Mario Coyula, Cuban spirit in the architecture

In the first hours of this Monday died in Havana, victim of cancer, the renowned architect Mario Coyula Cowley (1935), one of the most lucid and respected in the field of architecture and urban design in Cuba and beyond the borders of the Island.

El national prize of architecture 2001 and Habitat 2004 Prize Francisco de Arango y Parreño of the economic society of friends of the country in 2014 and 2013 heritage national award; the condition of academic of merit from the Academy of Sciences of Cuba, Professor of merit and Doctor Honoris cause from the Higher Institute José Antonio Echeverría (Cujae), and visiting professor at the Centre David Rockefeller of Harvard University; his work as director of architecture and urbanism of Havana and the group for the Integral Development of the capital city, and as first President of the Commission of monuments of La Habana, among other achievements and responsibilities, illustrate the professional height and prestige that reached Coyula, author of several books and influential articles.

The Cubadebate website published the following message of the family: Today 7 July at 1:40 a.m. Mayito left physically, with us he will always be as what he was: a gentleman of fine print, the latest as they said some, not so, but each time are less. We will not wake, those who know our way of thinking about this. He will be cremated and his ashes placed next to his son.

“Havana costs, but it’s worth” was one of his most known and quoted phrases. “If you cannot build enough that little must have good architecture” and “beauty is not expendable” are others of his maxims in conversations with journalists in recent times. Cuba Contemporánea reproduces the interview conceded recently to journalist Isachi Fernández, published by IPS last June:

A class with Mario Coyula
by Isachi Fernández

The renowned architect Mario Coyula reviews moments of his professional life, think about the housing and also speaks of the architectural production and monuments, the Cuban and the urban.

The intellectual exercise involving an interview was able to encourage him, to a few days out of the operating room. He is the Cuban architect Mario Coyula, a questioner par excellence, with acute and often heterodox, judgments poured in a language that is far from all academic.

At home, to review his career, Coyula underlines memorials, theme which has texts in publications such as the magazine Arte Cubano; but also confesses that, over time, urbanism, seduced him more than the isolated buildings. “A nice set of teeth not one piece makes it”, explains and argues: “the city mold people and people mold city”, so he talks about the importance of urban culture.

Long fascinated by the work of Le Corbusier, who cataloged today as a formidable architect, a good painter and a dangerous urban, ensures that you have to go by detaching of the obsessions.

Mario Coyula path in teaching inside and outside of the country, and from management positions, significantly enriches his resume, which also appears in several books, the last of which, was published recently under the name of Catalina, is a novel of love associated with the Habana.

The concepts of “good taste” and its opposite are a strong component class even racism often hides in them. As bearers of bad taste were branded as in his time the Baroque, tango and all manifestations of African culture. In present Cuba, what do you consider of bad taste and why?

– (You missed art nouveau, which was associated to Catalan workers and not architects here in Cuba.).

To begin with, I don’t like me using the term in bad taste because, one immediately, says: “and good taste are what is, who owns it and why?” It is a very movable, uneasy territory. One can do a more objective critique certain events without using the term “bad taste”. What we can say is that there is a marginalization that has climbed and has become dominant; therefore, it is no longer marginal. It is expressed in the form of dress, listen to music, talk… in all, and governed. It is a public demand consumption and offer that. They discussed much in the recent Congress of the Union of writers and artists of Cuba (Uneac) all those dirty manifestations. The taste is associated with fashion, with the arbitrary, with frivolity, is as a shield when we say “I did it because I like so”. That is fatal, must have a thought, a planning behind all creative fact.

Can we associate it with the lack of culture, to ignorance, the ostentation?

– To all that. Those horrible interventions in the architecture, with stiff and curvy women… all that comes out of the same base: a hybrid of urban marginality, in close relationship with substandard housing and the immigrants who came from other provinces, with customs unfit in the new context. Other factors that were added were the rapidity with which disappeared the previous ruling class, the bourgeoisie, and the imitation of the worst thing that is done in Miami. We have good aim to copy the worst thing that is done outside. That is sometimes attached to the need, but at a considerable level these people have money and more likely to do harm.

It’s funny because the bourgeoisie, when it came, was scorned by the aristocracy, which reproached it with bad taste. They were the new rich…

-Yes, were despised because they didn’t behave. Utensils used poorly, they put the terms in the wrong context. They had pretensions of seeming aristocrats, but they could not and they made the ridiculous situation.

Do you think would be viable to reach in Cuba an architectonic production average, comparable or superior to which we had in the decade of 1960?

– It is necessary to give back the authority to the architect. Removed it and now many do not know that we have that right. Young people have not known anything else. We should combine this authority with the creation of an audience that gives value to the quality.

It is necessary to make demonstration projects and lifted them in the press. Many times, from the media, confused people because shoddy things are held. There are no critics or there is very little. I have critics in magazines such as Revolution and culture, but they have a limited circulation.

