Cuba Culture

Modern architecture history and preservation in Havana

Posted September 25, 2005 by publisher in Cuba Culture.

BY GARY MARX | Chicago Tribune

Jose Santiago remembers the day in early 1960 when a young Che Guevara, dressed in fatigues and trademark black beret, came to his family’s new home for dinner.

Like many wealthy Havana residents, the Santiago family had recently moved into its dream home, designed by a hot young architect and featuring shiny terrazzo floors, geometric stained-glass windows, floor-to-ceiling shutters and a whimsical, wing-shaped roof.

Baccarat cognac glasses rested on a living room partition and outside, in the carport, sat the family’s 1959 Cadillac Fleetwood and two-toned Chevrolet Impala.

Guevara was there to speak to Santiago’s father, a powerful businessman who headed the Tobacco Exporters Association of Cuba. Santiago, now 62 and living in Midlothian, Va., remembers Guevara sitting at the dining-room table and bluntly telling Santiago’s dad, “The mission of this revolution is to get rid of people like you.”

Several years later the Santiago family was gone, joining hundreds of thousands of Cubans fleeing into exile and leaving behind scores of magnificent modernist homes.

Today four families - more than a dozen people in all - live in the old Santiago house, which like many 1950s residences has been subdivided because of the island’s severe housing shortage and tattered by time, overuse and poverty. The wooden shutters are shattered, the custom-made cedar kitchen cabinets are rotten, and the bathroom fixtures ripped out or destroyed.

One current resident stared in disbelief at black-and-white photographs of the Santiago home taken around the time of Guevara’s visit.

“This home was very beautiful,” said Carmen Villalon, 78, who has lived in the residence since 1965. “It’s a shame that I don’t have the money to fix it.”

Yet for the first time since the 1959 revolution, there is a growing movement in Cuba to preserve scores of homes and buildings from the 1950s, a golden age of Cuban architecture that was all but erased from the nation’s collective memory after Fidel Castro took power.

Leading the charge is 46-year-old architecture critic Eduardo Luis Rodriguez, who learned about the modernist structures as a university student and is part of an international group known as Docomomo, petitioning Cuban officials to grant 187 buildings what amounts to landmark status.

But Rodriguez faces huge political and economic hurdles in an impoverished socialist nation where dollars are tight and politics seep into every aspect of life, including architectural preservation.

While Cuba restores Old Havana’s crumbling colonial-era buildings to attract tourists and vital hard currency, Rodriguez and others say government officials have ignored the modernist structures in part because they represent the bourgeoisie swept away by Cuba’s revolution.

Many of the era’s leading architects, such as Nicolas Quintana, Frank Martinez and Manuel Gutierrez, disagreed with Cuba’s nascent socialist government and fled shortly after the revolution. Even speaking their names in academic circles amounted to political treason in a nation governed by leaders who long defined themselves in opposition to their predecessors.

“If you left the country you were considered a traitor,” Rodriguez said. “Almost none of their names were mentioned when I was at (architecture) school.”

That is beginning to change. At a meeting last year to push modernist preservation, only four out of an estimated 100 architects and officials in attendance spoke out against recognizing the exiles’ work, Rodriguez said.

Nobody is happier about the turn of events than the architects themselves, who did some of their finest work as young men in Havana and remain embittered by their treatment.

“The only thing the Cuban government has done is keep us out of history for a long time,” said Quintana, 80, who designed the Santiago home and several other residences considered modernist masterpieces. He now lives in Miami and teaches architecture at Florida International University and said he would be grateful if Rodriguez and Docomomo persuaded Cuban officials to preserve and restore the buildings.

Nilson Acosta, vice president of Cuba’s National Cultural Patrimony Commission, said many of modernist homes already receive some protection but conceded that they have been modified and damaged by residents and even by state agencies.

He said the commission must first determine which of the structures in Rodriguez’s proposal are of the most historical and architectural value before deciding whether to move ahead with restoration. “You can’t conserve something without knowing what is the real value of it,” Acosta said.

The story of Cuba’s modernist homes begins at the end of World War II, when the high international price of sugar - the island’s main export - fueled an economic boom.

What developed was a new class of entrepreneurs, professionals and others who favored white linen suits, belonged to exclusive beach and tennis clubs and wanted homes that broke from the neocolonial and beaux-arts styles long popular in Cuba.

At the same time, a few talented Cuban architects were plowing new ground by adapting the taut, minimalist style pioneered by Le Corbusier, Walter Gropius and Mies van der Rohe - all Central Europeans - to Cuba’s tropical landscape.

Quintana and his colleagues each had distinct styles but incorporated many of the same architectural elements, including large eaves, multi-level roofs, rows of shutters and double-wide doors that opened to catch the sea breeze.

Taken together, the elements filtered the harsh Caribbean sunlight, deflected heavy rains and improved ventilation - all of which made the homes not only cutting-edge architecturally but livable in a country with little or no air conditioning.

“The principal element of architecture is the human being,” said Martinez, now 81 and living in Peru. “Architecture is a living thing.”

One of Martinez’s finest homes was designed for Stanley Wax, a Jewish-American immigrant who owned a textile store and lived in Havana with his Cuban wife and two daughters.

Ellen Ginsberg, Wax’s eldest daughter, recalls as a girl poring over an architectural drawing of their dream home with Martinez and her parents.

“I remember looking at it and saying, `Where is my room going to be?’” she said.

Each day, the Wax family visited the construction site to watch the progress. They traveled to Miami to buy a Thermador oven and other kitchen appliances. The residence was finished in 1959.

The hand-carved mahogany front gate, the double-panel cedar doors, the dinette area off the kitchen and the lush, interior courtyard decorated with tropical plants and rocking chairs - these are what Ginsberg remembers most about her home.

But the family lived there only a short time, fleeing the island in 1961 after Cuban officials took over Wax’s store and he was briefly jailed. Neither Ginsberg nor her parents ever returned.

“Not a day goes by that I don’t think about the house,” said Ginsberg, 58, who lives in Sands Point, N.Y.

After the revolution, Cuban officials confiscated homes abandoned by the wealthy and in an attempt to fulfill the ideals of the revolution turned them into public schools, student dormitories and state offices.

Some of the houses were severely damaged as Cubans carted away toilets, light fixtures, tiles, wood beams and other coveted materials. Those that were turned into diplomatic residences or homes for high-ranking government officials in many cases have been preserved.

More recently some of the finer homes have been rented to foreigners. A Spanish television reporter lives in the old Wax house.

But the government rents many other homes for nearly nothing to impoverished families who have sealed off hallways, carports and outdoor terraces to create shelter amid the ruins of the past.

One way to pay for restoration, Rodriguez said, is to charge tourists to visit the homes, much like the walking tours of Frank Lloyd Wright designed-homes in Oak Park, Ill.

Yet, beyond the homes’ potential economic value, some Cubans also recognize that the structures represent an irreplaceable link between those who left the island long ago and those who stayed.

“We are very happy to live here, but I’ve often thought about the family that was here before,” said Nancy Reyes, a 54-year-old telephone worker who lives with her husband in three rooms and the walled-off stairwell of the old Santiago house. “I’ve wondered what they were like.”

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