UW News

April 24, 2001

UW students build Chief Seattle Social Club in Havana

American students abroad, as the stereotype goes, soak up atmosphere and dig into local cuisine.

The 36 University of Washington students in Havana last quarter soaked in sweat while digging into local hard rock.

The UW students are thought to have been the first officially sanctioned American builders to work in post-revolutionary Cuba, and what they left behind was a red and blue community hall called The Chief Seattle Social Club.

The UW College of Architecture and Urban Planning group, joined by a dozen Seattle artists and activists, designed and built in a three-week burst the 150-foot-long organic gardening center in concert with Havana neighborhood volunteers.

“It’s a totally different way for a student to see a country,” said Sergio Palleroni, the associate professor of architecture who helped lead the project, which will be remembered with photos, stories and music at a May 5 Gould Hall celebration.

Yet Cuba is merely the latest destination for the UW’s increasingly venturesome design-build program, which is considered a global leader in sending students to impoverished areas to turn their architectural visions — and youthful idealism — into schools, clinics, libraries and houses.

In all, more than 400 UW graduate and undergraduate students in the last seven years have left the campus confines to design and build in such economically forlorn places as central Mexico, the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota and farmworker encampments of Eastern Washington.

Their efforts are attracting such admirers as filmmaker Robert Redford and Pearl Jam’s Stone Gossard. Both backed a recent film, “Building One House,” that documented the students’ work on the South Dakota reservation, where the UW group and local artisans explored the use of stucco-covered bales of compressed straw as an Earth-friendly building material.

UW students tend their own back yard, too. Architecture Professor Steve Badanes recently headed a project that teamed students up with South Seattle residents to transform Bradner Gardens Park into a gem featuring an elaborate pavilion.

“It’s been a really good partnership,” said Jim Diers, director of the city Department of Neighborhoods.

Whether in Seattle or central Mexico, these projects of the UW BaSiC (Building Sustainable Communities) Initiative offer field experience not just to future architects and urban planners, but also students majoring in such disciplines as anthropology, social work and the health sciences. An upcoming project in an environmentally ravaged village in India will bring in students and faculty from the College of Forest Resources.

In addition to meeting urgent needs, the projects often explore building techniques and materials suited to local climate and culture which might be replicated by local artisans after the UW team is long gone.

The UW’s most enduring such presence is in Cuernavaca, Mexico, where Palleroni, Badanes and others designed and built a dormitory in 1995 that permanently houses the UW’s Design/Build Mexico program. Needless to say, the dorm incorporates local materials and eco-friendly solar showers, roof-water capture devices and bio-digesters that reuse water for the surrounding garden.

Among the Mexican program’s accomplishments is the construction of the only library serving 800,000 people in an area near Cuernavaca where vast squatter neighborhoods sprawl beneath the smokestacks of multinational corporations’ factories.

In Havana, the Seattle crew’s mission was to convert a huge old chicken coop into an artistic new assembly hall and garden center. In addition to Palleroni and Badanes, the three dozen UW students were accompanied by the artists responsible for Seattle’s Fremont Troll and Safeco Field baseball-bat “chandelier.”

There wasn’t much time to play ball, however. At any given moment during their January project, UW students were calculating the strength of a beam, assigning tasks to community volunteers, digging with a shovel or scrounging for materials.

This last was no small task in country where bartering often trumps cash. To keep the building cool, for example, the team decided on a vented foil ceiling. A student tracked down the aluminum several hundred miles away — lining a tobacco-curing bin.

And to transform the old chicken coop into a gathering place for people — who are, after all, taller than poultry — the Seattle team had to excavate two feet of ground. The broken concrete floor was recycled, of course, to create a sidewalk.

Seattleites and Havanans, meanwhile, joined forces to assemble bamboo poles, glass mosaics and decorative ironwork that incorporated pedals from an old tractor.

As the building progressed, Palleroni said, the UW students took increasing initiative in planning and assigning tasks — real-world management skills that would be tough to absorb from a textbook in Seattle.

What they left behind in Havana was a handsome cement, foil and brick symbol of cooperation between people from two nations that can’t seem to get along.

(Cuban leader Fidel Castro, it will be recalled, had chosen the University of Washington for a rare U.S. appearance in late 1999, when the Elian Gonzalez custody dispute prompted him to cancel).

The longstanding U.S. embargo on Cuban trade, Diers said, has contributed to shortages of food, fertilizer and pesticides, which in turn have deepened Cuba’s reliance on community gardens. Seattle, no slouch on the P-Patch front, has shared its own know-how on worm composting, in exchange for Cuban expertise on natural pest control.

Still, for the UW students, the chance to work with residents of a foreign country — rather than merely watch them — may have been the most valuable part of the trip.

“When we walked through Havana, we were definitely tourists,” said UW senior Natalia Echeverri, a native of Colombia. “There was no way we were fitting in.”

“Except,” added UW senior Sam Berry, “on the construction site.”

For more information, contact Palleroni at (206) 543-2018 or sergiop@u.washington.edu, or Diers at (206) 684-0464 or jim.diers@ci.seattle.wa.us. Web: http://online.caup.washington.edu/courses/ArchW00/mexico/