#990. Rebuilding Habana, one photo at a time

By Solveig Jappy | Travel Photography

Apr 11

I study architecture at The A.A. in London. Reticence to normal schooling running deep in the family, I chose this school because it dispenses with formality and essentially focuses on hands-on projects. My project for this year is based in Cuba and, during a recent field trip, I took the photographs you see on this page.

 
 

There were 12 of us in the group, including our 2 tutors. And we had worked remotely on the basic ideas and layouts of our projects for a couple of months before heading out. We had no other constraint than a fixed plot size (100m x 100m) and the purpose of creating housing. The rest is up to us.

The goal of the trip was to find a suitable plot of land for our projects, survey the area and get a better understanding of local life and its urban architectural tradition.

 
 

Some will build cement modern housing, others, ground hugging abodes made of clay. We have the libraries, we have the software, we have the maps. But no book can tell you what life feels like, or what the energy of a specific location is, as well as actual footwork can.

So, during the first days of our stay, discovery was the main item on our plates and we walked and took notes endlessly. The photographs on this page are some of my notes.

 
 

Half-ways between essential subject matter and touristic leisure, those photographs simply highlight what struck me at the time. The weathered concrete. The beautiful light projected onto broken surfaces through the criss-cross of ancient lattices and pergolas. The organic shapes and joyful colours.

Because of the nature of my visit, few of these photographs depict the famous avenues or iconic locations. There was simply no time.

 
 

But they do give me a very good idea of a quality of live that’s very different from ours, in Europe. In many ways, much more precarious. Yet in so many others, much more vibrant and alive.

They immerse me in the shapes and light. And walking so many miles to collect them immersed me in the life of residents of very different neighbourhoods.

 

Naturally, upon our return, I made the rookie mistake of showing my parents the photographs. And, as I’m sure many of you can relate to, was immediately greeted by a request for a blog post from Wrinkly Senior 😉

This is that post. And I hope the photographs can convey what seduced me on the spot. I didn’t try to create exotic works of art but to find the angles and times of day that made the design and textures come to life in a way that can inspire me in the future.

 

And I’m probably not supposed to mention this, but all those photographs were taken on a OnePlus phone. The zoom camera is excellent, even at night and doesn’t require me to fuss for hours on a computer like you know who. I have things to do … And it probably costs as much as dad’s neck strap. I have to print large portfolios (A1 or more) and the quality of the photographs is always very good. Phones are here to stay ! Get used to it 😉

 
 

None of our projects will be built. None are “for real”. Although I do hope I am able to work in Habana one day, none of this is actual rebuilding.

But those photographs are re-building my little corner of Habana for the future. In case all of this gets “fixed” to foreign standards, made “better” in ways few of the locals can relate to or care about. This is how it was in 2020.

 
 

Since my visit, I see architecture a little bit differently. Creating a building is much more about creating a way of life than simple columns. Traveling is the best way to find new ideas and improve in the field.

I hope you are all alright! Stay safe!

-Solveig

 

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  • Christopher says:

    Very interesting post. Well done Pascal’s daughter. I wish you well with your studies.

  • Anthony Vidler says:

    Thanks for these – they cheer me up immensely!
    Jim Stirling used to say “I can’t draw but I can snap” and his archive is full of hundreds of photos – taken with a cheap Zeus point and shoot from the 60s that focus on detail after detail – hardly one of a complete building – they served as his memory images of important moments in architecture and often came back in his designs in one form or another. Peter and Alison Smithson snapped away in Greece – not a single temple but steps walls and views from them. For architects the camera – preferably a point and shoot like the iPhone is a notebook and as you say a reminder of the life of buildings.
    Great notes – vivid and architecturally observed! I was to be at the AA once more this month – but now not to be.
    All best wishes to you at this time
    Tony Vidler

    • Solveig Jappy says:

      Hello,
      your comment means a lot !

      Thank you for introducing me to both sets of photographs.
      Having seen Peter and Alison Smithson’s drawings before, it is impressive to see how their photographs also convey strong sense of space with few elements.

