Fidel is Dead. What Happens to Havana?

Havana Cuba (photo: Caroline Chamberlain)
Havana Cuba (photo: Caroline Chamberlain)

“If you study the buildings of Cuba you can read the history of the country but the entire political landscape of the last 500 years,” says Rosa Lowinger, Cuban-born materials conservator based in Los Angeles and Miami.

On this DnA she talks about Havana, and what might happen to the island’s capital city, now that Fidel Castro has died. She describes the city as you see it now: “In Havana. . . you are looking at buildings from the early 16th century, then you see buildings from the 17th, the 18th, 19th and the 20th — every style that has affected the Western Hemisphere from Baroque to Neo Baroque to Spanish Colonial Art Nouveau. It’s all there in varying stages of disrepair. What you see when you go to Havana is the influence of the entire world on this one city.”

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Rosa Lowinger interviews the bartender at El Polinesio, the former Trader Vic’s in the Havana Hilton (photo: Aquiles Jacas).

But then the Cuban Revolution “halted all private development in the island and that created an unusual situation in the 20th century which is that very few buildings were torn down to make way for large modern real estate development projects.” So Havana and Cuba has a much larger percentage of historic architecture in place than practically any other country in the Western Hemisphere.

Lowinger, who has just released a new edition of her book, Tropicana Nights: The Life and Times of the Legendary Cuban Nightclub,  talks about the new threats to the urban fabric now that the development of hotels and commercial building — begun during the Periodo Speciale (when Canadian, French and other non-US countries started to invest) and quickened since President Obama and Raul Castro eased relations and permitted easier access to the island for Americans — looks set to explode.

The Tropicana in its heyday as a playground for American visitors to Havana

“There’s been a great mad rush to build hotels for example and the impact of that is complicated.” On the one hand it raises the specter of the “encroachment of gigantic structures” and the demolition of older buildings. Lowinger also warns that while it is great to see money going into the restoration of historic properties,” the downside can be that “when you do preservation really fast you very frequently get it wrong.”

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Tropicana’s Outdoor Cabaret Space Bajo Las Estrellas Max Borges Recio, 1953 (photo courtesy Rosa Lowinger)

“Now, there’s a lot of decay in place, a lot of buildings are being lost, but the main threat right now is bad development and not just tearing down of buildings because that has not happened yet, but the idea of encroachment of gigantic structures. If that starts to happen — and also from within Cuba itself if poor preservation is done in the name of getting things done fast so that they can be developed quickly for the tourist market.

El Megano, one of 60 neon signs in Havana that Al Nodal is working to save.
El Megano, one of 60 neon signs in Havana that Al Nodal is working to save.

We’re in a moment where it is critical. And right now though the Cubans have done an excellent job of preserving a lot of this we are in a position right now where the limits of what Cubans have been doing on their own is being challenged and it’s a moment where there needs to be an international dialogue, Cuba to the outside world.”

Another Cuban-born Angeleno who is involved with the urban fabric of Havana is Al Nodal. Formerly Director of Cultural Affairs for City of LA Nodal created The LUMENS Project, aimed at restoring classic neon signs in LA.

Al Nodal in Havana with cars (photo: Vern Evans)
Al Nodal in Havana with cars (photo: Vern Evans)

He has now taken that project to Havana, and told DnA, “I’m trying to return to some of the historic fabric of the post-war Havana to the city and maybe other cities in Cuba. The neon signs of Havana that have been sitting there quietly for about 60 years are coming back to life.”

“These signs are the architectural equivalent of the old cars. They are all from the same era. We have fixed 60 of them already around the city and it’s our bid to try to bring the light back to the city and make that a sort of a symbol of the changes in Cuba.”

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Vittorio Garatti, School of Ballet, Escuelas Nacional de Arte (1961-65)

Nodal’s project celebrates post-war Cuba, the Battista era when Havana was America’s playground. That was an era that saw top talent from the US and other countries build in Cuba — Welton Beckett designed the Havana Hilton, for example. It was also the era repudiated by Fidel Castro and his partner-in-arms Che Guevara.

One of their first acts of architectural rebellion, conceived over a drink after a game of golf at Havana’s formerly exclusive Country Club Park, was to transform the private club into a public art school in a style specific to the renegade regime, not the International Style typical of the post-war imports.

Russian Embassy, Havana, Cuba
Russian Embassy, Havana, Cuba (photo: Caroline Chamberlain)

The Instituto Superior de Arte (ISA), a complex of dance, music and visual arts schools, was designed by Cuban architect Ricardo Porro and his Italian colleagues Roberto Gottardi and Vittorio Garatti; they conceived a unique form of tropical Modernism, with sensual forms made of brick in a traditional Catalan style.

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Al Nodal playing with neon (photo: Deborah Vankin)

That project projected the idealism of the period but its cost overruns and construction challenges (it was never completed) also dampened enthusiasm for ambitious architecture, says Al Nodal: “In a sense ISA became also a very important negative part of the architectural development of Cuba because it really made the government stop that kind of design architecture and go for the Soviet model,” in the form of mass-produced concrete housing blocks and industrial buildings.

Now, says Nodal, there’s a rebirth. “Cuba is now really getting a new sense of design. All the private commercial activities are generating a new sense of design a new sense of fashion, all of that is coming back to Havana now. It’s wonderful to see.”

No discussion of Cuban culture is complete without a musical accompaniment. KCRW’s Tom Schnabel considers Cuban music in this Rhythm Planet post.