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Castro’s dictatorship has failed the people of Cuba

Though I grew up in a United States that vilified Communism, was aware of the Bay of Pigs fiasco, and worked with architects who had fought alongside the guerrillas (and subsequently escaped to the U.S.), I have remained blithely ambivalent about leader Fidel Castro’s role and impact.   After a recent trip to Havana. I am no longer ambivalent.

In the last fifty years, Cuba has achieved near-universal literacy.  Ballet and music receive intensive support.  The government has driven several world-class sustainability initiatives.  Bio-medical research is an important sector.  And Cuba’s educational meritocracy and emphasis on higher learning have resulted in a well-educated management and professorial class.

But even though Castro has been responsible for some real gifts to his people, the net social and economic result is negative.

Havana is a city of 2.3 million.  It is densely built up, and, especially in its original colonial areas, is full of wonderful civic structures, parks and urban vistas.  Yet there are, throughout the city, millions of square feet of abandoned and nearly-abandoned buildings.  These buildings were once fully occupied and maintained, and the decline from an earlier state of vitality and health is unavoidable.   (There are, by Cuba’s own admission, 40,000 people “living in sub-human conditions,” but the impression one receives walking the streets is that the number is substantially higher.) This intense urban poverty is a significant indicator of Cuba’s underlying condition.

The U.S. embargo is often blamed for Cuba’s increased poverty.  However, a closer look at business and social life in Havana suggests that there is more behind Cuba’s current economic state than the U.S. embargo.

Before arriving in Cuba, I asked several friends who had visited Havana why there were only 1950s-era U.S.-made cars in the country even though the rest of the world was still trading with Cuba.  I never received a knowledgeable answer, so I was surprised to see that the famous old cars make up only a small proportion of Havana’s automobiles, and the streets are full of recent-model Asian and European cars and trucks.  The rest of the world – and has been for 50 years – exchanging goods with Cuba.

Cuba has a thriving (mostly government-run) hotel and hospitality industry.  The well-dressed, impeccably-trained staff arrive from their modest homes and are paid $20 per month to smile and be gracious to tourists from Europe, Canada, Asia, and from the wealthier parts of South and Central America.  Outside the tourist and transportation industries, the lack of business development is startling. (The Havana telephone directory is the size one would expect for two million people; while the yellow pages directory is about the size of a Harlequin romance novel.)

Cuba was robbed of a large and vibrant middle class in 1959, when Castro took control of the country.  Those who operated small- and mid-scale businesses were seen by the revolutionaries as basically selfish and destructive, and their evil was equated with that of the Mob and of Batista and of “Big Sugar”.  Their properties were taken, some were executed – and many fled to Miami, where their knowledge, abilities and ambition have driven the economic re-birth of south Florida.

Without an ambitious and knowledgeable business class, and with governmental discouragement of creative business development. Cuba has been effectively strangled as an economic engine by its own internal policies for 50 years.  During this time profits available from government sale of sugar and oil have been used to support a relatively primitive economy.  This top-down provision of cash and material has also been immensely subsidized by the former Soviet Union, by Communist China and, more recently, by Venezuela. Somewhat ironically, government largesse is fuelled today by the money that arrives from wealthy capitalist tourists.

Economies of the world grow through invention, risk, exchange and profit.  This profit becomes a resource for subsequent cycles of invention, risk, exchange and profit.  There are clearly dangers and abuse in these cycles of business, and protections against these problems are constantly evolving in the developed world.  Castro and the Cuban government chose to protect against the abuses and dangers of capital growth by prohibiting it and by permitting only the most primitive form of barter economy.  It is this prohibition, and the missing (exiled) middle class, which has caused Cuba’s lack of exchange and local economic vitality.  The U.S. embargo has been incidental. Trade within Cuba and between Cuba and Europe, Asia and Canada could have easily counterbalanced the U.S. embargo if Cubans had been able to pursue personal and financial enrichment.

