The Design Observer Group

Posted 05.13.10

Belmont Freeman

Havana: Nostalgia Is a Dangerous Business

During the opening session of the first Havana Biennial of Architecture [1], convened in March 2002 in the beautifully restored Convent of St. Francis of Assisi in Old Havana, Andres Duany, the Miami-based Cuban architect, delivered an impassioned lecture on the architecture and urban design of Havana. In a bravura bilingual performance, Duany praised the extraordinarily high quality of the buildings from every era and the cohesiveness of the city as a total artistic creation. He lamented the intrusion of modern (read post-Revolution) construction and suggested that the "Soviet style" projects of recent years be excised from the urban fabric. [2] Duany concluded his stirring talk with the astonishing proposition that any vacant parcel of land in the historic quarters of Havana — and there are many vacant parcels, as old buildings have collapsed from lack of maintenance — be redeveloped only with replicas of the buildings that stood on those sites previously. This, he explained, was the moral track, as the original structures had not been removed intentionally or for any positive purpose, but were the victims of a socio-cultural entropy that must be reversed.

Duany’s manifesto for Havana invites a host of questions. For what other major city would a responsible architect propose such a radically regressive prescription? Venice, perhaps — but Venice is cited by Cuban architects and planners of my acquaintance as the prime example of what they want Havana not to become; that is, a city pickled in preservationist formaldehyde for the pleasure of tourists and the satisfaction of architectural historians. The clichéd description in tourist literature is that Havana is “frozen in time.” Does Duany honestly wish to institutionalize that state? As he correctly observed, architects in Havana have produced designs of the highest caliber from the 16th century right up through the 20th; so why should that creative activity stop now? Can we not trust Cuban architects or foreign designers, who in the city’s longstanding cosmopolitan tradition might be invited to work in Havana, to sustain that excellence in the 21st century? [3] Coming from a son of the Cuban exile community, I detect in Duany’s declaration the tone of an absentee landlord, impatient with the prolonged stay of a troublesome tenant, pointing to the clause in the lease that stipulates “return property to its original condition upon departure.”

The discourse on the history and current state of Cuban architecture and urbanism, in recent books and other media, varies widely in quality and intent. As with practically everything having to do with Cuba, representations and interpretations of Havana and its architectural heritage get unavoidably entangled in politics, whether by an author’s explicit agenda or competing readings of the work. Because of the travel ban imposed by the United States, most Americans are unable to visit Cuba and form their own impressions, so the published literature and photography have exceptional influence in shaping popular notions about the country’s built environment, its stewardship under the current regime and what to hope for its future.

The record of that influence is decidedly mixed. For the most part, the architectural press has perpetuated the myth that nothing of value has been built in Cuba in the last 50 years and that Havana is a city in a time warp that can and should be preserved intact and restored to its pre-revolution state (as Duany urges.) The designation in 1982 of Habana Vieja as a UNESCO World Heritage Site has focused international attention on the city's glorious architecture and accelerated the flow of foreign aid and tourism revenues into its preservation efforts. At the same time the designation has had the effect of universalizing ownership of Havana’s architectural heritage and encouraging the well-meant but unexamined questions, marginally neo-colonial in tone, that pop up at historic preservation symposia and pepper the dust jackets of books about Cuba, like “How will we save Havana” and “Who will protect these architectural treasures once the American embargo ends?” [4]

Scholarly literature on Cuban architecture is sparse, but then again, Latin American architectural history in general remains a poor sibling to European and North American studies. The field, such as it is, is dominated by the Havana-based architect and historian Eduardo Luis Rodríguez, whose Havana guides are the Old and New Testaments for architectural tourists in the city. Rodríguez’s La Habana, Arquitectura Siglo XX — unfortunately never published in English translation — is likely to stand as the definitive survey of modern architecture in Cuba for some time, even though it is overwhelmingly weighted toward the first half of the century. His more recent work, notably the 2004 exhibition Architecture and Revolution in Cuba, 1959-1969, which he curated (and I co-produced) at Storefront for Art and Architecture in New York City, updates the story by examining the remarkable work produced by Cuban architects in the first, heroic decade of the Revolution. This is a body of work virtually unknown outside of Cuba (and largely neglected within), with the sole exception of the National Art Schools, which were brought to international attention by John Loomis in his revelatory Revolution of Forms: Havana's Forgotten Art Schools.

