04-25-17

The Student Perspective : CUBA

This year’s Spring Studio, The International Design Exchange (INDEX) Studio is a graduate design studio established to build an understanding of global urban issues.The studio explores strategies for urban regeneration revealed through a comparative analysis of Cleveland, Ohio and Havana, Cuba. The studio functions as a timely conduit for the exchange of ideas between the two cities. As part of the studio, four graduate students traveled to Cuba, during spring break, to strengthen the research and relationships established with architects and architecture students and the University of Havana. Two of the students, Reuben Shaw II and Randy Hoover, shared their experience and work with us. Here is their perspective:

Reuben Shaw II, Master of Landscape Architecture

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Cuba was never on my list of countries to visit. Stories about the taboos of the society and the government subconsciously blocked this island nation from my view. I’ve visited a few of the Caribbean Islands but still, Cuba was invisible. During my stay in Havana, I realized that Cuba was one of the most unique and beautiful places I have ever been, not only aesthetically, but culturally and socially. The proverb, “Better to see something once than hear about it a thousand times” became a reality.

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Fanguito neighborhood in Havana, Cuba

While working on the Havana studio project in Cleveland, it was a challenge to really grasp our site with aerials; as landscape architecture students, most of our taught site-analysis techniques were void. Flying to Cuba and walking the streets of the Fanguito neighborhood really gave us a perspective that added to our repertoire. We discovered a sense of place that was generated by the people and an empirical expression of culture that you could only get by asking questions and adopting the lifestyle of the residents.

This opportunity to travel to Cuba was truly inspiring and has fueled my desire to travel and experience other cultures. I believe when you travel you learn as much about yourself as you do about the place. Knowledge of self not only enriches your being but that of the people around you.

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Proposed wetland preserve and aquatic bird habitat along the Almendares River in Havana, Cuba

Randy Hoover, Master of Architecture

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Five days is a short time in which one can be expected to engage with the unique cultural and economic values in a city like Havana, but I believe this trip was successful in that regard. Stepping out onto Cuban soil was not, as some of my friends back home predicted, like stepping back in time to a land where technology and science ceased to progress. Once you look past the aesthetic value of colorful old cars on the road you begin to see Cuba’s development over the last decades as an alternate timeline, similar to our own, where resources are more scarce but vitality and variety of life are never sacrificed.

(Now don’t get me wrong, riding from one side of Havana to the other in a candy-coated Pontiac is something that should be experienced by every visitor to the island.)

Our studio design/research project for the semester focused on an intervention near the Almendares River in El Vedado district of Havana. This land is known as the less affluent part of town and in every way but its social structure can be considered a slum. In order to operate from thousands of miles away with little on-site experience, our group focused on projective interventions that could be built by accretion and overlay of infrastructural services. By developing a simple self-built housing prototype that connected its infrastructure to a central square, we could game out the look of our neighborhood intervention in abstraction without bulldozing over the existing social and economic complexities of the neighborhood.

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Cuadriculita 008: The central concrete pad provides infrastructural connections for surrounding residents.

The realistic conditions of a site are, of course, more complex than what can be assumed from a satellite image or journal article. When we walked through the neighborhood of El Fanguito we were greeted by complete strangers with smiles and welcome conversation with our inquiring minds. Narrow alleyways and informal sidewalks contributed to a set of streetscapes that functioned almost identically to the winding paths we suggested in the Cuadriculita proposal, except of course that it was constructed with more care, personality, and efficiency. Once we walked out of the neighborhood and up the hill to a grand vista that overlooked all of the informal housing, my perspective of the project completely shifted.

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A small cluster of housing built against the peculiar topography separating El Fanguito from El Vedado.

I expected this moment, of course, but maybe not in such an instantaneous fashion. The infrastructural connections were not perfect in every way but formed its own artistry out of the imperfections. Overlap of aesthetics and use-value with the homes were most apparent with bright blue water storage barrels and pigeon cages on some of the rooftops feeding PVC piping down into the invisible pathways and living spaces below. Our project’s assertion that an interior courtyard or open space was required in order to have a vibrant and connected lifestyle for each resident was dissolved after seeing this.

This INDEX studio travel opportunity is something that I will remember for the rest of my life. I was able to meet Cuban architectural contemporaries, sample the passionate lifestyle of residents, and bond with my trip-mates in sharing this experience of infinite value. I’d like to thank David Jurca, the CUDC, and Kent State University for this amazing opportunity.

The INDEX: CLExHAV Studio is part of the 2017 Creative Fusion program supported by The Cleveland Foundation. During the 2017 Spring Semester, the Cleveland Urban Design Collaborative (CUDC) will continue a partnership launched by Kent State University last year with Havana-based architects Sofía Márquez Aguiar and Ernesto Jiménez of Fábrica De Arte Cubano (Cuban Art Factory), a vibrant community arts space housed in a repurposed cooking oil plant in Havana. The architects will work with the KSU Urban Design and Landscape Architecture graduate studio and a Cleveland Institute of Art Interior Architecture studio on design proposals for two neighborhood projects: one in Havana’s Vedado neighborhood, where Fábrica De Arte Cubano is located, and another in Cleveland’s Glenville neighborhood. In early April, Márquez Aguiar and Jiménez arrived in Cleveland to review the students’ design proposals for Vedado and will remain in Cleveland for one month as they work with students to generate and fabricate the project to be built in Glenville. A public Pop Up Event is scheduled at the Glenville site (1470 E. 105th, Cleveland) on Friday, May 5th from 6-9pm. All are welcome. Learn more and RSVP on the Facebook event page here: https://www.facebook.com/events/532579883796334/ 

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