William Dupont, FAIA, San Antonio Conservation Society Endowed Professor of Architecture and Director of the Center for Cultural Sustainability at The University of Texas at San Antonio, leads a consulting team who may be the only professional architects and preservationists allowed by both the U.S. and Cuban governments to work in Cuba. Even as the Obama administration has opened relations with the island nation, the opportunities for architects to work there are still almost nonexistent. Currently, Dupont is collaborating with a team of Cuban professionals at Hemingway’s Finca Vigia.
Hemingway lived at the house, built in 1888, from 1939 to 1961, the year of his death. Now, it is a government-run museum. Starting in 2005, the site was listed as “endangered” by the National Trust for Historic Preservation. According to Dupont, the factors leading to that designation were compounded by Cuba’s isolation. “The endangered aspect of it comes from the struggles that many small museums have finding the budget necessary to take care of projects that are sometimes very expensive.” In Cuba, even routine materials can be difficult to acquire, let alone the more obscure materials needed for a museum quality restoration. “The Cuban professionals involved are extremely knowledgeable and well-educated," says Dupont. "They know exactly what needs to be done but do not have the capacity to do what needs to be done. They have to be clever and creative and figure out how to do things."
Dupont's involvement with the project began in 2005, while he was still the chief architect for the National Trust for Historic Preservation. After Finca Vigia was designated as endangered, the U.S. government decided to allow aid for the preservation of the site. The latest changes to government policy have allowed the American team more involvement, granting them the ability to help with exporting difficult to source materials for the projects. Even with the cooperation of the two governments, the project involves more than its share of challenges. Dupont says, “It involves a lot of paperwork and issues I hadn’t previously encountered as an architect; it’s been interesting to research and find products that work for the project and in the context of the situation in Cuba.”
At the moment, Dupont’s work concerns the design and construction of a new archival storage facility at the property. The facility will be the first in Cuba built with American materials since the 1950s. While it will not be open to the public, the new building will store the museum’s vast collection of Hemingway materials, including papers, documents, and books. In addition to this space, there will also be conservation laboratory spaces. “Over the years of collaboration, there has also been a training that has been offered on conservation methods for a museum collection, and all of the equipment necessary to do that kind of work will fit inside the new building,” Dupont describes. The unique challenges of conservation in Cuba are evident in the way the facility has been designed, with a buffered space to protect the delicate materials. “Erecting CMU walls and creating building envelopes is not that difficult for Cubans, but reliable electricity is,” he says. As a result, the facility has been designed as a box within a box, an attempt to keep the climate stable even in the face of black and brownouts.
Despite the red tape, Dupont describes the project as one of the most rewarding of his career. “The property itself is extremely significant, but I’ve worked on a lot of significant projects. The best thing is working with peers in Cuba. Being able to become involved in some small capacity and collaborate has allowed us to work together on something that is mutually beneficial for both nations.”