Alamar: An Archaeology of Socialist Domestic Infrastructure in Havana is an interdisciplinary, collaborative research project involving scholars and practitioners in architecture, comparative literature, and film, examining the legacy of Cuba’s approach to mass housing in the 1970s. The research focuses on the district in East Havana named Alamar, a ‘bedroom community’ of 130,000 residents constructed through the system of assisted self-build called microbrigades. The project was initiated at Cornell University through funding from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Collaborative Studies in Architecture, Urbanism, and the Humanities grant in 2016. Alamar examines the practical and ideological implications of the unique form of socialist governmentality characteristic of contemporary Cuba, and the nature of its mediation through domestic infrastructures.

Cuba’s housing policies prior to the socialist revolution in 1959 reflected the conflicting interests of private, state, and unionized workers, as well as the stark contrast between urban and rural territories, with Havana being at a level of development incomparable to other cities. Even within Havana’s boundaries, however, there were drastic differences in living conditions among social classes. One of the fist policy initiatives of the revolutionary government was to address the housing crisis, starting with a decree in January 1959 halting all evictions. The Urban Reform Law of October 1960 established the normative idea of housing as a public service, initiating a process of the socialization of housing that would continue to develop and transform through various legal and constructional mechanisms, into the contemporary ‘late’ socialist period.

The construction of new housing complexes immediately following the revolutionary triumph was modelled initially after Euro-American paradigms of high-rise apartment complexes associated with architectural modernism, which was already firmly established and made specific to local conditions by Cuban modernist architects. The first of these projects was Unit 1 of Habana del Este, known as Ciudad Camilo Cienfuegos, a 2,300-unit development built on largely vacant land east of Havana Bay (the development reflects the traces of pre-revolutionary speculative proposals, including those of Josep Lluís Sert and colleagues). Broadly speaking, the strategies for the production of socialist housing in Havana can be interpreted in three ways: the appropriation of existing urban housing infrastructure within the traditional city; limited interventions in the existing urban fabric in the form of new low or high-rise housing; and the development of large-scale housing projects effectively forming urban districts.


In 1963, following the devastation of Hurricane Flora, the Soviets donated a factory to Cuba to produce large pre-fabricated panels. The panel systems, modified for local climate, presented an alternative to design and planning traditions of Cuban modernism, initiating a period of mass housing construction using prefabrication technologies. These systems would be employed in Havana in hybrid forms, following the state’s institution of the microbrigade system in the 1970s. Microbrigades were worker collectives responsible for the construction and communal distribution of housing units. The state provided technical expertise and rudimentary design templates employing prefabrication and semi-prefabrication technologies. The result was a paradigm of government regulated self-help housing through which the state projected socialist ideals, informing subjective experiences of domesticity. Alamar is the largest housing district in Havana built based on the microbrigade system.

The paradigm of housing employed as a socializing infrastructure, and thus an instrument of ideology, emerged explicitly in the contexts of former socialist states in the former Soviet and Eastern Bloc countries. In so far as the home was understood as the first environment in which individual subjectivities are formed, housing would be seen as a unique mode of infrastructure, one that provides the physical structure for domestic life and thus with the potential to direct the experience of domesticity and the communalization of subjectivities. The implication was that the infrastructure could afford the state access, through the architecture, to the domicile and dictate the socialization process. The instrumental potential of architecture was itself exploited through industrial processes, in the form of prefabrication technologies. Anthropologist Caroline Humphrey has proposed that attempts to dictate socialization processes through housing infrastructure resulted in unanticipated modes of socialization, and of hyper-socialization in which inhabitants formed close-knit ties in opposition to state ideological norms.

 

The Cuban case, and specifically Havana, introduces unique problems to this paradigm of housing as a socializing domestic infrastructure. The microbrigade model presented a hybrid framework for housing construction not dictated by specialist planning. Despite the monotony that this system produced due to the protocols, workers were directly involved in the ‘design’ and construction of their own homes. The state, therefore and in principle, could not penetrate as deeply into the domicile as would be the case for other socialist contexts.

