Julio César Pérez: “The city must be dreamed, designed and conceived for the future.”
Interview appeared in two parts in Cuban Art News, 6 January 2011.
Last month, on December 16, Cuban architect and urban planner Julio César Pérez (b. San Antonio, 1957) opened an exhibition of architecture and planning at the Eduardo Abela Provincial Gallery in the town of San Antonio de los Baños. Pérez, who graduated from Havana’s School of Architecture in 1982, has taught and lectured at Harvard University, the Boston Architectural Center, and the University of Toronto. He is the author of Inside Cuba (Taschen, 2006), The Island: Visions of Cuba (Editorial Samper, 2009).
Exhibitions on architecture and urbanism are not common in Cuba. What encouraged you to present a decade of projects?
I really don´t remember any collective exhibitions on architecture, except those done by the then-young college graduates of the 1980s—myself among them—in 1987 (at the Development Center for the Visual Arts, Plaza Vieja) and 1991 (at La Cabaña).
My last solo exhibition took place in 2002 at the School of Design at Harvard University. There, I presented a selection of 20 works and projects carried out between 1989 and 1999. Previously, with architects Milvia Céspedes and Esteban Martínez, I did an exhibition in San Antonio de los Baños during the 6th Havana Biennial in 1997. In all cases, the intention was to keep architecture alive as a calling, and to project a vision of this profession that continues the tradition and the savoir faire that has characterized its practice in our country during the past four centuries. Now, this need motivated me again. It is also useful to analyze a period of work, to confront ideas and approaches, and above all, to show that architecture remains one of the fine arts, if it is approached with a rigorous artistic perspective.
Your exhibition covers a broad variety of topics: personal residences, cityscapes, the renovation of historic buildings, urban planning. Do they correspond to a wide range of interests in architecture?
For me, the practice of architecture begins with the relationship between the natural or cultural environment, which is an indivisible whole, and the human being. The city is the most important element, as it is an expression of human relationships and the essential cultural archetype. My interests are broad, and I renounce the reductionist vision and specialization that has done much harm to this profession everywhere. The architect must always be a Renaissance man who acts responsibly in his or her own time; he has to deal with both the eternal problems and the contemporary conflicts arising from his concrete circumstances. This requires constant study, above all for those devoted to teaching.
When approaching the house—a “traditional” theme and a laboratory for Cuban architects—you seem to have used construction techniques and skills already well-established in the popular repertoire.
The house is the point of departure, the subject closest to human beings, to architects. I believe that students should learn how to design a house before anything else. Many young architects do not know how, and that is lamentable; they don´t even have an accurate idea of what a home is, what their home is. It’s a good teaching exercise. The scale lets you start with a general idea and move on to details—to start from a specific situation in terms of location, spatial relations, functional requirements, program, context, purpose, and then arrive at the details.
It is a process that enables learning. It is imperative to design well, to build well—it is an ancient and still-valid lesson. Tradition provides the necessary instruction from which architects can explore and innovate, and find their own language beyond fashion and trends. On the other hand, in Cuba there are not many options with respect to the use of non-traditional construction techniques and materials—most of all in housing. The total and repeated failure of prefabrication has been the most eloquent factor in favor of a return to traditional building techniques.
The loss of this work [designing houses] is, moreover, one of the factors that have affected the prestige of the profession. This is sad, as the construction industry in this country has been distinguished by a high level of skill, which reached its peak during the 1950s. I learned rigor, discipline, and craft by working with my father, an excellent bricklayer and master builder.
In your plan for Havana’s future growth and development, what do you see as the key elements?
The plan is based on a decalogue, a ten-point program that summarizes a set of interrelated, integral ideas. They must be considered together, based on their obvious relationship and the need to tackle them all with the greatest economy of time and resources.
Waterfront Redevelopment. This will give the city a new image and will allow us to take the most extensive and intensive advantage of its coastline. Mixed-use buildings are foreseen: cultural and commercial uses on the ground floor and residential use on the floors above. This establishes a continuity with the traditions of the city in this regard, and offers a model in line with European traditions based on outdoor cafes, art galleries and restaurants, bars, shops, and bazaars. On the other hand, there’s the Port of Havana sector, whose regeneration is a model for the entire city. We intend to turn this area into a modern commercial and sports center that will contribute to a new image of the city and permit the re-creation of its history, the recycling of its economic functions, and increase the attractiveness of the capital in general.
