What do we mean when we talk about contemporary Cuban architecture?

Contemporary Cuban architecture is not a conversation topic. In a city like Havana, where almost two partial collapses take place every day, mathematics declares that everything, including the city, has an expiration date. The only sincere reality of our architecture continues to be its silence. Little is known about what is happening today and what might happen. Few people seem to be talking about when we stopped building the avant-garde of the New Man to reproduce the cheap architecture of real estate development.

The rich tradition inherited by this city when compared to the poverty of its recently publicized architecture justifies the fact that today the magazine Mar y Pesca is still in print in a country that stopped commercial fishing years ago, but that there is no architecture magazine to be read. It also justifies that only Princeton or Yale publishing houses publish on the subject, sometimes with the levity and the lack of understanding that is the usual byproduct of distance. But it does not justify the already normalized historical vacuum we assume when we say that we only have what remains from the good old days. All this happens while we have an active academy, which looks at the city with its eyes wide open, immersed in history, and does not seem to realize that it was left out of the conversation years ago.

In the scarce architectural criticism of the specialists there is no irony, no laughter, no quoting Deleuze just for its own sake, no self-referentiality, no literature, no politics, no mockery; the only texts being written avoid the use of the first person and its authors hide behind a half asleep academic language, articulated from the bureaucratic search for a national identity. That is why almost nobody finishes reading a article about Cuban architecture. Is there nothing better to investigate than the nostalgia for the good old days? Isn’t it more interesting to spot a trend that has just started?

The independent architect in Cuba labors on an indeterminate legal landscape, with an inefficient infrastructure and driven by commissions without a contract. No one can blame him for anything because technically he doesn’t exist. However, the city’s great built mass is designed and signed by a public official: the community’s architect.

Following the method of the Argentinian Rodolfo Livingston (completely forgotten in his own country), in the nineties they sought to choreograph self-construction in a single collective gesture that would transform the architect into something similar to the family doctor. But we cannot confuse, twenty-six years later, the initial good intentions with the bureaucratic wall of today’s officials, who deny -and “hustle”- the basic need to build, as if architecture and the city itself were not important. As Alejandro Aravena says, we do not need professional charity, but professional quality. The centralization of design does not redistribute its scope; it normalizes its death.

The new hotels for the collection of foreign currency is another type of architecture that is becoming more and more present. It would seem that this is nothing more than an economic investment to be recouped, while Cuban architects are deprived of the opportunity to add value to the existing collection of buildings. These generic buildings, which we find anywhere in the world, have a problem: their only beauty, which is their novelty, ends up getting old very soon, when it is not stillborn. Sustainability seems to be the only moral victory of these designs without an author: a perverse representation of destruction exempted from guilt. When an architect uses green or ecological architecture as a mask for his bad work, it only makes his chromatic relationship with the dollar more evident. The ceremoniousness of these projects, which are in fact superbly constructed, deflates itself in a laugh; its pride in being a copy of a copy thrives under the absent-minded glances and fears the attentive eye. The new solemnity of the island’s hotel architecture can be compared to, say, Walmart, and those who commissioned it may not even know it.

Prefabrication in Cuba is a bankrupt utopia, which with good intentions brought to Cuban architecture the same effect that monoculture brought to the Latin American fertile soil. In the repetition of this method, this discourse found its death. The end of the 1960s marked the end of Cuban architecture as a cultural product, ironically just after achieving its own revolution in its last years. A pathetic swan song that nobody heard. The death of the architect-auteur was the badly told news that flooded the city that followed later. Now we are all architects.

In the history of Cuban architecture, there is no such thing as an eighties generation. There is nothing like the famous artists’ ball game. Nor is there a generation of the nineties. The architect José Antonio Choy is just the exception that proves the rule. No generation of the two thousand, no post-utopia, no market, no post-minimalism, no nothing. In these decades of forced intellectual void and nothing to build, the discourse on space and the city became the domain of artists like Carlos Garaicoa or René Francisco. Exhibitions such as Young Cuban Architecture, at the Center for the Development of the Visual Arts, or The Parallel Utopia, curated by Iván de la Nuez, show that modest acts of resistance redraw the void without filling it, like the beating of a heart sick with bradycardia. The emptiness of history is simply a part of history. Collective fatigue is the only fortune we have inherited. All those omitted from this history will only find justice in retrospect.

