Letter from Cuba

Dear H,

I’m in Cuba, for the first time, traveling with my architect husband for site visits and lectures organized by the Committee on Design of the American Institute of Architects. Getting here was rigorous, with endless lines and slow, extra scrutiny of documents for flights to Havana from Miami. Everything halted completely when the computers issuing boarding passes crashed, but somehow, our gang moved on. Others were less fortunate, including a group of disconsolate students from Boston, who’d been sitting on the floor when we arrived, now looking glummer than ever. Chaos reigned again in the Havana airport, which was full of people carrying enormous, unidentifiable items swathed in miles of colored Saran Wrap—lengths of plumbing pipe? car fenders? an upholstered chair?

Those of us traveling light spent an hour or so in our group’s bus, waiting for people with checked bags; the power had gone off, paralyz­ing the luggage carousels. We passed the time eyeing battered ficus trees and bougainvillea hedges filled with litter and chatting with our obligatory official Havanatur guide—the equivalent of Soviet Intourist —and the Cuban-born founder and director of Copperbridge, the foundation dedicated to “dialogue in the arts,” which seems to have organized everything. (Later we will be joined by the well-informed Cuban Copperbridge guide, a personable young woman who will eclipse her Havanatur colleague; the official guide, however, will accompany us everywhere, saying almost nothing.)


Plaza de la Revolución. Photo credit: Mark Scott Johnson from Sydney, Australia, via Wikimedia Commons


Finally, everyone assembles. We drive past a tin-roofed shantytown, with occasional cows grazing on tiny plots of parched grass, and past colonial-era houses in various states of repair, with handsome loggias and tall, arched windows. We arrive at a restaurant with a huge placard honoring “Heroes of the Revolution,” complete with photos, and are immediately offered mojitos, putting everyone in a much better mood. (We will discover that this is standard everywhere and that the quality of the drink parallels the rest of the meal.) Restored by food and drink, we head for the vast, empty Plaza de la Revolución, an expanse of unre­markable pavement with a huge Soviet-type podium for speakers, below an overscaled tower. Immense steel portrait “drawings” of Che Guevara, with signature beret, and Camilo Cienfuegos, the immensely popular third founder of the revolution, cover the walls of neighboring buildings. There’s no image of Fidel Castro. (Cienfuegos, who appar­ently wanted to oust Batista but resisted embracing Communism, died in a mysterious plane crash in 1959.) A few of Havana’s legendary vintage American cars, now used as tourist taxis, claim everyone’s attention. Tailfins and extravagant colors are admired. Hoods are popped and original engines displayed. “Cuban mechanics are magi­cians,” we are told. Also magical, we find, is the view of the sea from our room in a historic 1930s Spanish-style hotel with peacocks in the garden; the male displays whenever we walk by. The day continues in monumental mode. We drive through nineteenth- and twentieth-century Havana for dinner and jazz at an ornate beach club built by Batista when he was refused admission to the Yacht Club, even as head of the government, because he was a mestizo. Mediocre mojitos predict the meal, but the setting is entertaining.


Catedral de San Cristóbal de la Habana. Photo Credit: Dinkum (Own work) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons

Our program is organized chronologically, so we begin with colonial-era Old Havana, walking along cobbled streets, past once elegant houses and shop fronts, some lovingly restored. It’s early, and we see few pedestrians except for men in singlets and shorts pushing loaded handcarts. Bars and restaurants are opening, but, as far as we can tell, there are almost no stores. We note the explosions of elaborate Spanish Baroque decoration; the complicated wooden balconies, many with tiled overhangs, projecting over narrow streets; and the iron reinforcements on corners. The most impressive building, so far, is the cathedral, San Cristóbal, built in the eighteenth century out of pale coral stone, facing a handsome arcaded plaza, one of the old city’s four main squares. Recently restored, its complex façade of narrow concavities and convexities is pristine and elegant, as is the light-filled interior with its polychrome devotional statues and shallow, flat apse, painted to look like marble. A sign at the entrance entreats: “Please You are in a catholic church/No eat, no drinks/no caps or hats/no shorts too short/God bless you.” We continue down a cobbled main street, which is beginning to fill with tourists and a few Cubans, admiring shapely doorways and weathered wooden doors, en route to lectures on colonial Havana, beginning with its sixteenth-century origins, when its superb harbor sheltered treasure galleons returning to Spain with loot from viceregal Latin America. We learn about Havana’s invasion by British troops, in 1762, during the French and Indian War—they came overland, easily overrunning a city whose defenses were designed to repel only aggressors from the sea—and about the trade the following year that returned Havana to the Spanish, in exchange for Florida. And more.

