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Cuban Architecture

By Matt Richardson

This past September, I had the opportunity to travel to Havana, Cuba, with a group from the Boston Architectural College to study the architecture and culture of our neighbors south of Florida.  Havana is roughly 90 miles from the Florida Keys and just a short 40 minute flight from Miami International Airport.  Gaining entry to Cuba can be challenging due to the current travel restrictions imposed by the U.S. government and its embargo.  When presented with the chance to make this trip I had to seize the opportunity.  Exposure to different cultures, people and cities is an invaluable part of an architectural education and career.

We were tasked with assignments that challenged us to understand Cuba’s architecture from the inside-out by first learning about the country’s history and culture, pre-departure, and then applying that knowledge, once within the country, to our analyses of its architecture.  Specifically we were attempting to synthesize multiple aspects of Cuba’s rich history in order to determine what makes up its current architectural state.  We found that the syncretic (meaning the combination of sometimes opposing beliefs) nature of the urban structure of Havana has tied Cuba’s history, religion, monarchy, revolution, and independence together and has effected its environment from concept to the built form.  We identified certain preconceptions about Cuba and its people prior to our trip and then modified those ideas upon our return to fuel our concepts for our own projects.

One major highlight was an excursion to the National Schools of Art.  For the first time in our Professor’s many trips  to Cuba, we were granted access onto the grounds to explore the post-revolutionary art buildings which were never finished.  In the past, the guides and students would sneak in through a well-known hole in the fence to snap photos, quickly sketch, and try to absorb the spaces as much as possible.  Luckily for us, we were able to not only see all of these buildings in-depth, but we were also given a private walkthrough by Italian architect Roberto Gottardi.  He came to Cuba after the revolution and was commissioned by Fidel Castro to design the new National Art Schools alongside Ricardo Porro and Vittorio Garatti.  Gottardi currently lives in Cuba and has spent his career practicing and teaching architecture in Havana.  It was quite an experience to hear his process while he gave us the tour of National Schools of Art.

The entire experience of the 11 day trip was completely humbling.  We received wonderful treatment and information from our Cuban hosts during our stay and made many friends.  All of this exposure proved to be invaluable and a positive influence on our projects.  It flushed out our own interpretations of how cultural syncretism influences the architecture, and it will affect our designs as a conceptual anchor.  Many of our preconceived notions about Cuba were addressed and, in many instances, were changed. 

I learned a lot from this trip and would strongly recommend traveling to Cuba if you are presented with the opportunity to venture there.  I learned the value of historical precedent and how culture influences design on all scales, from the passing car to parks and buildings.  Havana’s influences range from controlling governments to the people’s own accomplishments and taught me how people can prosper under hard conditions and political strife.  There is a certain texture, energy, and influence which makes Havana a very unique place driven by the connections and divergence from a rich mixing of cultures which define the Cuban people.