Past, Present and Future in Cuba

Clair Enlow, October 1, 2002

For the past several years, the Lincoln Institute has been collaborating with the Loeb Fellowship Program based at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design. The program was established in 1970 through the generosity of Harvard alumnus John L. Loeb to allow mid-career professionals to study independently and gain additional tools to help revitalize the built and natural environment. The 2001-2002 Loeb Fellows took their end-of-the-year class trip to Cuba in mid-June, including two days in Santiago de Cuba and four in Havana, with a side trip from Havana to Trinidad and destinations in between.

With its neoclassical facades, white cobbles, Caribbean clouds and pastel paint, Trinidad is frozen in time like a watercolor postcard. Because Cuba’s architectural heritage is the focus of growing international attention and it’s not threatened by waves of new construction, the future of the past seems assured. The future itself is much more difficult to find. As our Loeb Fellowship group searched for clues in three cities and parts of the countryside, we found that despite economic stagnation and international political tension Cubans are hard at work on a future that is uniquely theirs.

An influx of tourist dollars and an aggressive, uniquely Cuban preservation campaign have begun to seize the riches of Old Havana from the jaws of benign neglect. After at least one bad experience with new construction, the Office of the City Historian, which coordinates the impressive large-scale restoration and revitalization of Old Havana, is still grappling with the problem of integrating the new with the historic. One way of addressing the problem is to closely oversee the design of block-sized developments. We walked by one large, modern parking structure inside Old Havana that will be rebuilt as a multi-use building, with parking beside it, according to a design intended to replicate the scale and some of the monumental features of a colonial convent that once stood on the site. Although some residents are being relocated here and elsewhere, many are returning to their homes after their neighborhoods are rehabilitated.

Now considered a model for financing rehabilitation efforts in other districts of the city, the renewal of Old Havana is based on a system of taxes and joint ventures that includes revenues from the private enterprises profiting from restoration-related tourism. The Office’s US$50 million-per-year budget is divided between construction and social supports for Cubans living within the boundaries of the rehabilitation zone. This can be thought of as a system of “value capture,” long a topic of interest at the Lincoln Institute.

Julio César Pérez, a Cuban architect, urban designer and advocate for community-based planning, was a member of our Loeb Fellowship class. With his special perspective as a local practitioner, he showed our group some favorite examples among the rich legacy of pre-revolutionary Deco and Modern architecture in Havana. Five-story gems are set among the very mixed cityscape of central Havana, which also includes the 28-story Edificio Focsa, with its 375 apartment units, built in the twilight of the Batista years.

On the heels of the international style housing blocks and casinos of the 1950s, the revolution brought its own form of land use revision. Julio told a story of Che Guevara and Fidel Castro playing a game of congratulatory post-revolution golf on the vast green of the former Havana Country Club. “How can we make good use of this land?” they mused, according to the legend. The results of their conversation are the grandly metaphoric and mostly unfinished National Schools of Art designed by Ricardo Porro, Vittorio Garratti and Roberto Gottardi. Their stance is deliberately indifferent to the clubhouse or the plan of the golf course, treating the open area as if it were a large meadow in the wilderness. The buildings are slated for restoration, a project made more complicated by poor siting and hydrological problems.

Julio also singled out more recent examples of large-scale construction in Havana, such as the Melia Cohiba Hotel with its bulky, corporate arch and the Miramar Trade Center, a commercial (dollar) mall across the street. These expensive projects are not only design failures, but also miss the relationship of the site with the sea and the possibility for creating a new quality of place in a developing district.

With the stalled economy and international stalemate of the 1990s, Cuban architect and planner Miguel Coyula and his colleagues have made use of the time and materials at hand to take a more thoughtful approach to land use and development. While vertical cities of steel and glass are popping up on a fast track and enormous scale in cities around the world, one of the world’s largest scale city models is being built out of discarded cigar boxes in Havana. This breathtaking miniature landscape was conceived as an aid to planning and an anchor for the efforts of the Group for the Integrated Development of the Capital (GDIC), which has been advising the city government on planning matters since 1988.

The 1:1000 model of greater Havana has been evolving piece by fitted piece for most of the last decade, and now covers 112 square meters or about a quarter of a basketball court. The model is housed in a specially designed, daylight-filled pavilion in the Mirarmar area near the center of the city, where drop-in visitors can circulate around and above the model on the broad floor and ramping mezzanine levels. Scale models of virtually every structure in the city are mounted on the wood topographical base. The buildings are color-coded to show development at different stages in history: colonial, pre-revolutionary modern (1900-1958) and post-revolutionary.