Next, we visit the opulent palace of a colonial dignitary, now being restored as an arts center, a series of high ceilinged rooms with tall windows framed in brilliant blue surrounding an interior patio. The road outside the deeply arcaded façade is paved with wooden blocks to deaden the sound of hoofbeats and carriage wheels, and, we’re told, insure the peace of the dignitary’s siesta. We walk to another plaza, much larger than the Plaza de la Catedral, with trees at the perimeter and a miscellany of mostly old buildings, many with wide, louvered windows. At one corner, a construction crane projects from an overwrought Spanish Baroque spire. That kind of incongruity is everywhere. Clusters of primitive looking TV antennae sprout from once grand eighteenth-century houses, their deep loggias hung with laundry.


Picture taken during a Cuba photo trip with Nikon School in November 2010.
Interior of Gran Teatro de La Habana Alicia Alonso. Photo Credit: Thomas Münter from Bonn, Germany, via Wikimedia Commons

Much of the afternoon is spent in the Gran Teatro de La Habana “Alicia Alonso,” where awards for restoration and conservation are being presented. Built as a private club/cultural center, designed by Belgian architects in 1915, when soaring sugar prices made some Cubans unimaginably rich, the building boasts several theaters, a concert hall, extravagant public spaces, and much more. It is now home to the Cuban National Ballet and named for the Cuban-born former Ballet Theater principal who returned to her homeland to found the company. We climb an astonishing, cascading, twining stair to an enormous white room with a frieze of putti, trellises, garlands, and escutcheons; it makes the Palais Garnier, in Paris, seem restrained. I struggle to follow the Spanish and keep pace with the images of the award-winning projects. Eventually I give up and concentrate on the decorations. On the way out, there’s a photography frenzy, as everyone tries to capture the amazing sweep and swoop of the braided double stair, followed by a demand to see the theater itself. It’s closed, but the director of Copperbridge works what we will discover is habitual magic, and we enter a handsome, rather intimate traditional house, ringed by boxes; compared to the opulent public rooms, the rich façade decora­tions, and the rooftop ornamentation, the theater seems fairly modest.


A bicitaxi in front of El Capitolio. Photo credit: © Jorge Royan /, via Wikimedia Commons

Nearby is the former National Capitol building with a dome similar to that of the U.S. Capitol, but, we’re told, even taller. Opposite, there’s a snaggle-toothed row of former mansions, fronts more or less painted, sides crumbling, with improvised plumbing in evidence. A man hangs out laundry as we pass. We have special permission to enter the former Capitol. The seat of government from 1929 until the revolution, then the Cuban Academy of Science, it is now being restored to its original function. The long, high-ceilinged entrance hall with its tall pilasters, coffered barrel-vaults, and a monumental symbolic sculpture is very splendid. We want to see more, but most of the building is closed. We escape our handlers, explore a hallway, and discover a handsome hemispherical chamber with an arcaded balcony. Satisfied, we return to the program, a group tour of the streets once occupied by the city walls, in the three-wheeled, bicycle-propelled conveyances known as “bici-taxis”. It’s exhilarating and slightly terrifying. Our phalanx of bici-taxis fills the street. The drivers seem to be racing, coming disturbingly close to each other, and blasting a cacaphony of warning horns and whistles, as we speed along. The many vehicles seem to have fused into one pulsating, shifting mass, like a school of fish. We make three or four circuits, passing a strange Moorish-style building, the spectacular Art Deco former headquarters of Bacardi rum, the sleek Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes, the overwrought Museo de la Revolución, and many equivocal, once splendid houses. We know more of what to look for now and can tell when the present inhabitants of the subdi­vided mansions have inserted mezzanines into the high rooms to gain extra space. But the most fascinating part of the outing is watching the startled Cubans on the sidewalks, as the tsunami of jostling bici-taxis sweeps by.


A man sitting on the Malecón. Photo Credit: JJ Merelo, via Wikimedia Commons


We’re more oriented now, recognizing landmarks on our way to dinner on the Morro Castle side of the harbor, as we drive along the Malecón, the celebrated long road by the seawall towards the west of the city. It’s tree-less and often inundated by breaking waves, but the sunsets are spectacular, and for Havana’s residents, it’s legendary. The site of a proposed Chinese-financed hotel nearby alarms everyone; the picture on the site hoarding does not look promising. The sunset view from the restaurant is glorious. We sit outside and watch the lights come on in Old Havana across the water. (Also better mojitos and slightly better food.)


