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Paige Vickers

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In Cuba, Architecture and Design Blossom Under New Laws

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.

When Tallapiedra was constructed in 1915, it was one of the most advanced electric plants of the day, but as technologies changed, its facilities did not. Sometime in the 1960s, it stopped producing electricity, and since then, only the workers at the state-run metal shop on the ground floor—the only reliably safe area of the structure—have had access to it. From the outside, Tallapiedra is giant and fully broken: caved, oxidized gutters sprouting grass from the still-horizontal bits, a solid central nave with perfect, ornate moldings, a sole smokestack hitching up the rest, about ten panels of un-broken glass among its hundreds of window panes. And everyone—Havanans passing by in collective taxis, passengers on the elevated train, sailors on freighters unloading across the bay—has seen bayside Tallapiedra from the outside.

Tallapiedra was hardly the only building newly opened to the public in May. During the Havana Biennial—the massive constellation of art shows that take over the city, in very Cuban fashion, every three years—restaurants that had pushed to open in time were packed, as were in-home B&Bs; artists were opening new studios, and independent art spaces in apartments and exhibits in unusual places were hosting inaugurations and parties. As the architects prepped at Tallapiedra, the five-meter high, deco-inflected gates on the 1940 extension to its 5,000 square meters were propped open until the last worker left, and then, once Castillo and Inclán had concluded their meeting, locked.

Among Habana Re-Generación's first and ongoing projects was an investigation into restoration and regeneration around the bay of Havana and particularly here, amid a cluster of industrial buildings now considered cultural patrimony. It was the sort of academic study, of challenges and prospects for urban growth in Havana, for which the group had been assembled. A decade ago, these buildings were moldering structures whose technologies had rendered them obsolete, doors left closed.

Now they are possibilities. New policies introduced by Raul Castro in 2011 have begun, slowly, to reshape Havana. Amid a raft of reforms were permits for entrepreneurial ventures: Cubans can now legally, privately work as interior decorators, open restaurants and bars, or make and sell, say, tiles or furniture. In tandem with the legalization of private property—Cubans can now purchase and sell apartments and homes without government involvement—these two reforms have spurred a flurry of architectural openings on the ground.

"It presents a unique opportunity, Havana today," said Inclán that May evening. "There are opportunities for the society, for the city, and for architects. Especially the doors that have yet to open. The biennial gives the image of the city that we want to have."

"Tallapiedra was always a center of production. The new Havana that's being made," said Castillo, "should be made here."

Until recently, opportunities for architects in Cuba were scarce. Architects had little chance to practice outside of state jobs, and neither architecture nor industrial design appeared on the list of jobs legally privatized in 2011. No professional occupation was—since the Cuban government provides free university education for doctors, lawyers, accountants, architects, and more, such jobs remained in the public sector. For architects, this meant work in committee, for large state-sanctioned jobs like joint-venture hotels, housing projects, and state-run restaurants.

But in 2011, said Inclán, "a new figure began to appear: the client." The new permits for entrepreneurial ventures meant in-home restaurants, bars, and B&Bs, all design opportunities. Architects responded enthusiastically, if quietly.

"In Cuba, we use the term alegal—neither legal nor illegal," said Yoandy Rizo, whose nascent studio practice garnered him a residency at the Vermont Studio Center in 2012. Last year, Rizo and Osmany Abel Garcia Fuentes designed "Entre Fronteras," an architectural intervention at the Queens Museum in New York, using wooden scaffolding to create a space both barbed and cocoon-like.

All over Havana, similar wooden scaffolding surrounds buildings, from Miramar restaurants to Vedado apartments to Old Havana manses. Downtown, where Eusebio Leal's Office of the Historian of the City of Havana has spearheaded a heroic restoration of Old Havana in the last decade, this is not a new sight. What is new is how pervasive such scaffolding is outside of Old Havana, and the fact that architects' plans underlie many projects.

"It's a departure from previous years where people thought, 'oh, I'll just hire a builder, I don't need an architect,'" said Kendra Ador Agramonte, who recently moved back to Cuba after nearly fifteen years working in London and Grand Cayman. On return from England, she and her English husband—who met while he was on an exchange at Cuba's architecture school in the nineties—bought and renovated one, and then two, guesthouses in Centro Habana. At their Tropicana penthouse, Bertoia diamond chairs cohabitate with flowery Cuban antiques, and clean-lined custom cabinetry hides an espresso maker and decidedly modern amenities. The results, she says, of such architect-led projects speak for themselves. "People are realizing that in order to get a really nice building you need to have someone involved who knows what they're doing in terms of design."

Yet creative interpretation of licenses for non-state workers, cuentapropistas, is key. Rizo and his business partner, a contractor, work under a masonry license; Ador has a decorator's license, as do Castillo and Inclán, who've completed a spate of projects while maintaining their day jobs at the Office of the Historian, the state entity that oversees restoration of Old Havana's architectural patrimony. Their built portfolio now includes a rooftop expansion for La Guarida—pristine white tables and chairs with ornate legs that echo the curves of faded stone on the rail's columns, an enormous, empty picture frame that sets off the view of the seawall malecón and ocean beyond—as well as a second-floor bar overlooking the Plaza Vieja in Old Havana, a Russian-themed restaurant on the seawall, and a spate of residential projects.