Old Havana was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1982.  With this recognition – and thanks to the efforts of many of Havana’s architects and historians – Cuba and the international community have been pursuing for the past decade an aggressive policy of rebuilding key colonial structures and plazas (literally from the ruins) in the old city.  The results of these efforts are wonderful, and the re-built districts are as delicious as any urban environments I know.  Yet they are miniscule in face of the thousands of buildings and hundreds of streets which have fallen into a state not far from a Mad Max movie set.  Top-down improvements, even at 10 times the speed of the current program, will not make a visible dent in the texture of abandonment which remains.  Only bottom-up economically-driven improvements from thousands of individual initiatives will be able to heal this unfortunate place.

It is clear that Cuba had problems in the 1950s: the Mob had inordinate influence; the gap between rich and poor was immense; educational levels were low and illiteracy high; Batista ran a tyrannical state; and U.S.-owned corporations dictated economic and governmental policy.  All of these had to be addressed, and perhaps a revolution was a necessary first step.  A dictatorial top-down Soviet-style bureaucracy, however, was not the only way to have achieved social justice, economic well-being and cultural enrichment.  The propaganda-rich environment of Cuba appears to have been more successful in infantilizing an entire population than in making a just and thriving society.

A laissez-faire solution is, and clearly would have been, problematic.  The solution was not to have imitated Mexico, where graft, dishonest governance and a chasm between haves and have-nots run counter to the underlying principles of the revolutionary socialists.  An interesting solution, though, may be on the horizon: Hugo Chávez, the purportedly socialist president of Venezuela, claims to consider Castro his hero and model.  Yet Chávez – according to televised advertisements we saw in Havana on Venezuelan television – is offering business development loans to the citizens of Venezuela for all levels of enterprise.  Business loans are the selling to others of the right to use money for their own future profit and well-being.  Capitalism, too, at its heart, is the selling to others of the right to use money for their own future profit and well-being.  Chávez’s loan initiative may represent a chink in the armour of dictatorial anti-capitalist socialism.

The thriving cultures and economies of Scandinavia have realized the goals of socialism yet maintained a thriving middle class, all within a democratic, transparent and capitalist state. Fidel and Raul Castro and their successors should perhaps take a closer look – though after three generations of central planning re-creation of an entrepreneurial class may prove difficult.

Originally published in Winnipeg Free Press, Thursday, March 29, 2007

Good architecture is a vital element of education

Thirty-five years ago it was decided by those who established school design policy that students were at school to learn, and that they must not be distracted. This decision led to what seems now a rather bizarre directive: That schools were henceforth to be built with no windows. The decision was made in the belief that windowless schools would improve education, reduce operating costs, protect against vandalism, and save money.

Several schools were built without windows, but it was quickly discovered that they did not work.  Learning performance fell and absenteeism increased.  Within three to four years the practice was discontinued, and windows were installed in many of the formerly windowless buildings.

From the 1940s through the 1970s there was strong support for innovative school construction and high quality design.  It was understood that a well-designed environment served everyone well.  Learning was improved, and good architecture and planning demonstrated that Manitoba was committed to quality at all levels. A number of schools are still in use from this era. Many of these buildings remain important works of Manitoba architecture and, more important, many remain excellent environments for teaching and learning.

At the provincial level, the commitment to architectural excellence in educational buildings has declined, and public funding policy has tended for the past three decades to focus more on budget management than on education and design excellence.  It is not clear why this change in emphasis occurred, though “lower cost at any cost” seems to have been a mantra of government for a number of years.

In Manitoba, public school construction is administered by the Manitoba Public  Schools Finance Board (PSFB), which in turn operates under the direction of the provincial government. It is the PSFB’s duty to assure that construction budgets are adequate for new educational construction in the province.  When money is scarce, there are two ways to assure that budgets and costs match:  One of these is to reduce the quantity of building that is built; and the other is to reduce the quality of the buildings that are built.  The PSFB uses both of these tools to satisfy its budget management duty.

