Old Havana Skyline

These photographs are not meant to answer any questions nor to be a critique on urban density. Regardless of urban growth rate be it fast or slow or specific to a particular society at a particular time the same questions fundamental questions arise. What do we as a society decide to keep, to renovate or to destroy thus making way for the new. How a society answers those questions tells us much about the underlying aesthetic, social, political and cultural values of a certain people, at a certain place nested in a certain time. What it tells us in not so many words is a story. A story of a people both imagined and real, dictated by limitations and dreams.

My intention was not to direct that story but rather make the images somewhat ambiguous in meaning, provoking the viewer to interject their own story and come to their own truths by personalizing the images. These are images of relationships, relationships of people to a place nested within the temporal nature of the built environment, atmospheric portraits of change if you will. For better or worse there is beauty in the passing and reshaping of history.

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“…most art unlike functional architectural photography , is not drawn to the gleaming perfection of the building. What has concerned artists more is the internal temporal contradiction of buildings: the fact that they are built to last but are always falling apart. Architecture embodies the tension between the enduring and the transitory, development and decay, negation and renewal. It manifests the passage of time on material, and can thus be relied on to convey ideas of change and symbolically, the transition from life to death.”   Kate Bush, Two Way Street, The Photography of Architecture

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Cuban Portraits

As I mentioned in my last post I did a fair amount of research on Cuban Architecture before I made the trip.  I have also seen enough photos of Cuba to have a reasonable idea of what to expect, a cacophony of color, noises and smells, pealing paint and an abundance of 1950 American cars held together with duck tape and bailing wire.  Certainly the country didn’t disappoint me.  But what I didn’t realize and really never could have without visiting is how friendly and open people are.  Now I’m not just talking about giving directions and generally being polite, I’ve never had anyone in the western world invite me into their homes for a tour or dinner just out of the blue, just because I was curious.

While I went there to photograph the architecture, and have always found taking photographs of people difficult, the warmth and openness I experienced pushed me to the edge of my comfort zone in a positive way.  For the first time in 20 years I started to make portraits.

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Cuban Architecture Pt 1

I recently had the opportunity to travel to Cuba, a country rich in tradition and color but paradoxically cut off from most of the world until recently.  I thought it would be best to start with a brief overview of Cuban architecture.  Later posts will be more about my impressions of both the buildings and the people I met.

The history of Cuban architecture is complex and dates back to the first Spanish settlement in 1512. From that year up until 1898, the end of the Cuban War of Independence, mainly Spanish/Moorish influences defined architectural design. While there were a few “architects” working in Cuba during the mid 1800’s most urban planning and design was done by engineers and skilled craftsman. The Moors, or Moriscos, were particularly valued in the colonial years for their decorative emphasis much valued by the Spanish aristocracy. Decorative tile work, woodcarving, latticework windows, balconies, intricate ceilings and interior courtyards all owe their existence to the Moorish influences of those early years.

And yet while the earlier centuries of colonial rule was largely Spanish other European architectural styles were making their way into Cuba as early as the mid 18th century. Up until then baroque and colonial architecture were the predominant themes, but in 1800 neoclassicism was introduced. It’s hard to say why but it permeated into all classes of Cuban building.   Some site the influence of French plantation owners that flooded into Cuba after the Haitian revolution. Regardless this style was predominant until the 19th century, heavily influenced by Beaux-Arts.

This though I where I find Cuban architecture particularly interesting, while neoclassicism appealed to conservative groups and was a buffer to the flamboyant art nouveau style but by the 1920’s it had largely given way to the Eclectic movement. It’s hard to imagine anything more Cuban. An eclectic mix of styles – classical, European revivalist, medieval, Arabic, and art nouveau – all in the same building. Or a mix of eclectic styles set next to each other on the same block.

Cuba also had a brief Spanish revival as a reaction to the influences of art nouveau but by the late 1930’s modernist influences had arrived from the US. This lasted up until the Revolution of 1959 when Castro took power. The socialist model focused on the building of schools, hospitals, factories and housing in urban areas that were greatly neglected during US occupation. Function took precedence over artistic expression and ushered in an era of brutalism architecture.

But interestingly when housing was redistributed among the population and public expression was curtailed a very strong sense of individualism emerged. A house might be painted 4-5 different colors depending on the occupants taste. Balconies become unique, central courtyards tell the stories of the occupants living there, no two are alike.

While Cuba is a communist country its people have found a way to express their individuality that seems even more individual than democratic countries. It is a country rich in tradition and resourcefulness and is expressed in many ways but certainly through it’s architectural history.

Most of these images and taken in an around the Havana suburb of Vedado.

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