Miguel describes one construction project, a high-rise for the Committee for Economic Collaboration (CECE), which was cancelled because the model showed it was clearly out of scale for its location in central Havana. The decision seems to be a milestone because it was a very real project and also symbolic of a determination to build with environmental sensitivity—despite pressures to accommodate foreign investors in cash-strapped Cuba.

The primary mission of the GDIC is intimately familiar to Americans involved in planning inside major cities: start with neighborhoods. The group has run a series of “neighborhood transformation workshops” for local residents guided by professional designers and planners, selected from the same area when possible. These projects capture the spirit of the international community design movement, a 45-year-old, U.S.-linked tradition in which designers work directly in the interest of area residents. Since both the hard times of the post-Soviet 1990s and the U.S. embargo began taking their huge economic toll on Cuba, these workshops have gained in significance. They have brought planning and economic development together in a new local context, with neighborhoods tackling projects like urban farming and manufacturing building materials from recycled rubble.

The neighborhood transformation workshops and similar initiatives over the last 20 years have helped to bridge the Cuban revolutionary imperative of equal treatment for all and the very human imperative of making decisions about family, community and daily life. Another example is Architects for the Community, a national civic sector community design practice involved in town construction and environmental planning as well as low-fee design services for individual families. Built on the theories of Argentinean architect Rodolfo Livingston, the practice promotes a direct relationship between the user and the architect while building sustainability and contextual sensitivity into each construction project. Julio worked with the practice for five years before coming to Harvard and he presented a paper with Kathleen Dorgan, another member of the Loeb class, at the Association of Collegiate Schools of Architecture conference in Cuba last spring. As an advocate for more humane and thoughtful land use and building design in his country, Julio is among a number of Cuban architects concerned with traditional values of craft and environmentally appropriate design.

Considering efforts like these, there is hope for a future of construction based on a fine calibration of scale, carefully considered relationships between built fabric and natural features of the surroundings, as well as the comfort and pleasure of the users. The challenge is to find the economic and regulatory means to support appropriate construction. So far, the state has maintained control of land use through direct and almost exclusive ownership, negotiating leases for some private and foreign investment through a delicate and extremely tenuous web of economic and legal formulas for valuing the parcels involved. As the economy becomes tied to the influx of outside currencies, these leases are likely to evolve into more predictable and transparent transactions. Perhaps land sales and heftier taxation are not far behind.

With the coming of foreign investment and the pressures to open up to even more, there will be ample opportunity in the future to be hijacked by land use decisions that are driven by the profit margins of distant organizations, and that would be an unfortunate addition to Cuba’s historic burden. Because, despite the beauty of its landscapes and cityscapes, Cuba is a map of victimization—by colonial conquest, crass economic exploitation, revolutionary confrontation, and brutal Soviet-style development.

The Loeb Fellows got an overview of intense nationalism built upon a deep and diverse culture, cosmopolitan history and the very real achievements of the last 40 years. Cuba is a place of great hardship and also enormous potential, for Cubans and for the rest of the world. We hope that the future does not hold only exploitation and cultural degradation when the barriers to trade and international travel finally fall. We also hope to show that Cuba is a place to learn from the mistakes of the past—theirs and ours—and to find out what is possible when a people are free to protect, respect and enhance their environment.

For more information about the Loeb Fellowship Program, see the website at

Loeb Fellows, 2001-2002

Kathleen Dorgan
Architect and community designer, Storrs, Connecticut

Clair Enlow
Journalist, Seattle

Kathleen Fox
Director, Ohio Arts and Sports Facilities Commission, Columbus.

James Grauley
President, Bank of America’s Community Development Corporation, Atlanta

Seitu Jones
Public artist, Minneapolis

Rick Lowe
Public artist and founder, Project Rowe Houses, Houston

Rubén Martínez
Writer, Los Angeles, and professor of non-fiction writing, University of Houston

Julio César Pérez
Architect, urban planner and professor, Faculty of Architecture, Havana

Virginia Prescott
Radio journalist and interactive media specialist, National Public Radio, New York and Boston

Richard St. John
Director, Conversations for the Common Wealth, Pittsburgh

Marina Stankovic
Architect, Berlin