Javier Ors at "Hablemos de Arquitectura Moderna" in Cuba
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Let's Talk about Modern Architecture

Javier Ors at "Hablemos de Arquitectura Moderna" in Cuba

What can we do to ensure that twentieth-century Cuban modern architecture is not only preserved but used as an economic engine to drive growth in the country? This and other questions formed the base of Let's Talk about Modern Architecture (Hablemos de Arquitectura Moderna), a summit in March 2024 organized by DOCOMOMO Cuba, The Ludwig Foundation of Cuba, and Friends of Havana. The conference, at which I had the privilege of being an invited speaker, took place in the city of Havana between March 11 and 13 and brought together an incredible group of local and international experts. Among the speakers were representatives of different national committees of DOCOMOMO in Mexico, Brazil, the United States, and Cuba; members of ICOMOS; representatives of the Getty Conservation Institute in the U.S.; and the Office of the Historian of Havana in Cuba. Recognized professionals such as Rosa Lowinger, Eduardo Luis Rodríguez, Mariana Quiroga, and Leo Mármol were also among the speakers.  

The conference was historically important not only because it brought together such a large group of experts but also because it was the first expert international meeting organized in Cuba on the study, documentation, and conservation of modern architecture.  

Modern Cuban architecture of the twentieth century presents many challenges, with buildings as many as seven decades in some cases, harsh tropical climatic conditions, and a lack of economic resources for conservation and maintenance. Places such as the Tropicana Cabaret designed by Max Borges in 1951; the unfinished National Art Schools designed by Ricardo Porro, Roberto Gottardi, and Vittorio Garatti in 1960; and the José Antonio Echeverría University City (CUJAE) built between 1961 and 1964 were some of the case studies debated during the conference due to their heritage value and need for current critical conservation. 

The conference was also an opportunity to present different projects and initiatives for the conservation, documentation, and enhancement of modern heritage in the diverse contexts of Latin America and the U.S. All speakers proposed a wide range of ideas and activities that can serve as points of inspiration in the Cuban context. Special attention was paid to the cultural and social activities organized by Palm Springs Modernism Week in California and the World Monuments Fund (WMF)/Knoll Modernism Prize, which recognizes modern architecture conservation projects carried out by architects across the globe. 

The Cuban architect and architectural historian Eduardo Luis Rodríguez presented the ongoing need to continue researching and studying modern architecture. More importantly, in my opinion, he also spoke about the immediate need to move towards real action and implement restoration and conservation projects at modern architectural heritage sites before it is too late. 

Representing WMF, I explained our vision and presented some of our most recent projects conserving and enhancing modernism in the world. Among these projects is the recently completed conservation and management plan (CMP) in collaboration with the Getty Foundation for India’s Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel Stadium, a brutalist cricket ground designed in the 1960s by Charles Correa and Mahendra Raj. Another WMF project I discussed was La Maison du Peuple (People's House) in Burkina Faso, where we are training architecture students in the conservation of reinforced concrete. La Maison du Peuple was designed by René Faublée in 1965 in a brutalist style that he adapted to the colors, textures, and patterns of the vernacular earthen buildings of Burkina Faso. The building has skylights reminiscent of traditional Mossi architecture and provides natural light and passive ventilation to the main auditorium. Finally, the WMF/Knoll Modernism Prize itself generated great interest among attendees due to its importance in recognizing the conservation work that architects undertake around the world—and this year, for the first time in its history since was founded in 2008, it was awarded to a conservation project in Latin America, the Casa Sobre el Arroyo, in Mar del Plata, Argentina. 

In addition to the presentations and workshops in which all the speakers and experts participated, the conference was a unique opportunity to visit a small selection of places in Havana with great heritage value. The first visit was the residence of the Swiss ambassador to Cuba, a house designed by architect Richard Neutra in collaboration with Cuban architect Raúl Álvarez and Brazilian landscape designer Roberto Burle Marx. This visit was followed by a tour of the National Schools of Art, a complex of impressive and visionary buildings designed by Ricardo Porro, Roberto Gottardi, and Vittorio Garatti in 1960. These were never completed due to various political and economic ups and downs on the island. Finally, we visited the Las Ruinas restaurant, a tropical brutalist structure designed by Joaquín Galván in 1970 that puts architecture and nature in direct contact with one another through an attractive system of platforms and open terraces. 

A distinctive feature of these places is their adaptation to the tropical climate, history, and other local particularities of Cuba and the Caribbean. Learning about modern Cuban architecture and its current situation through the presentations of professional colleagues, the debates and conversations we had in Havana last March, and the visits we made that week have made a deep impression on me and inspired a great interest in this heritage. Even though Cuban modernism may not be familiar to many, it has immense cultural, historical, and social value.  

The physical conditions of these buildings and their need for conservation, financial resources, and intellectual exchange between professionals have only reinforced my opinion about the important role that WMF has in continuing to support the conservation of twentieth-century modern heritage. It is heritage from our most recent past—which represents the experimentation, vision, and progressive values of the architects of the time—which currently needs to be valued and preserved to continue serving the contemporary society and culture of Cuba. 

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