Cuban independent architecture began to lose its virginity in 2016. The commercial prosperity of the private sector brought by the thaw in U.S.-Cuba relations flooded with work a generation of architects who quietly started to design businesses and private homes. Within this diverse group almost none have the same age, some are almost twenty years apart. They are all united by their independent practice. They are all separated by their discourse, their contacts, and the extent to which they make more or less concessions to the demands of their clients. The comfort they experience in not belonging is the primary manifestation of a silent time bomb. Some represent the autonomy of a poetics in the face of a nation’s ideology, while others are the symbol of the privatization of an increasingly defenseless and neoliberal discipline. Like a dense anthill under the perfect grass of a golf course, they gradually change the city without anyone noticing.

Thus they respond to a client that neither the community architect nor the state-owned project companies can satisfy. In its remote micro scale, the seduction strategy still is the commercial promise of a unique product. A simple apolitical response that advertises the difference, and coexists in silence without competing with its state-controlled neighbors. Since there is no legal status for an independent architect, all you need to have a studio is a client who wants to build an idea. Once you accept to be publicly humiliated and put on the legal mask of “party decorator”, you don’t need to have a diploma or experience. These new freedoms make it relatively easy for anyone, without necessarily being an architect, to be dangerously capable of changing the city.

That no one is talking about architecture, that there are no serious publications or public events in which architects are taken into account is a relief for Cuban independent architects. While their clients demand something “different” but are afraid of becoming the focus of attention, their builders hide their identity from the public so that they can practice the Olympic sport of finding construction materials. All this suggests that architects are safer staying outside culture. They can make themselves comfortable and remain anonymously marginalized, taking any professional decision, however banal, without fear of criticism. They can be happy, redundant and irrelevant. Being unknown ease the pressure on them. The city pays their bill.

Marginalized people are those who are outside something, either by their own will or because it is imposed on them. What does it mean to have been erased from the collective imagination in the seventies by the sovietization of construction? What does it mean to have a public art resurrected by private business? How does it feel to have left-wing inclinations and design only for those who can afford it? How does it feel to know that you will never design social housing, or primary schools, or public parks? When the death of the architect is a hypernormalized anomaly, is independent architecture a sort of resistance? The difficult questions that have not yet been asked are those that must be asked outside the discipline. That is why architecture should be a topic of conversation.

The relevance of legalizing a profession that functions with no regulations, of having public biddings that would prevent bureaucrats from continuing to change the city as it pleases them, and of building an architectural culture through publications, programs and relevant events seems to be something that nobody has to explain anymore: its obviousness is frightening. This text should not exist. Cuban independent architecture, in my opinion, is the only Cuban architecture that exists, even though we hardly know it because it has been forced to remain silence.

Havana is not Nouvel’s Paris, Foster’s London, or Kalach’s Mexico City; it is simply a city of dead architects. This metropolis is in a posthumous state, postponing the conversation while waiting for better times, getting high on its past glories to forget its present. In a place where fantasy is the only thing that gives meaning to boredom, the vanishing line over which Cuban architects find themselves is a jack-in-the-box from which almost nobody expects anything new. Something that nobody believes in yet.

Cuban architecture is only an imaginary love that could become true.

FERNANDO MARTIRENA
FERNANDO MARTIRENA
Fernando Martirena Cordovés (Santa Clara, 1992) Graduated in Architecture in 2016 from CUJAE where he later taught Theory and Criticism. He is the founder of the art and architecture studio Infraestudio, together with Anadis González and David Medina. He currently serves as coordinator of the Cuban Architecture Studies Group.

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