Architecture and comfort

Cuba in the 60s and 70s: Social housing built with prefabricated high-tech systems

11 OCTOBER 2016,
Cuba Social housing
Cuba Social housing

After the Triumph of the Cuban Revolution on January 1959, the country broke with capitalism and began to improve the architecture of social housing. Since the very beginning, the Socialist Government sought to solve the housing problem taking into account the poor living conditions affecting the majority of the population. Already denounced by Fidel Castro as a self-defence during the trial that followed the Cuartel Moncada assault in 1953, the housing problem turned out to be the first action program of the Revolution (El Programa Moncada).

The first actions conducted by the Government aimed at enhancing the living conditions in both rural as well as urban areas. On February 1959, the INAV (Instituto Nacional de Ahorro y Vivienda – National Institute of Saving and Housing) was created to establish practical and administrative issues that would allow the development of new social housing plans and promote them through the experience of the European model from the XXI century. The latter was characterized by a general and uniform standard with repetitive multifamily housing as a response to the rising demand for dwellings.

Following the United States embargo against Cuba that shut down imports and exports, the Cuban Government was forced to create a centralized state structure in order to keep full control over both technical and material resources as well as over the whole project process. In 1963 the Ministerio de Obras Públicas (Ministry of Public Works) became the Ministerio de la Construcción (Ministry of Construction) with the aim of controlling all the production processes of both the construction elements and the different project stages: from urban planning to interior design.

The centralization phenomenon within the Ministerio de la Construcción determined two paths of development: on one hand, the persistence of handcrafted construction with the addition of new prefabricated elements like stairs, beams, slabs and foundations; on the other hand, the research and development of prefabricated high-tech systems that could speed up the production and construction processes. At the beginning of the 1960s, new houses were built through the use of traditional materials and technologies in addition to small-size prefabricated elements. As an example, the construction system “Novoa” that was later renamed “Sandino” after it was applied to realize the first rural community. Each one of these first examples of social housing was characterized by high quality levels of drawing and execution. Thanks to the variety of their drawings, these architectural interventions could be replicated in different areas of the island even if they didn’t work as pilot projects to be scaled up.

Multi-storey buildings up to four levels complied with modern architecture codes and took into account the hot and humid weather in Cuba. Spatial internal solutions were flexible and compatible with the supporting structure. At the urban level, high quality construction and finishing materials were applied in public spaces and green areas and they were executed in compliance with the highest standards. The need to accelerate the construction processes while decreasing costs initially led to the development of projects destined to the construction of prefabricated and industrial buildings. In 1964, the introduction of new technologies from the Soviet Union determined a radical change in the construction field. Thanks to the trading benefits of CAME (Consejo de Ayuda Mutua Economica) and the existence of a centralized government, obligations established between Cuba and URSS allowed the introduction of prefabricated high-tech models from the Soviet Union to be applied in the local social housing. In the 1970s, this model reached its peak not only in the construction of residential units, but also hotels, schools, hospitals, etc.

The use of prefabricated systems aimed at massively solving the social problem, but it also denied the application of local materials and technologies. The newly imported systems responded to the needs of cold countries and didn’t take into account the different weather of Cuba, leading to a break with previous architectural experiences. What resulted was the mushrooming of anonymous blocks, generally four-storey tall, characterized by rigid internal distributions and impersonal spaces.

In the 1960s and especially in the 1970s, these projects were replicated all over the island leading to one big project that could guarantee the rapid construction of housing. The simplicity of the construction processes and the limited investment required made it possible for the production of a specific construction system – the so-called Gran Panel IV - to be spread all over the country. In 1975 there were 22 plants that produced the prefabricated panels and it was estimated that each one of them had an annual production capacity equal to 550 housing units. The Grand Panel IV wasn’t just a construction system, but also the project of a schematic building that didn’t require elaborated drawings. It was constituted by 24 units organized on four levels. This model, made of thin reinforced concrete panels that lacked any sort of rain or sun protections, was actually inadequate for Cuba. However, it was replicated in the suburbs of each Cuban city. Furthermore, its detachment from tradition and local identity didn’t develop a sense of belonging from its inhabitants. Individuals, moving out from their villages and historical centres were in fact unable to identify themselves and understand the new “high-tech” quarters.

