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Urban Agricultural Center (Chief Seattle Social Club)
Havanna, Cuba, 2001

Six years of Design/Build Mexico projects had been completed as the hours approached to plan the 2001 studio project. The design/build pedagogical model had been developed and tested during these years, and in this seventh year the opportunity emerged to test the program’s community/student pedagogy in a new place under different dynamics—in the economy and culture of Cuba. This seemed like a rare opportunity to take students into a setting ripe with new challenges, so the Design/Build Mexico faculty committed to doing a short three-week project building an Urban Agricultural Center in Havana. We accommodated this project by cutting the following time we had in Mexico from our usual ten weeks down to seven.

To the casual visitor Havana appears to be a city stuck in a time warp, but really it has been in continuous transition ever since the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s. Russia’s subsequent withdrawal of economic and political support from Cuba affected the city fundamentally, both as an institution and society. In this moment of crisis Havanna had to re-imagine and re-engineer itself and new and innovative solutions to the traditional urban patterns were arrived at in the process. An example was the loss of a reliable automobile fuel source. Overnight, the prescient mayor of Havana ordered a million bicycles from China, setting in motion a trend that would fundamentally change citizens’ urban life.

This fuel crisis particularly affected food production and transport all over the island country. It became apparent to the Cuban people that their future lay in the conservation and reallocation of their agricultural resources and, for the capitol city, this meant creating a close, reliable food source. All over the city fallow open lots in schools, factories, roadsides, and former estates were converted to small food-producing gardens. At the time of our arrival in 2001, 40 percent of the food consumed in Havana, a city of 2.8 million people, was being produced within the city limits. The Urban Agricultural Center project was developed to give urban food producers a meeting place where they could share information and socialize, following the long tradition of Cuban social clubs (most familiar to people in the U.S. through the music of the Buena Vista Social Club).

This project came to the Design/Build Mexico studio thanks to a relationship developed by Jim Diers, the former superintendent of Seattle Parks and Recreation, with the city of Havana years earlier. In Havana, Jim had seen the impact that pea-patch garden programs, like those he was promoting in Seattle, could have if implemented at a large scale. Over the years he had also been instrumental in helping faculty from the UW Architecture Department like Barry Onouye, Steve Badanes, and Andy Vanags establish local community garden projects in various Seattle neighborhoods (see chapter 3, Howard S. Wright Design/Build Studio). Through Steve he learned more about Design/Build Mexico and as he became more interested in Havana’s urban agriculture model, he decided to pitch the Urban Agricultural Center project to us. Meanwhile, Seattle Parks and Recreation had created another partnership with the international not-for-profit Food First, which looks at the world’s food needs and at how food production can become a smaller-scale, more sustainable activity. Food First had brought a delegation of Cuban artists to Seattle to create public art in Seattle’s parks. Jim convinced us that we should travel to Cuba as a work delegation, taking on the agricultural center as an exchange for the Cuban artists’ work in Seattle.

Arriving in Cuba we were struck at once by the richness of the Cuban intellectual culture. Art and education were valued and cultivated everywhere we went and in everyone we met. Actual goods and products were nearly impossible to come by, so intellectual capital ending up being our most valuable resource as we worked to build this project. The few state sponsored building material markets had a limited selection; on a material run it was typical to find only one size of nails and two colors of paint. And, even if the building materials we needed had been readily available for purchase, our U.S. Treasury visa restricted us from investing U.S. dollars on construction. By tapping into the wealth of energy and ideas offered by the community, we found alternate solutions. We ended up doing everything through acts of solidarity, gathering things from anywhere we could. It became a true scrounge act, which was a valuable lesson for students who had normally worked in places where a variety of construction materials are available. They became committed to limiting our material demands through careful design and then fulfilling them with recycled or non-traditional materials.

Our building site was in a community of agricultural workers tending what are considered large urban plots, 2–3 acre farms, carved out of the former wealthy estate neighborhoods of Havana. We were given an old industrial chicken coop that we renovated into a semi-open-air meeting hall, our first big recycling move. Like our Mexico projects, heat gain was a major concern. The existing metal roof offered great shade, but at the same time conducted most of the sun’s heat into the space. The students designed a solution in which they hung masonite ceiling panels from the existing roof structure, creating a double layer between the interior and the hot sun. The air between the layers created a heat break, which was ventilated through the roof, allowing the roof to absorb the sun’s heat without transmitting it into the building. The smaller entrance pergolas and inner roofs were constructed on concrete columns that were poured into large, locally harvested timber bamboo as formwork, since the usual sonotubes were not available.

Students envisioned the project as one that would help promote and celebrate the rich variety of social groups engaged in urban agriculture in Seattle and Havana. To this end Seattle artist Linda Beaumont joined us once again and brought 300 pounds of broken, recycled hand-blown Seattle glass. With the students, she created rich mosaics on the front façade of the building which overlooks a large terrace of recycled brick. The terrace acts as an outdoor meeting space under the shade of an allée of trees. Surrounding the entire construction was a garden designed by the landscape architecture students that wraps the building in the Cuban flag when it flowers.

Overall the building diagram is very simple, as one would expect from any three-week project. While the mosaic and garden function to celebrate the space, the real lessons came from simply trying to create architecture based primarily on the human and intellectual capacity of the students and our collaborators in the agricultural community. We had never had to do so much with so little, and this was an experience that dramatically affected our students. The subsequent library they designed and built in the remaining seven weeks in Mexico showed a greater degree of economy of labor and material than we ever had seen before, and yet the architecture was just as compelling as any of our other buildings. We had to believe these were the lessons of Cuba.

During our final celebration at the Chief Seattle Social Club, as this Urban Agricultural Center came to be christened, the local farmers prepared swordfish and pig over an open fire using the metal frame and springs from an old mattress as a barbeque grate. This makeshift but effective oven was the perfect example of what it means to live and work in Cuba, and the taste of that food is testimony that sometimes less is more.

Voice, Cuban Agricultural Center

We should continue with this work because this is an activity that can benefit us all . . . you and us both . . . to better our relations through friendship and work. This will be something productive for the whole world.

--Urban farmer
Havana, Cuba