Many school districts, and their architects, have tried to build schools that are more than the minimal boxes encouraged by the PSFB.  The PSFB budget allocations are often inadequate for anything but those minimal boxes.  Both the ambitious school districts and the budget-conscious PSFB have been frustrated with the process and the results.

In 2004 the PSFB introduced a series of precise standards for the construction of school buildings in Manitoba. These standards are somewhat unusual in that they have been established as the maximum that is to be built.  Even if a building exceeding these standards could be constructed within its assigned budget, the PSFB will not permit designs which violate their standards to receive PSFB funding.

If this policy has grown from a political directive, the politicians who issued the directive should think about the message poor quality in our public environment sends.  If, on the other hand, the low standards evolved because the PSFB wants to please its political masters, perhaps the politicians should signal to the PSFB that the new standards, which actively discourage innovation and the values of well-designed environments, are a mistake.

The Isbister School, Winnipeg School Division’s Adult Education Centre, occupies a prominent downtown site between Colony, Vaughn and Webb Place. The original four-square school sat on its landscaped grounds in a way similar to many county courthouses found south of the border, and this rather stately arrangement has always been an inherent part of the building’s character and quality.

The school was in a decrepit state for 30 years – surrounded by parking lots, chain link and barbed-wire fences, and aging trailer classrooms. The building and grounds have recently been renovated, a new addition has been constructed, and new landscaping has been installed.  Viewed from the east (from Vaughn Street), the Isbister School still presents itself as a stately courthouse in a park. On the Colony side, however, the character of the building has become quite different. The new addition is adamantly not four-square; it stands in an asymmetrical relationship with the original building, and the courthouse-in-the-park is no longer easily recognizable from the west.

There was some critical comment about the new addition when it was first completed, and I suspect that this arose from the new building’s non-historic character and asymmetrical relationship with the original structure.  The design was approved through an extensive process of heritage review, and though there may have been other ways to integrate the old and new buildings, the new design did pass the litmus test of extensive and collegial review.

The addition was designed by Penner Prinz Architects.  It is a handsome structure, and represents a commitment by Winnipeg School Division to the downtown and to quality architecture.  In order to support this foray into quality design, the school division had to ignore the PSFB’s minimalist policies, and overcome its own recent tradition of minimal building.  This is risky ground for them, and they should be congratulated for their conviction, and for their ability to carry it through.

Originally published in Winnipeg Free Press, Sunday, August 20, 2006

I have a brother-in-law who, when hearing of disagreements about taste says “That’s why they make chocolate, and vanilla.”

When the battle is over flavours of ice cream, there is room for both chocolate and vanilla.  When the battle concerns policies that can have profoundly different effects, thoughts about ice cream flavours seem less insightful.

When the physical form of our city is debated, and two opposite propositions are put forward, it is not always easy for the two sides to co-exist.  Physical developments are real and relatively permanent.  They either get built, or they remain ideas.  If they are built, the group who objected  loses the battle; and conversely, if construction is halted, the project proponent loses the battle.  A middle road in these circumstances can be hard to find.

A Winnipeg developer and architectural firm, Stechesen Katz Architects, recently purchased a derelict and abandoned bridge, and right-of-way, adjacent to the Kenaston bridge over the Assiniboine River.  Zoning regulations permit reuse of the bridge and right-of-way for residential or office use on approximately 50% of the purchased lands, but zoning must be adjusted in order to permit building on the entire bridge.  As has been reported in the Free Press, the new owners hope to build a condominium on the bridge, with units looking east over the Assiniboine River.

When I heard about this project, I was pleased that right here in River City someone had the gumption to try something creative and risky; that the market in our slow-growth city can handle an out-of-the-ordinary housing solution; that there is a market for housing close to our city centre; that one of the province’s better design firms was behind the project.

