Housing La Habana Vieja: Reframing the Formal and Informal Vernacular

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Virginia Tech

The design of housing in an urban fabric designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site requires consideration of the historic character and how each building contributes to the streetscape. Beyond the facade, one discovers the unique story of each parcel through the transformations that its residents have enacted over many centuries in order to accommodate greater density and the evolution of family structures. One might even find a record of building periods following a hurricane, for example, inscribed by hand on a column in the shared patio for the collective memory of current and future tenants. These transformations are almost all realized through self-effort construction and are a community-building exercise. Unfortunately, the paradox that accompanies the informal typologies to construct additional housing is destructive more often than not. The additions to and division of the highly articulated residential architecture in Havana have a pervasive impact on the building structure and exacerbates the decay of the built environment. The formal typologies established to define thresholds and transition between public and private spaces are as much a part of the social landscape as the informal insertions. Housing la Habana Vieja calls for a reconciliation of the architectural heritage with contemporary building attitudes in its design for multi-family housing in the historic city center of Cuba.

This project addresses the housing crisis in Havana and proposes a resolution that is suited to the "economy of means, both material and aesthetic,"to appropriate the design philosophy of Cuban-American architect Belmont Freeman. The context investigates the underpinnings of housing attitudes by identifying milestones and gaining perspective from dialogue with the residents of la Habana Vieja. Documenting the formal and informal typologies allowed for a comparison of both their spatial implications and their performance, or function. The design proposal explores the intersection of these typologies to manifest the social behaviors and cultural values in the definition of shared and private space. The formal typologies engage the transitional qualities of space by layering building elements as thresholds to private realms. The informal typologies are engaged in the construction of habitable space by activating the immediate built environment through the addition and multiplication of planes. To design at the corner of the past and present is to preserve the vernacular and brandish the opportunities that the future holds for Housing la Habana Vieja.

Havana, heritage, housing, vernacular, informal