Havana Revisited

Author: School of Architecture

Visiting Professors Jorge and Luis Trelles, along with eight Path C Graduate students in their second of three years of study, traveled to Havana, Cuba last fall to experience a range of architectural styles, from Renaissance, Moorish, and Baroque to Neoclassical and Mid-Century modern, observing an urban landscape like few others. Their trip was featured in the winter 2011 issue of Notre Dame Magazine. Associate editor John Nagy won a gold medal from the Council for the Advancement and Support of Education for his article, “The Rome of the Americas."

To continue Notre Dame’s focus on studying and preserving the city’s rich cultural heritage, Julio César Pérez, a practicing architect in Havana who travels internationally to speak about Cuba, will serve as a visiting professor at the School of Architecture this fall, instructing undergraduate students in conjunction with Professor Samir Younés.

An excerpt of Nagy’s article:

The city is an unfinished, 500-page novel in which the Castro brand of communism is only a 50-page chapter. “Every corner of the city is like a story unto itself,” I overhear Luis telling Ian Manire, one of his students. The centuries endure in stone, timber, masonry, colored glass, concrete and steel, teaching layered lessons about the relationship between architecture, culture and the making of cities that an era of ideologically induced stagnation has both preserved and neglected.

That makes it a living textbook for Manire and his peers, who are packing a five-year undergraduate curriculum into an intensive, three-year graduate portal into the architecture profession. As second-years, they’ve learned to draw beautifully and they’ve mastered the basics of building systems, things like ventilation, heating and cooling, lighting, how to get people in and out and up and down, and how buildings can create urban spaces that people love. Their task now is to integrate it all into functional designs.

They could do this in northern Indiana, as some of their predecessors have. But Notre Dame trains architects to touch the past. Time and the Trelles brothers are giving the school a rare opportunity. In Havana, which may soon be a simple four-hour flight away, every building is a lesson.

Before we left South Bend, each student selected one for study. They began working around the limitations of international politics to track down whatever plans, drawings, photographs and data they could find to create “pictorial essays” about their buildings they might enhance by personal encounter in Havana. That first project would prepare them for the semester’s signature achievement, individual proposals for a new market building at Plaza del Vapor, where the city’s once-great market, the Mercado Tacón, was demolished in 1962 by a Cuban government that had no interest in rebuilding it.

It is often said that Havana is frozen in time, an impression reinforced by the classic American cars which dominate its streets like segments of a rainbow on wheels. Apart from specific changes like the demolition of the Tacón, the city we see today is essentially the same one Meyer Lansky greedily pondered from the veranda of the Hotel Nacionál, the same one Castro’s grubby barbudos entered on tanks, jeeps and horses in 1959. We may be glad Havana became neither Las Vegas nor Karl-Marx Stadt but remained true to itself, a view with which UNESCO agreed when in 1982 it declared Old Havana and its fortifications a World Heritage Site.