There is a group of citizens opposed to this development.  Their objections seem to centre on a perceived threat to the enjoyment of the river, and loss of a possible recreational walkway across the river.  They also claim that the project would violate Plan Winnipeg. Though I do not agree with the points raised, each of their objections could be argued on its merits.

That will happen next Tuesday at about 6 p.m. at the city centre community committee meeting at City Hall.

I spoke recently with an opponent of the project, who asked me if I knew of another such multi-use bridge anywhere else in the world.  Though I could think of two excellent examples from 15th century Italy, I had to admit that, no, I knew of no comparable modern projects.  The fact that there are no other projects like this was used as an argument against the development.

If no one else has done it how could it be right in Winnipeg?

My own response was the opposite: What better reason could we have to make this happen than that this would be a first in the world?

The two questions – why should we do something new, and why should we not do something new – are really the heart of the matter.  They represent two incompatible world views. And with them it is hard to make a chocolate/vanilla swirl.

Originally published in Winnipeg Free Press, Saturday, July 10, 2004

When architects and clients find common ground, the results are rewarding

Architecture evolves on many fronts – in architectural schools and educational seminars, and through development and dissemination of technical improvements.

There is also a strong tradition of architects who theorize about architecture, who make beautiful drawings, and who expand our understanding of the art and of the profession.

But although all these avenues are valuable to the world of architecture, it is only in the making of real, lived-in places that architects actually make architecture.

Of course, in order to build buildings and public environments, architects need clients. Without needs and budgets and aspirations to build, nothing gets built.  It is client who bring energy, capability and ambition to the process.  Architecture requires a strong relationship between the architect and the client, and the client is as important as the architect in the realization of high-quality building.

Some clients do not want to pursue aesthetic  or intellectual quality, perhaps feeling that such ambitions are irrelevant to the real goals of the building project, and fearing that such quality comes at unacceptably high cost.

Some clients want a certain level of architectural quality, and come to the project knowing what the project should be, what it should look like, and what its key architectural character and elements should be.

And some clients have no preconceptions about the design of their project, yet come to it with ambitions for architectural quality.  These clients expect and demand the highest level of performance from their designers.  They request that the architect solve functional, technical and budgetary requirements, and they have faith in his ability to lead the discovery of new, insightful and rich building projects.

It should come as no surprise that the best architecture often results when architects work with this last type of client. But an ambitious client is no guarantee of architectural quality.

No matter how high the client’s ambitions, if the budget is inadequate, it can be difficult just to keep the rain out.  And if the architect’s talents, abilities, experience or ambitions are not up to the task, even the most encouraging and generous client may not end up with the quality of project he or she was hoping for.

Sometimes clients begin a project with no particular architectural aspirations. Yet, through working closely with their architects and exploring alternatives, they come to realize that better architecture might be better for business, better for civic pride, or simply more enriching and rewarding.

There is an interesting example of this unfolding in Montreal.  The owners of a small grocery chain called Adonis engaged a local firm, Boutros and Pratte, to develop a new store.  They wanted only the basic “everyday” version, and were ready to move ahead quickly.

However, as they began to explore the wide range of planning and design issues with their architects, and to think more critically about what might be done, they changed building sites and became enthusiastic participants in the development of an unusual, and very handsome, piece of integrated urban architecture.

The first store has been such a success, and such a talked-about event, that the company has engaged Boutros and Pratte to work with them again on another store.

Originally published in Winnipeg Free Press, Saturday, April 24, 2004

Architectural moxie pays off

A little more than 20 years ago, Martin Bergen, a Winnipeg developer, completed a very large project, Fort Garry Place, immediately south of the Hotel Fort Garry.

It was the last significant private development of rental housing in the city. Outrage over its construction and design resulted in a formal design-review process for downtown buildings.  And the project has been the tacit demonstration of the dangers of bad design ever since it was built.

