In 2001, Julio César Pérez Hernández became the only Cuban architect to receive a Loeb Fellowship from Harvard University in the United States.
We all have our own living space for being in this part of the universe. Each of us is responsible for a story that in its essential structure comes from within, from the very core of our existence.
There are always great human beings behind great works. They visualize them, dream about them, draw them… and then they emerge, majestic, unique, to transcend time. It is then that the discovery of two worlds takes place, when a work crosses the frontiers of what’s imagined to become a legend.
The image belongs to Julio César Pérez Hernández (http://www.cigarclub.lu/perez), a man who in 2001 became the only Cuban architect to be granted a Loeb Fellowship from Harvard University in the United States. This is considered the highest international distinction for any professional doing a degree in Architecture, Urbanism, and Landscaping. Only ten professionals from around the world receive this distinction each year.
“Loeb Fellowship recognized my international renown as an academic and my professional career as a practicing architect. The year 2001 constituted a period to reflect about my career, and I was granted the title of Research Scholar. Obviously, you do not go to Harvard to study, but to share your experiences and knowledge. That is why I not only carried out research but also did teaching and gave conferences in other U.S. states.”
A decade of art, history, and creations…
From now on, a different stage begins in the career of this artist: more than 300 projects of different levels of complexity, some of them implemented, others still being built; and written up in Progressive Planning, Taschen Editions, Alinea Editrice, Caleidoscope Edicao, The New York Times, Architecture and Urbanism, and Ireland Architecture.
The year 2001 marks the beginning of a decade of creations, where columns, arches, and supports leave behind the aesthetics of yesteryear to elegantly reflect the modern age in buildings and residences.
Harvard was a cradle of inspiration for the architect who, after he graduated in 1982, focused his work on creating spaces for human beings - from residential projects to urban areas - paying great attention to the landscape.
It was there where Julio César conceived his project for the Urban Promenade along the Banks of the Ariguanabo River, a symbol that gave the name to San Antonio de los Baños, his hometown. That work received a prize in 2003 in New York City. It was also there that he devised a project for the Erols house, located in the U.S. state of Virginia, which was materialized years later. According to the artist, this work is in harmony with the geographic context where the building is located, where the Rappahannock and Thumb Rivers converge. Meanwhile, the architectural design goes hand in hand with the nearby landscape, alluding to the cultural context of the region.
Vision of futuristic architecture…
The Master Plan for 21st Century Havana turned out to be the most comprehensive task during the 2001-2002 period, an ambitious project to which Julio César dedicated more than five years.
“The idea to make this project was born during that sabbatical year, so to speak. When you are far from your country, you reflect and think about the true values of the city where you were born. That situation made me conceive of this Master Plan, which is registered at the Library of Congress in Washington D.C., and which has been presented in Cuba, the United States, and Europe.”
It is an urban design project that envisions a future for Havana which aspires to safeguard this patrimony and, at the same time, to create new urban and economic areas. It develops ideas for the short-, medium- and long-term transformation of Cuba’s capital city, in order to turn it into a modern city that, of course, honors its nearly 500-year-old history.
Some time back, the New York website Cuban Art News (www.cubanartnews.com) interviewed Julio César about this master plan, which reflects his critical vision of Cuban architecture. Regarding that, he said: “This plan does not follow any government dictate or order; it is a labor of love for the city, without expecting anything in return. It is a gift, a personal contribution.”
The Plan is based on a decalogue that comprises a series of ideas to take into consideration during implementation of the work: Waterfront Redevelopment, which will give the city a new image and will allow taking extensive and intensive advantage of its coastline. It suggests constructions that offer a model in line with European traditions based on open air cafes, art galleries and restaurants, bars, shops, and bazaars.
In addition, it intends to turn the Port of Havana sector into a modern commercial and sports port that will contribute to a new image of the city, while at the same time permitting the re-creation of its history and the recycling of its economic functions.
Also projected is the Reinforcement of Polycentric Structure, which includes the creation of new centers in new housing developments to the west (the site of the former Columbia airfield) and east (a territory in Habana del Este municipality). It sets up a new Public Transportation System (surface and underground) that does not contaminate the environment. It also envisages Infrastructure Upgrading, which will give Havana improved and expanded water services, electricity, sewerage, telephone, high speed internet, and other services. An Increase of Public Space is planned that responds to the idiosyncrasy of Cuban people, their customs and traditions. In addition to Social and Cultural Integration, there is Environmental Safety and Increase of Green Areas, a New Image of the City, and the Revitalization of Roadways.
In general, the Plan focuses on a vision in perspective combined with a detailed urban design. According to the author, the city must be dreamed, thought-out and conceived for a future that transcends the mark of a particular era. The urban plan should propose projects of different scales whose flexibility permits transformations as circumstances require.
The imprints of his story
Julio César’s work did not reach its zenith that year at Harvard. On the contrary, it became stronger and took off once back in his country, to then reach international sceneries on a road paved with effort and an innovative sense.
Each step he makes is like a new page in his life story and in the evolution of Cuban society.
In 2006, Taschen GmbH Publisher of Cologne, Germany, published his book Inside Cuba, and in October of this year, Inside Havana, both translated into six languages: English, Spanish, German, French, Portuguese, and Italian.
Both volumes have a cultural significance, because they not only portray elements of Cuban architecture, but also the idiosyncrasy of the Island and the general identity of its inhabitants.
The author comments that the constructions provided room to talk about the history of products cultivated in Cuba such as sugarcane, tobacco, and coffee; of how Spanish colonization influenced architectonic styles and people’s tastes. For example, how coffee was replaced by chocolate, one of Spanish culture’s most deeply rooted habits.
