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How New Laws Are Allowing Architecture to Flourish in Cuba

For decades, Cuba's communist economic system has essentially outlawed all forms of private architectural work. In 2011 though, wide-ranging economic reforms brought a challenge to this status quo. In this article, originally published on Curbed as "In Cuba, Architecture and Design Blossom Under New Laws," Julia Cooke explores how these laws to bring about a more flexible economic system are allowing a different kind of architecture to emerge.

This May, visitors were allowed into Havana's long-defunct Tallapiedra electric plant for the first time since it was shuttered in the 1960s. They could climb the grated stairs to the plant's nave, see how the light glinted off unchipped white and green tiles set in place in 1915, how tiny, stalky trees had grown out of clumps of dirt where machinery once sat, how the high, church-like central space and the split-level, open workspaces on one side might be adapted to any number of uses. The opening—for locals and some of the thousands of tourists in Cuba for the Twelfth Havana Biennial—was the work of Claudia Castillo and Orlando Inclán, and their eight-year-old think tank, Habana Re-Generación.

Monocle 24 Take a Trip to Rio de Janeiro's Near-Complete Olympic Village

For this week's edition of Section DMonocle 24's weekly review of design, architecture and craft, the Monocle team take a trip to the near-complete Olympic Village in Rio de Janeiro, plus take a look at the history of the US Embassy in Havanna. The latest edition of The Urbanist explores etiquette and politeness in the metropolis, examining the unspoken rules of conduct that make our cities tick and delve into the psychology of 'urban etiquette'.

Listen to both episodes after the break.

Harrison & Abramovitz's U.S. Embassy Reopens in Havana

For the first time in over a half-century, the United States reopened its official diplomatic embassy in Havana earlier today, shining an international spotlight on Harrison and Abramovitz's modernist shoreline classic. Historically maligned by many Cubans as an embodiment of American arrogance and imperialism, the building has played a pronounced symbolic role in the escalation - and now the easement - of political animosities between the two countries.

Havana Revisited: Postcards of the Cuban Capital Through the Years

Thanks to its privileged position as a gateway to North America and Cuba's unique political history, the architecture of the City of Havana has a rich and layered quality rarely found. In a new book edited by Cathryn Griffith, "Havana Revisited: An Architectural Heritage," this history is explored in detail through 12 essays by renowned architects, historians, scholars, preservationists, and urban planners in both Cuba and the United States and a selection of 350 color images comparing historic postcards with the city of today. The following text is the book's introduction, written by Cuban architect, urban planner and critic Mario Coyula (1935-2014).

Havana’s modest beginnings came in the sixteenth century, as the springboard for Spain’s conquest of America. When the port became the obligatory last American stop for Spanish ships making their return voyages to Europe, its significance grew until Havana had become the most important city in the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean. From the beginning, it was a settlement oriented toward providing services, especially that of protection. Hence, Havana became home to the most formidable system of defensive fortifications in the colonial Americas.

AD Classics: United States Embassy in Havana / Harrison & Abramovitz

The United States’ diplomatic presence in Cuba is housed in a severe, early-1950s office building perched on the shoreline over Havana Bay. Walled off from the city and pulled back from the street, the building has the uneasy presence of a haunted castle – shunned and maligned by its neighbors, but subjected to the unending scrutiny of suspicious eyes and intrigued gossip of the locals. With its regimented orthogonalities and the unmistakably foreign imprint of modernist efficiencies, both the embassy's architecture and the optimistic political spirit it embodies seem to belong to another era, a cooperative past no longer conceivable in the wake of a half century of underhanded diplomacy, calumnious propaganda, and failed attempts to restore relations between the embattled countries.

