August 2017
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At six years old and on the way home from the Fausto theatre I'd see the new green building from far away all lighted up by the sun from the back seat of my father's Buick. (1) Fig. A. You could see it from several miles away at the beginning of the Malecon and I knew that it stood at that particular spot where we would to turn into Calle Linea right after the Hotel Nacional. The building marked the end of the old city, the wind and the waves that constantly leaped over the sea wall; it had a certain optimism and although it appeared serious at times you knew that it was all show, once I saw it wink and who could say there wasn't an open invitation specially if you were one of the modern types?

History / Finance:


Earlier in the year I stayed at the FOCSA for about ten days. It was my first opportunity to see the building up close. My initial impression was the formal, visual and functional disconnect between the residential component, what I've been calling the “Y,” the podium and the community. The architects did not make any attempt to link the residents to the activities of the street. Other than the aforementioned construction ramp, there is no physical connection between the upper floors, the podium and the ground level. Anchoring a building to a site is perhaps a fundamental first step in transcending the basic spatial requirements leading towards a significant urbanism, to what Michael Benedikt might have called an “Architecture of Reality:” to place making,36 The podium, the raised ground plane, in this case is detached from the world, is private. It is a preferred, private territory which may be likened to the pool areas at the Riviera or Cuba Libre hotels where subscription to exclusivity and class separation stimulate social elitism common and typical of a previous age in Havana. This type of parsimonious planning has been criticized in other parts of the world, one that serves an abstract program, profits or both, estranged from the neighborhood that it is meant to serve is sadly continued here.37

The residential block, positioned diagonally across the site, from 17th and M to 19th and N, works adequately well for the upper levels at the scale of the city, for views and branding for instance, but there is no trace of this diagonal on the ground or how its impact, if any, has on commecrcial functions affecting the pedestrian. Nor is there an adequate architectural solution as to where or how to enter the building. Evidence of this is the gratuitous corner accordion roof glued to the underside of the second floor to mark the residential entry, the labyrinthian path from street to elevators or the nowhere to be found exit of the tenant stair at ground floor level. The service stair and elevators are equally lost at the ground floor.

The 17th and M side, opposite the “main” elevation we see from afar, suggest the rear elevation of the project, where the corridors are on display. There are contradictory indications however that this is the “front:” the accordion roof and porte-cochѐre as well as the promotional address all suggest a certain project schizophrenia, an architectural bewilderment as to where the front of the building is located.38 The rear-front dichotomy, the security of tenants in the podium or the near-far scales of the project limited to what can be see from the street are natural incongruities that as Venturi points out are: “The calculated ambiguity of expression...based on the confusion of experience as reflected in the architectural program,”and that can be a source of inspiration, invention and tension providing opportunities that sadly the various design contradictions have not put to good use, they are mostly ignored or missed altogether. 39




The apartments were being sold while the project was under construction and became subject to the new Cuban “Horizontal Property Law,” (HPL).6 These statutes were in use in Europe and Latin America, similar to U.S. co-op apartments, thus enabling individual condominium ownership. Prior to this, property law generally recognized ownership rights to “all space from the center of the earth to some distance in the air,” HPL allowed individual ownership to be split on a horizontal plane, slices, that limited the unit owner’s interest to within a dimension within the unit.7 8 According to “Before passage of horizontal property laws, all owners in a condominium were obligated under each individual mortgage loan in the complex. lf one owner defaulted, the lender could foreclose on the entire condominium. Now, to secure a loan, each owner pledges only his or her limited interest in the condominium.” 9

A typical floor has 13 apartments, 5 of which have 3 bedrooms (1 at either end (A&L), 2 in the center (F&G) and one in the tower (M)). Except for penthouses, the center units (F&G) are the largest with seven rooms and three baths and the only apartments with with a balcony.10 Fig. B. All units have an auxiliary servant's room and additional bathrooms. All apartments have a main entrance and a service entrance and in typical Havana fashion, except those in the tower, an outdoor service patio next to the kitchen. Apartments at the end and in the tower have views in three directions. The cost was initially 21,500 pesos for the larger units of 1,700 sq. ft. (ends, center and tower) and 17,500 pesos for the smaller, typical interior units of two bedrooms of 1,300 sq. ft. (B, C, D, E / H, I, J, K).11 Fig. C. There was a charge of $30 per floor the higher the unit was located.12

The new project was based on the Corbusian idea of a self-contained city within a city and promoted in brochures, in radio and television, with the name of the intersection of streets that would locate the future building's residential entrance: “17 & M.” 13 Eventua­lly the city would know the project as “El FOCSA” (Fomento de Obras y Construcciones, Sociedad Anónima), the name of the contracting company formed expressly for the project. It took two years and four months to complete, the FOCSA was finished in 1956 at a cost of six-million pesos.14