I have brought designers who are visiting from out of town to the project and, on more than one occasion one has leapt from my car, camera in hand, shouting “I have to get a picture of this!”

The project was a personal dream for Bergen, who directed the design and construction of the projects in nearly every detail.  Before construction began, he visited many towns in Germany and obtained permission to make molds of their civic buildings’ stone sculpture.  He obtained their agreement by promising that in payment he would make first-class cast-stone replicas for the towns’ archives.

(This was a very attractive proposition at the time because Germany’s acid rains were quickly making mush of their centuries-old limestone civic sculpture.)

To make the molds and the stone castings, Bergen engaged a master heritage building technician and craftsman in Germany. The craftsman’s name is Alfred Widmer.  He came to Winnipeg to complete the stone castings for the Bergen’s project, and has remained here ever since.

The net result of this story is that Winnipeg gained a level of restoration skill which is almost unavailable in North America.

Widmer has become the city’s pre-eminent heritage-building technical specialist and contractor.  Many of our heritage buildings have since undergone major restoration. The quality of much of the work – especially work on terra cotta, rendered cement, specialty mortars – has been exceptional, thanks to Widmer’s knowledge and insistence that work be completed to the best restoration standards.

But the value of Bergen’s behemoth is not just the feel-good story of the unintended benefit of Widmer presence.

The value lies more in the fact that one person had the gumption and gall to build something absolutely huge which represented his idea of the right thing to do.

Most of us might feel that what he did is an architectural disaster, but that’s only part of the story.

I am grateful that we live in a city large enough to allow follies of this scale to happen.

At the same time, I am saddened that our political and administrative response to something a bit outrageous seems to be consistently to stick our thumbs in the dike to keep such a thing from happening again.

Originally published in Winnipeg Free Press, Saturday, January 17, 2004

For the first in this series of articles about architecture I was going to deal with the quality of modern architecture, but instead, I’m going to write about an important new project:  the new pedestrian and vehicular bridges linking Provencher Avenue to The Forks and downtown.

The pedestrian bridge has been built on the original alignment between Provencher Boulevard and Broadway (look at a map to see that they really are in line!). The vehicular bridge is built north of the pedestrian bridge, and links Provencher and Water Street.  A pedestrian sidewalk runs along the north side of the vehicular bridge, and there is no sidewalk on the bridge’s south side.

Access to the pedestrian bridge is problem for those who want to go east from downtown, and have found themselves on the south side of Water Street.  They must either detour through the The Forks to the pedestrian bridge (perhaps not safe for singles at night), or cross the bridge against traffic to reach the sidewalk (unwise at any time).  Those traveling to downtown from St. Boniface meet the same challenge in reverse.

An additional sidewalk on the south side of the vehicular bridge would have cost approximately $2 million. This sidewalk would have connected with sidewalks along Water Street and could have been comfortably linked to The Forks.  Instead, it was decided to build the complex and less convenient pedestrian bridge for $20 million.

To put the financial decision into perspective, the total cost to open The Forks in 1990 – including purchase of lands, development of the market, service infrastructure, and major public spaces was $25 million.  The impact of that expenditure on our public psyche has been immense.   A friend of mine, a city planner, remarked that the $20 million spent for the pedestrian bridge would have been better spent to subsidize downtown housing, which would have brought huge economic and social benefits to the city centre.

Now that the structure is a reality, my response to it is somewhat surprising (to me).  The practical excess, and awkward circulation patterns, of this grandiose project are, on balance, a good thing for all of us.  The new cable-stay bridge, designed by Wardrop Engineering with Gaboury Prefontaine Perry, is a handsome and remarkable structure that will help to re-define our city.  Whether the investment in the bridges has a greater effect on the economic and social health of Winnipeg than an equal investment in housing is difficult to measure. It would certainly be nice to find another $20 million for housing subsidies and not have to decide which is the better use of public funds.

Originally published in Winnipeg Free Press, Saturday, November 29, 2003