SANTIAGO, Chile — The neighbors couldn't help but notice the huge head of Pope John Paul II rising out of the sculptor's workshop next door.
Hidden behind the walls, the pope's left hand gripped Jesus on the cross while his right extended outward, an imitation of the gesture he had made during his visit to Santiago two decades earlier.
But this was no private religious homage — it was the makings of a 40-foot-tall bronze statue meant to tower over a bohemian neighborhood in this capital city.
The idea of installing the statue in such a public place has sparked outrage, not only over its enormity but also over the lack of transparency in urban planning.
Not even the Catholic Church supports the project.
“The size of this giant statue is proportional to the lack of delicacy of those who, having money, power and influence, feel they own the city,” said Jesuit priest Felipe Berrios.
The statue was conceived by the privately owned San Sebastian University, which is headed by members of the right-wing, ultraconservative party UDI.
The university is building a campus in front of a park in the Recoleta municipality. In 2007, the mayor of the municipality, Gonzalo Cornejo, decided he wanted to remodel the park. He asked his longtime friend Luis Cordero, vice chancellor of the university and founder of the UDI, to present a proposal.
The $734,000 project involves wiping out the park and its trees to build an underground parking lot, relocating a craft fair that has been there for 20 years and installing a giant pope. Currently named after a young anarchist poet who died after being arrested in the 1920s, the park is to be renamed Park Pope John Paul II.
The statue would sit near the University of Chile’s Law School, a 100-year old national monument that marks the entrance of the bohemian Bellavista neighborhood, full of bars, restaurants, small shops and street vendors, where hundreds of rowdy teenagers and young adults flock to party on weekends.
Cordero put the dean of the school's faculty of architecture, Cristian Boza, in charge of the project, and hired his own brother Daniel, a sculptor, to build it.
But until this September, no one outside of a tight circle knew about the project — not even the National Monuments Council, which has to authorize all such public monuments.
By September the mold was practically finished, but no one would have learned about it if the neighbors hadn't seen the pope's head peering over the street.
The public outcry was quick: the dean and students at the University of Chile, neighborhood organizations, architects, academics and even priests have spoken out against it; newspapers have been bombarded by letters and columns against what one paper calls the “Popesaurus”; students have organized protests; and the monument council called on the municipality to submit the project to its approval, which it finally did in mid-October.
“I don’t have anything against the pope. It’s not him that is controversial. The problem is that it is such a huge statue, and on top of that, financed by a private university. We feel invaded by their new building and their plans to destroy the park. They didn’t consult anyone, and now they are imposing their religious views on the rest of society,” said Carlos Araya, a recent graduate of the University of Chile’s Law School.
Critics dislike they way a private university was put in charge of changing the face of a traditional neighborhood because its friend the mayor asked it to, all in total secret. They say the plan violates urban regulations. Along with the new campus, a movie theater, a cultural center and three 19-floor apartment buildings will also be built facing the park.
Daniel Cordero, the sculptor, says that all of the fuss in unjustified. Statues are usually made bigger because the visual effect once installed makes them look smaller. Besides, he says, the statue will be placed 100 meters away from the school.
“This is the only country in the world where people are terrified of the size of a monument. Cities everywhere are famous for their big monuments. Mexico has four big statues of this pope, and there are more than 100 in the world,” he said.
About 70 percent of Chileans are Catholic, according to the 2002 census, but this particular pope is admired even by many non-Catholics for his mediation between Chile and Argentina in 1978, when both countries were on the brink of war over a territorial dispute.
If approved by the monument council, the statue would be installed in April, facing east toward the Andes mountain range that separates Chile and Argentina. “The pope’s merit is that he avoided a war with Argentina, a war in which an entire generation of youths from both sides of the Andes would have perished. Any monument is small for someone who accomplished such a feat,” said Daniel Cordero.
But however much John Paul II loved and admired, not even the Catholic Church wants this kind of monument. The president of the Bishops Conference, Monsignor Alejandro Goic, said he would have preferred another type of homage: “If you ask me, the best monument would have been scholarships for smart kids from poor families to go to the university.”