In the early 1960s owners of the residential units in the lower seven floors of the FOCSA had their properties nationalized by the Castro government.15 This portion of the building in the 1970s was home to Soviet and Eastern bloc specialists and advisors, the ground floor supermarket was for non-Cubans only.16 In the decade of the 2000s the building became temporary housing for foreign guest workers, mostly from Venezuela.17 There was a building rennovation in the 2000s. The building was painted and the original glass, louvered jalousie metal windows, a product of the Caribbean to modulate strong winds (150 mph), were replaced with sliding windows. Now the windows especialy in the upper levels must be kept shut or open only slightly due to the high velocity breezes. The original, interior metal louvered jalousie windows in the bedrooms, to the plenum area over the bathroom and kitchens, were kept.


Arthur J, Fox sings praises to the structural engineers states the FOCSA is “an unusual slab and wall complex.”18 The high strength concrete design mix on the FOCSA was from 3,000 to 7,000 psi. per a standard 6x12” cylinder-28 day test.19 Reinforced concrete columns support the podium immediately above street level. The residential block is supported by thirteen reinforced 11” thick concrete transverse walls which support the total dead load and are also divide the apartments. An additional wall at the center two apartments resist shear forces perpendicular to the each of the long legs of the Y. Fig. D. The walls along with two way 6.75” thick concrete floor slabs form a three dimensional lattice that resist horizontal hurricane forces.20 Having only walls above the podium as the sole means of support for the loads was an economical and practical solution as it allowed the architects to have a clear span and an open space plan in the apartments without complicating the structural system.21 The walls, as we will see, extend horizontally through the rear wall to support the corridors.

Design - Construction:

Designed by the architect Ernesto Gómes Sampera (1921-2004) in collaboration with Martin Dominguez and the engineering firm of Sáenz-Cancio-Martin, the structural work headed by Luis Sáenz Duplace, Professor of Structures at the University of Havana, and the civil engineers Bartolome Bestard and Manuel Padron in charge of construction.

In 1977 the Society of Civil Engineers in Cuba (Sociedad de Ingenieros Civiles de Cuba) asked its members to nominate projects of major relevance executed in any epoch of the Republic. They proposed 37 projects and of these only those construction projects considered monumental and unique in their magnitude of applied technical solutions were selected as the “Seven Wonders of Cuban Civil Engineering.” Professor Luis Sáenz Duplace had the honor of having two projects in this category: Puente de Bacunayagua, Matanzas, Cuba, 1959 and the FOCSA Building in Havana.22

Zoning / Program / Site Layout:

The area permitted a 66% block coverage.23 After attempting several massing distributions the architects decided on a 23,600 sq. ft. residential block set on a podium covering the site thus achieving a 25% site coverage.24 In the United States, architects use a simliar strategy separating a site vertically into public and semi-private functions by a podium, basically, a separation of parking and commercial from residential functions and thus allow to achieve different fire ratings and levels of security and privacy between different elements of the program.


The FOCSA contains a total of 39 floors; the site may may be divided into three parts: 1- A shallow, mixed use “wall and slab” Y of 35 floors above a base. 2- The podium of outdoor amenities for guests and tenants covering the entire site. 3- Four floors of services and commercial spaces below the podium. The architects wanted all apartments to have views of the Malecon and western Havana as well as to maximize cross ventilation.25 Such site distribution gives shape to the basic massing of the building and athough advantageous in some respects, it is a “scoop” for street noises and winds. Residents are constantly subject to amplified music from businesses or social gatherings across the streets and from the constant noise of ocean wind against and passing through the buiding. The distribution of the program on the site is as follows:26

٭ Residences are located in 30 stories of the high rise which contain 373 luxury apartments (7 penthouses, 2 duplexes) most of double exposure with views of the Malecon and Miramar in western Havana. The apartments at either end of the long legs of the Y (A & L) and those located in the tower (M) have views in three directions. The tower also contains offices on the 33th floor for the the restaurant, “La Torre,” on the 34th floor and an observation level on the 35th floor, the top floor of the tower.


The building's four tenant and two service elevators and two sets of stairs are located in the tower and link to the corridors running the length of the building which in turn provide access through stairs, 1/2 level up or down, to the apartments.27 One of the service elevators is for the offices, restaurant and the observation floor. The other service elevator is for the apartments and is linked to the service corridors.28 The seven penthouses have a dedicated elevator and their own corridor system different from that of the apartments below. The size of two apartments (A+B, C+D, E+F, etc.), the penhouses are located on the thirtieth floor which itself acts as a plinth, made possible by the structural walls which stop below this floor and turn into the building forming a small podium. Besides the unique system of corridors which make the FOCSA into a new high rise residential building typology as we well see, the penthouses add to this new typology with courtyard patios open to the sky. All floors are terrazzo on cinders.29 Terrazzo is found throughout most of Havana.30

٭ The podium at the fifth level of the building, two stories above street level, contains a clubhouse, offices, a swimming pool for adults and another for chidren, gardens that are lighted at night, paths and benches.31 With a ramp to the street located at the corner of 19th and M, the podium was used as a staging area during the construction of the project.