I have also proposed the Organization of contests that will show the different possible solutions for the same project. Long ago I was here qualifying a few scholarly works (usually a bad student uses many colors to disguise the lack of ideas). There was one such and my wife went behind me and praised it. I replied: “I’m going to suspend that student”, and explained. Suddenly, I showed her a five-point work and put it next to the other. With that, I convinced her.

I remember now that years ago was called a contest for students with projects for the monument to José Antonio Echeverría in Cardenas, his hometown. Emilio Escobar was the tutor of the project that won the contest and I collaborated. In the square in front of the birthplace of the martyr, the monument was a huge block of marble with his portrait, but face could only be from a precise angle, putting himself in line with the House and the layout of a road in the flat. Unfortunately it was never executed. The contradictory is that many monuments to the margin of the contests or even against the recommendation of the Commission of monumental sculpture (Codema) were, but several projects legitimately awarded in contests were truncated.

Why already not thrive the idea of the contest as a validation mechanism?

-Because like the leaders decide.

It is a matter of power…

-It is ridiculous because they get into a field which is not theirs, and often get it wrong.

The theme housing in Cuba, how do you see it in the light of recent changes?

-Housing has become a commodity, because it does not only use value, but also exchange value. That is good for the buildings because people are going to care for them, but a redistribution of the population is already occurring. People with money are going to the best neighborhoods (El Vedado, Miramar, etc.) and those former homeowners get into a small cave on either side. Before, with credit default swaps as only way to exchange, there was an assessment that took into account overcrowding and other factors.

Do you greet or regrets the open marketing of the houses?

-It is inevitable. We must accept it, aside that come accompanied by other problems, as one social differentiation more clear and violent, with areas of wealthy neighbors. We can’t use the qualifier of elegant, because unfortunately they are not. However, I remember the weight, the authority, which had the Association of owners and neighbors of the Vedado.

Now it goes something curious. I, for example, have a building to the front, to which they are restoring, but only by half. Residents of one side are the only ones who can afford the works.

If it occurs as in other countries, which are unable to pay the maintenance, eventually you have to move to a cheaper site from a regulation of condominium… All these are questions of the new landscape in Cuba.

Then will no longer be democratic our cities?

-I think so.

In which State are the reparation teams in Cuba?

-I think there are nominally. To the team they cast them to lose because they began to use that force for works that were not homes, their reason for being, and people bothered to expand the process of delivery, although they were always agree to contribute a share of apartments for people who could not be integrated to the program.

You can’t miss the point, either, it is a mechanism of construction with apprentices. When they acquire knowledge, take their apartment and go.

In Cuba, for a time, labor was lost and the housing problem is violent. I remember having heard once someone refers to how well built it is the district Camilo Cienfuegos, in La Habana del Este (formed in the 1960’s) and say “is that people still had not learned to do it wrong”.

On the other hand, there is a solution that I like and that is used in many countries: the house-seed. Start with a minimal space, elemental, and ground. The owner is then on its own, expanding and improving his living conditions, according to his possibilities, of course, always with professional advice. The problem now is that it dispenses with the accompaniment and the results are usually a disaster. In that case, it would be a house that is qualified with time, in opposition to the conventional constructions. This alternative has been applied much in South America.

I remember having seen in Quito homes very well designed and built, and they were classified as economic, made for the workers, but they do not give them, they have to pay an entrance fee and then continue to pay monthly.

As for the house-seed, must take into account that their owners would be very low income people, that cannot possibly pay a professional

-It would seek alternatives. The State could give payment term facilities, for example. In addition, we must think in making homes for rent and for sale. With that funding you could assume the construction of others.

Currently, rents are in the hands of private individuals.

-If, the same five pesos, giving back. It is what generally happens to us, we have a recycling economy, does not generate new wealth.

What zones of Havana do you think that deserve a punctual intervention?

-Almost all. The northern part of downtown Havana, for example, but from where comes the funding?

You had projects for sea sided neighborhoods…

-Yes, and here at the Almendares, around which there are neighborhoods like El Fanguito and El Romerillo, which were unhealthy and have improved by what does not classify as such. The main thing is that they continue not growing because anarchy and disarray then benefit them with a street, for example.

Experiences that have been linked to the plastic artists with specific communities, as, for example, to Fuster with Jaimanitas, see them with good eyes?

They are interesting, but you have to know when to stop. Fuster made free works to its neighbors and has become a character in his neighborhood. I think that a positive experience is also what has been done here, in the Callejon de Hamel, where – by the way-, during the works, discovered a great poster that says: “If you don’t know, don’t mess”.

If the market of Cuatro Caminos, falls into your hands, for example, what would you do with it?

-There was a time in which the Cuatro Caminos market made me generate many ideas. I would retain the structure, but would open it more abroad. It is good that there is a market indoors in Havana. On the other hand, we’re bringing the good earth of Alquízar and Güira de Melena dirty capital.

Another point is that in markets around the world there are cheap offers of food establishments that are open until late. The famous market of Les Halles in Paris, I remember it had a reputation of offering the best city onion soup.

