Even for the most jaded architect, Cuba represents one of the most fascinating and beautiful places in the world. Today Cuba has become a “must see” destination for architects. Although some American architects have been granted permission to visit the country by the U.S. government, most have traveled illegally, risking large fines and possible prison sentences to visit what some call the “Paris of the West.” Cuba has one of the largest intact collections of historic buildings of any country in the world (going as far back as 500 years), including one of the largest intact collections of Spanish colonial architecture and the largest collection of Soviet-era prefabricated buildings.
Cuba’s architectural prominence dates back to the origin of the New World. Comparisons and contrasts between the historical architectural brilliance and its current state of decay offer captivating images and insights into Cuban history, development, and design.
Cuba provides a wide range of architectural styles, which some call the most beautiful in the world—pre-Columbian, Spanish colonial, Art Deco, International, Soviet, Postmodern, and Retro-Cubano. UNESCO has declared Trinidad and Old Havana world heritage sites. Moreover, the National Arts School and Las Terrazas have also been declared architectural masterpieces by UNESCO and others.
Located only 90 miles from the United States, Cuba is one of the few truly socialist countries left in the world. Socialist Cuba has created a radically different economic, social, and cultural life for its citizens. Architecture is intended to serve the masses’ needs of efficient and affordable housing, schools, hospitals, offices, and industrial production space. Ornamentation, excess, and waste are all frowned upon. The irony of Castro’s socialist revolution was that the imperialist architecture of Spanish colonialism was replaced with imperialist Soviet International Style. Efforts to create a unique and original Cubano style free from other styles have largely been a failure.
One of the great myths and disappointments is that Havana has a large collection of Art Deco and Art Nouveau buildings. Some exist, but only a few are notable and deserving of attention, such as the 1930 Bacardi building designed by Esteban Rodríguez Castells, Rafael Fernández Ruenes, and José Menéndez and the López Serrano apartment building built in 1932 by Ricardo Mira and Miguel Rosich. The 1947 Collegio de Arquitectos by Fernando de Zarraga and Mario Esquiroz is another example.
Spanish colonial revival style has a major presence in Cuba. Coming from this tradition is the widely praised Hotel Nacional, which was completed in 1930 by the highly respected New York architectural firm of McKim, Mead and White. Another successful building is the Havana train station by architect Kenneth H.Murchison.
Modern architecture before the revolution produced the widely praised Solymar apartments built in 1944 in Central Havana by Manuel Copado. These apartments celebrate the sea with wide circular balconies that represent ocean waves. This building, and the Tropicana Cabaret designed in 1951–56 by Max Borges Recio, are representative of the sensual and curvy Modern architecture. Borges also designed the Nautical Club in 1953 in the Playa area of Havana. This building celebrated the sea and shipping industry by tying together two distinct structures. One symbolizes a large container ship sailing in the other, the Nautical Club, representing the curvy ocean waves. Another spectacular presocialist building with nautical leanings is the house of Maria Melero (built between 1940 and 1942 by architect Herminio Laduerman) in the Playa area of Havana. The building has portholes for windows and features the command bridge of a ship. Many believe this distinctive architecture reflects Cuban culture and its relationship to the sea, sensuality, sun, and salsa.
Before and after Cuba’s socialist revolution there was a burst of Modern and monumental architecture. The Modern architecture movement was controversial because these buildings were not adapted to Havana’s patterns of extreme hot weather—rooms became hotter because the ceilings were lower, windows were fewer, and heat could not escape to higher floors. Moreover, the individualism of the Spanish colonial or even Art Deco was lost to a repetitive sharp angular design. Architect Richard Neutra was a major influence on this movement. Few are aware that Neutra helped design two buildings in Cuba, one of which (house of Alfred de Schultess, 1956) won the National College of Architects’ Gold Medal Prize and has been called the most beautiful house designed by a non-Cuban architectural firm. The best representation of this Modern architecture was captured by the architect Miguel Gaston’s house, built in 1952. This house is spectacular because the pool gives the illusion of floating into Havana Bay and becoming one with it. Nearby, the Riviera Hotel by Polevitzky, Johnson and Associates, built in 1957, is notable for providing balconies for every room. The building curves nicely, like a wave, in a seaside teal color. It is very sleek and sensual; this building also tips its hat to the influence of Morris Lapidus’s Fontainebleau Hotel in Miami Beach.
Cultural and political ideology is difficult to separate from Cuban architecture. Shortly after Wallace K.Harrison and Max Abramovitz designed the United Nations Building in New York, they designed the United States Embassy in 1953, which fits awkwardly among the historic buildings of Havana’s Malecón. This building was widely criticized by Cuban architects because of its excessive glass and windows that did not open, creating a cooling problem. Unlike the grace and substance of the United Nations Building, this building looks like a typical suburban American office center building, whose dark frame, glass walls, and 20-foot-high metal fences become the embodiment of how the socialist government wants its citizens to see America: big, dominating, impersonal, ugly, and uncaring. This building has become a frequent site of antiAmerican demonstrations.