٭ Below the podium at the fourth level are offices. At the building's entrance at calles 17 & M by the tower, there is a two lane, covered porte-cochѐre where tenants and guests are picked up and dropped off. A large tenant lobby and the building's desk are immediately inside. The tenant office is located above (4th floor) and is reached from behind the desk by a circular stair. The tenant stairs in the tower above disappear on the ground floor and are routed behind the elevators. The service elevators and stairs also disappear from view on the ground floor. There is a public relations office, the restaurant “El Emperador” and a supermarket. A bank, a post office and a theatre. Two radio stations (COCO and Radio Metropolitana) and various cafes situated around the perimeter of the site and in the interior along a double loaded corridor traversing the site under the podium from calle M to calle N. Natural light filters to the interior corridor. Underground, out of sight at the lowest two floors, is a 500 car garage, storage and buiding services.32 The site slopes down from 19th to 17th streets, many of the commercial establishments are 1/2 story below or above natural ground level and reached by stairs or ramps thus adding a level of actual and visual complexity not otherwise possible.

The FOCSA at 121 meters is the tallest reinforced concrete building in Cuba and one of the most unique architecture projects, perhaps setting a new typology for single loaded residential buildings.33 There were consultations during the design phase with doctors and specialists as to what possible adverse effects it might have upon the tenants due to vibrations or building sway calculated to be 10 cm. at the top caused by the strong winds.34 At a time when concrete buildings taller than 18 stories were not considered economically feasible, the FOCSA was the second project in the world of its kind (residential) to reach such height after the Martinelli Building (30 stories/130 m.) in Sao Paulo, Brazil of 1934.35

In 1952 the Cuban national communications network, CMQ Radio and Television, located at Calle Rampa and M in the Vedado section of Havana, planned to provide administrative offices, a radio station and housing for artists and employees.2 Bordered by the streets 17, 19, M and N and based on its proximity (200 meters from Radiocentro), the owners of CMQ selected a 110,000 sq. ft. plot of land costing approximately 700,000 pesos, (the Cuban peso was at a par with the U.S. Dollar).3

The initial calculations required the cost of the land be approximately 10% the cost of the building or seven million pesos; that dictated 400 apartments at 17,500 pesos each to make the project feasible. Considering the total debt spread out over 400 debtors would entail minimal risk for the lender, the company Fomento de Hipotecas Aseguradas (FHA) financed 80% of the cost of the residential units and 60% the cost of the commercial component of the project.4 El Banco Continental Cubano eventually would provide the initial credit for the construction.5

The FOCSA nonetheless is engaging in other respects. The tower circulation corridors, exterior patios and courtyards as mentioned are a new typology in residential, single loaded high rise building. Social-political systems are embedded from the European manor house all apartments here have two means of egress: a services entrance for servants and a formal entrance for tenants. Except for apartments in the tower, each exit leads to a different corridor and to a different level. Every apartment, again, except those in the tower and end units (A amd L), have private elevators located next to the entrance and open directly to the entrance-dining-living room, these elevators however were never installed. Fig. C, F, I. The service patios next to the pantry and rear exit have a through-wall receptacle for milk delivery and/or garbage disposal marked by a forty-five degree cut in one of the stair treads for easy access. The service stairs from the corridor to the apartments is narrower than the tenant stairs, a subtle and telling architectural detail.

The ambitious stategy to isolate this double circulation of service and tenants to all apartments, a separation so subtle that it might be missed by a casual observer, is dictated by the requirements of structure, privacy, functional-sectional efficiency, ventilation and views. The sevice-tenant entrances and system of corridors organize the apartments into two zones that recall Kahn's served and servant spaces placing the building into functional order familiar to pre-modernist specifically pre-socialist political and economic values. The corridors “float in mid air” and may be likened to a kind of virtual poché; a ready made conceptual order, a "functional wall” cut as if from a dispensing roll. Fig. E, G, H, I. The elevators are skip-stops half a level up or down from each apartnent. The corridors are separated vertically by twenty inches to allow for ventilation and views toward the west. There are three sets of corridors that occur every other floor, the center corridor in any one group of three is for servicing four floors. The two types are unrecognizable from the exterior with the exception that service corridors are shorter as this reflects the distribution of service stairs on plan at the end units (A and L).

