Conserving the Vivid Now

Project

The project engages with the multifaceted issues of the two heritage sites in Havana through the design of a new urban quarter Nuevo Cubanacán within the site of Cuba’s National Art Schools. Conceived in a politically and economically complex moment in the modern history of Cuba, the architecture of the National Art Schools are one of the rare monuments of the post-revolutionary and pre-Soviet period. Despite this, the site is inaccessible for the curious visitors today.

In order to maintain its status in the World Heritage tentative list, the deterio- rating architectural fabric requires urgent conservation and access to funding. Meanwhile in the historic quarter of Old Havana, the difficulties of dealing with construction amidst the overpopulated urban quarter are major limitations, slowing down the improvement of the living conditions of the residents.

In response to the present day societal needs, Nuevo Cubanacán capitalizes on the booming international tourism and the rapidly-growing small business sector of Cuba. The architectural style of the housings are an eclectic hybrid of the forms of the 1960s and the materiality of the present day Havana vernacular.

Rather than being rehoused in the temporary mass housings in the outskirts of city, the residents from Old Havana could become the new residents of the Nuevo Cubanacán.

Residents take out a housing loan from the Office of Historians Nuevo Cubanacán for the con- struction of their homes and pay it back through running ‘casa particular’, a local bed and break- fast system, in their new homes. Within this strategy, the opening and the active development of one heritage site helps safeguard the heritage value of another. By enabling the residents to be the active participants in the creation of this new neighborhood of the post-Castro era, the result is a vivid conservation of a city freeing itself from the colonial imagery currently dominant in the historic quarter.

Interview

What prompted the project?

I had no idea what my thesis project was going to be until I visited Cuba in February for the first time. By interviewing locals for the course of my stay of two weeks, I sensed the post-Castro societal shift and change in the air in Havana especially amongst the young people of my age. I wanted to design a project that captures this shift and provokes positive imagination for what alternative futures can be for the two sites I engaged with.

In terms of tourism and preservation, where do you see the future of Cuba? Have you visited Havana and the site?

The historic preservation in Old Havana and how it currently capitalizes on tourism is remarkable. The achievements of the Office of Historians in the past decades are great, but it still feels that the Havana itself requires a more drastic upgrade to safeguard the lives of the residents. Considering the imbalance in local and global currencies and the fact that much intelligent youth are engaged in, tourism is a sector with still strong potential in Cuba.

While I was staying in Havana, I did site research and conducted interviews daily. The second site, The National Art Schools of Cuba was a trickier destination to access. However the several times I’ve managed to explore, I was captivated by its beauty and the stories around them. I was so absorbed that during one of my visits there, I fell in the river Quibu that runs across the campus. I am glad that I got out alive and safe and able to present this project back in London.

What prompted the use of the plan as the only orthogonal projection through which you explore the project?

I presented my project through a short film, some plan drawings and series of perspectival views. Whilst designing, I was exploring the design inside the 3D model space but to translate them all into 2D drawings felt overly restrictive and rigid. In drawings, I like plans as they are the most coded sort of drawings and they communicate the ways of living. Perspectival views might be a more direct experience to the audience but the combination of the two can still keep some gaps in the stories to be filled with viewers’ imaginations.

When framing and constructing the views what were the most important aspects/parameters?

The views are constructed in ways to capture the atmosphere of the new neighbourhood through very limited frames; hence a lot of details are weaved in. Some of the perspective views are composed by referencing the original photographs that were published in the 60s, supposedly carefully chosen by the architects back in the days. To add, the site’s unique status of being on UNESCO World Heritage Site tentative list contributed to the idea of maintaining of certain view corridors in the master plan, which I tried to address in some of the views.

What role does human activity play within these images? How is this portrayed through figure or lack of and through tropes?

Whilst composing these images, I realised that the placement of figures in images provoke attentiveness to the viewers. Our eyes tend to be drawn into and question where the humans are placed and what they are doing. So I played a bit with this idea; the little cat under the palm tree or the children inside the photographs could pull ones’ eyes, trigger curiosity, resulting in the further decoding and deeper exploration of the world I have designed.

What programs/software did you use?

Rhino, Vray for 3D modelling and render, Rhino, Illustrator for line drawings, extra Photoshop for the views.

What would you say is the architects most important tool?

If the definition of a ‘tool’ is a device that aids in accomplishing a task, there are many physical tools that are essential to our profession. However, personally, I think that the most important tool is knowledge and network outside of the field of architecture. In order to critically assess the impact of your design and the process in the wider societal context, it is crucial to keep these close by. We need them almost as extensions of our own body and skills so that our eyes and hands can focus on the act of design itself.

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