Cuba also uses its large public squares for public rallies. José Martí is honored in Havana’s Plaza de la Revolución, a collective effort built between 1938 and 1952. In Santa Clara a stark square honors Che Guevara, and in Santiago another commemorates revolutionary leader Antonio Maceo. If the goal of monumentalism is to make the person feel small and powerless against the state, these squares and others like it seem to be effective in achieving this goal.
Churches are largely Spanish colonial in design with the exception of the modernist Jewish temples. Interestingly, the most striking church in Cuba, built in 1927, is a Spanish revival called El Cobre near Santiago. Of particular significance is the church’s spectacular placement, rising out of the trees at the bottom of a mountain range.
Perhaps the most important 20th-century watershed architectural event was the building of the National Art Schools (begun in 1961; never completed). The lead architect was Ricardo Porro, who sought to celebrate Cuba’s African roots in a conglomeration of buildings with separate schools for visual arts, music, and dramatic arts. Construction was stopped and abandoned because of ideology. Critics argued that it was wasteful and inefficient to spend many hours training brick craftsmen to build highly sophisticated Catalonian vaults instead of using reinforced-steel concrete. The Sovietaligned architects not only defeated the National Arts School, but they also were able to get Castro to pass a law requiring that all new building projects use mass industrial production techniques similar to those employed in the Soviet Union. This was the demise of architecture in socialist Cuba. Architectural styles, historically imported from Spain and Italy and later France, England, and America, found a new exporter of architecture in the Soviet Union, which produced faceless, cold, mass-production concrete housing free of individualization. Housing became a symbol of the state and no longer a symbol of the self. The vast majority of architects and planners, attacked as part of the bourgeois class, left Cuba after the revolution because they felt that they had lost a great deal of professional and personal freedom. Cuba now allows families who receive dollars from the tourist industry or from relatives overseas to build prefab, low-rise single-family concrete housing units and allows builders to personalize them with stone, seashells, wood, and different color paints. The best example of what is called “micro brigade housing” was built in the early 1990s near the Santiago Bay luxury boat harbor.
Housing and places of work were designed to maximize production of space. Playful, individualistic, and human-scale housing production became almost nonexistent during the socialist era. In the conference on Fifty Years of Cuban Architecture, architects passed resolutions and demanded greater influence in how buildings are to be designed, ideally to reflect Cuban culture. The National Union of Architects and Engineers has also denounced the hotel and shopping mall designs of European and Canadian corporations, the designs of which represent a “cookie-cutter” approach, failing to integrate Cuban cultural amenities and aesthetics—balconies, more rounded buildings, stained glass, tile floors instead of carpeting, louvered doors, fanlights above doorways, and louvered window shutters that open. Most of these new hotels seem like second-rate versions of Hyatt hotels in third-rate cities.
When the Soviet International school defeated the Cubano National Arts School, Cuba decreed that all future architecture must follow the Soviet model of rational, scientific, and efficient design. The Soviet school was greatly influenced by the work of Le Corbusier. All schools, residences, hospitals, and offices were to be built using laborsaving devices based on the factory model—no more inefficient design. It is difficult to quantify a reliable number of how many prefabricated housing units were built in Cuba, but the estimate is approximately one million. The Cubans insist that everyone is guaranteed a house, food, education, and transportation, yet many dislike the houses for their lack of character and personality. The Cuban lament is that you need a house number to find your own place. Over 100,000 units were lost due to lack of upkeep during the socialist period. Many blame this on Cuban housing law, which did not factor in maintenance and repair of roofing, walls, and plumbing. The average Cuban pays about $2 per month for an apartment.
One development that Castro boasted would be a model socialist city and the envy of the world is Alamar. More than 100,000 units were constructed there. Today, this formalistic, factory-built concrete design is roundly considered a major architecture and planning failure. Even Cuban architects call it a dormitory devoid of services, shops, style, and exuberance. Much of it stands abandoned and incomplete. Instead of building in the cities, Castro wanted new housing developments to be outside the city. For Alamar residents the average commute time is three hours per day back and forth to available work in Havana. It is a good example of “socialist sprawl.” These buildings do demonstrate Cuban ingenuity for using unorthodox materials such as wall partitions made out of processed sugarcane waste. Perhaps the most successful building design is CUJAE, which is the flagship Cuban university for planning, architecture, and engineering. CUJAE was a collective effort built in the early 1970s by untrained builders. This building is located near Havana International Airport about 30 minutes from downtown Havana. A more interesting and successful result is achieved when old and new are fused together. Las Ruinas Restaurant in Lenin Park, also near the airport, was built atop the ruins of a stone church by architect Joaquín Galván in 1971. Here he recaptures the Cuban Spanish colonial style of blurring what is inside and outside.