Form, Space and Light: Marble sculpture by Rita Longa, 1953, outside the National Museum of Fine Arts of Havana. Photo Credit: Tony Hisgett from Birmingham, UK, via Wikimedia Commons


More lectures, the next day, on late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century architecture, at the Fine Arts Museum, which we also explore. Not surprisingly, the early work on view seems competent but provincial and often turns out to have been made about twenty years later than we might suspect. What is surprising is the generally subdued color, given the brilliance of Caribbean light. Nothing much changed until the revolution. Oddly, although twentieth-century Cuban architects embraced modernism and often studied abroad, Cuban painters and sculptors appear to have missed Cubism and Fauvism, focusing instead on Mexican muralism, the drearier aspects of the postwar School of Paris, and spiky Surrealism. Wifredo Lam, to whom an entire gallery is devoted, looks like a giant. The Revolution, not unexpectedly, triggered a lot of impassioned, frequently Pop-Art inflected images; revolutionary heroes loom large. The most recent work exhibited could have been made anywhere in response to current trends, despite the government’s controls on communication through exorbitant fees for internet access. But there’s an entire gallery devoted to recent paintings by the internationally known Carlos García de la Nuez, large, poetic abstractions that combine blurry geometry, expansive sheets of earthy color, and scrawled words with a passionate feeling for materials. There’s a flavor of Cy Twombly, but also a great deal of individuality. García de la Nuez, who studied in both Cuba and the U.S., was born in Havana in 1959 and has spent years in Mexico. His accomplished, assured paintings make the visit worthwhile.

We continue to explore Havana chronologically, visiting some of the opulently decorated mansions, now museums, built by Cuba’s obscenely rich aristocracy west of the old city, as Havana expanded in the early twentieth century. These established families rented their colonial era homes in Old Havana—now divided into apartments—preferring to live in newer, more modern neighborhoods. Many wealthy families who fled after the Revolution assumed they’d be back soon and left their maids in charge; they are now permanent occupants of the homes they once worked in. The revolutionary government, we are told, was determined that “housing should not be a business,” so in theory, at least, everyone has a place to live. But buildings and land are govern­ment owned, and little or nothing is done to maintain them. People take care of their own living space—common areas or the outsides of buildings are usually ignored—but any desire to improve things is thwarted by the inordinately high price of paint and building materials in relation to universally low salaries. Only people with relatives abroad, who help with finances, or members of the newly permitted entrepreneurial class are able to do any restoration or maintenance. “Where do the building materials come from?” one of our group asked. “Mostly stolen from government building sites,” the Copperbridge director said. “Or you can buy them in the store,” added the Havantur guide, optimistically. (We attributed the absence of toilet seats in all public restrooms to pilfering by ingenious householders.)


One of the many elaborate mausoleums inside Christopher Columbus Cemetery. Photo Credit: Darwininan (Own work), via Wikimedia Commons


Most spectacular is a visit to the centrally located Christopher Columbus Cemetery, begun in 1876—140 acres of spare-no-expense mausoleums, chapels, and family vaults, a fantastic city of the dead, like Père Lachaise, in Paris, absent the geography. In some places, allées of magnificent trees shade rows of monuments; elsewhere, severely clipped trees and narrow, sunbaked aisles separate wildly disparate structures. We admire the strikingly large, elegant Art Deco mausoleum commissioned by a grieving husband whose magnificent home we’d visited earlier. We’d heard the couple’s dramatic love story. Unhappily married to others when they met, they ran off together, obtained annulments from the Vatican—wealth helps—and returned to Havana to live happily (and in luxury) as patrons of the arts and architecture. The monument had recently been vandalized—witness the broken stained glass windows and shattered tombs—apparently because of persistent rumors that its first occupant had been buried with all her jewelry. The place is bewildering: a huge artificial grotto; a weirdly proportioned, domestic-size Gothic chapel, striped like a Tuscan church; a bizarre pyramid with an Egyptian pylon doorway; an austere, rather Fascist cube; and much more, in a forest of devotional sculptures, some life size, some larger. The only possible follow-up is the evening’s special treat, a performance of the present incarnation of the legendary Buena Vista Social Club that includes two of the surviving members, notably the amazing Omara Portuando, a slim, intense exclamation point in red sequins.

We’ve reached the 1940s and ’50s, the so-called “nightclub era” of mafia-owned hotels and ambitious Modern Movement architecture. After lectures about the public buildings, nightclubs, and a less than inspiring sculptor of the period, in the Salón Copa of the Hotel Riviera, a textbook example of zippy 1950s style (currently under restoration), we pile into a fleet of vintage convertibles for a drive through neighborhoods rich with examples of domestic Modern Movement building. (We’re in a white 1957 Mercury whose owner/driver proudly tells us its history.) The variety of the houses and apartment buildings within the idiom is remarkable. So is the obviously perilous state of repair of many of them. Cuban building skills, until the Revolution, we’ve learned, were extraordinarily high, but after 1959, when Russian precast construction was supposed to solve all housing problems, those skills were lost. Now, masons and construction workers on restoration projects have to be retrained.