A Stronger Polycentric Approach. This is essential. It includes the creation of new urban centers in proposed development facilities to the west (site of the former Columbia airfield) and east. This approach reduces the city’s expansion to its peripheries, limiting the need for excessive traffic and travel.
A New Public Transportation System. This will provide an efficient and rational use of existing and proposed road infrastructure, and makes it possible to have varied and modern means of transportation (train, buses, cars) that don’t pollute the environment. The plan includes surface and underground transportation, and one of its branches calls for the construction of a tunnel parallel to the coastline, which will create a promenade along the coast from Jaimanitas to Cojimar.
Infrastructure Upgrading. At present, the city’s infrastructure is outdated, totally inadequate and insufficient. This upgrading will give Havana improved and expanded water services, electricity, sewerage, telephone, high speed internet, and other services. An increase in public space is planned to respond to the idiosyncrasies of Cuba, its customs and traditions. In the coastal area and the bay a buffer zone will be established, which will contain a possible rise in sea level due to climate change resulting from global warming.
Social and Cultural Integration. The culmination of a full use of the city, its neighborhoods and spaces by all people, with free access to all facilities and buildings.
Environmental Safety and Increase in Green Areas.
A New Image of the City. This speaks to the city’s transformation and vitality as a result of urban and civic actions.
The Revitalization of Roadways and Other Routes at the City Level.
Mixed Use. This is part of the tradition of the city. It provides the vitality and variety necessary for urban life by combining various functions that address different social groups.
A Broad View Combined with Detailed Urban Design. The city must be dreamed, designed and conceived for a future that transcends the mark of a particular era, and its construction results from the efforts and intervention of several generations. The urban plan should propose projects of different scales that could be built at various points in time, and whose flexibility accepts transformations as circumstances require.
What makes this project different from others that preceded it?
We propose a holistic and integrated vision. The previous plans did not consider Havana for what it is: a whole, a territory with a particular ecosystem that arises from its geographical condition, its idiosyncrasies, and its culture. For the first time in history, and this is perhaps its greatest merit, this Master Plan conceives and develops ideas to transform the capital city in the short, medium, and long term, and to turn it into a modern city that honors its long history and expresses its continual process of change.
Unlike the plans outlined in the colonial period, which were of a military nature; those of the Republic, which were fragmented and limited only to certain areas; and those made by the Planning Department during the revolutionary period, which were dictated by the government and its priorities, the Master Plan for Havana of the 21st Century seeks to preserve the values of the existing city while emphasizing the need to create new economic and urban values. In addition, this plan does not follow any government dictates or orders. It is a labor of love for the city, done at no charge. It is a gift, a personal contribution.
How would you characterize the current state of architecture in Cuba? Where do its essential conflicts lie?
The current state of architecture is pitiful. No attention is given to the quality of projects or what is built, which results in a great waste: of land, resources, talent and time. This demonstrates ignorance and apathy. There is no system of values that differentiates architecture from simple construction. The conflicts begin in the schools: teachers don’t have the required professional authority and prestige, as they don´t have bodies of work that validate their careers. The teacher should be an example. When teaching it is necessary to know and learn, to have a work experience, a solid culture. For this reason, a new graduate cannot teach, as they have no professional experience, no teaching skills. This is a serious mistake.
The lack of a guide, with proven credentials and an established reputation based on academic and professional merits—essential for filling leadership positions at the school and departments levels—has contributed to the inadequate training of several generations of architects.
The profession of architecture demands sacrifice and dedication beyond the necessary and indispensable calling or sense of vocation. The subsequent motivation is part of the task of teachers whose conduct and work should serve as a model for future architects. Another factor is the lack of a professional practice that contributes to gradual, progressive training that teaches one to correct mistakes.
Another element is the uncritical assimilation of foreign projects and the rejection of Cuban architects in favor of foreign professionals of questionable reputation. The investment process is fraught with negative views and great corruption. This has contributed to the loss of authority and prestige for local architects—abandoned by institutions established to ensure their interests—and a loss of self-esteem and personal and professional dignity. The assignment of projects and jobs to foreign entities without formal competition not only involves excessive costs but invites the ideological dangers of globalization, which ignores culture, history and the profession itself. Other models and patterns have already been implemented.
