My experience with Unpack Studio Havana Art Residency far exceeded my expectations! As a professor in Interior Architecture and Design at The University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, I came to Havana to document Cuban architecture and current preservation practices, both through meeting with and interviewing preservationist professionals and by creating a photographic documentary series. I was fortunate to have my husband, Frank Hellwig, join me the first 2 weeks to support the project. This enabled me to do some things that I would not have been able to accomplish on my own.
On the first day of the residency, we arranged a tour of Havana Vieja with Unpack Studio’s Project Coordinator, Laura Rodríguez Balbuzano. Learning the history from a local’s point of view and gaining an overall feel for the area was invaluable, but the experience was also very overwhelming. It was hard for my mind to wrap around the contrast of beautiful and unsightly; rich and poor; generosity and desperation. And my documentation project…there were so many beautiful buildings in full decay, many being restored, but hundreds suffering from demolition by neglect, yet the resiliency of the Cuban people was evident as they made do with and lived in buildings that would be condemned in North America.
By the third day, we were ready to jump into the project and started in our neighbourhood, Vedado. Because my Spanish is at an elementary level, Frank and I had to get creative. We created a script in Spanish explaining what we were doing…and it worked. Although somewhat a crude method, I was able to interview workmen on building job-sites, while Frank captured everything through video recordings. The same method worked to convince people to allow me into buildings to document the interiors, including the famous Casa de Catalina Lasa y Juan de Pedro Baró. I found most people interested in my project and tolerant of my poor Spanish. This method of inquiry, along with my business card, also led to our entrance into preservation trade schools in Havana Vieja. We were able to document students learning the traditional methods of preservation including masonry, stonework and metal-work. A special thank you to Juan Jesús Gesen Musa and Maikel Moreno Fujon for showing us around and answering all our questions.
On our eighth day, Laura took us to El Cerro, once a wealthy colonial neighbourhood, now one of the poorest. Seeing the original colonial architecture, it is not hard to understand why Havana is known as the City of Columns. While in El Cerro we were allowed to document one of the city’s most luxurious summer homes built by the Count of Santovenia and now a nursing home. More than architecture, we learned about healthcare and aging practices in Cuba.
Day 10 marked the highlight of the trip. Unpack had arranged for us to meet with Leonardo Gómez González, curator at the Presidential Palace, also known as the Museo de la Revolución, along with one of his colleagues, Alejandro Rojas Santana. Leonardo and Alejandro shared their methods of restoration, along with the challenges unique to Cuba due to the embargo. We were allowed to see and document rooms in the palace not open to the public including Fulgencio Batista’s personal rooms. The experience was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity!
On day 11 we were fortunate to be given a tour of Colón Cemetery by Irma Bergantinos who took interest in my project and set up an appointment for me to meet local preservationist, Carlos Buata Martín. Carlos is renowned for the restoration of The Christ of Havana and is currently working on the Capital dome. He took me to The Christ and shared with me its history and how it was restored.
My final interview of note was with Nathan Biondolino, who invited me to document the carefully restored Casa de Bernardo Solís which serves as the headquarters for UNESCO in the Caribbean. Viewing my Vedado neighbourhood from the roof of this prestigious building was a special moment.
Between all this work we enjoyed learning about the Cuban culture by attending the Ballet, the National Aquarium, the Tropicana Club, art museums, enjoying the parks and exploring the historic hotels, such and the Riviera and the Hotel Nacional. We loved the live traditional Cuban music and salsa dancing.
Unpack Studio provided invaluable assistance and feedback along the way. Laura was a continual sounding board, always willing to push limits to create further opportunities for me. My favorite was the night she arranged a night photography shoot inside one of the oldest homes in Vedado! Both Dannys Montes de Oca Moreda, Director of the Wifredo Lam Center for Contemporary Arts, and Ossain Raggi, Vice Dean of Visual Arts at ISA, were full of recommendations and feedback along the way. And then there is Paco, who waited tirelessly at the airport to pick us up on our first day, and served as our driver over and over again…what a great guy! But I don’t know if I could have survived without Matilda who came to the apartment twice a week to clean and wash our clothes. Thank you doesn’t seem enough!
Just a note about Laura…I can’t imagine this experience without her. She is so smart and generous with her time and knowledge. She was not only an asset to my project, but I left Havana knowing that I had made a friend for life!