The architecture in Cuba has, in my mind, a unique status.
I was recently asked by the British Embassy in Cuba to join them for a celebration of the centenary of the construction of the Casa Mendoza in Cuba - a building that exemplifies the work of a Cuban architect working in the context of early 20th century Cuba. The rich details carry the essence that make this house so entirely Cuban. It is a building that could only sit comfortably in this context, in this city.
My interest in Cuba really developed when I was awarded two travel scholarships to study here for my undergraduate thesis. By the end of 3 months here, I had travelled by most means of transport the length of the country. I had time to walk the streets, to draw, observe and start to understand the evolution of Cuban architecture. My ongoing research and friendships now inform my professional work at ADAM Architecture where I am a Director. My daily way of thinking is shaped by these experiences of Cuba.
The architecture in Cuba has, in my mind, a unique status. There is a legible continuity of the architecture that surrounds us. I love the fact that through Cuban architecture it is possible to give an explanation of the politics, economics and social shifts of a given time. The original intent of many of these buildings may not be relevant today but the changes in the intervening periods add layers that reinforce the identity people associate with their homes and their communities. Despite the changes the buildings remain adaptable and fit with the urban pattern of the different parts of the city. The architectural development of the last 58 years has witnessed splendid creativity in places, the most successful of these developments took elements of the architecture of the previous 450 years and reinvented it into buildings that reflected skills of modern craftsmen. The work of the Office of the City Historian has set a standard for restoration, town planning and revitalisation that are heralded across the world.
All this has an influence on this building today as it did when it was built. What I would like to reinforce is how important tradition and working with Cuba’s valuable heritage is in my mind.
Tradition is what we, as humans, use to help identify ourselves amongst different groups.
It is perhaps a weakness that we always need to seek a point of reference to inform who we are. Traditions evolve, that is the very basis of tradition. Traditions respond to changes in society. Architecture plays an important role in providing the visual and practical stimulus to this identity and collective memory. The way the buildings around us have evolved contributes to a collective memory that is incredibly powerful. Memory is the guardian of the past but it is also the way we shape the future. By understanding the way people have lived, the way that the buildings are detailed and how the grain of the city is formed, allows us to create new interventions that do not undermine the enjoyment of these places we can call home. Globalisation and the rise of the ‘International Style’ has eroded this character and identity of so many cities with devastating effects not only to the beauty of these places but to the communities.
My work often looks at how we can adapt buildings, some more than 500 years old. We also plan new urban and towns extensions. The skills for both require an understanding of the traditions and character and people who make a place. This seems so obvious but it is so often forgotten or ignored by architects today.
And so, to return to this building - the Casa Mendoza . We are here celebrating a building that was commissioned by an individual who wanted a home in a new era. He chose a Cuban architect, Leonardo Morales, for the main building. The house was different from those that had gone before but it was part of a new phase in Havana’s growth. Vedado was growing and new types of houses were needed. Morales took the essence of Cuba’s architectural heritage, the lessons of how people had lived, and built something that is distinctly Cuban. At the time it was, and remains as we celebrate today, a piece of exceptional architecture. We celebrate a hundred years of its construction and it is hailed, rightly I believe, as an example to how a building could be built a hundred years ago and continue a legible continuity of Cuban architecture. The challenge now is how buildings built today will be seen in a hundred years.
By Robbie Kerr, October 2017