WAN exclusive: Cuban competition results
In 1886 slavery came to an end in Cuba and the Trotcha theatre was built in El Vedado, once a fashionable suburb of Havana and the most important piece of Spanish Colonial urban planning in Cuba. The original building was quickly turned into a hotel for honey-mooners and two perpendicular wards were added, Washington and Eden. The complex later became a boarding house, then a slum and finally a ruin. Since 1980s, attempts to find an investor willing to properly rehabilitate the buildings failed while they gradually collapsed. Only the carcass of the Neo-Classical original façade remains now, resisting neglect, vandalism and the pressure to raze the site to make way for banal new housing.
Recently, a powerful State agency asked approval to the site to build dwellings for their employees. The Physical Planning department of Havana called for a competition of ideas following a workshop where participants developed a basic volumetric composition. The contest had no prize and a very short deadline, but it attracted 24 teams of designers that worked from February 20th to March 13th, 2007. Only 13 teams submitted their projects to a prestigious jury. Most participants were young and even very young, reflecting the urge to show their skills at a time when little good architecture is made, and competitions are not usually favoured.
The winner team, Number 2, was lead by two prominent Cuban architects, José Antonio Choy and his wife Julia León, together with Adriana and Olivia Choy, Antonio Villar and two students, Kiovet Sánchez and Marlene Isla. Their design articulates the ruin to a metal and glass greenhouse with a restaurant amid orchids and ferns. The basic volume of this new building reminds the missing original theatre. A set of svelte mid-rise apartment buildings enclose a central square, where royal palm trees perform as columns. The much-needed shade in a tropical climate is provided by porticated galleries in the ground-floors of the surrounding buildings that extend into green canopies along a strip of trellises. The pavement of the plaza recalls the typical swastika layout of the lots in El Vedado, and visitors are greeted by three fountains with a thin water film flowing over low stepped trays.
One special feature of this project is a strip of tall, warped wooden structures lining the main access to the square. It performs as a colonnade which emphasizes the connection at ground-floor level with the important nearby boulevard Paseo. The housing complex will have 75-85 apartments, and the total cost, including equipment, is estimated at a little less than $18 million, 11 being in Cuban convertible pesos. Several features pay homage to traditional Cuban architecture.
Second Prize went to the Number 4 team of young architects Ariel Fernández, Dayman Pedrero and José Manuel Manero, whose basic concept sprang from the intersection of two layouts, the typical orthogonal Spanish Colonial grid intersected by a tilted one that is meant to emphasize the ruin. The ruin itself is successfully integrated by contrast with a separate new Rietveldian building. The counterpoint between both structures reminds the missing volume of the original theatre. The bulk of the apartment buildings is sliced at an intermediate open level that perform as an elevated green terrace for the residents. This provides a more private alternative to the public plaza.
The third prize went to team Number 5, all architects who recently got their degrees: Allen Moya, Rodrigo Cotier, Pedro Martínez, Héctor Sullivan and José Antonio López. There was a Mention for a fourth team, Number 24, composed by architects Orlando Inclán, Marilyn Mederos, Joel Langaney and Claudia Castillo.
All teams among those selected for the awards received the same suggestion from the jury to lower the height of the building closer to Street 2, so as to soften the transition to surrounding built context and the ruin itself. Common to these projects was the intention to avoid a mimetic design in dealing with the remaining ruins of the Trotcha, to diminish the visual impact of the 17-storey apartment building from the 1950s, and to connect the plaza with Paseo boulevard. They also raise ground-floor level, because of the growing threat of sea floodings.
A constant demand from Cuban architects has been the lack of design competitions. This one represents a breakthrough, not less because of its good results. Very young architects found a way to challenge established ones, and the city will benefit from these confrontations. At a time when recent Cuban architecture is being sharply criticized for remaining as sheer pragmatic construction, these projects may help to bring it back into the realm of culture.
Main image: Competition winner
Thumbnails from left to right: Competition winner -
images 1-4, second prize image 5 and third prize image 6.
Havana, April 2007