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Cuba’s postrevolution architecture provides a blueprint on how to build more with fewer resources
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Cuba’s postrevolution architecture provides a blueprint on how to build more with fewer resources

Pencil drawings of different arches.


Around the world, there’s a conjoined crisis of climate change and housing shortages – two topics at the top of the list of discussionsIn the recent COP26 climate summitGlasgow

Construction and buildings account for more than one-quarter of global greenhouse gas emissions. According to a September report by the U.S. alone has been experiencing significant growth. is short 5.24 million homes.

Building structures is necessary to address both crises more sustainablyAnd more efficiently.

But this isn’t the first time architects and governments have had to deal with dwindling resources and the task of housing large numbers of people. In 1959, an armed revolt led by Fidel Castro ousted Cuba’s military dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista. As part of a broader plan to improve the quality of life for millions of Cubans, Castro’s new government sought to develop a program to mass-produce new housing, schools and factories.

This dream was thwarted by difficult realities over the years. Supply chain disruptions and sanctions had caused a shortage in conventional building materials.

Architects realized that they had to do more with less materials and invent new methods for building with local materials.

A technique that has been around for over a thousand years

In an articleI co-authored this article with an architect and engineer Michael RamageArchitecture Dania González CouretWe focused on a particular structural element that these Cuban architect quickly identified: the tile vault.

Tile vaultingThis technique is one that thrived in the eastern Mediterranean. after the 10th century.

This involves building arched ceilings from multiple layers of lightweight Terracotta tiles. The builders use fast-setting mortar to attach the tiles with very little temporary support. The builder then adds layers of lime mortar or normal cement to the tiles. This technique doesn’t require expensive machinery or use of a lot of timber for formwork. But speed and skill are crucial.

Pencil drawings of different arches.

Three types of vaults – clockwise, from top left: conventional stone, tiled dome and tiled vault.
Luis Moya Blanco, CC BY-ND

Tile vaulting is popular due to its durability and affordability. to different parts of EuropeAnd the Americas. It was known as Guastavino tiling in the U.S – a nod to Spanish architect Rafael Guastavino, who used the technique in over 1,000 projects in the U.S., including the Boston Public Library and New York’s Grand Central Station.

Vaults in vogue

Cuban tile vaults were used to build the Escuelas Nacionales de Arte, the National Art Schools.

Fidel Castro advocated for the construction of the five schools on what, before the revolution, had been a golf course in Cubanacán, a town west of Havana.

The design was created by Roberto Gottardi and Vittorio Garatti. schools integrate terra cotta shells and arches with the site’s green landscape. They were thought to be the only post-revolutionary Cuban tile vault buildings.

We discovered that the National Art Schools are just the tip of the iceberg. There were many vault experiments and projects that took place from 1960 to 1965.

Black and white photo of an open air arched building.

Vittorio Gatti’s School of Ballet is one of five vaulted National Art Schools in Havana.
M. Wesam Al Asali, CC BY-SA

Shortly after the revolution, architects and engineers at the Ministry of Construction – known as MICONS – went to Camagüey, a province known for its terra cotta brick-making, to learn more about the craft. Juan Campos Almanza (a recent University of Havana graduate), was one of these architects. As an experiment, he constructed a load-bearing vault in the Azorin brick factory.

It was a great success. He went on to use the design to construct affordable and elegant beachfront homes in Santa Lucía, north of Camagüey, using the same vault design.

Vaulted homes lined up side by side.

Juan Campos Almanza’s beachfront homes were built based on a vaulting experiment that took place in 1960.
Documentation Center, Office of the Historian of Havana, CC BY-ND

The best of both the worlds

Brick-and tile vault construction was a promising option to build cost-effective ceilings.

The Center of Technical Investigations, an agency tasked with developing housing, schools and factories, used Almanza’s research to construct its own vaulted offices. An outdoor space nearby – famously called “El Patio del MICONS” – became a staging ground for more structural experiments.

In El Patio, craftspeople, engineers and architects worked together to develop affordable vaulted buildings, while teachers at El Patio’s tile masons’ school taught building techniques to cohorts of apprentices.

In 1961, builders practice putting up a vaulted roof at the Patio del MICONS.
Documentation Center, Office of the Historian of Havana

Soon, homes and buildings with a vaulted roof began to appear all over the country. Juan Campos Almanza, a 1961 resident of Altahabana near Havana, built simple barrel vaults using prefabricated beams. Similar designs were used in more beachfront houses, schools, factories.

Mario Girona, an architect, built Marianao’s vaulted elementary school.
Documentation Center, Office of the Historian of Havana

In his report about the Altahabana pilot project, Campos defined his method as “tradicional mejorado,” or “improved traditional construction” – a mix of conventional building methods with some prefabricated elements.

This, he said, allowed builders to have the best of both: Some constructions were built by hand and others were fast and easily replicated. And it didn’t require a lot of materials and preexisting infrastructure.

The vaulted Pre-University Center at Liberty City is the best example of this construction technique. It was once a U.S. Army Base. The structure was designed in 1961 by Josefina Rebellón, who at the time was a third-year architecture student.

Only a couple of miles from the Schools of Art, Rebellón’s design was completed in 18 months. It consisted of two circular vaulted structures with conical vaults. Prefabricated beams were also used. There was an undulating 2-story classroom building between them.

Bird's-eye drawing of two circular buildings
A sketch of Josefina Rebellón’s Pre-University Center.
Documentation Center, Office of the Historian of Havana, CC BY-ND

A brief experiment, but a lasting legacy

These exciting new construction methods didn’t last long.

Havana hosted the 1963 International Union of Architects conference. That year’s theme was Architecture in Developing Countries.

The conference provided Cuban architects with an opportunity to reflect upon their recent experiences. The Ministry of Construction wanted to end the period of experimentation it considered. Mass housing, they argued required industrialized construction.

The first buildings were made in factories, then they were assembled on-site. Skilled and specialized labor, like vault-building, was no longer seen as an asset but an obstacle, since vault builders were difficult to find in the country’s remote areas, and novice builders required extensive training.

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The story of these buildings teaches us lessons about designing with scarcity.

It is important to be able to experiment. Collaboration between builders, governments, and architects is essential. And craftsmanship matters, too, whether it’s tile vaulting or traditional carpentry.

Buildings that require craftsmanship were once considered to be expensive projects that used techniques that were better suited to a different time. But the Cubans were able show that craftsmanship can still be improved and scaled up with technological advances.

A few promising initiatives today show how tile vaulting can be used for the benefit of society. low-carbon construction of buildingsOr engineered ceiling systems. Tile vaulting is taught in Cuba. Escuela Taller Gaspar Melchor, a training center in Havana’s historical center.

Cuba’s vaulted architecture reflects the relationship between necessity and invention, a process that many people mistakenly think of as automatic. It isn’t. It’s a relationship built on perseverance, trial-and-error, and above all, passion.

You don’t need to look far for the legacy Juan Campos Almanza left behind, including beautiful, replicable structures, many of which still stand today.


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