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A Young Cuban Architect at the Golden Trezzini Awards

Jorge Luis Veliz has four projects nominated at this year's important awards. DIARIO DE CUBA talked with him about his work and architecture in Cuba.

La Habana
Casa Inzeta, by Jorge Luis Veliz.
Casa Inzeta, by Jorge Luis Veliz. Diario de Cuba

To build a house in Cuba, most of the populace, which survives under extremely precarious conditions, only needs a few materials, like blocks, cement, sand and rebar. Therefore, in most cases hiring an architect is a luxury, something that is not even considered. Because, let's be honest, in Cuba anyone knows how to slap together four walls.

Despite this, on the island more and more young Architecture professionals are making their way. An example of this is the Group of Cuban Architecture Studies (GECA) which, in addition to organizing exhibitions, has held talks with the Government demanding the legalization of the profession in the private sector.

Professionals from the island have also managed to enter international competitions, with the architects Luis Enrique Aparicio, José Xavier Fuentes and Manuel Aranzola winning an Honorable Mention on the Archostorming platform in a competition to build a sustainable home in Tanzania. Meanwhile, the magazine Plataforma Arquitectura nominated the studio Ad-Urbis Arquitectos for Project of the Year for its Residencia Santa Clara and Casa de Pedro y María.

One of the most recent cases of international recognition for Cuban architecture involves Jorge Luis Veliz, a young architect who has been nominated at the Golden Trezzini awards, organized with the support of Richard Armstrong, director of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum and Foundation, based in St. Petersburg.

The Golden Trezzini Awards jury includes renowned architects like Daniel Libeskind, Mario Botta, Toyo Ito, Ricardo Bofill, Massimiliano Fuksas, Eduardo Souto de Moura, and other experts from 31 countries.

DIARIO DE CUBA spoke with the young man about his participation in this competition, and the current situation of architecture on the island. Veliz graduated from the José Antonio Echeverría Polytechnic Institute (CUJAE) in Havana in 2010.

After completing your Architecture studies, what has your career path been?

I first worked for a construction company, on site, during my social service period. After this stage, I worked in Physical Planning, and later I was hired by the province of Artemisa's projects company, the SerTac (Technical Services of the Community Architect), of which I am still part.

How did you come to be nominated for the Golden Trezzini Awards?

Those in charge, on behalf of the International Council, with the support of Richard Armstrong, director of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum and Foundation, contacted me and let me know about the nomination for Casa Inzeta, one of my projects, and later they added another three: the Sivri apartment building, Cabañas Capullo Ecological Hotel, and the Museo de la Música Vitral ("Stained-Glass Music Museum").

Tell us about the projects nominated.

The first of them is the  Museo de la Música Vitral. The vision is based on my interpretation of music, which is compared to a stained-glass window (música vitral) due to its range of sounds, generating a kind of stained-glass window infusing our life experience with color and light.

This museum would be formed by a valuable collection through generous donations of books, documents and instruments greatly appreciated by the public. Its fundamental mission would be to show the different generations that musical instruments are living elements from our past, full of meaning and information on our musical heritage.

The other is the Sivri Apartment Building, which is named after a seagull found in Aboriginal culture. The bird taught early humans the gift and joy of drumming, music, and dancing. This is an important myth, as the aborigines use songs to relive the time of dreams.

The seagull is also a symbol of freedom, and also of free time, without worries of any kind. It is the totem of those who want that... free time to enjoy life, distant horizons and freedom. An ideal totem for sailors, poets, artists... because they are free spirits, and it gives them maritime inspiration.

My plans for the Hotel Ecológico Cabañas Capullos were also nominated, which is all about sustainable ecological architecture, developed on one level and designed for short stays and tourists interested in direct contact with nature. The units consist of a bedroom with a bathroom, kitchen and a large terrace.

The construction system is based on a major concrete platform, a structure of wood and translucent glass to take advantage of the setting's views. The interior decoration would be very rustic, with exposed wood finishes, fabrics and natural textures. The idea is for the cabins to be far from the cities, only accessible after a long walk, calling for an effort. After a tough journey, the reward is enormous: a pleasant stay in communion with nature.

Finally, the Casa Inzeta was also nominated, designed to take advantage of the potential of its spaces and meld into the environment, as it features a gardened roof functioning as a lookout over the entire meadow in front of the house, inspired by the forms of Japanese temples, a sacred space to inhabit and meditate in constant interplay with nature.

Do you see them as utopian architecture, or are they buildable?

In principle, they are designed as an architecture that can definitely be built, though it is, basically, a kind of architecture without commissions or clients. It is pure inspiration. I hope that they can be built, I always think about architecture in the long term, and that it can transcend time. The economic situation in the country is quite adverse. I don't know if they will be able to undertake the work.

Have you worked on projects in Cuba?

Yes, especially on remodelings and expansions of buildings and housing projects.

What do you think of Cuban architecture today?

Today's Cuban architecture is full of desires and dreams ... but very little materializes. It is, in my view, a very sad question, as we are in danger of a generation going by in the history of Cuban architecture without leaving a mark.

What does a work materializing in Cuba mean to you?

I think that Cuba has characteristics that favor a very peculiar architecture, taking into account the context, the climate and the culture. Economic aspects also come into play when building; it is always a challenge to design with certain materials and construction techniques, which are essential. This poses a great challenge and, at the same time, a social and artistic responsibility.

What are the biggest difficulties an architect faces when building in Cuba?

Mainly, the scant architectural culture that exists in society when it comes to letting the professional assume all the responsibility for the nature of the work. It is also difficult to deal with clients who, due to a lack of information, or ignorance, do not recognize the short- and long-term importance of an architect or engineer.

Other difficulties include the lack of resources, and a lack of specialized labor when completing the work.

What recommendation would you give to architects who are now graduating in Cuba?

Each generation is different from the previous one. The important thing is to always know all the tools that one can employ. For example, when I studied the Internet was not available, which can be essential today,  due to all that it offers us in terms of information and references.

The best advice I would give is to take an interest in construction and the work right on site, acquire a basic understanding of construction techniques, and other aspects that can be acquired through practice.

I also recommend studying urban planning issues, and constantly designing, as perseverance allows you to hone each work.
Last but not least, one must have a perfect command of the different computer programs, which are fundamental tools to be able to design. It is almost mandatory to master these principles in order to channel the ideas that are born in our minds as quickly and effectively as possible.

What do you think of the fact that Architecture has not been included among the professions that freelancers can practice in Cuba?

I think it was a very foolish decision. I've really tried to analyze that measure, but it doesn't make any sense to me at all. It's like mutilating a sculptor, or rendering a singer voiceless. A country in such dire need of growth, in its economy, and architecture, needs minds that design and create positive solutions.

How can it be legal for a bricklayer, but not for an architect? What is the bricklayer supposed to work on? Without a score, an orchestra is not capable of playing a piece of music.

I think that, sooner or later, this measure will have to be changed.

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