Cuba’s post-revolution architecture offers a model for building more with less



Around the world, there is a joint crisis of climate change and housing shortage – two topics topped the list of discussions at the recent COP26 climate summit in Glasgow.

Construction and buildings are responsible for more than a quarter of global greenhouse gas emissions. Meanwhile, according to a September report from Realtor.com, the United States alone is short of 5.24 million homes.

To cope with these two crises, it will be necessary to build structures in a more sustainable and efficient manner.

But this is not the first time that architects and governments have faced dwindling resources and the task of housing large numbers of people. In 1959, an armed revolt led by Fidel Castro overthrew the Cuban military dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista. As part of a larger plan to improve the quality of life for millions of Cubans, Castro’s new government has sought to develop a program to mass produce new homes, schools and factories.

In the years that followed, however, this dream collided with difficult realities. Sanctions and supply chain disruptions had created a shortage of conventional building materials.

Architects realized they had to do more with less and invent new construction methods using local materials.

A thousand-year-old technique

In an article I co-wrote with architect and engineer Michael Ramage and architect Dania González Couret, we explored the creative challenges of this period focusing on a specific structural element that these Cuban architects quickly identified with. seized: the tiled vault.

The tiled vault is a technique that flourished in the eastern Mediterranean after the 10th century.

It is about building vaulted ceilings made of several layers of light terracotta tiles. To build the first layer, builders use a quick-setting mortar to bond the tiles with barely a temporary backing. Subsequently, the builder adds other layers with normal cement or lime mortar. This technique does not require expensive machines or the use of a lot of wood for the formwork. But speed and know-how are essential.

Three types of vaults – clockwise from top left: conventional stone, tiled dome and tiled vault.
Luis Moya Blanco, CC BY-ND

Due to its affordability and durability, the tiled vault has spread to different parts of Europe and the Americas. It became known as Guastavino tile in the United States – a nod to Spanish architect Rafael Guastavino, who used the technique in more than 1,000 projects in the United States, including the Boston Public Library. and New York’s Grand Central Station.

Chests in vogue

In Cuba, tiled vaults were used to build the National Art Schools, or Escuelas Nacionales de Arte.

Fidel Castro advocated for the construction of five schools on what, before the revolution, was a golf course in Cubanacán, a town west of Havana.

Designed by Ricardo Porro, Vittorio Garatti and Roberto Gottardi, the schools integrate shells and terracotta arches into the green landscape of the site. They were long thought to be the only tiled vaulted buildings in post-revolutionary Cuba.

However, we have found that National Art Schools are just the tip of the iceberg. From 1960 to 1965, a series of experiments and vault projects took place across the country.

Black and white photo of an open-air arched building.
Vittorio Gratti’s Ballet School, one of Havana’s five vaulted national art schools.
Mr. Wesam Al Asali, CC BY-SA

Shortly after the revolution, architects and engineers from the Ministry of Construction – known as MICONS – traveled to Camagüey, a province known for its clay brick making, to learn more about the crafts. . One of these architects, Juan Campos Almanza, then a recent graduate of the University of Havana, led the research team. As an experiment, he built a load-bearing vault on the land of the Azorin brickyard.

It was a success. He then used the design to build affordable and stylish beachfront homes in Santa Lucía, north of Camagüey, using the same arch design.

Arched houses lined up side by side.
Juan Campos Almanza’s beachfront homes were built on the basis of a vault experiment that took place in 1960.
Documentation Center, Havana Historian’s Office, CC BY-ND

The best of both worlds

The construction of brick and tile vaults seemed to be a promising solution for building repeatable and profitable ceilings.

The Center of Technical Investigations, an agency responsible for developing housing, schools and factories, used Almanza’s research to build its own vaulted offices. A nearby outdoor space – known as ‘El Patio del MICONS’ – has become a playground for more structural experiences.

At El Patio, artisans, engineers and architects worked together to develop affordable vaulted buildings, while teachers at El Patio’s Tile School taught construction techniques to cohorts of apprentices.

Builders practice assembling a vaulted roof in the Patio del MICONS in 1961.
Documentation Center, Havana Historian’s Office

Vaulted buildings and houses quickly began to appear across the country. In 1961, Juan Campos Almanza completed his first housing projects in Altahabana, a new neighborhood near Havana, by building simple barrel vaults on prefabricated beams. Similar designs have been used for more seaside homes, schools, and factories.

Architect Mario Girona built an arched primary school in Marianao, Cuba.
Documentation Center, Havana Historian’s Office

In his report on the Altahabana pilot project, Campos defined his method as “traditional mejorado” or “improved traditional construction” – a mixture of conventional construction methods with a few prefabricated elements.

This way, he argued, builders could get the best of both worlds: the build, some of which was built by hand, was fast and repeatable. And it didn’t require a lot of pre-existing materials and infrastructure.

The best example of this construction method is the vaulted pre-college center in Liberty City, the site of a former US Army base. The structure was designed in 1961 by Josefina Rebellón, who was at the time a third year student in architecture.

Just a few miles from art schools, Rebellón’s design was completed in 18 months. It consisted of two circular vaulted buildings, with conical vaults and prefabricated beams, with an undulating two-story class building between the two circles.

Bird's-eye drawing of two circular buildings
A sketch of the Josefina Rebellón Pre-University Center.
Documentation Center, Havana Historian’s Office, CC BY-ND

A brief experience with a lasting legacy

These exciting new building methods didn’t last long.

In 1963, Havana hosted the conference of the International Union of Architects. This year’s theme was architecture in developing countries.

The conference gave Cuban architects the opportunity to reflect on their recent experiences. The Ministry of Construction pushed for an end to what it saw as a period of experimentation; mass housing, they said, required industrialized construction.

Buildings began to be manufactured in factories and then assembled on site. Skilled and specialized labor, such as vault construction, was no longer seen as an asset but as a hindrance, as vault builders were hard to find in remote areas of the country and novice builders required training. extensive training.

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Yet the history of these buildings offers lessons for designing with scarcity.

The ability to experiment is important. Coordination between builders, governments and architects is crucial. And craftsmanship matters too, whether it’s tiled vaults or traditional carpentry.

For too long, buildings requiring craftsmanship have been viewed as overpriced pet projects that deployed techniques better suited to another era. But Cubans have been able to show that craftsmanship can be developed, extended and combined with technological advances.

Today, a handful of promising initiatives show how the art of the tiled vault can be used in the low-carbon construction of buildings or technical ceiling systems. Back in Cuba, the tiled vault is now taught at Escuela Taller Gaspar Melchor, a training center located in the historic center of Havana.

Cuba’s arched architecture reflects the relationship between necessity and invention, a process that many people mistakenly consider automatic. This is not the case. It is a relationship based on perseverance, trial and error and, above all, passion.

Look no further than what Juan Campos Almanza and his peers left on the island: beautiful, repeatable buildings, many of which still stand today.


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