Havana Dispatch - Architectural Digest

One Architect Contemplates the Island's Preservation Efforts and Crumbling Splendor

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Visiting Cuba now is an exhilarating, exasperating, contradictory and tragic experience. As a United States architect involved in research, traveled directly from Miami to Havana in just over 50 minutes, arriving in a place where time stopped almost 50 years ago. American muscle cars from the 1950s still roam the streets, and the absence of billboards and suburban sprawl recalls an earlier, simpler era. But this pastoral image belies the almost total collapse of the economy and the continued death grip of Castro on information available to the people of Cuba.

Television from the outside world is not allowed, except in tourist hotels-no newspapers, magazines, not even Architectural Digest! Electricity and potable water are in erratic supply. Meanwhile, every day, according to the chief of restoration, an entire building or part thereof collapses in the grand city of Havana. Despite the ambitious goals of restoration experts, architects and city planners, there is no money to maintain and save the vast majority of Havana landmarks. The city is a ruin in slow motion, and it is no wonder that the great novelist of fantasy, Gabriel Garda Marquez, is a fan of Fidel, who fiddles while Cuba falls apart.

The tragedy is that this is happening to Havana, a city whose magnificent setting, wrapping around the curving sweep of Malecon Avenue along the sea, is matched only by the extraordinary stock of intricately carved tone and stucco 18th-, 19th- and early- 20th-century buildings on the scale of Madrid and Rome. The city is organized around three main squares, the Plaza de Ia Catedral, Plaza de las Armas, and Plaza Viejo, each surrounded by colorful facades with curved wrought iron rails atop shaded arcades and loggias. The grandest boulevard to the sea is the Paseo del Prado, where pedestrians displace the automobile in a wide central aisle for the passeggiata framed by fragrant trees, stone benches and monumental lanterns, while the cars are relegated to the outer lanes. Alongside, the ghosts of the past, Meyer Lansky's hotels, stand witness to the wild excess of Havana in the '50s, when it far surpassed present-day Miami or Las Vegas as a mecca for a good time. In Old Havana (Havana Viejo), although technically protected as a Unesco World Heritage Site, facades are literally open to the sky, with trees growing through them, and are interspersed with buildings that are otherwise overcrowded with families. Every so often one encounters a building that has been beautifully restored as a hotel or museum, and the contrast is astounding.

Just outside Old Havana are a series of attractive neighborhoods, such as Vedado, Miramar, and Cubanacan, with numerous grand houses of the past, mostly classical and a few modern, all on par with the best of Manhattan's Upper East Side or Westchester County. The most spectacular modern house is without doubt the 1956 Schulthess House by Richard Neutra, now the home of the Swiss ambassador. Electrifying in its contrast to the shabby state of most everything else, the house is a carefully preserved and cared-for island of Swiss perfection. The L-shaped plan, with a curving stone-and-wood facade, embraces the entrance court, while the house open in large sheets of glass to the Roberto Burle Marx garden in the rear. The ambassador, a cousin of Le Corbusier's, holds gracious reception for guests in a house designed for tropical entertaining. Broad overhangs shield the glass from the sun, and an elegant spiral stair leads to the roof terrace, where the tiled surface is not bound with railings to keep tipsy guests from plummeting to the patio below. So much for silly American codes and rules to prevent one from having a good time at a cocktail party!

The garden is an equally marvelous mix of geometric planters, taut planes of lawn and pools of water ringed by a lasso of biomorphic pathways that expand and contract in width to create a varied walk though the acres of gardens.

In total contrast is the site and present sad state of the National Arts Schools, a campus of art, dance and theater schools conceived on a whim by Castro and Che Guevara while golfing on the course of the exclusive Havana country club. The commission was given to three talented but inexperienced architects in their 20s. We met with one of them, Roberto Gottardi, now in his 70s, who designed the theater school, which is only now being completed. several of the five schools were designed in a flowing Gaudiesque, pre-Gehry style of organic architecture.

The most dramatic is the ballet school, a remarkable work that one enters underground, going into a series of long, curving, cavelike paces. On the gently arced shell roof , articulated like an armadillo, students were to dance on the undulating surface , punctuated by a series of high domed spaces that were the performance centers for dance. The project was abandoned in just four years because of the economic crisis brought on by the deteriorating relations between Cuba and the United States a well as a new emphasis on banal Soviet Socialist style. Now, the buildings molder and slowly collapse like the underground galleries of Hadrian 's Villa in Rome. Although it has again become admired, there is no budget for restoration.

Meanwhile, despite the claim that Castro's Communist bastion is the opposite of capitalist United States, the only pervasive image is that of Che Guevara, who, murdered in 1967, remains young, vibrant and sexy. His image rules, providing the only connection to the "glorious revolution" that stopped in its track year ago, while Che looks on from above, the Calvin Klein model of Cuba past.


October 5, 2006

Alexander Gorlin

Alexander Gorlin