This project aims to understand and document a growing movement of independent architecture in Cuba. Over the past fifty years, Cuba’s architectural tradition has stagnated as an exclusively state-controlled industry. However, especially since 2005, young Cuban architects have found ways to practice outside official channels. These independent architects want to begin a new wave of Cuban development — but they describe a system designed against them. The state offers no license for independent architects and no legal framework to enforce contracts. Even supported by wealthy clients, architects struggle with unreliable supply chains and non-contract contractors. Many of those able to leave the country do so. The architects who stay, frustrated by an uncooperative system, also fear the imminent growth of foreign development and the loss of their place in Cuba’s architectural future.
In Cuba today, architects and engineers cannot legally practice outside a government office. The state construction office functions as universal client, developer, architect, consultant, and often contractor. However, with limited resources, very little is built in Cuba. Most construction in the past twenty years has focused on the tourism industry, while Havana’s housing and infrastructure deteriorates.*
Few state architects have opportunities to design anything substantial, let alone build their designs. As a result, many Cuban architects trained in the past fifty years have either languished at the drawing board, embargoed from industry-standard softwares, building materials, and opportunities to develop professionally; or they have left Cuba. One architect I spoke to, who graduated in 2005 from CUJAE**, told me that only fifteen architects remained of his graduating class of ninety-five.
Havana’s buildings have suffered enormously. Decades and centuries of stunning architecture cracks, erodes, and seeds trees and wild grasses. Without new construction, and without the resourced to repair existing buildings, Havana’s housing stock continues to deteriorate. Paradoxically, it’s these older houses, a low priority for the state’s stretched budget, that have fueled independent architecture practices.
Now in their 30’s, the architects I spoke with have been practicing in Havana for almost a decade. They have established studios and client bases, have found dedicated teams of contractors, and consult with moonlighting state engineers. They make a living by skillfully navigating the official systems, and gaining clients across Cuba’s gradually relaxing border. They do nothing explicitly illegal, since their drawings still pass through official systems; rather, one architect described the practice as “alegal”*** — a gray somewhere between legal and illegal. Many of their clients are wealthy Cuban expatriates who retain family property in Cuba, where they want to develop a summer house or casa particular (bed and breakfast). This kind of home renovation, rather than new construction, comprises most of the independent architects’ work.
Without the license to sign and seal their own drawings, independent architects’ designs must be approved by a state architect. If they plan to change a building significantly — adding or subtracting rooms, or altering the use — they must file for construction permits with the Office of City Planning. The state architects in this office, often titled as architects but trained as engineers, consider the plan’s suitability in its neighborhood and its permitted scale and scope. Their signature makes the project official and legal, and they have wide license to veto it. Independent architects, then, must design for the clients, the contractors, and the state architects.
Without a legal framework, independent architects cannot enforce contracts with their clients or contractors. Their practice is based on trust and reputation: handshake deals. They must guard the details of their plans to protect their role in construction. They practice precariously, architects in everything but title.
For now, these architects do work that the government can’t: funneling limited local resources, often assisted by foreign money, into the renovation of existing housing. Their work fuels the tourist economy, beautifies the city, and improves the living conditions of those in and around their projects. As long as their work suits the state, without growing so large that they present a viable rival or threat, they will be allowed to practice. Because they work within a system that implicitly discourages their independence, they are extremely vulnerable.
However, they also have a unique opportunity to shape the future of Cuban architecture. Cuba, underbuilt and culturally rich, is poised to become a frontier of architecture. When that time comes, few Cuban architects will have skills competitive with the international firms who will come to Havana. Despite their practices’ limitations, independent architects in Cuba have disproportionate freedom to design and experiment, and will more likely be competitive at an international level. They may well shape the profession and cultural legacy.
Now, five of these independent studios, three of whom I have interviewed, are preparing to form a group. They intend to share resources like supply streams and contractors, as well as construction and legal techniques they have individually developed. They will meet in the building of the Ludwig Foundation, a German-based NGO that patronizes the arts in Cuba. When I left in early May, they had planned their first meeting.
After speaking with these few architects, I long to fully understand the complex state of architecture and its future in Cuba. I have arranged to interview several more architects in Havana: some work for the state, some independently, some both; some are affiliates of CUJAE, the architecture school near Havana; some are artists, a state-endorsed professional that sometimes crosses into architecture. I intend to gain a broader picture of how architects are trained in Cuba, the experience of working in a state office, the choice to moonlight as an independent architect, the legal and political difficulties for any architect, the real estate market, and the privileged position of artists in Cuba.
I will return to Havana in August to conduct these interviews, and spend the fall semester compiling audio testimonies, photos, videos, and my own research on the history of Cuban architecture as an independent study at GSAPP under the supervision of Belmont Freeman. I intend to bring awareness to the position of architects in Cuba, and to encourage further interest in Cuba at Columbia.
* I’ve only observed this deterioration in Havana; given the state’s focus on investment in rural areas, conditions may be better elsewhere.
** Ciudad Universitaria de Jose Antonio Echeverría, today re-named the Universidad Tecnológica de la Habana José Antonio Echeverría but still referred to by the acronym CUJAE, this is Havana’s architectural and engineering school.
***“In Cuba, we use the term alegal — neither legal nor illegal.” Yoandy Rizo, quoted in “In Cuba, Architecture and Design Blossom Under New Laws” by Julia Cooke.