With the collapse of Soviet socialism in 1991, the Cuban state could no longer support even the microbrigade system; what remained was essentially the regulatory frameworks for house construction, leaving the task of providing housing to individual citizens themselves. In this context, drawing on the work of anthropologist Martin Holbraad, ‘infrastructure’ could be interpreted as having the character of a verb, whereby the activity of building one’s own house is at the same time an inter-subjective process of self-construction. Although, following the events of 1991, it was impossible for the state to continue the sponsorship of these programs at such a scale, the technical and social practices of self-build remain embedded in the habitus of Havana’s residents. The Cuban state has thus been forced to reimagine its revolutionary project, resulting in new forms of governmental control atypical for socialist contexts. Our ongoing collaborative research project on Alamar proposes an archaeology of Cuban socialist domestic infrastructures, as a means of revealing the role of architecture in this period of transformation.

Havana Vignettes is a documentary short film directed by Kannan Arunasalam, and produced with support from Cornell University College of Architecture, Art, and Planning, and the Society for the Humanities through the Andrew W. Mellon Collaborative Studies in Architecture, Urbanism, and the Humanities initiative. It explores three housing conditions of post-revolutionary Havana presenting residents’ narratives on the processes of appropriation and translation of architectural and ideological directives in the production of domestic space. The film presents the architecture of Alamar using methods of documentary and ethnographic film, to examine ways in which everyday practices are spatialized within this vast domestic infrastructure.

Tao DuFour  is an Assistant Professor at the Department of Architecture, Cornell University. His work explores the overlaps between architecture, anthropology, and philosophy, drawing on the phenomenology of Edmund Husserl. His current research is concerned with the question of architecture’s embeddedness in global environmental histories, and he is working on a research project on urban environmentality in Havana. DuFour was the Architecture Fellow at SARUP-UWM, and was awarded the Rome Prize in Architecture at the British School at Rome. He holds a PhD and MPhil in the History and Philosophy of Architecture from Cambridge University, England, and a BArch from The Cooper Union. DuFour is a registered architect in the UK (RIBA), and has exhibited extensively in the US and Europe. His book, Husserl and Spatiality: Toward a Phenomenological Ethnography of Space, is forthcoming (Routledge 2019).

Iulia Statica is a Visiting Scholar at the Mario Einaudi Center for International Studies, Latin American Studies Program, at Cornell University. She completed her PhD at the Department of Architecture at the University of Rome “La Sapienza” in 2016. Her research interests focus on the discourses of material culture in (post)communist contexts, and the role of ideologies and their critique in architecture and urbanism. Between 2014-2015 she was a Visiting Scholar at the Department of Philosophy of the University of Toronto and prior to this was awarded the Fellowship in Architecture at the Romanian Academy in Rome (2012-14). In 2016 and 2017 she was invited by faculty at the Department of Architecture at Cornell University as a guest scholar for the seminar Cuba as Project: Urban, Political and Environmental Transformations of the Island as part of The Mellon Collaborative Studies in Architecture, Urbanism and the Humanities.

Tom McEnaney is Assistant Professor of Comparative Literature and Spanish & Portuguese at the University of California, Berkeley. He works on the history of media and technology, Argentine, Cuban, and U.S. literature, architectural theory and history, sound studies, linguistic anthropology, computational (digital) humanities and new media studies. He has contributed articles to Cultural CritiqueLa Habana EleganteRepresentationsRevista de Estudios HispánicosSounding Out!Variaciones Borges, and other journals. His book,Acoustic Properties: Radio, Narrative, and the New Neighborhood of the Americas(FlashPoints at Northwestern University Press, 2017) investigates the co-evolution of radio, architecture and the novel in Argentina, Cuba, and the United States. He was previously an Assistant Professor in the Department of Comparative Literature at Cornell University. (Ph.D., University of California, Berkeley).

Kannan Arunasalam is a British–Sri Lankan documentary filmmaker. Kannan’s work has appeared in The GuardianThe New YorkerAOL Originals, in addition to broadcasts on Al Jazeera Witness and the BBC. His films have been exhibited at museums and festivals internationally. Kannan studied Psychology at the University of Cambridge and International Human Rights at the University of Oxford, focusing on media and conflict. Kannan is also a qualified media and human rights lawyer in London. In 2015 he was a visiting lecturer at Cornell University, N.Y., teaching a course on media representations of the Sri Lankan conflict, and in 2016 collaborated in the production of the short documentary, Havana Vignettes, for The Mellon Collaborative Studies in Architecture, Urbanism and the Humanities. Kannan is a director at the Los Angeles based production company, Stateless Media, that produces its signature shortreals for online platforms.