How Modern Architecture In Cuba Can Start With Schools
Award-winning design is inspired by an architect’s childhood in Havana
How Modern Architecture In Cuba Can Start With Schools
by Ernesto Alonso
HuntonBrady Architects’ Architectural Designer Ernesto Alonso was just awarded a Theoretical & Research Award of Merit from the American Institute of Architects Orlando for his design of The Secondary School, a 102,000 sf urban school for Centro Havana, Cuba. A native of Cuba who moved to the U.S. when he was 14, Alonso attended the University of Florida and graduated with a Master of Architecture in 2012. We recently spoke with him about his life growing up in Havana, and what inspired his innovative design of a school for the Havana of today.
1. You moved to the U.S. when you were a teenager. What surprised you most about schools here in comparison to those you attended in Cuba?
I was not surprised, but I was overwhelmed by the amount of resources at the disposal of students. The comfort and great conditions of schools also had an impact on me. Schools in Cuba are in precarious conditions. Space and resources are very scarce.
2. What inspired your interest in architecture and subsequently, modern design?
I was born and raised in Havana, a city with a very rich architectural heritage. Architecture is omnipresent in the life of all Habaneros. My daily life was an architectural tour that spanned from colonial architecture to 1950s modern architecture. I lived in a Colonial guest house converted into apartments. The store where we bought our cloth and food was a great example of 1950s Cuban modern architecture, with an intricate brise-soleil. I played baseball in a park that, while dilapidated, was still a magnificent piece of modern architecture. All of this still has a great influence in my approach towards architecture.
The section of the school reveals the catalytic spaces that serve as areas for innovation, providing flexibility to their use.
3. How did your experience in Havana influence the design of this school?
In a way, the school was designed for the 14 year-old Ernesto that lived in Cuba. While the world changes at a rapid pace, Cuban culture, society and everyday life evolves at a very slow speed because of the country’s political system. My struggles as a Cuban kid in the 1990’s are very similar to the ones my little cousin has right now back in Havana. Dilapidated schools, scarcity of resources, lack of public spaces to socialize, play and practice sports. My mother and father were both teachers in Cuba, which provided me with a unique perspective of the struggles that teachers encounter within the educational system of the island. All this informed my research and ultimately the design of the school.
The calligraphy of the brise-soleil that envelops the school has strong cultural roots.
4. Can you talk a little about the research you did for this theoretical project?
The objective of this project was to study the school as an urban participant within the urban fabric of the Havana of today. I researched effective schools and urban buildings in a variety of locations. I learned great lessons from projects such as the Diamond Ranch High School in California by Thom Mayne, the Seattle Central Library by OMA, and even my undescriptive secondary school back in Cuba. During the research process I visited these buildings, and interviewed teachers, students, visitors and architects. The second part of the research centered on the practice of education; its history, current state and future. This allowed me to design a strong programmatic direction for the Secondary School in Havana.
I designed the school for the Havana of today. The concept respects the context and density of the city but looks forward. The urban character of Central Havana is the driving force behind the design. The school is situated in an area with high need for public spaces. An outdoor atrium is shared with the community. Catalytic spaces throughout the school are flexible areas for innovation and new learning opportunities. The painting “Vista de Ciudad de la Habana,” by noted Cuban artist Rene Portocarrero was the inspiration for a brise-soleil that envelopes the school and honors the city’s heritage in a contemporary way.
5. What is one thing about Cuban architecture (or Cuba) that you want people to know?
During the late 40’s and 50’s Cuba was in the vanguard of modern architecture in Latin America and Cuban architects were arriving to a Cuban expression of modern architecture. Well-known architects such as Richard Neutra and Josep Lluis Sert collaborated with architects in the island during that time. There are great examples of modern architecture in Havana. All this stopped with Castro’s revolution. Unfortunately, most books, documentaries, and research projects revolve around the Colonial architecture of the island.
6. Havana’s architecture has remained virtually unchanged for decades. What role can modern architecture play in Cuba’s future?
With this new thaw in relations with the U.S., there is a great influx of tourism into the island, and the nostalgia factor will play a big role in the architectural future of the country. Most people want to see the frozen-in-time Cuba, but architects and most Cubans want to move forward. The country is ready for a contemporary architecture that respects the heritage, the culture, the society, and the climate, but that most importantly looks into the future and not into the past. Currently, architecture in Cuba mainly focuses on rebuilding because there is no true private sector. In the future, I think contemporary architecture could play a major role in the development of Cuba as a nation.
The New Urban Secondary School is made for the Havana of today. It respects the context and the density of the city but it does not look back in order to move forward.
7. What will be the biggest challenge in designing modern buildings in Cuba?
There are a lot of challenges, but they have nothing to do with being modern or traditional. Politics play a major role in any topic related to the island, and architecture is not the exception. Once you get past all of the political hurdles, Infrastructure and the availability of the construction materials become major challenges. Cubans have the right disposition toward contemporary architecture, but getting something actually built is the main challenge.
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