Minneapolis-based architecture firm MSR has organized employee tours of architectural sites in Dallas and Milwaukee in the last two years, but it will be tough to top the next destination – Havana, Cuba.
Thirty-eight MSR employees will leave Thursday for the island nation, where they hope to learn more about Cuba’s culture, urban design and “architectural treasures,” according to the firm. The group will return Tuesday.
The agenda includes meetings with Cuban architects and guided tours of Old Havana, Ernest Hemingway’s residence, a historic cigar factory, museums and buildings representing pre- and post-revolution architecture.
“This is the bucket list of things you want to see,” said Josh Stowers, an MSR principal and one of the trip’s organizers.
U.S.-based hotel developers also are intrigued by Cuba now that U.S.-Cuban relations are thawing. In December 2014, President Obama restored full diplomatic relations with the country after decades of isolation.
MSR, which also has an office in Maryland, has a strong background in historic renovation and adaptive reuse projects, Stowers said. Cuba’s built environment would lend itself well to that type of work, along with hotel and resort development.
But Stowers emphasized that the trip is about professional development, not cultivating business opportunities.
“The interest is there, but we are not going there to secure new work,” Stowers said. Rather, he said, it’s a chance to see “extraordinary architecture fixed in time.”
MSR’s Minneapolis office will close from Feb. 25 through March 1 for the trip. Clients have been informed and a few MSR staffers will stay behind and go to the office as usual, Stowers said.
MSR has been working for months to secure educational visas and iron out logistical requirements.
The idea popped up shortly after the company concluded its trip to Dallas in April of last year.
“We were sitting together and saying, ‘Where to next?’ I have always had a great interest in going to Cuba, personally. I threw it out there and people got excited about it,” Stowers said.
The firm worked with Toronto-based Authentic Cuba Travel, which says it is an organizer of “cultural, educational and adventure tours for schools, NGOs, business and community groups.”
Though the U.S. travel embargo to Cuba has been eased, travel is still limited to educational and cultural purposes, Stowers said. The American Institute of Architects’ Minnesota chapter signed up as a sponsor to meet that requirement, he said.
AIA-Minnesota’s role, in essence, was to vouch for the educational nature of the trip, said Mary-Margaret Zindren, the chapter’s executive vice president.
“I think it’s an exciting opportunity for … members of our architectural community to be inspired by a truly unique place on earth,” she said.
Stowers said the group from MSR ranges from recent college graduates to workers who have been with the firm since it was founded 30 years ago.
Tom Meyer, MSR principal and co-founder, said in a statement that every culture’s architecture “grows from its customs, values, materials, climate, and politics.”
“Here’s a place 90 miles from the U.S. dramatically fixed in a time warp because of the embargo, but putting into play what is available and making architecture that is functional, and uniquely their own,” Meyer said.
Brian Johnson, Finance & Commerce
February 24, 2016