The FOCSA is a modernmist solution to Havana zoning laws and the enterprising program and economic requirements of CMQ; it maintains allegiance to local architectural traditions. and an architect's desire to offer views of Central Havana and the Malecon to most of the apartments while maintaining visual connection in the direction opposite and accomplished by a distribution and separation of corridors that is ingenious and daring. The FOCSA was bold and architecturally ambitious; it was the first project of its kind to sail in uncharted water opening the door as to the possibilities in residential high rise concrete construction and one that signaled a wave of tall buildings in Havana including the Havana Hilton, 1958; the Edificio Someillán, 1957; Edificio at Linea and E, 1959; Edificio Rafael Salas, 1958; and the Capri Hotel, 1957 among others.






FOCSA Building by Hmaglione10 


All drawings and photos (except lobby, Fig A, G, Sampera photo and FOCSA by Hmaglione10) are by author.





31 Ibid. p.36d.

32 Admin. “The FOCSA Building...”

33 Admin. “FOCSA Building.” Wikipedia. 2017.

34 de las Cuevas, Juan. “Edificio FOCSA, 1956.”

35 Admin. “Martinelli Building.” Wikipedia. 2017.

36 Benedikt, Michael. “For An Architecture of Reality”

Lumen Books; Reprint edition (January 1, 1992).

37 Benfield, Kaid. “Has Architecture Lost Touch With the People?” CITYLAB. 10/18/13, Accessed 7/1/2017.



Admin. “The Majestic FOCSA Building in Cuba.” Cuba Headlines. CH Digital Edition. ©2006-2014. Accessed 6/29/2017.

3 de las Cuevas, Juan. “Edificio FOCSA, 1956.” Architectura Cubana. 10/18/2009. Accessed 6/30/2017.

Ibid. “Edificio FOCSA...”

5J. Fox, Arthur. “Concrete Apartment House 39 Stories High.” Engineering News Record 7/1955:34-37. Print.

Ibid. p.34.

Ibid. p.34.

“law properties horizontal.” Def.1. AllBusiness Networks. Copyright © 1999-2017


10 Admin. “FOCSA Building.” Wikipedia. 2017. Accessed 6/26/2017.

11 J. Fox. “Concrete Apartment House...” p.36.

12 Ibid. p.36.

13 Admin. “Modernism.”

14 Admin. “FOCSA Building.” Wikipedia. 2017.

15 Admin. “FOCSA Building.” Wikipedia. 2017.

16 Admin. “The FOCSA Building, wonder of Cuban civil engineering. History.” The Cuban History. 3/9/17.

17 Ibid.

18 Ibid. p.37.

19 J. Fox. “Concrete Apartment House...” p.37.

20 Ibid. p.37.

21 Ibid. p.37.

22 Quintero, Tania. “Las siete maravillas de la ingenieria civil cubana.” Penultimos Diaz. 1/03/08.

23 J. Fox. “Concrete Apartment House...” p.36.

24Ibid. p.35.


25 Ibid. p.35.

26 Admin. “The Majestic FOCSA...”

27 J. Fox. “Concrete Apartment House...” p.36.

28 Ibid. p.36.

29 Ibid. p.36.

1 Roe, Ken. Located in the Havana Vieja district, at #201 Prado at the corner of Colon in the Jaruco neighborhood, the original Fausto Theater was the property of Luis Estrada and was inaugurated October 15 of 1915. It was the second theater in Cuba, after the Campoamor Theater (now in ruins), to show talking movies. In 1938 the Fausto was reconstructed by the architect Saturnino M. Parejon as the Art Deco cinema of the same name that stands today. It has an Art deco facade, with vertical patterns above the entrance, flanked by horizontal delineations and curved corners. Decorative botanical friezes and reliefs suggest castellations on the top. It was the first theater in Havana to have air-conditioning and cavity walls protecting it from outside sounds. It won the Gold Medal of the National Association of Architects in 1941.

30 Terrazzo is the preferred paving material in Havana as evidenced by numerous public-private  buildings and in many of the city's sidewalks. From churches, schools and the University of Habana, to the López Serrano building, to El Pais Newspaper Building, to the Bacardi Building in Habana Vieja, and in public ways from El Prado, to the sidewalks of calles Reina and San Rafael, terrazzo has been used used extensively in Havana for the better part of the 20th century. The sidewalks around the renamed Cine Yara (originally owned by CMQ, openning on December 23, 1947 with the name Warner (Warner-Pathé) as part of the CMQ Radiocentro complex), has several terrazzo sidewalk plaques by various Cuban artists including Wilfredo Lam installed for an architectural convention in the early 1960s. The history of the material in Havana has not been written and perhaps it never will as much of the terrazzo has been destroyed.

38 Compare one of their most elegant buildings the Imperial Condominium Building in Miami by Arquitectonica they suggest a way of resolving the “front-back” dichotomy typical in single loaded buildings.

39 Venturi, Robert. Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture. New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1966. Print.

FOCSA Article