Santiago sidewalk, with jacaranda petals
Santiago sidewalk, with jacaranda petals

When I lived in Santiago de Chile, there were some small design touches in the built environment that I always enjoyed: the murals by different artists in every metro station; the riverside sculpture park in Providencia; even the distinctive blue doors fronting the Banco de Chile branches, with their geometric windowpanes and sturdy brass handles.

One such element is more ubiquitous but less appreciated than all of them: the humble sidewalk tile.

Where other cities have their glazed bricks or troweled carpets of cement, Santiago’s sidewalks are made of prefabricated concrete tiles. Square in shape, 30mm thick, with a grid of grooves for traction, they are designed to be installed quickly and replaced easily. Every day, these faithful tiles bear millions of footsteps.

They are democratic: These tiles undergird all neighborhoods of the city, trod by workboots in San Joaquin and wingtips in Las Condes alike. They are your last step before entering, say, the metropolitan cathedral; and your first step upon exiting a Domino hot-dog stand. The same tiles surround the millionaire boutiques on Alonso de Córdova street and the vegetable stalls in La Vega market.

They are musical: Stepping on a loose tile produces a hollow woodblock “thunk” as it strikes the cement below. Several adjacent loose tiles can produce a sound effect like a Flintstone xylophone; an accidental marimba, played by passing feet. In a building where I once lived, you could tell whether an automobile was entering or exiting the underground garage from the sequence of the “notes” played under its wheels as it crossed the sidewalk.

They can even be mischievous: On one of Santiago’s rare rainy days, stepping on some loose tiles is more likely to send a squirt of water up your trouser-leg than to play you a jaunty tune.

Santiago’s gridded tiles are not the canals of Venice or the tessellated beachfront mosaics of Rio. They are not a symbol of the city, but they are a fundamental part of it. They are modest, practical, and they keep a low profile – like many Santiaguinos themselves.