Cuban Architects Defend their Profession

and right to work independently of the State

A view of Havana from Paseo Avenue. Photo: Jéssica Domínguez

By Jessica Dominguez Delgado  (El Toque)

HAVANA TIMES – Independent architecture studios began to pop up ever since 2015, especially in Havana, without any legal protection. However, they responded to a social demand from the budding private sector and the boom that US-Cuba relations brought.

These studios provided solutions to the needs of those who wanted creative architectural solutions for their construction projects. In the meantime, they continued to fight a silent war for legal status. Now, they suffered a setback on February 10, 2021, when the Cuban government published a list of banned activities for self-employment.

The Ministry of Labor and Social Security recently identified 124 prohibited activities, explicitly banning those relating to architecture and engineering. According to the National Classification of Economic Activities, the following can’t be practiced privately:

– Architecture consultancy activities that include designing buildings and drawing up building plans, urban planning, and landscape architecture.

– Engineering design that includes civil, hydraulic and traffic engineering projects, water management projects, electrical and electronics, mechanical, industrial and systems engineering projects, or construction-related project management.

Professional associations are also banned, including those for architects and engineers.

The document from the Ministry of Labor – which isn’t a legal document because the regulation has yet to be published – establishes which activities are banned within the self-employment sector. Previously they named the allowed work activities. In addition to architects and engineers, the list also excludes other professions (lawyers, journalists, economists, accountants, doctors) who can only practice if they are linked to the public sector.

The implementation of this list means that any architecture project or solution is solely reserved for state institutions and companies. However, the private practice of other professions linked to construction, such as bricklaying, plumbing and electricity work, has now been recognized. Design work has also been authorized.

“This ban will leave a vacuum within the city, where builders will make decisions that correspond to architects and engineers. This not only affects these spaces, but also the city’s image. The architect is essential in rebuilding houses and other buildings. Likewise, the private sector represents a key force if we want prosperous cities,” said Gabriela Garcia, an architect and co-coordinator of the international event “Our city, our space.”

Nelson Palomino, an architect from Matanzas, would like his own studio. He says that this list clearly spells out the ban for architects and engineers. Those who practice behind the illogical curtain of another activity are now facing the possibility of being investigated and their work being considered an illegal economic activity.

If this is the case, the private sector will take the hardest hit as it can’t receive a service because the State lacks the infrastructure needed to meet this demand. State-led companies need large budgets in order to be efficient in their social mission and only carry out projects on a large architectural scale.

You couldn’t work as a private architect in Cuba before this regulation either, but that hasn’t stopped some professionals seeking out loopholes in the Law and creating independent studios to exercise as architects outside of the state. There are approximately thirty of them today, working seriously with constant projects. Most of whom are young and have recently graduated from Cuban universities.

Fernando Martinera, a partner and architect at Infraestudio, was taken aback by the new list. “This work was in a murky area before, it wasn’t banned or allowed; but now it’s been clearly banned. As a result, it leaves a group of professionals, who decided to stay in their country and work for the private sector, without work. Companies for State-led Projects and Community Architect Offices don’t have the infrastructure to respond to the private sector’s demands. I imagine that this sector will now rely on Pinterest and improvisation. It will be a great challenge for popular architecture without creativity, and the city and its inhabitants are the ones who have a lot to lose,” he says.

Legal alternatives used up until now to exercise architecture in the private sector range from licenses as a party and interior decorator, or builder, depending on the activity they want to do, whether they execute the work themselves or not. This only includes preliminary ideas for projects that they can’t do “in theory”, or basic engineering projects without carrying them out. Nor can these projects have any record or author’s rights.  

Furthermore, there are some people who have protected themselves with the figure of the independent creator linked to institutions such as the Cuban Fund of Cultural Goods (for artists/craftspeople) or the National Office of Design (for designers). These intermediary institutions are a legal obligation and they get a cut of the work in exchange for their representation, which has been widely criticized.

President Miguel Diaz-Canel said the following about this during the Closing Ceremony of the 9th UNEAC Congress in June 2019: “Some institutions and companies have fallen behind. Cultural industries can provide for the country, that’s why they have their companies. Artists have the duty of paying their taxes, but they shouldn’t have to pay companies if these haven’t had anything to do with their work contracts, promotion or their legal status… This parasitism encourages corruption and covers up their failure to represent artists and their work, and seek opportunities for them.”

On social media and in professional spaces, many architects reject the inclusion of their profession on the list of banned activities and the social consequences this implies. They have also said that they hope the Government reassesses this decision.

Nguyen Rodriguez Barrera, an architect and university professor, said “this tentative list creates sadness in a profession. One that hopes for regularization of their professional activity so they can join the economic response that the country hopes for. Finding concrete solutions for construction, housing, public spaces, services, local development, etc. The public sector by itself can no longer cover this demand.

Independent architecture organizes and puts forward a proposal

According to Orlando Inclan Castaneda, architect and assistant professor at the Technology University in Havana (CUJAE), independent architecture doesn’t exist in Cuba. “It doesn’t legally exist, it doesn’t exist in official circles, it doesn’t exist in specialized critique or in current social demands. However, it exists and coexists in a country allowing it to take life in cracks, without officially recognizing it. What has been happening, especially over the past 10 years, makes the difference between building with and without architects extremely clear. The same as the difference between a cultural product and a mediocre one, one that rescues the city and elevates it, and the other that destroys and impoverishes it.”

