Lin Arroyo designed some of the spectacular buildings that provided the stylish backdrop for the movie stars and gangsters who frequented 1950s Havana. His Modernist landmarks, such as the Havana Hilton Hotel, the Sports Palace arena and the National Theatre, stark structures shorn of ornamentation, stood out in a city with a homogeneous architecture of Neo-Classical colonial buildings.
Arroyo also reshaped Havana in his capacity as Public Works Minister in the Government of Fulgencio Batista who had seized power in a military coup in 1952. In public office Arroyo founded the Junta de Planificación, a national planning body which oversaw a massive wave of public works across the island until halted by revolution in 1959.
Arroyo, the son of a prominent lawyer, was born in Havana in 1917 into a well-connected family. He initially eschewed a career in law and instead enrolled at the Havana School of Architecture.
Here he met his wife and collaborator Gabriela Menéndez and they set up practice as Arroyo & Menéndez in 1942.
Modernist architecture was initially embraced in a country keen to break with the colonial architecture of its recently departed Spanish overlord. But the first flush of the “International Style” of the mid-1920s was quickly superseded by the more ornamental Art Deco movement.
Arroyo was one of a number of young architects emerging in the 1940s who were determined to champion the purist, pared-down Modernist form with its clean lines and perfect proportions.
Early work, including his own house and studio, mostly consisted of apartments with their Cubist duplex blocks expressing the machine-like aesthetic of the International Style.
As the practice emerged, Arroyo became an active member of Le Corbusier’s Congress of Modern Architecture (CIAM) and his style evolved to reflect Le Corbusier’s ideas more and more. The apartment of Enrique Menendez (1953) was based on Le Corbusier’s housing block Unité d’Habitation in Marseilles (1952). A year later Arroyo completed Cuba’s first Modernist church, San Pablo, with its landmark bell tower clad in a latticework of concrete brise soleil which was so evocative of Le Corbusier.
As the 1950s progressed, Arroyo became less derivative and developed his own vocabulary of shapes, materials and details that expressed looser, more sinuous forms, facilitated by the growing use of structural concrete in the region at that time, notably in Brazil. The breaking of the strict Modernist rules with such curves came to be known as “mambo Modernism”.
Armed with a more distinctive and varied design palette, Arroyo produced his best work and, according to the Cuban architectural historian Eduardo Luis Rodríguez, “the most remarkable and visible public buildings in Havana”.
These included the National Theater of Cuba (1954-60), a Cubist concrete composition of two theaters back to back with fully glazed entrance facades to humanize the building amid its large expanse of concrete.
The Sports Palace or “Coliseo” (1955-57) was a circular, layered arena for 15,000 spectators — the top layer a 100m diameter cupola which required no supporting beams, thus creating a spectacular open space below.
His last important work, completed in 1958, was the Havana Hilton Hotel. The beautifully articulated 21-story structure was a Modernist emblem for the city but it would only fleetingly welcome its rich, famous and infamous clientele before it became the first headquarters of Fidel Castro after the Marxist uprising of 1959. Castro nationalized it in 1960 and it was renamed the Habana Libre.
The ousted dictator Batista had earlier appointed Arroyo to serve as Minister of Public Works, 1952-58. In 1954 he set up the Junta de Planificación and became its president. Arroyo created a team of talented young architects around him, such as Mario Romanach, Nicolas Quintana, Jorge Mantilla and Eduardo Montoulieu, charged with creating a master plan to transform the capital.
A wave of public works followed, including a modern highway system complete with tunnel under Havana Bay that would connect new developments in the east of Havana to the city center.
As a result, Arroyo oversaw construction of many new buildings paid for by the annual influx of 300,000 or so US tourists. It was the age of finned Cadillacs, glamorous women in vaporous frocks and pointed sunglasses and high-rolling on the casino gaming tables. It was such decadence that enabled cerebral Modernists such as Arroyo to flourish.
A more expansive style known as “Modernist monumentalism” was the signature style of Arroyo’s ministry, and the city’s skyline was transformed with many high-rise office buildings, apartments and hotels that attracted a gallery of Modernist luminaries, including Walter Gropius, Oscar Niemeyer and Philip Johnson, to visit the city. Quintana, speaking from exile, later said that Arroyo’s importance within the modern architecture movement on Cuba was enormous.
Arroyo’s plans would have been even grander had not history intervened. Having developed to the east of the city, he then turned his attention to the loosely developed western suburbs of Havana.
His ambitious city plan would have seen Modernist skyscrapers replace many of the sprawling colonial buildings at Vedado and Playa. He even planned an artificial island with hotels, casinos and shopping malls. However, he left Cuba in 1958 to become ambassador in Washington and remained there after the revolution.
His iconic National Theater would remain unfinished for nearly 20 years and did not open to the public until 1979, and his church of San Pablo is now a warehouse.