Near Alamar is the Pan-American Village, which makes the best use of prefabricated materials by putting Cuban accents on the design: more curves, a main promenade like Havana’s famous Paseo del Prado, shops on the ground floor, homes on the second to fifth floors, design that incorporates brick, and an individualistic style and a skyline that is not uniform. The design team was headed by Roberto Caballero and building was completed in 1991. The Pan-American complex is somewhat successful because it adapts Soviet prefab buildings into a modern version of Spanish colonial design. The only problem is that this should have been built in Havana, close to jobs.
In 1991 José Antonio Choy was the lead architect who put together two of Cuba’s most important pieces of Postmodern architecture: the Santiago train station and Santiago Hotel. Choy does not get much credit in Cuban architecture books because few architects make the 14-hour drive from Havana to eastern Cuba. Choy’s work is similar in many ways to Frank Gehry’s in its use of unusual building materials, sharp and bold angles, and nonfunctional, playful, and provocative spaces. Corrugated metal is prominent. For Cuba these buildings represent a bold departure from the highly rationalized Soviet style of modular design that is faceless, cold, predictable, uninspiring, and demoralizing. Yet Cuban citizens see this building as extravagant, inefficient, and wasteful. Both these buildings are far more political and powerful because of their symbolism. Hotel Santiago salutes the mighty sugar mills of the past with a Postmodern design. It is important because it stands against the faceless rationalization of communism by saying the world is illogical, confusing, and confounding. It says that beauty cannot be found in a simple straight line but in a curved line that sometimes goes nowhere. The Santiago train station is even more radical and utilizes stairs climbing up three flights to nowhere, a bridge that is without function, large pillars that support nothing, and large square blocks tossed randomly on the front entrance. The Gehry corrugated metal and storm fences are here, too. More interesting is that this building was built at a time when Russians were cutting financial support for Cuba. The train building is a powerful commentary on socialist Cuba—broken, unfinished, and illogical.
The biosphere of Las Terrazas is a one-hour drive west of Havana in Pinar del Río. Las Terrazas has undergone a significant reforestation program that utilizes community gardens, recycling, papermaking, and trees that grow through the buildings. UNESCO has declared this a world biosphere. Castro has declared that the future is in ecotourism. The Hotel Moka was designed by Mario Girona in the early 1990s as a green building in which trees are allowed to grow through rooms, hallways, and decks. The red tile used here is another salute to the Spanish colonial era.
Prado Neptuno is representative of the movement for Retro-Cubano, which was built in 1999 by Roberto Gottardi, one of the architects who helped design the National Arts School. It is a Cuban salute to Frank Lloyd Wright, combining mosaic tiles, architectural lighting effects, and an emphasis on local materials. This building has been widely praised as a new chapter in Cuban architecture.
Callejón de Hamel, located in Central Havana, is an inspiring example of how to revitalize an inner-city neighborhood through art that reflects the history, hopes, and desires of its people.
The movement is led by a painter known as Salvador, who was untrained and has taught other nonpainters to create murals that celebrate Africanbased religion, urban life, love, and sex. The murals that cover six-story housing blocks are incredible in their ability to turn a bleak neighborhood into one that is colorful, exciting, and inspiring for both residents and tourists. This is one of the few places where large murals are allowed to exist free of the usual prosocialist political propaganda.
Socialism meant the end of architecture in Cuba. Very little has been written on Cuban architecture under socialism. Only a handful of reliable and useful books exist on the topic in English or Spanish. Two of the best books were written by Americans: Cuba: 400 years of Architectural Heritage by Rachel Carley and Revolution of For ms: Cuba’s Forgo tten Art Schools by John A.Loomis. The very best Cuban writer on architecture is Eduardo Luis Rodríguez, whose chief role is to document significant pieces of architecture for restoration and preservation. Although highly regarded internationally, Rodríguez has been reluctant to write critical articles on architecture under socialism. Interestingly, his most recent book on Modern architecture in Havana, published by Princeton University Press, stops in 1965—skipping 36 years of socialist architecture, which is probably of greater interest than many of the derivative buildings he reviews. Until recently, foreign travel to Cuba, especially outside Havana, has been difficult. If foreigners do publish articles critical of Cuban socialist architecture, they face a possible ban on future travel to Cuba. More scholarship is needed that documents, analyzes, reviews, and evaluates Cuban architecture, especially during the socialist period.
Sennott R.S. Encyclopedia of twentieth century architecture, Vol.1. Fitzroy Dearborn., 2005.