The Cuban Studies Group of Architecture (GECA) was conceived with the intention of grouping together independent professional projects, a space in which colleagues and friends can share exhibitions, talks, publications, conferences, parties and studio visits. They have created a community around the professional interests that are expressed on WhatsApp, Facebook and Instagram.

“Ever since 2019, we have formed part of the UNAICC (National Association of Architects and Construction Engineers) group, and we take part in activities that are promoted for this trade via this association. Practicing privately, many members have managed to bag national awards. We actively participate in Architecture week in March 2020, we execute nonprofit projects and studies for the good of society, as well as other activities that pay taxes directly in cities,” Inclan explains, GECA’s president.

Up until now, the main activity of independent studios has been linked to the private sector, focusing on designing homes and businesses, but from a professional, creative perspective, respectful of urban planning regulations and city heritage. Additionally, working towards the transformation of public spaces.

Different legal alternatives that people have found have allowed them to work, even in the public sector, on social projects. Some noteworthy examples of projects carried out by independent studios recently are:

The project by architects Alejandra Casanova, Jose Luis Alcala and Victor Pancorbo —members of CAP Estudio— to create a complex of social housing blocks using a deserted dilapidated tenement (that still exists) as the plot of land, on the corner of Hospital and San Rafael street, in front of Trillo Park.

Foto: Cortesía CAP
Foto: Cortesía CAP

Created by Fernanda Martirena, Anadis Gonzalez and David Medina in 2016, with its own discourse and identity, Infraestudio de Arquitectura has executed projects linked to literature, the visual arts and culture in general, and they transcend just the aesthetic.

Proposal for the Contemporary Art Center at no.508 Linea in Vedado. Courtesy of Infraestudio.
Proposal for the Reforestation of Marti Park. “Jardines que No Existen” project in collaboration with Maria Kalach and Alberto Kalach. Courtesy of Infraestudio.
The revamp proposal for La Pera park is currently being executed by the Central Havana government, but was conceived by H[r]G_arquitectura. The studio was founded in 2011 between different members of the trade who formed part of the Habana Regeneracion project, a resarch group working in the coastal area of Old Havana.

Other studios such as Nivel 4, Pino Estudio, Albor Arquitectos, OPV Arquitectura, PRIMARIO Arquitectura y Diseño have also made a name for themselves in the private sector.

Fernando Martinera, who is also a coordinator at GECA, believes that Cuban architecture should be a collective and inclusive act. “Cuban architecture in the ‘60s was an intelligent reflection of the social discourse at the time. Buildings such as the Art Schools, CUJAE, Giron Building or the Cuba Pavilion are symbols of an era and an idea of the country, which are admired both in and outside Cuba today. I am concerned about what idea we are projecting about today’s society for the country’s future with the architecture we have built in recent decades, even more so if all projects now depend only on state investments.”

In the article De qué hablamos cuando hablamos de arquitectura cubana contemporánea, this young man explains that “from 1971 until 2011, there was a kind of gap in our architectural history, that was reflected in the architect’s role in society. They weren’t exactly needed back then, creative architecture was considered a trace of the bourgeoisie in bad taste.” A vision that we still don’t seem to have shaken.

In a country with housing that require historic interventions, with cities with old and insufficient residential housing, this is no small matter. According to the general housing policy, there were a total of 3,824,861 houses in the country up until June 2017, 39% of which were in a regular and poor technical state and 849,753 people were living in precarious conditions. The housing deficit rose to 929,695 houses and 209,861 needed to be renovated or built because of climate-related damages. The Government is planning to resolve this by building 68,590 new buildings by 2029. Plus, collapses are an everyday reality and, in Havana alone, there are 104 “temporary” shelters where people wait for a home.

There are also public projects and urban development projects in cities, so skilled personnel are needed. Recent decades saw the construction of housing projects with a homogenous architectural design and scarce urban development. Without creative architecture, the buildings have very little value, with aesthetic and functional shortcomings for cities.

Gabriela Garcia says that “authorizing architects and engineers to work independently would not only reduce the informal growth that exists within the private sector today, but alliances could also be created with local governments and companies where there is feedback to enrich development plans. Similarly, public projects should be submitted to bids, which both public and private architects can participate in. This would improve the quality of Cuban contemporary architectural design quite significantly.”

Nguyen Rodriguez summarizes the positive change that rescinding this regulation would imply.

“Allowing architects to work in the private sector, would increase prospects for development and growth in Cuban cities. Professionals, who have been trained in the national education system, have vast experience in the state-led, institutional and private sectors. They could take part in developing different building and urban processes undertaken in cities today.

“They would work on a wider range projects, while collaborating with state companies in issues such as housing, self-construction, urban development, the public space, services, etc. It would contribute to training the workforce, which does not always have the best technical knowledge. Thus, ensuring that urban regulations of the Institute of Physical Planning and city Historian’s offices, are met. Likewise, the application of a new urban agenda and the UN’s development goals. It would boost work opportunities for architects and engineers and would open the doors to stronger alliances between different productive sectors and academia. Furthermore, it would help to stop the country’s brain drain.”

There are many ways for architects and urban planners to accompany growth and consolidation in the city. Rejecting this contribution is the easiest thing to do, but it’s also the most dangerous and destructive for our surroundings, Orlando Inclan concludes.

Read more from Cuba here on Havana Times.

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