We just returned from a fascinating people to people visit to Cuba with the American Institute of Architects and the Copperbridge Foundation. We spent a week meeting architects, touring buildings, and being entertained by local musician and dancers. The phrase that our guide repeatedly used was “It’s complicated.” Everything seemed to be complicated from acquiring buildings to renovating them. We were told that there were no private architectural firms but we met some architects who had firms… but they couldn’t call themselves architects – it’s complicated.
“Havana is an archive of every interesting style of Western architecture, especially those between 1860 and 1960,” says Cuban-American architect Hermes Mallea. The colonial and neo-classical architecture is beautifully executed. It feels like a cross between New Orleans and Charleston with the loggias, balconies, interior courtyards, and exquisite iron work. Once dubbed Paris of the Caribbean, old Havana is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and was established in 1519. The Cuban state has recently invested in the restoration of the central city through the Office of the Historian of the City. While some buildings are being restored, the vast majority are desperately in need of repair. We were told that throughout Havana 2 ½ buildings collapse every day from deterioration.
We stayed at the Hotel Nacional that was designed in 1930 by the New York firm McKim, Mead, and White. The hotel’s loggias and gardens overlook the Havana Harbor and beg you to sit down and enjoy a mojito and the view. There we were treated to a performance by musicians formerly of the Buena Vista Social Club.
Paladars are private restaurants located in homes. One of my favorites was La Guarida where the movie Strawberry & Chocolate was filmed. The building is being renovated from the top down with a new roof top terrace with great views of Havana. The decaying first two floors make you question if this is in fact a restaurant. After negotiating broken treads and a wobbly handrail on the marble staircase you enter a hauntingly beautiful gallery space. The food was also very good.
Outside of Old Havana there is a treasure trove of Art Deco and Mid-century Modern buildings built between the early twenties and 1959. One gem was the 1938 house of graphic artist Enrique Garcia Cabrera designed by the Cuban architect Maximiliano Borges. Sculptural panels by the artist grace the front façade of the house.
Another highlight was the house designed by the California architect, Richard Neutra for the Swiss banker Alfred de Schulthess. The family only lived in the house from 1956-1960 when Castro nationalized private residences. It is now the residence of the Swiss ambassador, Anna- Pascale Kraver Muller. The gardens are by the Brazilian landscape architect Burle Marx who is described as a painter working in landscape.
The most recent buildings we saw were built in the early years after the revolution with a post revolution Cuban aesthetic. The Instituto Superior de Arte was designed by Richardo Porro and is a series of domed buildings. The campus was never finished and was recently highlighted in the award winning film Unfinished Spaces.
To see Cuba before it is modernized, now is the time to go. There are many groups offering tours, including the Copperbridge Foundation, National Geographic and Roads Tours.