Proyecto Batiscafo, Havana, Cuba (November 2006). A month-long (1st - 30th November, 2006) international residency and exhibition in Havana, Cuba. Exhibition: 23-30th November 2006. Paso Peatonal Subterraneo, Avenida Carlos III, esquina a Retiro, Centro Habana
Initial research into Continuous Productive Urban Landscapes 'CPULs' (see CPUL Scholarly Portfolio) made it clear that we required a better understanding of how people perceived open urban space if the CPUL concept was to be further developed and ultimately applied as a sustainable design strategy. Proyecto Batiscafo, was developed to address this question and grew out a number of earlier actions.
A dialogue about open urban space was established with the British artist Tom Phillips R.A., during which a number of common interests were identified, for example, readings of the urban environment, its productive use, the way in which it is seen (optics, elevation, horizontal and vertical space), memory and temporality. A particular insight came when we realised that a treatise on ornament, written by Tom Phillips ('The Nature Of Ornament A Summary Treatise' published in the Architectural Review, April 2003, Vol CCXIII No 1274 pp 79-86) included descriptions of the primary mark making syntax of ornament, which could equally be read as descriptions of the visual syntax of Cuban organoponicos (urban agriculture sites). This observation provoked the thought that urban agriculture can be understood as 'organic ornament' and opened up a rich field of exploration and speculation. As a result Tom Phillips and I undertook a field trip to Cuba, which we called 'second sight' with the aim of documenting a number of urban agriculture sites and investigating the way they are read within the city. The British Council assisted by putting us in contact with Yuneikys Villalonga, an independent Cuban curator who worked with a number of emerging Cuban artists. Through Yuneikys we made contact with three artists, Pavel Acosta, Fidel García & Alejandro González, all of whom explored the urban situation within their work. As a result, with Katrin Bohn, we made a proposal to collectively further explore qualitative readings of urban space, and use this work to further our understanding of how urban space is perceived.
In 2005 we successfully submitted a bid to the Brighton based digital arts organization, 'Lighthouse' for an open commission to mount an exhibition as part of the Brighton Film festival. Within this bid we established the core group of artists and architects from Cuba and the UK with whom we have mounted 2 research based exhibitions. The Brighton exhibition presented work by each participant recording different readings of open urban space. We were particularly interested in the amount of time visitors spent in the exhibition and decided to develop a follow up exhibition which would further engage both the exhibitors and visitors in a deeper dialogue, and especially allow us to gauge more explicitly the public reactions to our readings of open urban space and the CPUL concept.
The follow up exhibition in Havana (RAE output 3) was facilitated by an award from Triangle Arts Trust for a month long residency in Havana to Kartin Bohn and myself. A concluding exhibition was funded by the British Council. The residency formed part of an ongoing international Cuban residency project, called 'Batiscafo' which supports collaborations between Cuban and international artists, this was the first time that the award was made to architects.
The venue, in central Havana, was significant as it provided an audience familiar with urban agriculture since its introduction to Cuba in 1989. This audience could provide objective and critical feedback, due to their familiarity with the city before and after the introduction of urban agriculture. Cuban urban agriculture has been located in the city on purely pragmatic grounds, by establishing a dialogue with the exhibition’s audience we could begin to see if the positive aspects we were noting, were shared amongst the cities residents, and how they viewed the wider CPUL strategy.
A city centre location adjacent to a major shopping centre was selected for the residency and exhibition venue so as to place our work adjacent to a cross section of the public. I developed two new pieces of work during the residency, both related to Havana’s open and productive urban space. One piece was an installation titled Micro Organoponico, the other a project undertaken with colleague Katrin Bohn was called Finding Park Lenin and included an extensive public survey and proposition for developing a CPUL in Havana.
Micro Organoponico was constructed using materials supplied by local urban farmers made into a vertical structure supporting semi circular 'canellettos' for growing lettuce plants. The structure led visitors into the exhibition and offered insights into how the population responded to this relocated productive landscape. The Micro Oranoponico was surrounded by a hum of 'lechuga' as people stopped and viewed the installation, and despite concerns raised by the curators the piece suffered no vandalism, an issue always raised as a concern about the viability of urban agriculture.
Finding Park Lenin asked research questions more directly. The project title refers to a large park on the outskirts of Havana, built after the revolution as space for recreation. After the collapse of the Soviet Union and the start of Cuba’s 'special period' Park Lenin had fallen into a state of disrepair. Using film and video we set about documenting the park to understand its design and qualities, while also developing a proposal for a continuous productive urban landscape linking Park Lenin to the central Havana. Our investigations confirmed that Park Lenin registered large in the collective memory of the Havana’s residents. Within the exhibition we asked visitors to recall their memories of visits to Park Lenin, and if there were other spaces in the city which reminded them of the qualities they recalled from the Park. Visitors’ willingness to engage in a conversation and complete questionnaires has provided a large body of primary data with which we will be able to judge perceptions of Havana’s existing open urban space and responses to the CPUL concept.
The Batiscafo Residency was commissioned and funded by the London based arts organisation Triangle Arts Trust, the British Council and the University of Brighton.
Results from the residency have informed design research undertaken by Katrin Bohn and myself as part of the Design Councils 'DOTT07' (Designs of the time 2007) Urban Farming initiative in Middlesbrough and in the future we hope to continue the investigations initiated in Havana and further develop the Havana CPUL working with colleague Prof Dr Arq Jorge Peña Díaz (Director del Centro de Estudios Urbanos de La Habana Facultad de Arquitectura, CUJAE).