The commitment and sensitivity of restorers recover, multiplied, the wealth of Cuban cultural heritage
If you were to ask yourself, as you walk the streets of Old Havana’s Historical Center, what magic takes place to be able to exhibit a living colonial architecture in the 21st century, surely you would credit a thousand reasons to the mystique of the evolution of history and time. But the fact is that a network of projects led by the Office of the City Historian are responsible for protecting the city’s cultural legacy, and one of those efforts, the Gaspar Melchor de Jovellanos Workshop School of Havana, plays a prominent role. This first-class institution, a thousand-strong colossus that is remaking the city, has left its mark on the restoration of heritage buildings and sites, including the National Capitol, the Cathedral of Havana, the San Francisco de Asís Convent and the Colón Cemetery. The school trains youth in the various arts and crafts that bequeathed to us a secular building tradition, providing them as well with the most up-to-date knowledge and techniques.
Founded in 1992 and the only one of its kind in Havana, the school took up again the principle of teaching through the combination of study and work. Crafts such as stonework, ironwork, plasterwork, carpentry, mural painting and glassmaking are all assimilated at the worksite on a daily basis for a period of two years, to be brought into play to recover and refurbish valuable sites and buildings in the Historical Center as well as other places in the capital.
Throughout its existence, the school has legitimized itself as a national reference, not only because it applies the original techniques of traditional trades that were used in the construction of the cultural assets they restore, but also because training goes hand in hand with fostering the virtue of loving what they do, of returning, thanks to the work that comes out of their hands, the grandeur of a beloved city.
The Workshop School proposes a new language for the creativity of youth 17 to 25 years-old, who neither work nor study, and who find an institution they can aspire to and ultimately belong to.
Talking with some first-year students, we discovered the imprint they leave on every structure that is visible today as recovered architecture and restored buildings. Caridad de la Peña, a masonry major, claims that she stays true to the legacy of the old masters: patience. She stresses that even though she is part of a generation marked by such an accelerated pace that speed and immediacy violate all production relations, the Workshop School constantly reminds her that there are ways of doing things that set it apart in its field.
Rafael Méndez, a student of wide-ranging masonry, is pleased to know that throughout the course of his training, he has come to be in a position where he sees architecture conscientiously, understands styles and techniques, and can determine the necessary materials for intervening on those structures. He is responsible for carrying out in each case a prior background research of the property, thus availing himself of the necessary knowledge to perform a conscious intervention on the building and not go against its authenticity.
Such insights testify to the commitment and sensitivity of restorers who recover, multiplied, the wealth of Cuban cultural heritage. So much so that architect Emily Dallmeyer (North Carolina, US), who was hired for the construction of the Greek Orthodox Church, appreciated the high potential and genuineness of the school’s students, and said that bricklayers like them, capable of tackling complex details of religious architecture, are practically impossible to find in the United States.
Our young restorers—artists of inherited and recovered trades in constant dialogue with the present, producers of new knowledge and aesthetic lines, responsible for the buildings that were born to the former town of San Cristóbal since the sixteenth century, and everything that defined them inside and in their surroundings—are the ones who make and remake magic in their city every day.