      Jim Stirling’s details photographs are a really interesting approach as well. Similarly to those, I tried myself at creating a textures catalogue from a set of close up photographs. It comes in very handy when using them for collages.

      Again thank you for your comment ! I look forward to seeing you next time you are able to come to London.
      Solveig.

  • Frank Field says:

    Wonderful images. So very nice to see the neighborhoods “in the raw,” see what caught your eye, and not see yet another 1950s American automobile. Full set constitute a wonderful travel photography project. Best wishes for success with your design project.

    • Solveig Jappy says:

      Hello !
      I did capture some of the cliché photos as well, as a good tourist, but I’m really gald you enjoy those.
      Thank you very much!

  • jean pierre guaron says:

    Hmm. A new insight! Family business is your business though, so no comment.

    100m x 100m sounds rather a lot, considering the standard of living. I do appreciate that in the present phase of lockdowns around the globe because of COVID-19, planning authorities are rethinking traditional buildings of apartments – they really don’t lend themselves to the level of separation needed to keep people alive.

    Cameras will win – no matter what cellphones get up to – simply because what cellphones DO get up to is using AI to produce an image. Photographers want to create their own images. Game over!

    Cellphones win on convenience (provided your fingers are so small you can actually press the right keys!) and their ability to instantly place your images on Instagram or send them to the other side of the planet. Cameras have other objectives – so the competition between the two is more like a difference as to which is better – rugby or football – and comparisons of that nature are meaningless.

    Enough of that. Back to photos.

    Your photos reveal some of the poverty that inevitably follows events like colonial invasions and communist revolutions (or indeed any other kind of revolution). And what I imagine was the brutally utilitarian ‘architecture’ of the post-revolution government.

    Where to, from here, is obviously a very good question. The scenery is lovely, so is the climate (at least for the time being). Cubans in general are very nice people, and I imagine they are proud of their country – so some constructions are likely to be more iconic than others. It may take a while – but I think the trajectory is likely to be upward. And for young people like you, a return journey in perhaps 20-30 years should well be rewarding – expect to be greeted by a more vibrant economy, less poverty (or none at all), and a great deal of new constrction. I remember similar scenes in SIngapore several years after the somwhat abrupt withdrawal of the British – and it now enjoys one of the highest per capita incomes in the World..

    • pascaljappy says:

      Gosh, I certainly hope Havana doesn’t turn into a second Singapore … That would be quite the U-turn.

      From what Solveig explained to us, the project is to build housing for multiple people. They don’t design private houses 😉

      Cameras will win? I think not. At least not in their sterile tech-before-fun, do-it-all-lie guise. Their future is Titanic-like. And, frankly, I welcome the change.

      Cheers

      • NMc says:

        Pascal
        Not sure of the tone or intent of your Singapore comment.
        Singapore is best known for raising the living standard of (what were) the poor, not the rich, since the middle of the last century. The urban environment of Singapore is what the locals want given the resources and environment. Singapore is not what snooty westerners deem suitable for their holidays for their vain and self-entitled desire/demands that Asians fit in with expectations for gritty traveller experience, with safety, and at a very affordable price.

        If Cuba becomes a bit like Singapore then it will be great for Cubans, perhaps not so good for bleach bypassed analogue photography or the digital imitators.

        What Solveig is showing of Cuba is a lot more than what is typical for a travel photographer. She has done a better job than most travel photographers because she is trying to see what locals experience rather than recreate the visual clichés. Yes I recognise that she was working to an architectural goal however sometimes we need to understand the small stuff to get the big picture.
        PS the titanic sunk, so dose that means you think non-smart cameras will win? 😉
        Regards Noel

        • pascaljappy says:

          Hi Noel,

          I personally quite like Singapore, at least as a tourist. And fellow DS contributor Paul goes every year as his birthday treat, he loves it so much. My uncle lived there and left rather unimpressed by the social life there. A colleague of mine also spent a year and came back very disappointed. To each his own. I’m not implying that one is better than the other, and couldn’t judge, but they do seem to lie at opposite ends of a spectrum when it comes to how people live. I like diversity and really prefer not all cities end up being the same. That’s not to say Cuba couldn’t benefit from some changes or that those changes wouldn’t be welcome by the residents. Or anything else, in fact. Only that the two are *very* dissimilar.

