Want to build more with less? Look to 1960s Cuba

By M. Wesam Al Asal 6 minute Learn

Development and buildings account for more than one-quarter of global greenhouse gas emissions. In the meantime, in accordance to a September report by Realtor.com, the U.S. alone is short 5.24 million homes.

Addressing each crises would require constructing buildings more sustainably and more efficiently.

However this isn’t the primary time architects and governments have had to deal with dwindling assets and the duty of housing massive numbers of individuals. In 1959, an armed revolt led by Fidel Castro ousted Cuba’s army dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista. As a part of a broader plan to enhance the standard of life for thousands and thousands of Cubans, Castro’s new authorities sought to develop a program to mass-produce new housing, faculties and factories.


Within the years that adopted, nevertheless, this dream clashed with tough realities. Sanctions and provide chain disruptions had created a scarcity of standard constructing supplies.

Architects realized they wanted to do more with much less and invent new building strategies utilizing native supplies.

A thousand-year-old approach

In an article that I co-authored with architect and engineer Michael Ramage and architect Dania González Couret, we explored the inventive challenges of this era by specializing in a particular structural aspect that these Cuban architects quickly seized upon: the tile vault.

Tile vaulting is a way that flourished within the japanese Mediterranean after the 10th century.

It includes establishing arched ceilings manufactured from a number of layers of light-weight terra cotta tiles. To build the primary layer, the builders use fast-setting mortar to glue the tiles collectively with barely any momentary assist. Afterward, the builder provides more layers with regular cement or lime mortar. This system doesn’t require costly equipment or use of a variety of timber for formwork. However pace and craftsmanship are paramount.

Three kinds of vaults – clockwise, from prime left: standard stone, tiled dome and tiled vault. [Photo: Luis Moya Blanco/courtesy of the author/CC BY-ND]

Due to its affordability and sturdiness, tile vaulting unfold to different parts of Europe and the Americas. It grew to become generally known as Guastavino tiling within the U.S – a nod to Spanish architect Rafael Guastavino, who used the approach in over 1,000 projects in the U.S., together with the Boston Public Library and New York’s Grand Central Station.


Vaults in vogue

In Cuba, tile vaults have been famously used to build the Nationwide Artwork Colleges, or Escuelas Nacionales de Arte.

Fidel Castro advocated for the development of the 5 faculties on what, earlier than the revolution, had been a golf course in Cubanacán, a city west of Havana.

Designed by Ricardo Porro, Vittorio Garatti and Roberto Gottardi, the schools integrate terra cotta shells and arches with the site’s green landscape. They have been lengthy thought to be the one tile vault buildings in post-revolution Cuba.

Nevertheless, we found that the Nationwide Artwork Colleges are solely the tip of the iceberg. From 1960 to 1965, a variety of vault experiments and tasks befell throughout the nation.

The College of Ballet by Vittorio Gratti, one of many 5 vaulted Nationwide Artwork Colleges in Havana. [Photo: M. Wesam Al Asali/courtesy of the author/CC BY-SA]

Shortly after the revolution, architects and engineers on the Ministry of Development – generally known as MICONS – went to Camagüey, a province recognized for its terra cotta brick-making, to be taught more concerning the craft. Certainly one of these architects, Juan Campos Almanza, then a current graduate of the College of Havana, led the analysis group. As an experiment, he constructed a load-bearing vault on the grounds of the Azorin brick manufacturing unit.

It was a hit. He went on to use the design to assemble reasonably priced and chic beachfront properties in Santa Lucía, north of Camagüey, utilizing the identical vault design.

Juan Campos Almanza’s beachfront properties have been constructed primarily based on a vaulting experiment that befell in 1960. [Photo: Documentation Center/Office of the Historian of Havana/courtesy of the author/CC BY-ND]

The most effective of each worlds

Brick-and-tile vault building appeared to be a promising answer to build replicable and cost-effective ceilings.

The Heart of Technical Investigations, an company tasked with creating housing, faculties and factories, used Almanza’s analysis to assemble its personal vaulted places of work. An outside house close by – famously known as “El Patio del MICONS” – grew to become a staging floor for more structural experiments.

In El Patio, craftspeople, engineers and designers labored collectively to develop reasonably priced vaulted buildings, whereas academics at El Patio’s tile masons’ college taught constructing strategies to cohorts of apprentices.

Vaulted buildings and houses quickly began cropping up throughout the nation. In 1961, Juan Campos Almanza accomplished his first housing tasks in Altahabana, a brand new neighborhood situated close to Havana, constructing easy barrel vaults on prefabricated beams. Related designs have been used for more beachfront homes, faculties and factories.

In his report concerning the Altahabana pilot undertaking, Campos outlined his methodology as “tradicional mejorado,” or “improved conventional building” – a mixture of standard constructing strategies with some prefabricated parts.


This manner, he argued, builders may acquire the most effective of each worlds: The development, a few of it constructed by hand, was quick and replicable. And it didn’t require a variety of supplies and preexisting infrastructure.

The most effective instance of this building methodology is the vaulted Pre-College Heart at Liberty Metropolis, the location of a former U.S. Military base. The construction was designed in 1961 by Josefina Rebellón, who on the time was a third-year structure pupil.

Solely a few miles from the Colleges of Artwork, Rebellón’s design was accomplished in 18 months. It was made up of two round vaulted buildings, with conical vaults and prefabricated beams, with an undulating two-story classroom constructing between the 2 circles.

A sketch of Josefina Rebellón’s Pre-College Heart. [Image: Documentation Center, Office of the Historian of Havana/courtesy of the author/CC BY-ND]

A quick experiment with a long-lasting legacy

These thrilling new building strategies didn’t final lengthy.

In 1963, Havana hosted the convention for the Worldwide Union of Architects. That yr’s theme was Architecture in Developing Countries.

The convention gave Cuban architects a possibility to mirror on their current experiences. The Ministry of Development pushed to finish what it considered as a interval of experimentation; mass housing, they argued, demanded industrialized building.

Buildings began being made in factories after which assembled on web site. Expert and specialised labor, like vault-building, was not seen as an asset however an impediment, since vault builders have been tough to discover within the nation’s distant areas, and novice builders required intensive coaching.

But the story of those buildings presents classes for designing with shortage.

The power to experiment is essential. Coordination amongst builders, governments and designers is essential. And craftsmanship issues, too, whether or not it’s tile vaulting or traditional carpentry.

For too lengthy, buildings that required craftsmanship have been regarded as overly costly pet tasks that deployed strategies higher fitted to a special period. However the Cubans have been ready to present that craftsmanship might be developed, scaled up and mixed with technological advances.

As we speak, a handful of promising initiatives present how the craft of tile vaulting can serve for the low-carbon construction of buildings or engineered ceiling systems. Again in Cuba, tile vaulting is now being taught within the Escuela Taller Gaspar Melchor, a coaching heart in Havana’s historic heart.

Cuba’s vaulted structure displays the connection between necessity and invention, a course of that many individuals mistakenly consider as computerized. It isn’t. It’s a relationship primarily based on perseverance, trial and error and, above all, ardour.

Look no additional than what Juan Campos Almanza and his friends left behind on the island: lovely, replicable buildings, a lot of that are nonetheless standing right this moment.