ARCHITECTURE OF NECESSITY
by Ernesto Oroza, 2006
Cuba is one of the countries in Latin America with the highest index of urban population. Havana holds a large percentage of this population and the number continues to grow. However, it shows a low index of production of new homes in relation to its demographic growth.
Where does this city house its two million inhabitants?
For over three decades, the inhabitants of Havana have intervened, using their own resources, on their houses and the adjoining public and private spaces in order to adapt them to the new needs faced by the individual and the family. The most common alterations include the creation of new floor plans, closing apertures, divisions, and added spaces; and the invasion and occupation of public, communal or otherwise empty areas.
These spatial alterations demand new entryways, windows and balconies, new hydraulic installations and electrical systems, along with an infinite array of architectural modifications, such as the use of protection bars to mark the new limits of the property or the conversion of domestic spaces into cafeterias, parking for bicycles, or cages for animals.
A foundational trait has radicalized this process. The house became the fount of its own resources for its transformation.
The architectural theorem: house/raw-material turned the family into a productive unit at the core of a process that transformed the city. It is a transformation that begins at the home.
The many interventions that characterize this process have extended considerably Havana’s habitable space. However not extended the borders of the city. This allows us to speak of it as a city that has grown inwardly.
Since necessity plays a central role in the generation and regulation of this kind of architecture, I associate it with natural forms known as stalactites and stalagmites, where the shape is the result of a fluid movement of materials attracted by gravitational force.
In this popular architecture, the irrepressible movement of materials also produces a grid of lines and holes, a superimposition of layers and structures that, just as in the natural process of sedimentation, are supported one over the other. This fluid movement responds to a strength as powerful and unavoidable as gravity, the force of necessity.
Le Corbusier synthesized in his “Modulor” the human traditions that have attempted to project the physical and spiritual dimensions of the universe through architectural forms.
But, “The exterior is always and interior,” Le Corbusier said, speaking of other things.
The modified architecture of Havana is driven by an unavoidable fate: Necessity. The city’s inhabitants are aware of their real needs. Their prejudices stripped by the inevitable, they transform the city under a new order: The Moral Modulor.
Le Corbusier proposed: “By imposing the order of his foot or his arm, he has created a unit which regulates the whole work; and this work is on his own scale, to his own proportions, comfortable for him, to his measure. It is on a human scale. It is in harmony with him: that is the true main point.”*
The Moral Modulor, unlike the “Corbusierean” Modulor, is a human being at the same time as a measuring tool. He embodies the human potential to understand urgency and inscribe it in space. He adds, to the order established by human dimensions, the moral dimension that necessity recovers.
Urgency provides to the individual a foundational alibi. Every sexual or physiological impulse, every birth and even death, will provoke the appearance of new walls, columns, stairways, new windows or plumbing and electrical systems.
Form follows Necessity.
The modified houses of Havana express this relationship. It’s an Architecture of Necessity.
“The idea is constant, in full sway from the beginning.”
The Potential House is a living state of awareness. In the face of a persistent urgency, the Potential House produces a constant way of looking at the world, a radical perspective and an architectural pragmatism: everything will be a house.
And it is not only a question of an architectural ideal, it is an almost uncontainable cleverness that allows you to imagine and collect possible used bricks, small amounts of cement, windows and potential stairways throughout the city. It is the lucidity that allows you to understand when the optimal economic and legal moment to build a new floor in your house may be, even if you are sure its walls won’t go up for another two years.
The house exists from the beginning as a potentiality. This is why there are entire houses currently accumulated as stacked bricks under a bed or behind a sofa. And there are other houses that at first, and for a long time, are only a wall or at best a bathroom.
The Potential House survives in that continuum of small constructive efforts that throughout the length of our lives line up our needs with our accumulations of materials, technologies and ideas.
Havana, Updating City
Havana regenerates itself every day. Even when we might perceive it as a unique innovative gesture encompassing the whole city, it really obeys to everyday and personal gestures that multiply themselves everywhere.
The sum of the efforts of many families to improve their living conditions using their own private resources, is not more than a new way of reurbanization and adaptation of the city to the always changing necessities of its inhabitants, as well of their legal and economic possibilities.
Urbanism is one of the ways in which power imagines, projects and transforms the city.
The Updating City is the way in which the city’s inhabitants, as family units or as individuals, imagine, project and transform the city.
In the Updating City the capacity of these inhabitants to recognize their needs and find immediate solutions to satisfy them prevails. There is no waiting for or accepting the rhythms of professional urbanism. In the Updating City the “urbanism” becomes a domestic task, a family task, like doing the laundry or procreating. The city produces itself to the biological and economic rhythm of the home.
The result is a rhizomatic city, built according to the multiple interpretations that the city’s inhabitants make of their lived realities and, afterward, of the amassing of these quotidian responses.
If in this architecture the house produces a diagram of the history and current circumstances of the family, the city translates the collective movement of a society into a language of structures. In this sense, the Updating City rejects the figurative and alienated role of contemporary architecture. In its place, it promotes decentralized practices, disobedient and pragmatic practices, practices that are absolutely abstract in the same basic, pre-culturized sense that sleep and eating can be.
A dual awareness that you need water today and that you will need it for the rest of your life, determines two solutions with different temporal characters: the first one immediate, maybe provisional; the second progressive, probably permanent.
The two lines of thinking, immediate/provisional and progressive/permanent, mix, leaving behind parallel electrical, water and gas systems; installations that are finished and unfinished, visible and invisible, legal and illegal, cheap and expensive.
The city’s inhabitants convert their houses into a systematic means of expression and survival. The pragmatism, the astuteness to avoid poverty and the legal cleverness with which they deal with spaces and materials, converts each home into a manifesto: a Statement of Necessity.
The House is Limit and Possibility
He lived with his mother in a space that was so small that it couldn’t legally be considered a house. He expanded into the hallway, built a kitchen and refurbished the bathroom. He changed the status of the property and acquired a title for it.
He got his hands on a permit to build on the roof, as he thought about moving out on his own. In order to do this he had to build an exterior stairway. He set to work on the structure indoors and started the paperwork to divide the property.
The appearance of an exterior stairway before the process of dividing the house was finished could be considered a violation, and he could be fined or even lose all property rights to the house he had built.
He understood that the description of the house and its parts depends on the cultural understanding that we have of it, that laws depend on this understanding.
Then, what is a stairway? How does one describe it? Could he build a structure in front of his doorway that looks nothing like a stairway but serves the same function?
Maybe just objects stacked in such a way that one can climb and descend them? Or an object by Ettore Sottsass, a stack that includes all of Samuel Feijóo’s books, a Franz West sculpture, anything?
He decided on a conceptual shortcut: he built the stairway and waited to be fined. In this way, he gained time. The Law demanded that he cease building the stairway until the paperwork needed to divide the property was finalized.
Years went by. He used the unfinished stairway.
What’s a finished stairway?
The house is limit and possibility. It’s a prison and, at the same time, an asset. Havana’s transformed houses are the result of our capacity to face, negotiate with, or simply elude the legal, economic, physical and cultural limits. These very limits enunciate/ articulate the city’s architecture.
Architecture is limit and possibility.
*Le Corbusier quotes from Towards a New Architecture (translated by Frederick Etchells)