We pass the startling, immense, brutalist Soviet embassy compound; an ungainly, blocky tower looms over an assortment of nondescript concrete buildings, like the surveillance tower of a prison. We’re en route to a beach-side paladar—one of the recently legalized restaurants in private homes—which proves to serve the best meal we’ve had so far, in an idyllic setting. (The restrooms have the only toilet seats we’ve encountered.) The house is in perfect condition, flanked by equally attractive beach houses, many of them in bad shape. We sit with an architect born in Havana a few years before the Revolution, returning for the first time. He was sent, age four, with an older sister, to live with American relatives; their parents weren’t able to join them for another four years. He describes walking past his former home but being afraid to ask to enter, since present residents are often hostile to returning Cubans, fearing that they want to reclaim their property. The group’s other returnees are an American brother and sister who spent their childhood in rural Cuba because their father worked for United Fruit. They left, with their family, in 1959, on the last plane to evacuate Americans, convinced they would never see the island again. When our plane landed in Havana, they embraced and said, “We made it!” They planned to visit the remote town where they lived, hoping to find a woman who had worked for the family, to whom they’d given everything on their departure.


Photograph of architect Vittorio Garatti’s school of ballet, part of Cuba’s National Art Schools. Photo Credit: DuendeThumb (Donated to Creative Commons by author John Loomis), via Wikimedia Commons


The trip’s one serious glitch follows lunch. We’re expected at the home of the Swiss ambassador, designed by Richard Neutra with gardens by Roberto Burle Marx, but we’re running late, and it’s proposed that we skip the famous Institute Superior of Art, the most important complex of buildings constructed in Cuba after the Revolution. Every­one rebels furiously, and we manage a too-brief but important visit. Fidel Castro conceived the school as a showcase for Cuban culture. Five buildings were planned, designed by Italian and Cuban architects, but only three were constructed as intended. The project was deemed inessential to the Revolution’s aims, and funding was withdrawn. The various departments of the school apparently flourish today, although the art school studios were extraordinarily devoid of the expected mess. We invade the shaded walkways, with their tapering brick columns, walk under muscular barrel vaults, and explore the domed classroom and studio buildings, with their eccentric skylights. The warm red brick unites the angled walls, the domes, walkways, and plazas, with emphatic bands of pale concrete for contrast. It’s all quirky and wonderful, but we’re enraged at not having had enough time and start plotting a return. The perfectly maintained Neutra house, with its lucid structure and suave proportions, and the inventive Burle Marx garden, with its reflecting pool and serpentine, shady perimeter path, along with drinks, hors d’oeuvres, and the articulate, well-informed Swiss ambas­sador herself, restore our equanimity.

So does a brief visit with an impressive couple who live in the arts and crafts home and studio of her uncle, a well-known illustrator. Their son and daughter-in-law occupy an apartment behind the studio and, apparently, because it is a family home, occupied by the family, they have been permitted to retain ownership. The house is small but charming, and our hostess, whose English is perfect—“I learned it as a child. It used to be better,” she says, modestly—is an informative guide.

We’re in good humor when we dine in another paladar—extremely good—and end our 1940s–50s day at the Tropicana nightclub with a re-creation, we are assured, of a vintage show. The stage is outdoors, among huge trees. The singers and dancers enter on catwalks or stand on an immense abstract linear sculpture. We’re disappointed at not being able to enter an interior performance space with a celebrated arched structure, but the enthusiastic, energetic, gifted performers are irresistible. So are the ruffled costumes, the dry ice clouds, the lighting, and the amount of rum provided for each table. It’s all fairly outra­geous, but we all agree that the number in which the girls paraded with chandelier headdresses outdid everything.

The antidote to all this capitalist extravagance comes the next day, our last, when we travel to a popular theater in a working-class suburb for the lectures. We pass a fair number of Japanese and Korean cars, as well as Russian-built Ladas and Moskvitches. The Copperbridge guide explains the system for car allotments. Owners of the famously unreliable Moskvitches are at the bottom of the hierarchy. They are called “believers,” she tells us, “because they believe they have a car.” We pass walls painted with images of Che Guevara and patriotic slogans—“the Revolution secures the future”—prompting discussion of Obama’s recent visit and the unexpected response of Fidel Castro, who emerged from hibernation to warn that America was trying to subvert Cuba’s values. Our Cuban guides are admirably circumspect in their comments, but they are clearly aware that Fidel is ninety and his brother, Raoul, who has said he would step down in 2018, well into his eighties. Time for younger leaders? No one knows what will happen. We will have to come back to see. Right now, we’re glad we came when we did.


Karen Wilkin