Loomis broke the story that in fact there had been significant architecture made in Cuba after 1959 and turned the Art Schools into darlings of the preservation movement, though he also promulgated the misleading and simplistic narrative in which progressive design in Cuba was arbitrarily snuffed by a philistine and doctrinaire regime when it terminated construction on the schools in 1964. Eduardo Luis Rodríguez, out of professional necessity, assiduously avoids political interpretation in his own work, quite unlike his predecessor (and former teacher) Roberto Segre. Segre’s seminal writings, Diez Años de Arquitectura en Cuba Revolucionária, of 1970, and Arquitectura y Urbanismo de la Revolucion Cubana, of 1989, are valuable documents of the period and unadulterated pro-revolutionary tracts. Segre’s ideological lights shine as well through his contribution to the more recent Havana: Two Faces of the Antillean Metropolis, co-written with the American scholar of urbanism Joseph Scarpaci and the Cuban architect and planner Mario Coyula. This volume, illustrated with meager black-and-white photos and plenty of maps, graphs and pie charts, provides the most insightful survey available of the city and its contemporary physical, social and economic fabric.

Since the invention of the medium Cuba has seduced photographers, so it’s no surprise that large-format picture books occupy most of the Cuban architecture shelf. Rachel Carley’s Cuba: 400 Years of Architectural Heritage stands out as the most serious of the genre, covering the entire island and historical periods from early colonial to post-revolution. The text, aimed at the non-specialist, is well researched and informative and in felicitous balance with the excellent photography by Andrea Brizzi. Regrettably more common than Carley’s scholarly volume are the exercises in nostalgia: the books that set out to celebrate Havana’s faded glory and romantic past. The titles alone implicate the authors’ intentions. Havana ... a Romantic City; Havana Revisited; and Andrew Moore’s Inside Havana, with its dust-cover photograph of a framed black-and-white portrait of a 1950s debutante propped against a corroded mirror that reflects a grand but shabby salon: these set the tone before you even open the books. But nostalgia in the Cuban community is a dangerous business; wistful recall is more often than not a lament for a lost life of privilege. Nowhere is this more evident than in the beautiful but pandering Havana: History and Architecture of a Romantic City, by Maria Luisa Lobo Motalvo, in which the subject matter favors the palaces and clubs of the rich and the text is laced with the personal reminiscences of the author, who was the daughter of the wealthiest man in Cuba at the time of the revolution; this is a lavishly illustrated tome manufactured expressly for the Miami coffee table.

A lurid subset of the nostalgia press is the photo essay that fetishizes the romantic ruin: the city in decay. Havana: The Photography of Hans Engels dips into this genre, but the variety and documentary style of the building portraits and the appended checklist of architects and dates redeem Engel’s project. No such concerns restrained photographer Robert Polidori in the production of his ravishing and deeply disturbing album Havana, which turns the city into a post-apocalyptic opera set. Polidori’s lens penetrates into the “entrails . . . nearly putrefied” of the city, as Eduardo Luis Rodríguez writes in an introductory essay, though one might question how representative are the venues, which were shot during just two trips of ten days each. [5] The spectacularly decayed interior of the Faxas residence, shown on the dustcover of Polidori’s book, is also featured in both the Engels and Moore volumes, suggesting that complicit occupants were happy to make the photo set available to visitors. [6] And now we have the film Havana: The New Art of Making Ruins, made by the German cineastes Florian Borchmeyer and Matthias Hentschler, a film that simultaneously aestheticizes the decrepit but occupied buildings of Havana and works them as metaphor for the collapsing political system in Cuba.

These sentimental surveys lament the sorry condition of the city’s noble buildings and implicitly condemn the government that allowed this decay to set in. The deterioration of Havana is an undeniable tragedy and the most obvious evidence of the communist regime’s failures, but rare is the author who suggests that the government’s construction of, say, a new medical school campus or workers’ housing outside the city center might have been a more rational and humanitarian investment of scarce resources than the restoration of aristocratic mansions. Likewise suppressed is any acknowledgment that the decrepitude of Havana can also be attributed to the punitive U.S. embargo, which, as intended, helped destroy the Cuban economy and has prohibited Cuban-Americans from sending funds to family members who remained on the island, which might have helped them maintain ancestral homes.

The latest addition to the literature on Cuban urbanism, Havana Revisited: An Architectural Heritage, falls by design into the nostalgic genre of urban history but thankfully avoids excessive sentimentality and sidesteps political comment. Cathryn Griffith is named on the title page as author, but she might more accurately be identified as curator of a multimedia project. Griffith is not an architectural historian (she studied fine arts and now works in the real estate industry in Boston), but clearly she is an astute critical observer of visual culture and the built environment. The book is based on the collection of early 20th-century postcards (circa 1900 to 1930) that Griffith has amassed since her first visit to Cuba in 2003 (almost all purchased via the internet, she tells us.) Some 180 cards are reproduced, and the principal images are matched up with digital photographs of the same views that Griffith took over many trips back to Havana after 2003.

