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The first Architecture Biennial in Havana, Cuba has recently been concluded, following a week of conferences and around twenty exhibitions.

Proposal by Weimar University for a Centro de Investigacion.

In a historic city centre momentarily immune from foolish speculation (thanks to the “revolution”, but also to the embargo), five days were spent discussing architecture and heritage, programmes for urban regeneration and strategies for tourism, prefabrication and the Disneyland syndrome; all themes which in one way or another concern the somewhat composite and cloudy situation which the Cuban architectural panorama is faced with.
As is often the case at the beginning of an enterprise, under a heterogeneous organising committee which lacked the necessary experience, this first edition did not meet the levels of expectation which it had initially aroused. Following the announced withdrawal of an important European sponsor (as a result of the events of 11 September) who wished to postpone the initiative and then the senseless refusal on the part of others to put off the event until December, the desire remained to go forward with a programme which, given the extent of its implications – above all cultural – required much more than the three or four months available to carry it through. Despite everything however, the importance of an event of this kind in a country such as Cuba is undeniable, especially if the intention is to make it a regular event.

Both the congress and the exhibitions, which took place in historic buildings and strategic locations around the old city, were subdivided into four subject groups: history, culture and heritage of the city; town planning interventions; approximations on urban architecture; interventions in the built patrimony. There were practically none of the “big names” who had been invited to take part, a long list of which was circulated at an informal level but who perhaps had been put off by the little time available to submit material. The only exceptions were French architect Rudy Ricciotti – who with a slightly bewildered air illustrated his project for the Philarmonica in Postdam, an effective insertion into a historic context which one would hope could act as an example at local level – and the Cuban-American Andres Duany, inventor of “New Urbanism”, who opened the proceedings with a “conferencia magistral” of rather controversial tones in which he drew up an objective analysis of the town planning situation regarding the city of Havana. Leaving aside however the presence of big names, a meatier foreign participation, if structured around the notion of designing for Havana – a city with truly unique characteristics which represent a perfect testing ground for contemporary intervention – would have allowed an exchange of ideas which would have proved immensely useful for Cuban architects. Instead, perhaps because this first edition was non competitive, the organisers had not considered this possibility, which would have brought a valid alternative, albeit on a purely theoretical level, to the plethora of hideous designs which threaten to spring up all over the place like mushrooms, thanks to the new possibilities recently offered by the government to foreign investors, ingenuously allowing the implacable advance of the all-inclusive, of mass tourism and the shopping mall.

Office building in Sao Paulo designed by Brazilian practice MMBB Arquitetos.

The only “external” offerings at the Biennial this year created expressly for the city, were those produced by the students and professors of the Universities of Harvard and Weimar, in collaboration with the Faculty of Architecture in Havana and displayed in the Convent of Santa Clara. This scarcity of international participation transformed the event into something of a local design fair. The exhibitions, despite the benefit of giving an extensive view of the Cuban situation, in fact referred for the most part to projects by the Oficina del Historiador itself (the state body which carries out restoration of the historic city centre) or a small number other architectural practices active in the area. There were very few exceptions, the latest work from the Brazilian practice MMBB Arquitetos being amongst that worth mentioning. The impression which one derives from this is one of a desire for auto-celebration, which reveals however an approach to intervention in the historic city centre which is rather orthodox, antiquated and inflexible in its methods and objectives: in the opinion of many present, it was something of an own goal for the doubtful quality of the projects proposed, above all in the case of insertions into the historic fabric. In these cases, “monument-syndrome” and the narcissism of historical conservation seem to move in parallel with a kind of mummification and fetishisation of colonial architecture. As such, culturally positive phenomena such as the recovery and regeneration of the splendid historic centres of many Cuban cities are resolved in an often absurdly theatrical fashion, with results worthy of a Las Vegas street (but lacking the cultural weight of Venturi). An example of this is the Hotel Telegrafo in Havana, concluded a couple of months ago; the exterior is a cardboard copy – not altogether faithful and featuring the addition of another floor – of the facade of the hotel of the same name which collapsed under the weight of its years and neglect. Or the extremist proposal (already in the design stage however) to partially demolish the current Ministry for Education (a fifties building which adapts itself decorously to the proportions surrounding it), substituting it in part with a replica of the perished convent of Santo Domingo which previously occupied the site.

Project for the Grandi Magazzini Riviera a L’Avana, by Cuban architect JoseA. Choy.

Fortunately the debate concerning the central theme of the Biennial – past, present and future of the city – is alive and kicking, even if it remains at an “underground” level and is touched by aesthetic, technological, economic, sociological and political aspects. Above all amongst the young, many are the “hidden talents” bending over backwards to respond to the demands of the market, tourism and foreign investment which whilst they could not be described as cultured are able at least to propose decent designs. One of these is the architect Jose A. Choy, extremely active on various fronts and part of a group of young architects who are working on the restoration of the Malecen, the famous Havana seafront. Choy is also – along with Julia Leen, Teresa Lues and Oscar Garcea – behind a project to extend the Banco Financiero Internacional, which constitutes a magisterial example of an intervention carried out on an important existing building (a perfect exponent of Havana fifties architecture), without resorting to mimicry but conferring on it a highly personal stamp. The Grupo de Proyecto del Malecen distinguishes itself instead for various residential buildings still at the design stage, partly financed by a number of Comunidad Autonomas Espaeolas, which will go to occupy the numerous lots made available following the necessary demolition of the old ruined buildings.

Casa Noval Cueto, by Cuban architect Romanach, 1943 (from the photographic exhibition, “Cuba, Arquitectura Siglo XX”).

Clear everywhere is an evident attempt to accept without criticism imported models already digested elsewhere, an accessory to which are the (few) specialised magazines from the “primer mundo” in circulation. The most urgent and pressing problem, in this particular context, is without a doubt that relating to national identity, which often gives place to erroneous interpretations of what should be defined as “Cuban architecture”; these themes, often treated “officially” by the particular socio-political establishment which exists, often end up as risky proclamations on what is considered “ideologically correct”. Reduced therefore to excessive schematisation where the “saber” and the “sabor” end up irreparably confused. In the past, during the years of the International Style, Cuban architects, getting to grips with the rampant modern “rules”, had attempted national redemption in the search and in the recovery of the tectonic principles of colonial architecture, but then the results had been quite different. The effectiveness of these experiments is clearly visible in an interesting photographic exhibition entitled “Cuba, Arquitectura del Siglo XX”, curated by an expert on the subject, Eduardo Lues Rodreguez, in conjunction with the Biennial and on show in the upper halls of the Centro Wifredo Lam.

Text: Elisa Ale from Domusweb

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