Rear view. The mechanical additions from the 1997 renovation are visible on the roof. Image © Escla Pre-renovation photograph of the embassy. Image © U.S. Department of State © Bin im Garten © U.S. Department of State

Ricardo Porro, Architect of Cuba’s National Art Schools, Dies at 89

Ricardo Porro, the leading architect behind Cuba’s National Art Schools - one of the largest architectural achievements of the Cuban Revolution - has died of heart failure in Paris at the age of 89. After spending nearly a half a century in exile, Porro lived long enough to see his two arts schools reemerged on the world stage as “crown jewels of modern Cuban architecture.” 

Farming Cuba: Urban Agriculture from the Ground Up

The following is an excerpt from Carey Clouse's Farming Cuba: Urban Agriculture from the Ground Up, which explores Cuba's impromptu agricultural development after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, and the challenges that development poses for modern day architects and urban planners.

Following the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, Cuba found itself solely responsible for feeding a nation that had grown dependent on imports and trade subsidies. With fuel, fertilizers, and pesticides disappearing overnight, citizens began growing their own organic produce anywhere they could find space, on rooftops, balconies, vacant lots, and even school playgrounds. By 1998 there were more than 8,000 urban farms in Havana producing nearly half of the country's vegetables. What began as a grassroots initiative had, in less than a decade, grown into the largest sustainable agriculture initiative ever undertaken, making Cuba the world leader in urban farming. Featuring a wealth of rarely seen material and intimate portraits of the environment, Farming Cuba details the innovative design strategies and explores the social, political, and environmental factors that helped shape this pioneering urban farming program.

AD Classics: The National Art Schools of Cuba / Ricardo Porro, Vittorio Garatti, Roberto Gottardi

“Cuba will count as having the most beautiful academy of arts in the world.” - Fidel Castro (1961)

The Cuban National Schools of Arts, originally imagined by Fidel Castro and Che Guevara in 1961, are perhaps the largest architectural achievements of the Cuban Revolution. The innovative design of the schools, which aimed to bring cultural literacy to the nation, encapsulated the radical, utopian vision of the Revolution. Unfortunately, the nation’s idealistic enthusiasm lasted for a fleeting moment in time and the Schools quickly fell out of favor; they were left to decay before even being completed. Today, following nearly four decades of neglect, the architects have returned to try and bring these derelict schools to back to their intended glory.

School of Ballet by Vittorio Garatti . Image © John Loomis: Revolution of Forms Site plan. Image © John Loomis: Revolution of Forms School of Modern Dance by Ricardo PorroSchool of Modern Dance by Ricardo Porro. Image © Adrián MALLOL i MORETTI School of Plastic Arts by Ricardo Porro. Image © Norma Barbacci/World Monuments Fund

Unfinished Spaces premieres today on PBS

The critically acclaimed documentary Unfinished Spaces will premiere on PBS today at 10pm (ET). The film reveals the turbulent past of Fidel Castro’s Cuba and tells the story of his utopian dream to construct the Cuban National Arts Schools.

Urban Agriculture Part I: What Cuba Can Teach Us

Havana Cuba. CC Flickr User weaver.
Havana Cuba. CC Flickr User weaver.

Everyday, in the city of London, 30 million meals are served. That’s millions of trucks arriving to millions of stores and restaurants in a complex, tightly scheduled orchestration of production, transportation, and distribution.

We take it for granted that this system will never fail. But what would happen if these trucks were stopped? As unrealistic as it sounds, it’s happened – and not so long ago.

In 1989, over 57% of Cuba’s caloric intake was imported from the Soviet Union. When it collapsed, Cuba became, virtually overnight, solely responsible for feeding its population – including the 2.2 million in the city of Havana. [1] What happened next is an incredible story of resilience and innovation.

As our world becomes increasingly urbanized, our farms increasingly endangered, and our reliance upon fossil fuels increasingly undesirable, the question of how we will feed billions of future city dwellers is no mere thought experiment – it’s an urgent reality.

The story of Cuba offers us an interesting question:  What would our cities look like if we began to place food production/distribution as the primary focus of urban design? And what will it take to make this vision a reality?

More on how Food can shape our cities, after the break…