Havana is renowned for its faded elegance: colonial facades pocked with humidity, ornate structures left to crumble, chipped paint and climbing vines. It’s a stately wreck of a city that’s stuck in the past, and even when fresh energy and capital are poured into the urban fabric, the goal is usually historic preservation. But Claudia Castillo and Orlando Inclán have a different future in mind. In a revolt against nostalgia, they’ve launched a series of initiatives aimed at pushing contemporary architecture into the public discourse: a radio show, a newly formed professional organization and, most recently, a published dossier of projects on paper designed by themselves and a small core of their fellow young Cuban architects.
“Our objective is to show that there are people thinking about contemporary architecture,” says Inclán.
You wouldn't know it by looking around you. Nearly all of the local building projects are restorations of vintage structures controlled by the busy Office of the Historian of Havana, where Inclán is the director of the urban design department and where Castillo also works. The rare new construction often apes colonial architecture, resulting in a Disneyland-ish feeling downtown. Architects have few chances to practice outside of state jobs — neither architecture nor industrial design was listed among the nearly 200 professions legally privatized in Cuba’s recent economic reforms. (Since the Cuban government provides university education, professions that require degrees — medicine, law, architecture — remain in the public sector.) As a result of the scant opportunities for development, the majority of design-minded professionals leave the country.
But signs of modernity are creeping in. In 2009, an art space called Factoría Habana, converted from an early-20th-century industrial building, opened in downtown Old Havana. Its architect, Abiel San Miguel, working through the historian’s office, kept the turn-of-the-century balustrades but painted them a glossy black. He opened a gaping skylight that cuts through all three levels of the cavernous building’s 13,500 square feet of exhibition space and ordered floors of polished concrete, a material that the gallery’s founding director Concha Fontenla said seemed “like science fiction” to workers used to laying decorative tiles. The building, with its smooth white walls, natural light, high ceilings and open floor plan ideal for the monumental genre-bending installations it shows, is a favorite among local hipsters and intellectuals. Inclán and Castillo, who have quietly trendy haircuts and like to talk about what they’ve recently read on DesignBoom and Dezeen, reflect the design-oriented faction of this crowd.
With its refined use of industrial space, the renovation of Factoría Habana is visually arresting evidence that contemporary design and historic preservation can cohabitate in Havana. It also hints at changing attitudes toward contemporary design within official channels in Cuba. This is the sort of project that Inclán and Castillo envision as being the rule, rather than the exception, in Havana.
Within their government jobs, they work on colorful Old Havana restorations and design the occasional clean-lined addition to a dilapidated housing complex. Along with co-workers from the Office of the Historian and a handful of journalism students, they also produce an architecture-focused radio show that airs weekly on Radio Havana, interviewing local or visiting architects. (I made the occasional appearance while living in Havana in 2010.) Locals have limited access to developments in other parts of the world — only 15 percent of Cubans use the internet with any regularity. The show serves as an on-air magazine of ideas and outside information for architecturally minded Havanans.
The work that Inclán and Castillo do outside of their jobs keeps them triply busy. Though construction of new buildings in Havana is often called off due to budget issues, what’s actually erected by state offices are far from the only structures that local architects have designed. This summer’s portfolio of conceptual projects in the local arts and culture magazine Dédalo, put together by Inclán and Castillo and published by the youth arm of Cuba’s official artists and writers union, proved that fact. Its publication is surprising in more than one way: Not only is it the first time that the un-built work of local, contemporary architects has been seen in such a public forum, but it’s the first time that a government arts organization reaches out to them. (In Cuba, architecture is taught at the polytechnic university.)
Published together with a survey of 15 architects in their twenties and thirties about the state of the practice in Cuba, the dossier revealed a generation of young professionals eager to work in Havana, insistent that the aesthetic of new construction be contemporary, and constructively critical of Cuba’s leadership. “I think that problems and opportunities alike have the same genesis. The economic and managerial inefficiency demonstrated in recent years is what upholds the current lack of construction and progressive deterioration of our buildings,” wrote Ariel Fernández. “Almost all of us agree that our ideas should be contemporary, coherent as much with our context as with what is happening around the world today,” wrote Ángel Michel Domínguez.
That Havana’s architectural identity is dominated by its colonial and tropical modern buildings, Inclán points out, complicates proposals for contemporary structures, especially downtown. That’s why many of the published projects tastefully pull Havana’s architectural patrimony into the renderings or are sited for the outskirts of town. An asymmetrical apartment building in downtown Havana, designed by Inclán and Marilyn Mederos, wraps an angular structure that recalls Cuba’s single-family tropical modernist homes with slim wood or metal slats. An outdoor pavilion by Ihosvany de Oca, a personal project of the architect’s, would erect tent-like structures to make a shaded public gathering spot around the historic Christ of Casablanca statue that towers on a hill across the bay from Old Havana.
A shopping center, proposed by Maikel Menendez on a bald plot of land in the eastern Havana area of Alamar, recalls American drive-ins of the fifties; it was left un-built due to lack of financing and what higher-ups called “structural complexity.”
Most of the projects, like Menendez’s, reflect an optimism that Cuba is on its way into a more economically stable era. After all, shopping centers, luxurious apartment complexes and museums are hardly the first necessity of a struggling socialist nation. But given the economic reforms that Raul Castro has implemented in the last year and the further loosening of current regulations that he’s said will follow soon (most pertinently, to allow the purchase of private property), that hope may not be entirely misplaced. What those reforms mean for the city’s built environment in the long term isn’t clear, but that unanswered question must be on the minds of many: The architecture issue of Dedalo sold out at bookstores across Havana within its first few weeks on the stands.
Maybe that’s because, as Castillo says, “everything” in Havana reflects an urgent urban issue. “That’s the best and worst thing. The worst, in that the [building] work we want to do today depends on other things and there are problems with infrastructure, services, housing, public transportation, and public space.” But good, she says, in that the imaginative space for architects like herself is vast. “No proposal is illogical.”
The Commission on Theory and Critique of Architecture and the City is hoping to channel some of this creative energy. After its formation last year, it hosted an inaugural panel discussion in March at which architects of various generations talked about the history and future of the hulking Soviet-era housing complexes throughout Havana. The organization then announced a “Contest of Ideas” for local architects to propose pie-in-the-sky renovations to them. Before the contest deadline in January, it will host a second panel this fall — which the commission’s blog says it hopes will be more of a debate than the previous — on the intellectual formation of the new generations of architects.
It’s not bricks and mortar, but these recent developments in Havana reflect progress. Inclán insists that now is an important moment for contemporary architects, a moment in which the role of the designer is becoming ever clearer: “With the openings of new small businesses, the city has gone through a transformation that’s assaulted its urban image,” he says. “The media here has been insisting on compliance with the urban regulations, but people don’t have to know the rules — the architect does.”