilena en la implantación de Sistema de Transporte Rápido Masivo,” Parrochia analogizes the Metro to the human circulatory system. He writes:

Like human blood vessels, these works…are opening vital circulation to the Metropolis, …giving life to the entire urban body, revitalizing the gangrenous tissues, regenerating the dead areas, cleaning the toxic sector, liquidating the coagulations…” (121).

In the same essay, Parrochia continues with these organicist metaphors that overlay what can be interpreted as the project’s capitalist and/or developmentalist underpinnings.  In Parrochia’s vision, stagnation [congregation?] of the masses can mean death, gangrene and putrification to the city.  In the city must, instead, be enforced a coordinated harmony.  The same order that has already been reinstated in the economy and in the distribution of wealth must be carefully imposed upon the “insurgent” masses in their daily routines and commutes.  Furthermore, he insists that to “debase the Metropolitan Transport in its urban-regional context, to a group of dispersible and specialized technologies is so false, dangerous and impoverished as to create a human body from mismatched organs and entrails in the style of Frankenstein” (El futuro 130). Technology, as Parrochia would appear to indicate with his reference to Frankenstein, may betray its creator, and may even become its creator’s master.  The Metro, similar to the train system that was closed under military rule, is a double edged-sword. Unlike the cars that zipped down the Carretera General Augusto Pinochet (currently referred to as the Carretera Austral) in the 1980s, emulating the individualism of the American Wild West, the Metro continues to be a collective form of transportation that carries with it the ‘dangers’ of public and communal space.

Parrochia’s socially-motivated aspirations for the newly opened subway, far beyond the Metro’s manifest engineering and straightforward concrete and plastic structure, are expressed once again in the Andean Conference of Transportation in July of 1976 situated within the poetics of social order in much more transparent terms.  The following are the “economic and social values” that he foresaw embodied or advanced by the military government’s project:

  • New habits of order, public hygiene and punctuality
  • Respect for public property
  • Reduction of atmospheric pollution
  • Reduction of sound-levels and urban vibrations
  • Massive psychological impact of hope and optimism
  • Technological satisfaction and the diffusion of new methods and procedures
  • Social Tranquility and reduction in urban irritation
  • Reduction of consumption of imported fuels and greater consumption of renewable National energy  (El futuro 59)

The juxtaposition of values such as “reduction of consumption of imported fuels.” and the first (and perhaps primordial) listed value, that of “new habits of order, public hygiene and punctuality,” lay bare with new clarity the complex venture of the Metro: one that marries technology and social pacification; engineering and discipline; nationalism and markets.

Through these conceptual matrices, the Metro becomes a vehicle and embodiment of the political platforms of the military dictatorship.  As embodiment, it takes the form of a double of the disciplined and flowing populace.  Yet, it can also be construed as a cognate of General Pinochet himself as a disciplining spatial force, his face and body inextricably tied to the Metro’s immaculate visual imaginary. Given these postulates, it is important to consider that in 1980, the system’s flagship line was renamed Escuela Militar-San Pablo.

In Santiago, pedestrians and motorists give directions that are relational to the mountains: “go up,” “go down,” rather than making use of conventional spatial orientations such as “north” or “south.” Thus, in this city where cardinal directions are rare, the locution “towards the Escuela Militar (Military School),” became a sort of ‘direction’ unto itself, one’s North, —in a figurative sense—one’s compass.  From 1980 to 2010 (when three stations —Manquehue, Hernando de Magallanes, and Los Diminicos— were added to the line) the words Escuela Militar crowned each metro station on Line 1, the red line, as if it were a sort of signature, an indelible mark of authorship and birthright, Pinochet’s legacy traced upon Santiago’s urban space.


[1] Spanish: “Hay algunos chilenos que quisieran que en sus casas les instalaran por lo menos tres cañerías: una de agua fría, otra de agua caliente y una tercera de tinto. Y eso es inaceptable y contra ellos debemos combatir.”

[2] It is perhaps important to note that the principal press reports dedicated to the preliminary work for the Avenida Once de Septiembre were accompanied by Spanish dictator Francisco Franco’s death and photos with headlines calling Franco a “cuerpo agotado.”  In my reading, the press is concocting a metaphorical coronation within a successor logic.

[3] Spanish: “una de las obras de mayor envergadura y ambición realizada en los últimos años”/ “una idea novedosa e importante”/ an act of “dinamismo e imaginación.”


Jessica Gordon-Burroughs
Jessica Gordon-Burroughs

(Pennsylvania) is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Latin American and Iberian Cultures at Columbia University. Her dissertation explores the field of the popular edition as a concept and as an historical reality in Latin America. Her project engages theoretical questions surrounding book materiality, including the democratizing potential of technology, the politics of aesthetics and reader reception. She has worked with visual culture at museums such as The Hispanic Society in New York and the Museo de Bellas Artes in Santiago de Chile. She is the guest coordinator of “Circuitos”.