Cuba as Project: Mellon Seminar Visits Havana

Che Guevara's image on the facade of the Interior Ministry of Cuba.
Che Guevara's image on the facade of the Interior Ministry of Cuba. photo / Christine Kim (M.Arch '16)
McEnaney and student on a street in Central Havana.
From left, Assistant Professor Tom McEnaney from the College of Arts and Sciences and Alexandra Donovan (B.Arch. '18) in Central Havana, Cuba. photo / Hannah Bahnmiller (M.R.P. '17)
Filmmaker Kannan Arunasalam filming on the streets of Havana.
Documentary filmmaker Kannan Arunasalam shooting video for his documentary highlighting the stories of Cuba's public housing residents. photo / Hannah Bahnmiller (M.R.P. '17)
Students visit a former coffee plantation in western Cuba.
Mellon seminar students visit a former coffee plantation in the Las Terrazas community in western Cuba. photo / Daniel Preston (B.Arch. '17)
Houses line the banks of the Almendares River, Cuba.
On the banks of the Almendares River, Cuba. photo / Amanda Denham '19
The group at the ruins of El Instituto Superior de Arte in Cuba.
The group at the ruins of El Instituto Superior de Arte in Cuba. photo / Hannah Bahnmiller (M.R.P. '17)
A student at the ruins of El Instituto Superior de Arte, Cuba.
Alexandra Donovan (B.Arch. '18) at the ruins of El Instituto Superior de Arte, Cuba. photo / Hannah Bahnmiller (M.R.P. '17)
November 9, 2016

Students participating in the sixth Mellon Collaborative Studies seminar in Architecture, Urbanism, and the Humanities spent eight days in Cuba this September. The trip was one component of the interdisciplinary expanded practice seminar titled Cuba as Project: Urban, Political, and Environmental Transformations of the Island.

In line with the Mellon seminars' goal of open exchange between the arts, humanities and social sciences, and the design fields, the trip's itinerary was designed to both accommodate the students' different academic interests and blur disciplinary boundaries. The structure of the course is clustered into several topics within which the students pursue critical questions across different disciplines including architecture, urbanism, literature, film and media studies, anthropology, environmental philosophy, political economy, and political philosophy.

Cuba as Project is taught by Visiting Assistant Professor Tao DuFour, architecture; and Assistant Professor Tom McEnaney, comparative literature. DuFour and McEnaney brought their own areas of interest to the course's larger theme of transformation, and have encouraged students to do the same so that they might find unique places where their respective inquiries overlap.

"While the previous Mellon seminar I taught on urbanization in the Amazon explored certain theoretical paradigms in anthropology that problematized conceptions of the 'natural world,' my desire for the current seminar on Cuba was to approach the topic of the city more directly," noted DuFour. "The historical depth of Havana is palpable once you are there, and my intention was to interrogate with the students the historicity of the city as a constitutive dimension of the 'natural world'."

The Mellon seminar students were joined by DuFour's architecture option studio, Havana After Nature, as well as three invited guests — documentary filmmaker Kannan Arunasalam, architectural historian and theorist Iulia Statica, and Sonja Gandert, assistant curator at the Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art at Cornell.

"I had the privilege of following Arunasalam into a house in the Old Havana neighborhood to interview one of the many families living there," reflected Patrick Braga (B.A./B.S. URS '17), an undergraduate student in music and urban and regional studies. "Like many such houses across the old city, the walls presented a palimpsest of layered paint, building materials, and revolutionary propaganda. Having the opportunity to speak to people about their experiences with internal migration in Cuba, and about their relationships with their home, was a fantastic experience that tied solidly into topics we covered in class."

The group pursued an itinerary that intentionally shifted each day's focus; topics including problems related to housing in the old city; reimagined architectural projects of state institutions; and the direction of development for residential areas, industrial zones, and ecological conditions along the Almendares River were all made more tangible as a result of site visits, each entirely unique to the island.

"My approach to planning has always been policy-focused, and explicitly thinking about architecture and form has typically been secondary," said Hannah Bahnmiller (M.R.P. '17). "Our trip to Cuba highlighted how impossible it is to separate the impact of social, political, and economic forces from their built form, and just as much, the impact form has on its surrounding milieu. For example, Las Escuelas Nacionales de Arte, now called El Instituto Superior de Arte, made an enormous impression. This place embodied many of the revolutionary desires of the socialist state, but also underscored the weight of idealism and bureaucracy in whatever form they so often arrive."

"It was an extraordinary trip to study Cuba's past intersecting with its present," echoed McEnaney. "From the spectacular ruins of the Instituto Superior de Arte to the socialist housing projects of Alamar, to the eco-community of Las Terrazas, and the studio compound of well-known Cuban artist Kcho, the students had an unparalleled opportunity to experience the breadth and depth of Cuban art and architecture in such a short time."

Originating in 2013, the Mellon Collaborative Studies in Architecture, Urbanism, and the Humanities is a six-semester partnership between the Andrew D. Mellon Foundation; the College of Architecture, Art, and Planning; Cornell Libraries; The Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art; and the Society for the Humanities. It is a dual-seminar series, including both Expanded Practice Seminars and Urban Representation Labs, that together aim to establish reliable guideposts for advanced study of the global city.

By Edith Fikes