          Not sure what you mean about western travelers. I visited Singapore multiple times and far more rural parts of Malaysia. I personally prefer the forests. But then I prefer the forests of France to Paris, the forests of the UK to London. What’s wrong with that ?

          I think the photo industry keeps serving up more of the same, every year that passes, in spite of all the red flags the market has been sending it, year after year after year after year. Not the best strategy, by any standard. And, frankly, extremely boring.

          Cheers,
          Pascal

          • jean pierre guaron says:

            That’s pretty well why I decided to sit with my D500/D850 combo. SIGMA keeps telling us they’ll make a 100MP FF Foveon sensor SIGMA sometime, but so far it hasn’t happened, so I’m not holding my breath – I WILL buy it, though, if and when. If Canon stops fooling around with their PowerShots, I might replace mine with a newer model.
            I see the point of the mirrorless range, but they’ve come to the market too late for me – in what remains of my life, I will never have the opportunity to get a range of lenses and other accessories for a Z7, (1) because they don’t exist, (2) because Nikon’s adaptor simply leaves me with no advantage over using the same lens on the D850 instead, (3) because I’m wildly unlikely to ever be able to afford to replace all my lenses, and (4) because I don’t want to waste my life learning everything you need to, to get on top of a whole new camera range.
            Someone else can go mirrorless, I don’t intend to.
            Cellphones are too AI for my tastes – I like capturing an image and creating my own photo from it. Cellphones cut out all that world of post processing.
            The future is interesting still.
            Cellphones are exploring a lens-less camera with a Gigabyte sensor – who knows if they’ll succeed, but it sounds “interesting’ for those who favour cellphones. And let’s face it – they are the modern instamatic, today’s Kodak Brownie, the latest Polaroid, a complete replacement for my desktop porst processing and printing lab. But somehow, cameras will survive.
            And what’s their future? – well maybe we WILL see the ultimate sensor – the guy who gave us the sensors we use now, has invented one that does away with our current notion of pixels and captures every individual photon. Now tha would be seriously interesting!

          • Pascal Ravach says:

            Simply agree with you, Pascal… we too enjoyed a lot visiting Singapore last year, the “Switzerland of Asia”… courteous people, multi-ethnic, super well managed city, and a sense of refreshing organization and cleanliness after the exhausting polluted, noisy mess of South-East Asia; but yes, ultra-modern worlds like that (with a “paternalist” government, to be polite) are – for me at least – always less “alive” than a place like Havana, and this has nothing to do with the typical Western fascination for “exotism” (read: poverty turned into adventure); Cuban people are just warm, inventive, resilient, tolerant, and so on… a real wonderful nation. Here in Canada, tons of people go there for short-term holidays, but unfortunately they often just stay in the tourists resorts created to support the local striving economy…. Living with the local people opens the eyes… and is fun; how can i forget being the only white couple in a “wa-wa”, the local old rotten bus, and being “forced” to danse a samba because the whole bus was doing it, stuck bottoms to bottoms, or being warmly hugged by Omara Portuondo, one of the 5 Cuban “Legends” singers, just because again, we were the only white couple amongst 1000 cuban old blokes dancing – wonderfully, we can’t match that! – on old tunes? (It is nice to see again “Buena Vista Social Club”, the Wim Wenders film :D). Solveig was interested in their lives, not in the picture… hence wonderful pictures 🙂

    • pascaljappy says:

      Fun fact, Cuba claims to have found a cure against this virus and is preparing to sell it. Joint effort with the Chinese. Apparently, it’s very close to the Japanese VIR thingy but my MD wife says those can have severe side effects. Still, Cuba has good medical infrastructure and good education, I think. Two things to more liberal countries seem very happy to throw to the wind.

  • Jean-Claude Louis says:

    How refreshing !