Besides the Grandes Paneles, the 1970s saw the development of different high-tech construction systems. High-rise blocks started to spread in order to contain urban density and to eliminate the spatial monotony created by the four-storey buildings. Among these systems we can mention the moldes deslizante, already applied in Havana with a 17-storey building realized by architect Antonio Quintana; the I.M.S. system from Yugoslavia characterized by ribbed sheets and pre- and post-stressed columns; the SP72 system that combined together traditional and prefabricated elements and the LH (losa hueca) system, a cheap and versatile approach that used prefabricated elements for walls and floors.

All the above-mentioned systems applied in the Cuban cities proposed different architectural solutions that neither fit with the local climate (glazed windows without any solar protection) nor they adapted with spatial and urban requests. At the urban level, the social housing blocks maintained a volumetric autonomy and didn’t integrate with the surrounding urban structure and collective spaces. Beyond the lack of flexibility, these models, once applied in the historical centres, created disharmony and broke with tradition. In fact, the first efforts towards urban requalification in the 1970s didn’t take into account the importance of preserving traditional values. Entire blocks were completely demolished and substituted with new social housing that neither meet local building codes nor they considered the existing context.

These models were also applied in rural villages with the aim of enhancing the living conditions of farmers. At this time, the ideas of “modernity” and good quality were associated with multi-family properties made of reinforced concrete; while the traditional houses (bohío) made of natural materials with excellent thermal behavior were considered as poor and underdeveloped. As a consequence, rural villages combined the disadvantages of urban areas (lack of privacy and relationship with the land to grow) with those or rural lifestyles. This dichotomy, together with the isolated character of the new settlements became one of the main causes forcing the new generations to neglect these areas while reducing labour force and production in agriculture. Contrary to tradition, the social housing built between the 1960s and 1970s with prefabricated high-tech systems lacked indoor comfort. In particular, they lacked a fair amount of natural ventilation that is essential in a country with such a hot and humid weather.

The incongruous wall-window relationship (the latter with reduced dimensions of 1.40*1.00 m) and the inadequate distribution of the internal layout determined a scarce air renewal with impacts on respiratory pathologies for humans. This lack of comfort was also due to various factors such as the isolation generated between build areas and environmental context, the process that left people out of controlling local environmental conditions and finally the absence of local materials. The new complexes were all made of reinforced concrete (low thermal insulation properties) that is a huge enemy of high temperatures.

The only attempt of good practice came from the I.M.S system. Its construction elements were initially conceived to guaranteed a reduction of thermal resistance thanks to convection that allowed heat air to be substituted with fresh one, while removing humidity. At the same time, a group of Cuban practitioner realized a new type of window made of removable elements in order to facilitate natural ventilation and improve indoor comfort. Unfortunately, due to economic reasons, these windows were later substituted with partially fixed ones that had negative effects on internal well-being. In fact, this system didn’t allow any kind of wind or rain protection, it didn’t guarantee neither privacy nor visual comfort. And this has led people to keep windows closed and increase the consumption of electricity for both artificial light and air conditioning.

Today the above-mentioned buildings from European origins, that were introduced in Cuba during a time where the housing problem was pressing the Government, are considered as inadequate to meet people’s needs. At the moment, they are left in a state of disrepair. To solve this problem, it is of paramount importance to completely renew the neglected buildings through a sustainable approach able to identify new alternative solutions both from an economic as well as a cultural and environmental point of views.

Text by Giuseppe Piovaccari and Giulia D'Ettorre
Giuseppe Piovaccari is an architect and PhD candidate in "arquitectura, edificacion, urbanismo y paisaje" at UPV University of Valencia (Spain). His areas of interest range from restoration to reuse of the existing patrimony.