A concrete folly by Mexican studio Tezontle brings new life to a Havana plaza

A concrete folly by Mexican studio Tezontle brings new life to a Havana plaza

Imagined as an extension of the Cuban capital, the permanent sculpture has transcended its role as a public art installation

Lucas Cantu and Carlos Matos, the duo behind the Mexico City-based art and architecture studio Tezontle, were the first foreign invitees to arrive in Havana for this year’s Biennial. They were also the last to leave. In fact, their large-scale sculpture, titled Tenaza, wasn’t yet erected on 12 May when the arts event officially came to an end.

Cantu and Matos had originally designed Tenaza as a site-specific work that would sit in between the ocean and the Malécon, a public promenade along the waterfront. ‘We imagined it as an extension of Havana,’ reflects Matos, ‘an extra pocket of space in a city that, for a long time, hasn’t seen a lot of development.’ When the final permit necessary proved impossible to acquire, the artists were forced to readjust. They ultimately settled on a nearby park in the Centro Habana neighbourhood.

Adaptability, they will tell you, is fundamental for executing a project of this scale in Cuba. Limited access to supplies, for example, led Cantu and Matos to source the unlikely. ‘We used probably ten cubic metres of residue material, cast inside the base, from crumbled houses,’ Matos says. ‘It’s a nice poetic gesture, but it was also a necessary one.’ In addition, they employed locally-sourced bamboo to create a formwork for the sculpture’s foundation.

‘The struggle of building the piece became a part of it,’ explains Cantu, and fittingly, the only element of the work that was visible during the Biennial was its construction. For Cantu and Matos, however, timely completion was secondary to creating something that would leave a lasting impression. The artists were given a rare opportunity on the island: their work would be one of a handful of permanent installations by foreign artists. Though Cantu and Matos held an informal groundbreaking ceremony at the end of June, it will be officially inaugurated this coming autumn.

Tenaza’s cultural and historical significance doesn’t stop there. The piece, which measures 4m in diameter and 6m tall, is the first architectural use of an ecological concrete called LC3. Dr Fernando Martirena developed the material, the production of which pollutes 40 per cent less than its traditional counterpart by replacing clinker that comes from coal mining with an organic clay. Paired with forms inspired by the city’s art deco architecture, the concrete’s unique texture and colour allows it to blend seamlessly into its environment. ‘It’s a bizarre looking piece,’ Matos admits, ‘but I think that the people of Havana find it beautiful because they are already somehow familiar with its aesthetics.’

Ultimately, he says, ‘The most interesting thing is how the piece gets appropriated.’ Located in front of the Hermanos Ameijeiras Hospital and adjacent to the Malecón, the sculpture’s location is also home to a fried chicken stand and a busy bus stop. ‘It’s a very alive, raw part of the city,’ adds Cantu. ‘Thousands of people pass through it each day.’

Tenaza has quickly become a meeting place in the bustling plaza. ‘I think that we’re missing a lot of the more abstract architecture that can be just that,’ Matos says. The sculpture’s staircase leads to eight seats in a circular formation, which when used, naturally foster the feeling of being at a table and according to the artists, generate conversation.

Cantu and Matos otherwise leave Tenaza’s function up to its users. Cuban president Miguel Díaz-Canel gave it the official stamp of approval as a national monument and as such, the sculpture is now a formalised and permanent addition to the city. Since its completion, Tenaza has transcended its role as a public art installation – it is a play structure for neighbourhood children and a spot to drink rum, practice rituals from the local religion Santería and, in its shadow, escape from the intense Cuban sun. ‘It’s beginning to have a life of its own,’ Cantu muses. §

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