    Architecture and photography are closely related, in the way they arrange shapes and forms in space. So, no surprise that the eye of an architect makes for good photography 🙂

    Beyond the documentary merit of the images, there are some true photographic gems in your post. I particularly love the blue ocean framed between blue walls, the beach captured in a triangular opening, the “curved triangle” shaping a window.

    Well done !

  • Steve Mallett says:

    Solveig, a wonderful post; you must surely get the accolade for youngest contributor. The images are so not what you expect from a trip to Cuba, as someone else has said not and old car in sight. Your architectural eye has delivered some wonderful shots. The curved window with all the planes and textures, the parasol on the beach and the light lattice work in the broken down tiled room (whatever it is) I love.

    And I’m so pleased to see that you you treat Pascal with the reverence and respect he so obviously deserves.

    Steve

  • Loved the photographs and the commentary that went with them, but my big takeaway from this is going to be “Wrinkly Senior”. :)) Can’t wait to share that one with my granddaughter. She will love it.

  • Nancee Rostad says:

    I so enjoyed reading your post, Solveig! The project to design housing in Havana really stirred your creativity as evidenced in your images. Even though there will be no actual buildings constructed, the exercise is important to your educational process. And to think that the images were taken with your camera phone – your dad’s head must be spinning! I’m glad that you avoided anything iconic and overworked, and instead found wonderfully rustic and evocative locations behind the scenes. I’ve wanted to travel to Cuba for a while now, and your photos have given me the impetus to make that happen.
    Thank you for sharing, and I hope we’ll see more from you.

    • Solveig Jappy says:

      Hello Nancee !
      I’m happy to see your were inspired by the photos.
      When you plan your trip, I stronlgy recommend visiting the School of Arts in the outskirts of Havana. It is quite surprising.

      Thank you !

  • John W says:

    1989, 2002, 2012. Three trips to Cuba. All focused on the colour and the people. I have never seen Cuba like this.

    Merci mademoiselle. Je m’incline devant toi.

    • Solveig Jappy says:

      After quite a talk with my tutors, Cuba has changed a lot in the last few years. There is a nice documentary that shows the evolution of Cuba through the eye of a cameraman. I think it’s called “Cuba and the cameraman” and is worth watching. It would be interesting to go back in ten years to see the new changes. Thank you for your comment, ça me fait très plaisir !

  • philberphoto says:

    What a gem of a post! Well done! If only for giving me “Wrinkly Senior”, which he will never be allowed to live down…:-)
    More seriously, a powerful combination of the soul of the place, meaning an inside, empathetic eye, and yet also that of an expert looking not at what is, but at what might be… well done (bis)!
    My faves are the pics with deep, geometric shadows, and the ones with geometric shapes. Gehry anyone?

  • Congrats on your post Solveig. Like philberphoto I love “Wrinkly Senior”. The images you showed were extremely enlightening, not the usual holiday snaps of Cuba, well done. Just think of what you could do with WS’s Hassi I’m sure he will share. Take care and best wishes with your studies.

  • Lad Sessions says:

    Welcome to Dear Susan, Solweig, and I hope it’s not the only time! Photographic talent apparently runs in the family, and you are putting yours to very good effect. Don’t worry about your camera/non-camera; it’s only a tool, and a tool which you use very effectively indeed to capture, or suggest, facets of the world that interest you—and me as well. I found the photos quite worth a second look. I especially like the “architecture” of the tree roots, but the artifacts are strikingly portrayed as well.

    • Solveig Jappy says:

      Thank you for your comment! My main focus during this visit was the relationship between nature and buildings. This tree is a clear example of what I was looking for so it is great you pointed it out 🙂

  • Pascal Ravach says:

    Exactement le genre d’article et de photos que j’adore, Solveig !
    Très belles photos (la lumière dans l’escalier, parmi bien d’autres…), mais surtout une connexion avec le réel !
    En plus, j’aime profondément Cuba, ses habitants, la générosité, l’entr’aide, et oui surtout… la vie ! Je trouve que tu l’as très bien rendue, et je te souhaite d’y retourner un jour !

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