The Island the Day After: A New Experiment for Cuba | M.Arch Thesis

Advisor: Ana Miljacki
Readers: Angelo Bucci, J. Meejin Yoon

This thesis seeks to investigate the role of architecture in staging, broadcasting, and promoting political and social ideologies, especially as new political regimes come to power and are confronted with the monuments and built artifacts of their predecessors. This thesis is interested in how the optimistic promises of any nascent government are staged in buildings and in the city. What sites remain, are transformed, or are torn down? The story of Havana’s growth in the twentieth century is directly tied to the political motivations of its leaders. While the country was free from the Spanish but not quite independent, the city grew up. Casinos, high-rise apartments and hotels captured coastal real estate through which money could be funneled to the upper echelons of the Batista regime. Along with Fidel Castro came a promise of utopia. For a brief moment, the revolution sponsored a new, experimental architectural form. The US Embargo and the fall of the Soviet Union halted Havana’s growth and urbanization abruptly.

This history suggests three key attitudes towards architecture as a site of politics: augmentation through additional construction, erasure of buildings in order to re-write history, or inhabitation of a building in order to reuse its infrastructure while simultaneously changing its function and image. In order to test these strategies, this thesis inserts itself in a future moment of crisis and revolution in Cuba, a moment akin to the Cuba’s independence movement and to the time of Castro’s rise to power. It questions the inevitability of a wave of capitalism washing over the island in the post-Castro years and instead imagines a new state-sponsored project to make Cuba 100 percent food-independent. In this future, the state witnesses the political turmoil and instability around the globe and realizes it cannot rely on foreign aid and imports to feed its people; it designs a return to its agrarian past.

This thesis argues for an alternate ending to the story of Cuba’s experiment with socialism. While construction was cut short due to political contingencies in the early 1960s, could there be a new experiment for the Havana of today? Can the aspiration for a collective urbanity be revived? Where will the future sites of production exist in the city? In Havana, there are pockets of vibrant life, notably in the Old City, along La Rampa, or along the Malecon. Here, glimpses of the promised socialist dream may still be visible. This thesis asks if these few social islands (or social condensers in the words of O.M. Ungers) can be saved, if they can become sites of non-capitalist production and education, and if they can help sustain Cuba into our unknown future.