UB Opens One of First Study-Abroad Programs In Cuba

Release Date: June 10, 1997 This content is archived.


BUFFALO, N.Y. -- The University at Buffalo launched its first study-abroad program in Cuba on June 1 when five UB students left for a month in Havana, where they will be involved in an interdisciplinary study of the city's history, architecture and urban development.

As part of the program, the students will develop and present a proposal for the preservation and restoration of one of Havana's historic neighborhoods.

Participants will receive six graduate or undergraduate credits for their work.

The program may be the only summer program in Cuba sponsored by a U.S. university, according to Stephen Dunnett, UB vice provost for international education, who will conduct an on-site evaluation of the program. Owing to the U.S. embargo of Cuba, Dunnett said the U.S. Treasury Department has permitted few such ventures by American schools or businesses.

The UB program, which will present its final restoration proposal in September, is directed by Jose Buscaglia, visiting assistant professor of Spanish at UB. He holds a master's degree in planning from the UB School of Architecture and Planning and is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Comparative Literatures.

The course of study began with an intensive two-week presentation on the history of Havana from 1519-1920. It was taught by Daniel Taboada, Cuba's foremost authority on architectural restoration. Taboada has supervised restoration projects on entire historically valuable urban centers in Cuba. He also oversaw the restoration of the historical fortification and defensive systems of the city of Havana. Built between the 16th and 19th centuries, these fortress walls and battlements are the most extensive in the Western Hemisphere.

During his course Taboada will present Havana in a wide range of contexts, including the representation of the city over the centuries in mediums such as film, art, literature and music.

"This study-abroad program is designed as an interdisciplinary exercise," said Buscaglia. "A city is the best Œlaboratory site' for a productive engagement between disciplines because of the stimulus provided by its setting and structure. Despite what we have heard of its decline, Havana is a magnificently designed city and one of the most important in the region.

"As a matter of fact," he said, "in this part of the world -- the Caribbean basin -- Havana is considered the only Œreal' city. That is, it has developed a particular urban culture, a characteristic peculiar only to the major cities of the world, like Paris, London, Cairo, Rome, Barcelona, Calcutta, Beijing."

"A separate urban culture develops in certain urban centers because of the traffic patterns, among other things. Most great cities have greatly limited auto traffic and many have well-developed mass transit systems. Havana, on the other hand, has few cars and much pedestrian traffic not because of urban planning, but because gas and cars are just not available and the public transportation system is crumbling," he said.

"Nevertheless, Havana was designed in the 1930s according to a very clear and rational system. It was extravagantly designed and well-planned. I studied Havana for more than five years, but when I visited for the first time the city's actual scale -- it's Œmonumentality' -- was completely unexpected to me," Buscaglia noted. "It has magnificent, arcaded boulevards, for instance, beautifully and strongly built in stone and concrete that protect pedestrians from the sun and rain and encourage street life and pedestrian traffic.

"Like all great cities, it has a very rich urban culture," he added. "That is, it is not a typical city of automobiles with urban sprawl. Havana is a city of the pedestrian, a city that must be Œwalked' in order to be understood."

Buscaglia said Havana isn't in ruins, although it could have been. It was abandoned after the Cuban revolution because of its identification as the capital of a colony and a center of corruption. Much attention has been paid by the government to other, smaller Cuban cities, some of which have been restored. Until now, however, Buscaglia said Havana has been pretty much ignored.

"Castro's government didn't bother to demolish the city, fortunately, so it has been preserved," he said. "It's rundown, but because it was very well built, it can easily be rehabilitated, and that's what's going on now.

"The amount of foreign investment in the city is staggering -- millions and millions of European, Mexican and Canadian dollars are pouring into Havana," he said. "The pace of reconstruction, rehabilitation and rebuilding is amazing. The idea now is to turn Havana into a showplace again so as to draw more investment to Cuba."

After studying Havana in a classroom for two weeks, the students will select a specific site in the city for a group project focused on the question of how a particular urban site might be saved. As a group, they will study and document the site and then design an actual physical intervention proposal to restore it.

The study group consists of two students of architecture, one planning student, a history and a sociology student.

The planning student will lead fellow students through the streets of Havana and be in charge of writing about the urban signs and history of the site selected. The history and sociology students will broaden the group's understanding of the political and social relevance of the site selected and of the project itself. The architecture students will design the actual physical intervention.

Students will live and study in the Old Convent of Santa Clara in the colonial section of Havana -- Habana Vieja or "Old Havana" -- which today is also the site of Cuba's National Center for Conservation, Restoration and Museum Studies.

"It is a magnificent old place," Buscaglia said. "As the religious order that lived there diminished in size, the nuns moved to a smaller convent and the 1

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