Examples abound, all bad. They range from the hotels built by the Spanish hotel chain Meliá (Havana, Cohiba, Varadero) to those made for other hotel chains: Novotel or LTC in Monte Barreto, for the Dutch Grand Tulip (Central Park), the estate buildings (for investors in Monaco) at the 5th Avenue, or those built in Monte Barreto (like the Miramar Trade Center). In this area, ignorance about traditional urban design appears to have been collected and summarized, unable to assimilate either the values of context, natural and built, or mixed use. These projects fail even in the proper orientation of the buildings and their spatial relationships, leading to the devaluation of one of the few green areas in Havana. On the level of pure architecture, buildings lack the most basic quality of design and demonstrate a lack of mastery of scale and material use. It seems that hotels have established an award competition to emulate the worst building constructed by their predecessors. Among them are the Russian embassy and the dysfunctional Triton and Neptune hotels.
Along with your projects, you also conduct intensive workshops with architecture students. Which is the greater challenge: creating a “school around a teacher” or around concrete reality?
Both. I prefer to describe an experience in the process of the creation of the National School of Planning and Architecture, which has bet on the city, its monuments, but also its buildings sensitively integrated into their surroundings. In Havana, there are many examples from all eras, ranging from the Morro Castle, where the rock and the building fuse harmoniously, to the palaces of the late 18th century—an urban architecture of extraordinary value.
The workshops already held as Havana Charette convene, encourage, propose, and express a willingness to invite all without excluding anyone. They seek to establish a tradition (and there have been four consecutive workshops) of consultation: to show what has been done, without bias. The important thing is to transmit to students a love for the city and its surroundings as well as a responsibility towards it and its future, if we want Havana to remain the magical, poetic and magnetic city that captivates everyone with its charm, illuminates the way with its planning, and inspires with its architecture. Reality imposes challenges, but we must distinguish between circumstantial and temporary challenges and the real, truly critical challenges.
Do you believe in an architecture of the “author”—known in the U.S. as “starchitecture?”
The “author” architecture is a fallacy, an architecture oriented toward the object, not toward the city. Generally, works created by architects who are famous for being iconoclastic don´t endure. Or very few survive the passage of time or judicious, objective criticism when analyzed in their contexts, and not in magazines and books handled by skilled photographers.
The fact is that only a small group of architects survive objective criticism, and that’s true everywhere. I think that among them are Frank Lloyd Wright and Louis Kahn, of those from the past. Among the current ones is Renzo Piano, whose rigor in design and construction exceeds the rest. And perhaps the Japanese Tadao Ando. There is a lot of junk built in the name of “architecture of the author.”
The biggest problem caused by this way of doing things is the damage to the mentality and training of students, because it introduces patterns of imitation favored by ignorant teachers, who are lacking in visual culture and unable to develop their own personal work.
The maturity of an architect, I believe, is to learn so that their work is not weighted down by the architecture of “another author.” It is the greatest challenge and a great test of intellectual honesty.
Recently, you had a long and intense journey as a lecturer in U.S schools and universities. How would you describe the U.S. approach to Cuba’s architectural heritage and its future transformations?
There is great admiration and great appreciation for Cuba’s architectural heritage and the values of Havana. A great respect. I feel very proud, very happy when I speak of Havana, its architecture, its urbanism, which is intact so far despite those lost buildings. That’s why it’s so important to conserve the city beyond any building or group of buildings.
People encourage me in my job. They recognize it. I talk about Havana with love and great admiration. Everyone wants to see Havana, wants to come to Havana. Those who have been here want to return. It also stems from the fact that our nation is older, from its European roots—and let´s remember that towns and cities in Cuba were founded by Europeans—which is undoubtedly of enormous value. Spanish urban planning was of high quality and this, combined with the necessary adaptation to our climate, our geography, and other characteristics (like the availability of materials) produced a vernacular architecture of great value. In its essence, ‘vernacular’ means anonymous creators—the antithesis of the “architecture of the author” concept.
Moreover, in North America, there are only a few historic cities, and people recognize the historic values that are treasured in Havana along with architectural and urban values.
Many architecture professionals, and people in general have expressed their concern for future changes to the city, through the emergence of the market sensibility and the possibility of losing Havana by changing its seductive and romantic image. When I talk about it I always say that this fits the concept of the Master Plan for 21st-Century Havana.