Architect Daniel Taboada, a Prophet of Restoration in Cuba


Maya Quiroga interviews Cuban architect Daniel Taboada Espiniella, the 2015 winner of the National Cultural Heritage Award for Lifetime Work, who says (about Cuban vernacular architecture), “The vernacular is a philosophy of life.” Here are excerpts of the article and interview (translated by Roberto Espí Valero):

Doctor Félix Julio Alfonso López, rector of the University School of San Gerónimo of Havana, described architect Daniel Taboada Espiniella, a pupil of Joaquín Weiss, as a prophet of restoration and an apostle of heritage. This description embraces Taboada for being a brilliant professional of architecture, professor of several generations, a man dedicated to the conservation and restoration of the Cuban capital’s heritage and other cities such as Matanzas and Cienfuegos.

In Havana he has worked on the rehabilitation of properties like Count Barreto’s house, the house of the Counts of la Reunión, the Aldama Palace, the House of la Obra Pía and the convents of Saint Francis of Assisi and Santa Clara. For 15 years, he has been the director of the Gonzalo de Cárdenas Department – pioneer in Cuba in the study, safeguarding and rescue of vernacular architecture. It recently celebrated its thirteenth Technical Days, dedicated to the fifth centennial of the foundation of the town San Juan de los Remedios.

“I’m a man who loves heritage. One day, Doctor Eusebio Leal Spengler and Doctor Javier de Cárdenas, Marquis of Prado Ameno and president of the board of the Cárdenas Foundation, with headquarters at the Polytechnic University of Madrid, gave me the opportunity to work on the organization of these Technical Days of Vernacular Architecture held every year. This event is also sponsored by Spain’s Diego de Sagredo Foundation, the Empresa de Proyectos de Arquitectura y Urbanismo RESTAURA (Architecture and Urbanism Projects Enterprise), Historian’s Office of the City of Havana and the San Cristóbal Travel Agency that have helped us all these years,” he explained.

How much of what the Department planned at the beginning has been attained?

I believe modestly that for the first time professionals are meeting every year to deal with this phenomenon of vernacular architecture, which is like a daughter out of wedlock. Up to now, it’s always been considered as a minor architecture. For me it’s a major architecture, because it deals with national identity, about why we are Cubans, about our heritage and idiosyncrasy. Identity is not shaped by big cities, completely cosmopolitan, built by engineers or architects who believe we ourselves know everything. For the record, I’m not denying contemporary architecture, on the contrary.

When one visits a town, wonderful places such as the Viñales Valley in Pinar del Río, and sees the customs, one realizes that roast pork continues to be our favorite dish and that its residents know how to keep black beans for the whole year. Oral tradition is perfectly reflected in vernacular architecture, which is the container of all these activities. The vernacular is a way of living, singing, sitting, working, celebrating, building. It is a philosophy of life.

Can it be vernacular, can it be popular? Is it bad taste or is it kitsch? Let us reflect because we are ruralizing our city which never was Caribbean. Those ranchones (huts) inserted into the city are for a weekend outing or going to a carnival dance. We should defend and save authenticity. We are now, more than before, in danger of losing it due to foreign influences.

What has been this event’s contribution to socializing vernacular architecture in our country?

The Technical Days have tried to contribute to a better knowledge of Cuban vernacular architecture at the national level. This is one of the fundamental reasons for this event the Gonzalo de Cárdenas Department organizes every year. This architectural heritage is not sufficiently circulated and the media should help us more in this task. This is something very important. Communication has to be intelligent and know where we’re going.

If you had to define Cuban vernacular architecture, what would be its distinctive hallmark?

The authenticity of materials. They belong to the surroundings. There’s no need to import anything. In Cuba there are many and very different typologies of vernacular architecture, which range from the vara en tierra to the houses of many countryside towns throughout the Island. Many houses are suffering big structural transformations due to the shortage of wood in the entire world. Today, wood is more expensive than oil. However, the wood Cuban peasants use is royal palm and the roofs are mostly made from cane palm, which grows on the worst land but is the best for roofs. [. . .]

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