Major monuments aside, the research involved in identifying the buildings and streetscapes depicted in the old postcards and the legwork required to locate the same viewpoints are prodigious, and the rewards on the page commensurate. The finished product is a fascinating portrait of a city across time, and one that by definition — being based on images produced for tourists — is designed for external consumption. Part of the interest is seeing what aspects of life and landscape in Havana were, in the first years of the Republic, considered postcard-worthy (funeral processions? U.S. military installations?), and viewing the present-day equivalents. Anyone building a collection of Cuban postcards in the last third of the 20th century would probably end up mostly with portraits of Che Guevara and Fidel Castro, since the graphic power of the Revolution and the exoticism of the world’s last true communist state seem to be more fascinating to the typical tourist than the streets and buildings of Havana, which are not generally as photogenic today as they were in 1920.

The book is divided into twelve chapters categorized by geography or building type. The text for each is written by one of ten different authors, all architects or historians and all but one Cuban or Cuban-American. The foreword and introduction were written by, respectively, Eusebio Leal Spengler, the Historian of the City of Havana, and Mario Coyula Cowley, the city's former director of architecture and urban planning, whose participation gives the publication a weighty official imprimatur. Indeed, many of the photographic pairings, showing a monument or plaza at the beginning of the 20th century and today, serve as excellent advertising for the restoration work carried out under the direction of Leal’s office.

The major weakness of Havana Revisited is the unevenness of its texts. The chapters range from inconsequential fluff to absorbing history and insightful interpretation, and the disparities compromise the book’s cohesion. I would have been happy if all twelve chapters had been written by Coyula, who authored three and whose commentary is concise, scholarly and informative. On the other hand, I would not have wanted to miss Lillian Guerra’s sharp review of the shifting meanings of Havana’s monuments to the Republic. One senses that Guerra, who is the single U.S.-born and -based Cuban of the authors, felt greater freedom than others to address the political aspects of architecture and urban design in Havana.

But this book is about the pictures — the image of the city, its architecture and representation — and at this level it succeeds admirably. The historic postcards, typically made from black-and-white photographs that were softly hand-colored to a romantic glow, convey a strong sense of civic pride in the capital of the new Republic of Cuba, recently independent from Spain though under the dominion of the United States. The years between 1899 and 1929 saw an unprecedented building boom in Havana, financed by a flood of North American investment and giddy spikes in the price of cane sugar (due to the destruction of the European beet sugar industry during World War I.)

These postcards showcase the architectural and urban design accomplishments, from the great civic structures to new boulevards and parks and mansions. Likewise they suggest a heightened interest — coincident with that of tourists now flocking to the island — in the old colonial monuments. While some of the buildings shown in the early views are today gone or in ruins, what is striking is how little the iconic views within and of the city have changed. Griffith observes that the biggest apparent difference between 1930 and today is the luxuriant tree cover that has grown in Havana’s public spaces. Havana, of course, has changed in the last century — neighborhoods were transformed during the construction boom of the 1950s and many others are now crumbling after fifty years of the Castro regime’s anti-urban policies — but these parts of the city are not depicted in the postcard views. Thus confined by its postcard-based format, Havana Revisited is, as a survey of the city and its current condition, limited and misleading. This book will help perpetuate the false impression of a city that time has little changed and that looks much better today than it really does.

I hear American colleagues urge their friends who are interested in architecture to get to Havana soon, “before it changes.” To be sure, there are treasures to be seen and in their unrestored condition the buildings of Havana are fascinating; but to suggest that change in Cuba, from our perspective and for our purposes, is something to be dreaded seems insensitive at best. Change that will lift the country out of dismal poverty (and there are scenarios other than U.S.-style capitalism) is desperately needed if the buildings and cities we so admire are to survive at all. Paging through Havana Then and Now, by Llilian Llanes, one sees the dignified old buildings intact but shabby, with some of the same automobiles seen in the “then” photos still parked outside — a charming picture. But compare those diptychs with views presented in Jorge Rigau’s Puerto Rico Then and Now, a companion volume in the Thunder Bay Press series. On the Caribbean island with the highest standard of living the historic architecture is still there, but the “now” streets are jammed with new cars and the picturesque country village has a modern supermarket. I don’t know a single Cuban — at least not one who lives on the island — who would not happily trade their "now" for a very different picture.