Doctor Félix Julio Alfonso López, rector of the University School of San Gerónimo of Havana, described architect Daniel Taboada Espiniella, a pupil of Joaquín Weiss, as a prophet of restoration and an apostle of heritage. This description embraces Taboada for being a brilliant professional of architecture, professor of several generations, a man dedicated to the conservation and restoration of the Cuban capital’s heritage and other cities such as Matanzas and Cienfuegos.
In Havana he has worked on the rehabilitation of properties like Count Barreto’s house, the house of the Counts of la Reunión, the Aldama Palace, the House of la Obra Pía and the convents of Saint Francis of Assisi and Santa Clara. For 15 years, he has been the director of the Gonzalo de Cárdenas Department – pioneer in Cuba in the study, safeguarding and rescue of vernacular architecture. It recently celebrated its thirteenth Technical Days, dedicated to the fifth centennial of the foundation of the town San Juan de los Remedios.
“I’m a man who loves heritage. One day, Doctor Eusebio Leal Spengler and Doctor Javier de Cárdenas, Marquis of Prado Ameno and president of the board of the Cárdenas Foundation, with headquarters at the Polytechnic University of Madrid, gave me the opportunity to work on the organization of these Technical Days of Vernacular Architecture held every year. This event is also sponsored by Spain’s Diego de Sagredo Foundation, the Empresa de Proyectos de Arquitectura y Urbanismo RESTAURA (Architecture and Urbanism Projects Enterprise), Historian’s Office of the City of Havana and the San Cristóbal Travel Agency that have helped us all these years,” he explained.
How much of what the Department planned at the beginning has been attained?
I believe modestly that for the first time professionals are meeting every year to deal with this phenomenon of vernacular architecture, which is like a daughter out of wedlock. Up to now, it’s always been considered as a minor architecture. For me it’s a major architecture, because it deals with national identity, about why we are Cubans, about our heritage and idiosyncrasy. Identity is not shaped by big cities, completely cosmopolitan, built by engineers or architects who believe we ourselves know everything. For the record, I’m not denying contemporary architecture, on the contrary.
When one visits a town, wonderful places such as the Viñales Valley in Pinar del Río, and sees the customs, one realizes that roast pork continues to be our favorite dish and that its residents know how to keep black beans for the whole year. Oral tradition is perfectly reflected in vernacular architecture, which is the container of all these activities. The vernacular is a way of living, singing, sitting, working, celebrating, building. It is a philosophy of life.
Can it be vernacular, can it be popular? Is it bad taste or is it kitsch? Let us reflect because we are ruralizing our city which never was Caribbean. Those ranchones (huts) inserted into the city are for a weekend outing or going to a carnival dance. We should defend and save authenticity. We are now, more than before, in danger of losing it due to foreign influences.
What has been this event’s contribution to socializing vernacular architecture in our country?
The Technical Days have tried to contribute to a better knowledge of Cuban vernacular architecture at the national level. This is one of the fundamental reasons for this event the Gonzalo de Cárdenas Department organizes every year. This architectural heritage is not sufficiently circulated and the media should help us more in this task. This is something very important. Communication has to be intelligent and know where we’re going.
If you had to define Cuban vernacular architecture, what would be its distinctive hallmark?
The authenticity of materials. They belong to the surroundings. There’s no need to import anything. In Cuba there are many and very different typologies of vernacular architecture, which range from the vara en tierra to the houses of many countryside towns throughout the Island. Many houses are suffering big structural transformations due to the shortage of wood in the entire world. Today, wood is more expensive than oil. However, the wood Cuban peasants use is royal palm and the roofs are mostly made from cane palm, which grows on the worst land but is the best for roofs.
You’ve said an unforgettable phrase: essences and not presence.
Correct. It’s necessary to look for the concept because now some believe that building a little entrance with tiles means we’re already creating vernacular architecture. That is not essence. That is an imitation, a cheap copy, based on approaches such as the client likes it, supposedly the tourist likes it, the uninformed. The ignorant cannot be blamed for being so. It’s that we have not been able to transfer our knowledge to them.
Is vernacular architecture studied in Cuban universities?
Of course. We have achieved that. Doctor Ángela Rojas is a professor of the Faculty of Architecture. Doctor and architect Gina Rey is also a professor in the Faculty. She was granted the National Award for Lifetime and Architectural Work in 2015. Ediciones Boloña publishers has just published Gina’s book Las construcciones cuentan su historia. Ciudades, pueblos y caceríos en Cuba (Buildings tell their stories. Cities, towns and hamlets in Cuba), written together with construction historian Don Juan de las Cuevas Toraya (Havana, 1933-2013). In her book, she very well defines that transition from foundation to population, to settlement, to town, to city.
What does this 2015 National Cultural Heritage Award for Lifetime Work you’ve just received mean for you?
This award is not just for me. I dedicate it my whole generation, especially to the late Doctor and architect Mario Coyula, who preceded me in this award, and to so many specialists who’ve never been interviewed or on television and deserve it as much as I do. The merit is not mine. I am just one more cultural worker.
– Vara en tierra, small hut used by Cuban peasants generally to keep materials and to shelter from hurricanes. Translator’s note.