With the historic lifting of the Cuban embargo creating an instant rush to visit the long-cloistered island nation, a rush for rediscovery will bring all manner of Cuban art, culture and design to the fore. While it’s not always acknowledged as such, Cuban architecture, especially modernist buildings, showcase an eclectic and exciting blend of styles, from the Spanish and Art Deco buildings that preceded them to the modern and Brutalist influences that came during the postwar period. As Gabriel Fuentes, Professor of Architecture at Marywood University, says, “it’s a search for Cubanity, a strong regional modernism that tried to synthesize European ideals, the International style, and the Cuban context.” Between Modernist residences that riff off the tropical landscape to curved concrete flourishes and large-scale Socialist construction, it’s work that could only have been done in Cuba.
Designed by Harrison & Abramovitz, a storied partnership that worked on both the Lincoln Center and the UN Headquarters, this former U.S. Embassy and modernist triumph on the Malecón, an International Style structure done up in Italian-imported travertine, projected the image of a brash, forward-thinking country to America’s southern neighbors. It was so well-received when it opened in 1953 that MoMA included it in an exhibition of new U.S. diplomatic architecture later that year. The building’s role as an official embassy didn’t even outlast the Eisenhower administration, as it was “closed” in 1961, demoted to a “U.S. Interests Section.” But that doesn’t mean it wasn’t the site of political posturing; in 2006, the State Department installed a scrolling billboard that broadcast news and human rights messaging. Cuba responded by renaming the area adjacent to the building Anti-Imperialist Plaza and blocking view of the signage with a mass of flagpoles topped in black flags. Obama’s order to restore diplomatic relations means this building will once again regain embassy status.
Fidel Castro commissioned these buildings shortly after the revolution on the former site of a country club, a deliberate move to anger wealthy capitalists. Ricardo Porro’s airy design and sweeping brick Catalan arches for the School of Modern Dance — as much an inspired design as a move inspired by the post-embargo material shortage — invoke the utopian spirit of the age and a sensuousness and sexiness that he felt symbolized something uniquely Cuban. While this was meant to be one of five schools, it was the only one that came anywhere that close to completion by 1965, when Castro defunded the project, declaring the schools elitist. After decades of neglect, a series of books and documentaries brought more attention to the plight of the building and sparked a restoration movement; a proposal to have Norman Foster update the buildings even surfaced in 2012.
Richard Neutra designed this International Style home, currently the Swiss ambassador’s residence, in collaboration with Cuban architects Raul Alvarez and Enrique Gutierrez in 1956. Built for a wealthy family of Swiss snowbirds, the open-air structure overlooks a garden landscaped by noted Brazilian designer Roberto Burle Marx. It later received the 1958 National College of Architects Gold Medal.
Originally built in the ‘20s, this club’s popularity led to an expansion in 1950 designed by Max Borges-Recio. A series of concrete arches provide a visual connection between the building and the waves seen hitting against the nearby shore.
Architect Max Borges’s concrete vaults are a signature part of this icon of Havana nightlife. Borges’s previous work with Félix Candela on his cascarones, or thin concrete shells, came to fruition in the “Arcos de Cristal” salon, a cabaret topped with curved concrete and glass sheets that offered a thin barrier between club-goers and the tropical night sky. Supposedly, Borges actually mounted the arches during construction to measure vibrations from a passing train nearby.
A noted example of Brutalist architecture designed by a team of Cuban architects, the sizable campus of this technical university (Ciudad Universitária José Antonio Echeverria) was built utilizing prefab construction methods and is celebrated on the Cuban 50 Peso bill. Cast at ground level, the slabs were hoisted and pegged into place, providing tectonic detailing on the facade, and hover above pilotis.
This private residence with a striking zig-zag roof and V-shaped columns comes with its own mythical backstory. Legend has it that the architects were inspired by a literal back-of-the-napkin sketch done by famed Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer.
Considered a modern marvel when it was finished in 1956, this concrete structure is the highest building in Cuba (396 feet). Designed by architect Ernesto Gómez Sampera and originally the home of a Cuban radio and TV network, it was used to house Soviet and Eastern European visitors in the 1970s. It boasts a restaurant, La Torre, on the 33rd floor, which offers panoramic views of the capital.
Architect Manuel Copado’s curvaceous balconies, a visual reference to the sea, have made this central Havana apartment building a bit of an icon. The streamlined 1944 building represents a bridge of sorts between Art Deco and more modern structures.
Paladar Vista Mar
Located in Miramar, this residence-turned-restaurant was once the home of architect Miguel Gaston, and showcases his affinity for the ocean. The signature feature, a stylish infinity pool, appears to literally spill into the sea.
By Curbed, Progreso Weekly
May 7, 2015