COMMUNITIES BEYOND TWO HAVANAS: Intermediate Unit 8 in Cuba Review

by Mira Oktay, AA 3rd Year
21 March 2019 Havana, Cuba   Culture and architecture have always been indivisible. The architecture of a city contains a rich history of cultures and its occupants, revealing more information than nearly any other source. I found Cuba to be one of the best examples of a recognisable relationship between the urban environment and social development. Every building or structure in the city is evidence of economic, social, and political movements in the society.    During our visit to Havana, we tried to survey the whole city and its inhabitants, as well as their lifestyles. We analysed many qualities such as the architectural and urban fabric, environmental conditions and living standards, socio-economical situation of the city and both local and tourist occupants.    While exploring the city, we were introduced to Cuba’s rich culture and history reflected in its architecture, a mixture of colonial European styles and post-revolutionary modernism. Even though the communist structures and ways of living are dominant today in Cuba, it is still clear much of the architecture has resulted from early immigration, invasions, and colonisation before the revolution. Communist influences are clearly seen in the local lifestyles of the Cubans living around the areas such as Vedado or Miramar, and massive squares such as the Plaza de la Revolucion, while colonial influences are still quite dominant in Havana Vieja, otherwise known as Old Havana.    
Initially, we learnt about the rural and urban fabric of Havana with the help of a local guide, and we visited a wide range of structures and institutions such as the National School of Arts, the University of Havana and Lenin Park with the unit tutors. During the course of the trip, we analysed the urban and architectural grids of Havana, as well as the communal and domestic behaviour present in the city. Through this research and observation, we each chose a specific site of personal interest.   As part of my personal observations, I became particularly interested in the differences between the lifestyles of local people and tourists. I tried to examine their relationship, and the way in which they live together or separately in similar areas, photographing and documenting the daily lives and social activities of each group. For example, while looking at the way local people lived in Havana Centro, I attempted to understand the spatial conditions within the interior of the houses. Most of the Cuban houses’ windows are covered by two different layers: the inner layer was a convertible wooden blind, and the outer one was a the secure steel fence. The visual privacy of the local inhabitants is provided through the use of the inner layer.    Through carrying out interviews with local people and tourists we learnt more about their expectations of the city. While most of the local people were interested in sharing public spaces with tourists, foreign visitors were looking for a bit more luxury, even though they wanted to experience the local life of Havana as well.  Through this kind of analysis, each student in the unit built up an insight into the characteristics of social groups, Cuban culture and urban & housing typologies. 
Due to the Revolution, Cuba as a communist country, seems to have an especially strong sense of neighbourhoods and communal public life. This idea of the community is intensified despite the lack of places that can physically provide communal space. People carry out many communal activities on the streets, sidewalks or through the doors and balconies of their houses. Since Cuban people often have an open-door/window policy, visual communication with the neighbouring inhabitants become a casual norm of their daily lives. These semi-public spaces, such as the balconies or front porches, build a relationship between those those who live in the building and neighbours, and enhances the values of a community through trust and mutual care.     Additionally, local people choose to use the ground floors of their houses for their businesses and shops. Due to the lack of available public spaces, there is another space for communication in these ground floors. Whether you’re looking for a chat, or just stopping there to shop, this serves as the typical Cuban space in which to socialise. In this form of communication, the doors are protected by steel frames. These are usually family businesses, which includes a range of possibilities such as food markets, ice-cream shops, manicurists and take-away restaurants.    Elsewhere in Havana, there are green vast spaces used as ‘Wi-Fi squares’ where people gather to connect with the outside world. Due to the lack of resources and ongoing trade embargo by the US, isolation from the rest of the world is one of the most problematic issues in Cuba. These Wi-Fi squares help people to communicate with the outside from time to time.     For more information: Intermediate 8 Unit Brief Intermediate 8 Extended Brief Intermediate 8 Microsite Follow Intermediate 8 on Instagram