Integrative Urbanism: Rethinking Identity and Preservation in Post-Revolutionary Havana

  • Abstract:

    If Havana has suffered the negative effects of neglect over the past fifty-plus years, its formal urban fabric – its scale, dimensions, proportions, contrasts, continuities, solid/void relationships, rhythms, public spaces, and landscapes – has remained intact. A free-market Cuba, while inevitable, leaves the city vulnerable to unsustainable urban development. And while many anticipate preservation, restoration, and urban development – particularly of Havana’s historic – core ‘business as usual’ preservation practices resist rampant development primarily through narrow strategies of exclusion (where, what, how, and why not to build), museumizing Havana as ‘a city frozen in time.’ Seeking a third option at the intersection of this socialist/capitalist divide, this paper describes 4 student projects from THE CUBA STUDIO, a collaborative Integrative Urban Studio at (withheld) University’s School of Architecture. Over the course of 16 weeks, students in THE CUBA STUDIO speculated urban futures for a post-revolutionary Havana – strategizing ways of preserving Havana’s architectural and urban identity in the face of an emerging political and economic shift that is opening, albeit gradually, Cuba to global market forces. And rather than submitting to these forces, the work critically engages them. Some driving questions were: What kind of spatial politics do we deploy while retrofitting Havana? How will the social, political, and economic changes of an ‘open’ Cuba affects Havana’s identity and urban fabric? What role does preservation play? For that matter, what does preservation really mean and by what criteria are sites included in the preservation frame? What relationships are there (or could there be) between preservation, tourism, infrastructure, education, housing, and public space? In the process, students established systematic research agendas to reveal opportunities for integrated ‘soft’ and ‘hard’ interventions (i.e. siting and programing), constructing ecologies across a range of disciplinary territories including (but not limited to): architecture, urban design, historic preservation / restoration, art, landscape urbanism, infrastructure, science + technology, economics, sustainability, urban policy, sociology, and cultural/political theory. An explicit goal of the studio was to expand and leverage ‘preservation’ (as an idea, a discipline, and a practice) toward flexible and inclusive design strategies that frame precise architectural interventions at a range of temporal and geographic scales.