A project created for Spain’s Aranjuez Historic Center also featured in 2006, as requested by the local authorities.
Since 2007, the architect, city planner, and researcher has been chairing and organizing an international workshop on Havana, the Havana International Charrette.
This event, held always in springtime, has had five editions, the latest of which was held last March. It convokes professors, students, and the public in general from Cuba and around the world to know, study, and appreciate Havana’s urbanism. It is a week of intense work about a specific area. The results are made known publicly, and a copy is sent to the Havana City Historian’s Office. The information compiled during the past workshops is available online at the following websites:
About the importance of these workshops, he said: “What is important is to transmit love for the city and its environment to the students, and point out our duty and responsibility with it if we want Havana to continue to be that magical, poetic, and magnetic city that captivates every one with its charm, that illuminates the way with its urbanism and inspires with its architecture.”
Throughout the past decade, his academic activity increased abroad. His talent was the reason why he has been summoned to congresses in Europe as an academic and to the United States and Canada as a lecturer. Since 2004, his membership stands out in the Council of European Urbanism (CEU) and in the International Network for Traditional Building, Architecture, and Urbanism (INTBAU), which are non-profitable and non-governmental institutions. In Cuba, he founded their corresponding chapters.
In addition, he is a member of the Gonzalo de Cárdenas Vernacular Architecture Chair, and since 2009 of the ICOMOS Cuba Committee.
That was the name of a personal exhibition Julio César presented last year at the Eduardo Abela Provincial Fine Art Center, in San Antonio de los Baños.
It involved a selection of ten of the works and projects he made over the past ten years in different countries. Framed by metals, this exhibit showed the artist’s vision of the world. It is undoubtedly a gesture in keeping with the culture of his time, and trying to translate it in terms of space and function, with an artistic meaning.
The exhibition included the Master Plan for 21st Century Havana (2001-2006); the Ariguanabo River Urban Promenade, San Antonio de los Baños, Artemisa (2002-2003); the Aranjuez Historic Center Project, Madrid, Spain (2008); Gino House, Miramar, Havana (2009); Damas House, Cojímar, Havana (2007); Figueredo House, San Antonio de los Baños, Artemisa (2008-2009); Studio, San Antonio de los Baños, Artemisa (2002-2006); Casino Español building, San Antonio de los Baños, Artemisa (2009); Elejalde House, Miramar, Havana (2000-2004), and Erols House, Marshall, Virginia, United States (2004-2007).
All of them are related to the landscape, both urban and rural, and reflect great sensitivity with regard to the places where they are located, from magical and poetic settings such as Havana, Aranjuez, and a pastoral landscape in Virginia, to the indescribable town of San Antonio de los Baños.
10x10 shows that when art supports pilasters, goes around arcades, and adorns walls, it is impossible to stop appreciating it, because the great works and the great human beings who make them leave marks that last forever.
For the rescue of his hometown…
The architect has dedicated his latest efforts to this responsibility. It is worth highlighting his projects for the rehabilitation of San Antonio de los Baños, among them the one for urban renovation that includes the rescue of the plazas, as well as the banks and adjoining forest of the Ariguanabo River.
Among the plazas, emphasis is on the Central Plaza, the only one of its type in Cuba due to its design and structure, with buildings on all four corners and the streets in the middle. The former Casino Español building is located there, for which he created a restoration project, turning it into a cultural center with a library, movie theaters, and an art gallery.
His active professional activity includes completely new works for individual housing, including remodeling a residence in Miramar, Havana, which was designed in 1940 by famous Cuban architect Rafael de Cárdenas.
He is also working on another house in the Siboney neighborhood of Havana that was built in the 1950s, as well as others in the Brisas del Mar and Cojímar neighborhoods, also in the Cuban capital, plus a project to enlarge a house in Miami, United States.
He recently finished the preservation project for the Colonial Church of Güira de Melena municipality, Artemisa province, next to San Antonio de los Baños.
In late June 2011, he had a two month stay in Italy, after having been chosen to teach in the Erasmus Mundus MacLands Master Program. There he had the honor of joining the Scientific Committee of the International Society of Biourbanism, for which he gave a lecture at the Roma TRE University.
Cuba in the soul…
His travels to different cities of the world have indubitably allowed him to appreciate this art abroad - the exponents of different styles of architecture and urban design, either modern or classical.
However, the most valuable contribution he got from each encounter with a foreign culture he expressed in the following way, in the interview he granted to Cuban Art News:
“There is a great admiration and a great recognition of Cuban patrimony, of Havana’s values. There is great respect. I am very proud when I talk about it, about its architecture, its urbanism, which up to now remains intact in spite of the buildings that no longer exist.”
“Everybody wants to see Havana, to come to Havana, but many professionals and people in general are concerned about future changes, because of the sudden influx of the market, and the possibility that Havana might loose its charming, romantic image.”
“Also, in North America only a few historic cities exist, and that is why they recognize the values of our capital.”
For Julio, Cuba will always be in his soul. Havana, the favorite source of inspiration; San Antonio, the place where he and his vocation were born. Every corner of history, every deteriorated wall, and every colonial balcony owe him hours of careful work and patience. Cuban culture is indebted to his respectful and experienced vision.
Ten years seem like a lot of time when there is so much work in favor of the art of designing and erecting buildings, when in every minute, in every conference, in every steady line life is portrayed forever.
Translated by Dayamí Interián
Revised by Susana Hurlich