Maggie Alarcón

The elegance of age

In Architecture, Arts, CAFE, Cuba, Cuban Embargo on July 16, 2012 at 2:33 pm
Decades of experimentation with historic and imported styles have created a unique Cuban aesthetic

By Hermes Mallea

Originally publishe in the Financial Times

Those who have never visited Cuba imagine a place that has been frozen in time since dictator Fulgencio Batista was ousted in 1959. There is some truth to this. In spite of a handful of new hotel towers, the mid-century cityscape remains mostly unchanged. After Fidel Castro’s government imposed limitations on construction, the building of private homes took a backseat to public housing projects – so little private residential architecture of note has been built since 1960. As a result, much of Havana’s historic architecture has survived long after most Latin American capitals traded graceful colonial houses for shopping malls and fast food restaurants.
Neglect is apparent in most Havana neighbourhoods, where historic homes now house a multitude of families. Their crumbling structures are kept from collapse by wooden trusses and elaborate braces. Nonetheless, Havana’s houses illustrate every significant architectural style of the 20th century, with outstanding examples from the beaux arts, art deco and mid-century modernism.

The best interiors reflect the city’s mid-19th-century golden era, when Havana was one of the world’s busiest ports. Its warehouses were stocked with European furniture, paintings and sculpture, as well as American luxury goods, all of which made their way into the mansions of the families that had controlled the island’s economy for generations. Cool marble floors, Spanish tile wainscots and beamed ceilings anchored Italian giltwood mirrors and Baccarat chandeliers. Local versions of neo-classical and rococo-revival style furniture were made out of the island’s famed hardwoods.

Wood lattice and glass transoms in Adrian Fernandez’s studioWood lattice and glass transoms in Adrian Fernandez’s studio

Photographer Adrian Fernandez’s apartment was designed in 1956 by architect Mario Romañach. Its high ceilings, flowing spaces and walls of adjustable wood louvres have been hallmarks of the Cuban home since the earliest Spanish settlements. Wood lattices filter the light, blurring the boundary between the interior and exterior, much like the courtyard galleries of Havana’s historic houses.

Lan Gomez and her husband, architect Rodolfo Fofi, moved into another Romañach-designed building when it was completed in 1959. The heart of their apartment is the balcony sitting room, where the walls are made of clay tile jalousies. In typical Havana style, Gomez’s home is layered with decades of collecting: paintings and ceramics by contemporary Cuban artists, handicrafts from trips abroad, 19th-century Cuban furniture and European bentwood pieces. The antique rocking chairs found in both the Gomezes’ and the Fernandezes’ apartments have been the Cuban seating of choice for 150 years.

The swimming pool wing at the British ambassador’s residence in HavanaThe swimming pool wing at the British ambassador’s residence in Havana, Architect Leonardo Morales.

Since the 17th century, grand houses had been constructed within the confines of the city’s fortified walls (breached by the British in 1762). Architecturally, Cuban mansions were adaptations of the Spanish patio house – buildings organised around a central courtyard and popular for centuries throughout Latin America. The harsh climate – brutal sun, torrential rain and annual hurricanes – led to distinctively Cuban details that would become hallmarks of the national style for the next century: walls of adjustable wood louvres and stained glass transoms lined the galleries that surrounded the courtyard, providing shade from the sun and protection from the rain.

The cover of a 1933 edition of Carteles magazineThe cover of a 1933 edition of Carteles magazine, illustrating the cross-pollination of fashionable art deco graphics and Afro-Cuban themes

These spacious galleries were indoor/outdoor areas and the preferred social spaces of Havana’s families, who gathered there to eat while enjoying any available breezes. Palatial homes such as these still line the streets of Old Havana – a Unesco World Heritage site – with their courtyard arcades recalling the last decades of Spain’s colonial rule of the island.

At the end of the first world war Cuba became the world’s leading sugar producer. The sugar boom is associated with the district of Vedado, where developers oriented streets towards the ocean breezes. Havana’s magazines of the period are full of advertisements for American goods, reports on recently built mansions and announcements from French and American decorators who were adapting international fashions to the tastes of the city’s wealthy. As sugar prices rocketed, mill-owners, bankers and politicians enjoyed a lavish lifestyle, building homes in a variety of historical styles: French Second Empire, Florentine Renaissance, Venetian Gothic and the Ecole des Beaux-Arts.

The house of Alfred von SchulthessThe house of Alfred von Schulthess

Havana’s varied styles have created a somewhat hotch-potch feel to the city. However, an exceptional integration of architecture and decoration is found in the former home of the Countess of Revilla de Camargo – a Louis XV style hôtel particulier that is now the Museum of Decorative Arts. There visitors can see her fine French furniture, blue-chip painting and Chinese porcelains. Period photographs show the countess entertaining the Duke and Duchess of Windsor at the end of the second world war. Maison Jansen, the French decorator, created the perfect backdrop for her parties: boiseries, chic sitting rooms, a stately dining room and gardens where orchestras introduced international guests to the mambo, rumba and cha-cha-cha.

By the late 1940s, the rich had again moved on – some to Miramar with its beach and yacht clubs, others to the Country Club Estates. Today, the latter is home to foreign ambassadors’ residences. A highlight is the house of Swiss banker Alfred von Schulthess, which was designed by Austrian modernist Richard Neutra in 1956 and set in a garden by Brazilian Roberto Burle Marx. Although the house is not especially Cuban, there is a strong connection between the interior and the tropical landscape. Today the home serves as the Swiss ambassador’s residence.

Spiral staircase in a rationalist/art deco-style house in Vedado, designed by Rafael de CárdenasSpiral staircase in a rationalist/art deco-style house in Vedado, designed by Rafael de Cárdenas

At the beginning of the revolution, Havana’s architects had found a way to give a Cuban interpretation to international styles, particularly modernism. After centuries of adapting foreign designs, their search for a national identity in architecture resulted in strikingly original works. These “tropical modernist” houses reflect a period of experimentation and show that it is possible to be of the modern world while remaining essentially Cuban.

The hotels built by foreign investors and furnished by the state agency make little reference to Havana’s tropical surroundings. Over the past year, however, more unusual contemporary design has been seen in several paladares, or privately run home restaurants, including an artist’s loft where political murals adorn brick walls. Nowadays Cuban architects and designers seem hopeful that the recent economic reforms, which encourage small-scale entrepreneurship, will bring them new opportunities and allow them to reignite the country’s interest in architecture and interior design.

Architect Hermes Mallea is the author of ‘Great Houses of Havana: A century of Cuban style’ (The Monacelli Press, $75)

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