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Havana, Cuba – How will Castro's change of course affect Cuban architecture?

A revolution in Cuban architecture? Castro opens up private sector

While most people know about the US trade embargo against Cuba, there is little information about the country’s long-standing urban problems. The tourist eye is lured by the sensual aesthetic pull of Havana, one of the most beautiful and architecturally diverse cities in the world. However, riven with more contradictions than its architectural styles (Spanish baroque, neocolonial, beaux arts and Moorish), the city’s infrastructure, which enabled major urban growth in the early 20th century, is now outdated and inadequate for daily use by Havana’s 2.14 million population.

The city’s fortresses – symbols of its former military identity and part of its World Heritage status – remain emblematic images, yet the state sponsored design and building enterprises aimed at realising mega projects such as prefab blocks of social housing, are not able to address today’s issues. Under the socialist system the state owns most assets and there is a limited free market. Now up to a million state employees are to be made redundant: will this fuel new private building cooperatives and work possibilities for thousands of young or retired architects? The government claims private-sector job opportunities will indeed increase. But having architects fix up old buildings is not enough.

Soul searching about Cuba’s architectural prospects was the aim of the Alternative Initiatives Cuba conference, an inaugural event in a global series staged by London-based architecture collective Nous. When it has taken a decade and a half to partially recover from the collapse in its import capacity and investment in building, empowerment of people to help generate wealth could be one of Cuba’s biggest opportunities, believes Mario Coyula, architect and former director of Havana’s planning agency.

The authority Cuban architects used to have has been destroyed by ‘the cult of improvisation and finishing dates, and the interference of administrative and political decision makers,’ said Coyula, who was unable to attend the conference due to sickness. But his paper, Thinking into the Future, but Not Too Much is one of the most insightful on how Cuban architecture’s challenges might be faced at a time when the nation is broke and people are considering a greater role for private enterprise.

London-based Spanish architects Francisco Gonzalez de Canales and Nuria Alvarez Lombardero, unit masters of Inter 8 at the Architectural Association, regard Havana as the Caribbean’s metropolis. But in their view, population growth and a parallel lack of new public space is paralysing the city. The work of their students last year centred on the Plaza de la Revolución, site of Castro’s rallies and still overshadowed by an image of Guevara on the Ministry of the Interior. Chosen because it was divorced from the global market but highly politically charged, the plaza became a laboratory for speculation through new designs about different futures and possibilities for expressions of the political within the city – for instance, the bus stop as place of encounter, as there are few new community centres. Cuban architect Ricardo Porro, 85, explained Havana’s love of tromp l’oeil, its ‘syncretism, and multiple traditions, some repressed’ and his hatred for ‘clean architecture’. Full of wisecracks, his was an aesthetic-social agenda. He once asked Alvar Aalto about scale in architecture during a visit. The answer: ‘Follow women’s curves’.

Once Cuba’s architects are able to trade more freely, how will the zeitgeist be expressed? Gonzalez bemoans the fact that there is ‘not so much international understanding of modern Cuban architecture by comparison with Brazil’s – sad when there’s [Frank] Martinez, [Antonio] Quintana and [Mario] Romañach’. While new vocabularies of community design could be opened up, he currently sees little urban design, only ‘punctual operations’ by hotels and the government.

Eusebio Leal Spengler, Havana City Historian, who has been involved in the restoration of the city for more than 40 years, is one of the few to have done something valuable with its fabric. Buildings have been converted into offices and hotels; restored industrial stores are now covered markets. There are new facilities: a library, a university with masterpieces of Cuban art, a planetarium and theatre, but to support the cost of new housing he wants to use the proceeds from tourism. ‘Old Havana is a starting point, but it needs to be linked to social development – man lives as he thinks and thinks as he lives.’

Coyula bemoans the fact that ‘the political discourse is more about solving than resolving’. There are more buses but they need repaired streets; more but smaller housing is required for an increasingly elderly population including partially handicapped people, with simple, well-designed furniture. ‘We are still struggling to ban asbestos-cement roofs when they are repeatedly blown away by hurricanes,’ he points out. ‘When you have a flashlight but no batteries,’ practical, sustainable things with a long-lasting effect are necessary.

He hopes to see a rationalisation of state operations and regards an emerging culture of debate as more important than permits for travel. While there was a dramatic growth of 24 per cent in agriculture, proof that the government is paying more attention to food production, he said an NGO had created a community architect role based on the family doctor network, but it closed ten years ago. The process of shifting around a quarter of the workforce from state to private sector ‘will affect
the look of the place. Can the
planning system evolve to cope?’ asked Cuban economics specialist Emily Morris.

How is Cuba to awaken from history and go on manifesting its soul through architecture? There was unanimous agreement to let the US blockade stop, but ‘don’t impose on the way of life,’ said Lombardero. Inevitably, the next step in the country’s evolution – being currently independent but without money – is to open up to tourism and foreign investors, with the risk of US dominance, said Morris. ‘Because Cubans have been poor and have learned to live without blueprints, it needs to be a more organic evolution of state and markets working together.’

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