Broadening architectural horizons in Havana

A group of students from the Faculty of Architecture recently travelled to Havana, Cuba, as part of the research for their graduation projects. The faculty studios Territory in Transit and Border Conditions investigated the various architectural themes of the city, and the students also learned a lot about this enigmatic island and its people.

The design studios Border Conditions and Territory in Transit are part of the Faculty of Architecture’s department of Public Buildings. Within the faculty’s highly fragmented system, these two design studios - whilst both studying the city of Havana - approach architectural research in very different ways. Border Conditions examines borders as an important instrument that shapes our perception, be they geographical, social, psychological or graphical. Territory in Transit, however, deals with the ‘large dimension’ through the lens of architecture. Through a three-step process of examining a site (survey), a system of operations, and an object or thing, the studio attempts to look at the large urban scale, while remaining in the realm of architecture.Professors Filip Geerts, Olaf Gipser and Stefano Milani of Territory in Transit, and Mark Schoonderbeek and Oscar Rommens of Border Conditions, suggested combining and jointly researching various aspects of the urban, architectural and spatial nature of the city of Havana. The two groups conducted preliminary surveys on the city before departing for Havana in mid October.  While there was some research overlap between the two groups, study topics varied greatly from student to student. Some students were interested in the phenomenon of urban agriculture, while others looked at how people perceive a city, especially as a tourist, as well as the effect of vacant building lots within the dense, historic districts of Havana.  Upon arrival, many students realised that life in Havana is a far cry from the highly ordered life in Delft. A first-time visitor to Havana would be excused for doing a double-take as old Connexxion buses with destination boards reading Delft, Rotterdam or Alphen aan den Rijn roared down the potholed streets spewing out toxic diesel fumes. Old American sedans from the 1950s rolled down avenues alongside brand new BMWs with black plates, surely leased to the government. And many residents simply whiled their days away on the street, playing dominoes or football in one of the few parks, or just stared out their front doors, watching the passing by of people and time.Unfortunately, this colonial city with centuries of history has started to fade into rubble as buildings are slowly torn apart by hurricanes and a lack of maintenance. Many lots remain vacant years after the colonial façades have been reduced to rubble. Without funds to rebuild, these sites are used as parking lots, informal markets, or remain half-occupied by neighbours creating unique interior/exterior spaces.  The US trade embargo, in place for over 40 years, coupled with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, left Cuba in a horrific economic collapse, which the central government quickly named the ‘Special Period’. Rationing of fuel, food and supplies caused the average Cuban to lose four kilograms in body weight, as food supplies quickly dwindled. Though the Special Period is technically over, scars remain all over the city, from the vacant lots and collapsed buildings to the piles of garbage lining the streets.One positive result of this difficult period of transition has been the increase in the amount of fresh fruits and vegetables that are grown within the city limits. Faced with crippling food shortages, the government began a program of organic farming on old building lots and former state sugar plantations. Fourteen years after its inception, urban agriculture employs over 30,000 people while supplying virtually all the fresh vegetables for Havana’s residents. Students from each studio examined the distribution systems of agriculture in the city, as well as the morphology of the actual farming sites, to form a base for their individual research. While agriculture now is considered to be ephemeral — a relic from the Special Period — it has also been hailed by many researchers as the future of sustainable urban planning. The challenge for the students is to now turn this research into valid and compelling architectural projects.For the time being, Cuba is an island frozen in time, where one can experience a McDonald’s and Aldi-free landscape and where violent crime is virtually non-existent. As with all academic architectural projects, the results from these graduation studios will most likely be too abstract for practical implementation. Unlike other TU Delft faculties, many architecture faculty student projects have only an academic relevance. Nevertheless, this excursion to Havana broadened the students’ architectural horizons, which will lead to exciting - if, for the time being, only theoretical - built solutions to the city’s urban fabric.