Majómeno / Complexity and Contradiction in La Habana

“…wrongs stories exceed prevailing logics or conventional wisdom and reset our accustomed narratives. If they inspire incredulity, perhaps it is because their instrumentality and logic are underexplored. Many such phantom turning points and fulcrums are not easily taxonomized or moralized by the left or right. Yet however invisible to our political orthodoxies, they may be the real cause of shifts in sentiment, changes in economic fortune, an escalation or suspension of violence, or a swift epidemic of change.”  

Keller Easterling, “A Repertoire for Dissensus, Episodes from the Wrong Story”


As I sit in the home of Cuban Architect and Urbanist Isabel Rigol, eating postre and drinking fresh mango juice, I listen to her stitch together a narrative on the urban condition of La Habana and the ethos of the Cuban imaginary. Isabel has witnessed first hand the dramatic transformation in Havana from before the triumph of the revolution in 1959 until present. Born into an upper-class Criollo family she has personally undergone a transformation as she chose to remain in Cuba and work for the revolution sacrificing privilege for the betterment of her city. Now when she examines the contemporary urban condition and reflects on its transformation her sentiment is complex.

We discuss the difficulty of language and I comment on the tendency of Cubans to truncate words, drop consonants and articles, and completely eliminate the letter ‘s’ from the spoken language. In response Isabel offers a Cuban narrative metaphor:

A woman is traveling in Cuba. Every time she converses with someone, asking: “How is your family?” “How are you?”  “How was your day?” the answer is always “eh, Majómeno.” She cannot for the life of her figure out what they are saying so she tries to find ‘m-a-j-ó-m-e-n-o’ in a dictionary. (Google is not available in Cuba.) But her search brings no results. Eventually she realizes that what they are saying is a mashed up version of “mas ó menos” literally meaning “more or less.”


This simple anecdote and phrase contain layers of sentiment and challenge that applies both to the everyday life of a Cuban and the urban dilemma of Havana. The consolidated pronunciation of words and the ambivalent response to all questions reflects a feeling that is palpable in Havana. In one sense, it pertains to a Cuban sentiment that results from a lack of certainty and control yielding a particular apathy. In another, “more or less”, can be posed as a question with regards to the future of Cuban Architectural identity. ¿Mas ó menos? How does old relate to new? Should we preserve what exists or construct that which does not? Should we increase urban density or protect green space? Should we encourage automobile transportation or reassert the value of bicycles and public transportation?


new insertion into old construction


the preservation of historicity

Over the next 4 weeks, I spent my time exploring the city, digging through call cards in the library and discussing various urban questions with architects, urban planners, musicians, photographers, rickshaw drivers, cabbies and anyone who wanted to talk. While I explored the most direct questions of urbanity and architecture through collaboration with Cuban professionals the experience of greatest value manifested itself in the periphery.


Indirect Place Making

Central to my process as a designer is the idea of place making. It is something I believe essential to realizing design solutions that address the actual needs and reflect the real psyche of a community. With that in mind, I believe it requires time spent in a place with people, not directly engaging with the design problem but simply engaging with those people and that place. In Havana, my primary goal was to unlearn what I thought I knew about the place and its people and discover something honest about its psyche. At the surface level, I was given apathy and ambivalence, however, it was through direct engagement that I came to feel and understand passion and desire driven and at the same time constrained by frustration with a lack of control.

Upon reflecting retrospectively I realized that the ambivalence that is apparent in many aspects of my Cuban experience could in some ways be a diversion. There is passion, there is desire, and people are without a doubt opinionated. Perhaps the ambivalence is a coping mechanism that is a result of an inability to speak out or make a change in their community due to a censored society. Or potentially they do find ways to exact change undercover and the apathy is a diversion drawing attention away from their activities that could prove incriminating.


A man has converted his bicycle to double as a sharpening stone

As more opportunities become available to the Cuban people these undercover activities are allowed to surface, slowly but surely. It is already visible in the work of Clandestina, the first legitimate design store in Havana, selling graphic T’s, screen printed Tote bags, throwing spontaneous urban parties and educating its public on the value of design. Presently only Cubans can create companies like this, however as time passes the predatory interests of foreign capitalism will be introduced and at that moment the advocacy for and empowerment of the Cuban people as authors of their own culture and economy will become vital for the survival of its integrity.

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Wifi hotspot on La Rampa (Calle 23 e/ J y L)

The Wrong Story

History has proven that major shifts in ideology yield destruction of historic identity both in the physical brick and mortar of a place and in the aspects less tangible and harder to quantify. In the United States, the idea of Public Interest Design and Design Thinking have been established as major influences in the building of communities and cities. It is a new age form of thinking that utilizes the internet and the tools of the information age to network, plan community meetings, and distribute information. It provides platforms for advocacy and activism. It represents the so-called “wrong story,” meaning the narrative of change that occurs spontaneously and includes nuance and complexity. The wrong story surfaces when the reality or mechanism of a situation rejects the binary of accepted politics and economy and embraces the unexplored or alternative path to transformation. In Havana, there is no widespread access to Internet and ‘activism’ must pass through many bureaucratic checkpoints before it can take to the streets. So-called ‘public interest design’ does not exist and is incapable of coming into existence due to a lack of resources and liberties. It needs a space to grow that exists outside the political and economic orthodoxy of the system in place.

While I critique the political and social condition of Havana I am not arguing that a wholly capitalistic system like ours in the United States should be implemented. Rather I encourage the introduction of complexity or the “wrong story.” The narrative that does not place left against right, capitalist versus communist, up versus down, but encourages the exploration of the space in-between. In the anecdote offered by Isabel is an all-encompassing message that describes something particularly Cuban and at the same time serves as a cryptic piece of advice to be considered by designers, planners, and people. The wrong story says: It is not simply more or less. It is more and less, old and new, and everything in-between. Through this narrative, Cuba can begin to build a community of Cuban designers and planners from a variety of backgrounds. The progress made in the United States and worldwide in this community-based design process should not go to waste and should aid in the growth of Havana. This requires information to be shared, relationships built, and time spent in Havana as well as the other major cities of Cuba.


Family living in Habana Vieja, with a son studying Japanese and English

In the coming year, I plan to travel back to Havana to follow up with contacts made in May and June and in turn develop my 5th-year thesis at Tulane School of Architecture. While this directly academic product of my time there is limited in impact, I intend to maintain the relationships I made while in Havana with the goal of engaging in actual and useful collaboration. I hope that the product of my thesis will prove to be a practical yet imaginative work that I can share with my friends in Havana. Without the support of the Taylor Center and the Changemaker Institute, I would not have been able to engage directly with this place, learning valuable lessons first hand and creating relationships with people and place.


Photo Collage of La Rampa portraying an empty site in a prime position for development

La Rampa

Analysis of La Rampa outlining vacant sites and points of interests