Miraculous Statics overlays fiction and reality within Havana’s colonial mansions.
“When you find no new land, when you’re hemmed in, you still have one recourse […]
Excavate, walk on the vertical.
Search for the connection of the island with the continent, the key of the horizon.”
– Antonio Jose Ponte, A Knack for Making Ruins
Drawing from the remarkable short story, A Knack for Making Ruins by Cuban writer Antonio Jose Ponte, Miraculous Statics investigates the informal construction of the barbacoa within Central Havana: illegal lofts built within abandoned colonial mansions.
Miraculous Statics was produced under the mentorship of Tao Dufour, in the Spring 2017 Havana Travel Option Studio, Cornell University.
The barbacoa is essentially an improvised loft constructed to subdivide a room vertically, creating more living space at the second level, often a more private space. Literally and figuratively, the barbacoa creates a new horizon of expanded living space through vertical subdivision. The city folds into itself as it densifies.
As described by Patricio del Real, in Building the Barbacoas in Havana, Cuba:
“Barbacoas can be as simple as mezzanines or as complex as independent structures with multiple rooms and levels, wedged in residual spaces, patios or staircases.”
After the 1959 Cuban Revolution, the 1960 Urban Reform Law eradicated Cuba’s real estate market, meaning that houses could not be openly bought or sold, and homeownership could not be transferred. Houses were meant for living in, not for turning a profit. Increased rural-urban migration was then paired with a lack of new construction in the city centre, resulting in a densification of the existing urban fabric.
In the appropriation of an existing building, collapse and reconstruction occur, with traces and ghosts of past structures persisting in the reuse of scavenged material.
The exterior limits of Havana’s buildings did not change, but their interiors began to be increasingly subdivided, crowded with inhabitants. Abandoned colonial mansions, previously large single family residences or commercial buildings, were converted to multi-family residences for a new population.
The films Suite Habana, The New Art of Making Ruins, Havana Vignettes, and Real Sucio Habana were important resources in their depiction of Havana. These stills show rarely-seen interiors and their occupation, exploring thresholds, privacy, and domesticity.
Miraculous Statics is named after a book in Ponte’s short story, and is based on the exploration of the interior as a horizon, a new frontier for urban development. This drawing depicts Havana’s Malecon, the view when entering the city centre, its distant mountain ridges, and characteristic porticos.
For a site, I chose two buildings along Calle Reina, the main East-West street dividing Central Havana. The first, El Cetro de Oro, is a tenement house occupied by 36 families, subdivided on the two of its three levels, while the second, Casa de Jose Crusellas, is empty, awaiting renovation to become a community cultural centre.
The interior and exterior facades of El Cetro de Oro are unfolded here, from the facade facing the street to that of the interior courtyard and an interior room.
It is an assemblage of necessity, with the appropriation of fragments, and the writing of spolia into the domestic interior.
A community theatre-workshop is proposed as an intervention in Casa Crusellas(Reina 352, Central Havana, built in 1908), through the insertion of light scaffolding construction. This rezones the interior of a single building, through formally re-enacting the informal practice of loft-building.
Programmatically, workshop and studio spaces within the theater allow for the construction of multi-storey stage sets within two new flexible 13m-high spaces. The continual process of destruction and rebuilding that characterizes the barbacoa becomes a backstage performance in the everyday operation of the theatre.
Overlaid with site photographs, scenes from film stills, and objects from fiction, these collages visualize an interior where space is not static, where there is always another horizon, another space.