In certain instances, firms cultivate a blend of private and state clients: DAG Architects' recently completed projects include a Miramar restaurant and a complex of guesthouses on the coast outside of Havana for the Cuban Ministry of the Interior. For these Cabañas del Río, blocky structures house elevated single-room living spaces and oversized, triangular terraces hover atop slim pilotis and brightly-tiled open-air showers.

But there are design implications to clandestine work. "In practice, though there are some very good proposals, since there aren't legal proceedings to inspect these projects and these private architects—to defend a project before a commission or a regulatory organization, so that one can come to more interesting solutions—everything stays half-done and we return to improvisation and violations," says DAG founding partner Alejandro García.

Architects straddle the lines of what is and is not permitted: architectural plans for private clients are illegally produced, but construction is fully legal; interior decorating is legal, as is graphic design. Architects face a new frontier legally, aesthetically, and intellectually. After years in which architecture and engineering were nearly synonymous, during which architecture as an art was hardly practiced, it's an emergent field.

"We have to begin to trace what can and can't be done here," explained Inclán. "We are interested in the public—public transportation, public space—in sustainability—Havana is a city that has learned by necessity to recycle and we don't want to lose that even when we have a better economy—and in creativity. It's a creative, dynamic city."

"We don't have any support, but that gives us more freedom, because there are no expectations," said Rizo.

In the same way that foreign architects learning about tropical modernism often tour Nuevo Vedado with a copy of The Havana Guide in hand, a tour of the spate of restaurants that have opened in the last two years could serve as a living portfolio of today's Cuban architects. What is perhaps most striking about many such projects, architecturally, is the commitment to architectural patrimony, whether colonial or modern. If the lack of architectural prospects degraded the prestige of the profession for the last fifty years, the result, today, is a generation of architects who take very seriously their responsibility to preserve, restore, and eventually riff on the city's dominant aesthetic. And even if some efforts to channel international design trends feel flat or derivative—this is, after all, a generation of architects who are learning on the job, a fact that nearly all readily point out—an increasing number of projects exhibit deft, creative implementation of locally-sourced and procured materials.

If the list of challenges for Cuban architects stretches long and wide, so do opportunities, as an industry builds itself virtually from the ground up. It shows in residential homes like the Vedado apartment of Wilfredo Prieto—a conceptual artist whose practice often includes rigorous engineering—who knocked down interior walls but preserved mottled paint and original floor tiles and designed a kitchen for himself, which he had made in its entirety by local craftspeople. And creative use of materials often means scavenging: singer CuCu Diamantes' Miramar apartment features shower glass from re-appropriated tabletops and patio planters Diamantes found in a hotel junk heap. The renovation, spearheaded by H[R]G, melds original floor-to-ceiling jalousie blinds with polished concrete finishings. It also includes a bathroom tiled in a mix of vintage and new designs, locally-made lamps, and pristine new iron grates made to echo the diamond motif from her first album cover.

"It's nice to have that luxury, to have people who can make things. Because then you can design—you're not just looking at an interior and sourcing products and finishes," said Ador. "You're making things specifically for a project, which is such a luxury, and working with the craftspeople who make them. You build a library or a network of those people. Provided they don't leave the country, it's great."

The result is a new, very Cuban aesthetic. If the new Cuban architecture is at times low on construction—ground-up builds are still relatively rare—it is high on resourcefulness, exuberance, and experimentation.

"What I design is made in Havana, for Havana, with materials from Havana, made by people in Havana," said Rizo. "I can't copy anything I see in a magazine because I don't have those materials. But I can do something that has its own cultural value."

Or, as he explained at a June conference on the new Cuban cultural landscape at the Standard High Line, "You can get whatever you want in Cuba, you just have to meet the right person." Among the questions he fielded after his presentation were whether Rizo or any other architect could copyright his work (no, which is one of the reasons why he never shares blueprints with clients; "it's my only protection"), whether the government would assign state architects to new hotel projects (unclear), whether there's been more import/export of building supplies in the last six months (depends on whether the official or unofficial answer is sought) and whether new hotels will open in the near future (yes, but also, about 30 percent of Cuban hotel rooms are closed due to restoration need).

In the ten days Rizo spent in New York after the conference, he walked away with a half-dozen new clients, primarily cultural entrepreneurs, he said later, interested in investing in Cuba's significant existing cultural capital. Art, music, architecture. "There are lots of regulations," he said, "but I hope we can find a way."

Habana Re-Generacion spruced up Tallapiedra for the exhibit—spray-painted a "caution" sign on the floor, painted railings and barriers an effusive bright yellow, neatened and highlighted—but it didn't take much for the possible to emerge. If Castillo's vision of Tallapiedra as a hub for artistic production is a logical, generative one, the space also flirts with plenty of other fantastical options: it could be a museum, a hotel, a theater. A place, perhaps, to house studio space for a young and energetic architecture scene in Cuba? Visitors didn't leave until well into the night.

"What Tallapiedra can generate is incredible," Inclán said later. "We're very happy because we managed to create, at least for that one night, the illusion of a recuperated space, producing art, thinking, and culture for the city."

Editor: Sara Polsky

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