The experience of the historical center of Havana has been replicated, with its adaptations, to other capital cities of the country. Do you think that you can also apply to other Havana neighborhoods, although they do not have landmark protection of Eusebio Leal, and even if they do not have equal density of heritage sites?

At least El Vedado has tremendous value and a formidable urban distribution. We must find formulas of self-financing and that the city pays itself. This put an end to those arrangements by waves, campaigns, which in addition are cosmetic, superficial. Vedado has museums, art galleries, hotels, places such as the Colón cemetery and others with lots of history.

At a time of your life the project of Hotel Riviera, was questioned by you, why?  

– Initially I questioned it because I thought it was ridiculous, it’s typical architecture of Miami in the 1950s. I no longer think so, and I have come to realize that opinions should not be terrible. The Riviera you have to lend money up and take care of what is sold there to the tourist, which is not always the most appropriate.

Our museums and hotels lack a specialized sales, according to the profile of the institution. Everywhere is sold the same, as well as the sensible of its conception and quality in terms of invoice…Happens also with music on television, all channels are the same.

In very flat moments, in which very few voices raised to question decisions of high levels, you did. It is a position of great honesty.

-Well, where does the impulse for change come from? As a teacher of mine, Menendez, who made the tunnel of Havana by the Cuban side, “at my age I can’t afford to be impertinent”.

Can you tell a little about your work?

-Once a student asked me if it had not wished to do more architecture, and I must admit that, but I also enjoyed teaching and to allow, from leadership positions, which young people take on interesting projects. What you should have done is also working with the young architect because I like to take the team projects, so that in the end no one knows who was an idea because everyone contributed and that’s the nice thing.

Before the triumph of the revolution, I had worked for several years with an architect and friend, Oscar Fernández Tauler, who shared his studio with the painter and sculptor Rolando López Dirube. I did not get a lot of money, but it allowed me to experience. At that time had much force the integration of the arts with architecture. Most of the works were houses; I remember the Pepe Fernández in Boca Ciega, and Tauler, an uncle of Oscar, at Celimar. They almost always carried a mural or sculpture Dirube. We also collaborate in the project of a 17-storey building on 23rd Street between D and E, in Vedado. In 1959, the year of its completion, the building was christened sisters Giralt. There, Emilio designed a huge eardrum of concrete textured that blocked the action of the Sun.

After the triumph of the revolution, I concentrated much on peasant houses grouped in small rural towns. In 1966, with the participation of Joaquín Rallo and Roberto Gottardi, I elaborated the project of renovation of the old funeral home Caballero in La Rampa, into a House of culture. We worked on-site on a voluntary basis, outside the usual hours. Few weeks after the promoted opening of the House of culture, it was decided to close the installation from an incident in its interior, with the mentality of the cheated husband who throws the sofa by the window (popular oral narration concerning the revenge of the victim of adultery). The undesirable public going there, simply crossed the street and took another site.

In the 1970s I worked much in urban resuscitation. We took a corner for 23 and 12 or Cuatro Caminos and turned it with few resources. For example, if we were going to plant 12 trees, they were of the plan which had the municipality that year. So it worked very well, but was Oscar Fernández Mel at the forefront of the Popular power in Havana and he had little sympathy, but also much authority.

You are the author, along with other creators of the first abstract monument in Cuba. You were also the first President of the Provincial Commission of monuments, in Havana. What special features seen in this aspect of work?

-I have been very happy with the two projects of monuments and memorials in which I participated and managed to be. This creative aspect is a rare opportunity to integrate architecture with landscape architecture, urban design, and sculpture and – if the result is good – with poetry.

Emilio Escobar, Sonia Domínguez, Armando Hernández, and I enjoyed projecting evenings in 1965 and then building the Park monument of the martyrs University, near the hill where we had studied in the 1950’s. We used a revolutionary concept: instead of putting the traditional sculpture in the center of the square, we put the square with the monument, which is a concrete wall irregularly according to the period of history that concerns.

The bas-relief of the wall is made of sacks of jute and paper bags of cement, boards and ropes, nailed on the inside of the formwork. They are very open representations that do not impose to the observer a concrete meaning. They become increasingly less figurative as the struggle became more collective and ultimately become textures that blend with the concrete.

For us it was very important to win this national contest: we were young around thirty years, friends and fellow students, participating in the fight against the dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista, who was still recent, and we had won in the competition many well-known architects. The monument itself has aged well, despite the lack of maintenance and was never completed. It is there, with a life of its own that is independent of us.

I have understood that I was completed with green areas…

-The vegetation is the most vulnerable element. It is easy to mistreat it, change it, so you have to photograph your work when it opens until it falls into the hands of vandals, but there is also a psychological problem in Cuba in this regard. In other places, for example, three trees qualify a field. Here are the craze of prune, tear and lie. It was intended that the Memorial included a space with vegetation, which is the symbol of the life that is born, but there has been someone who, believing doing well, has endeavored to deprive us of it.

I also enjoyed the project on March 13 at the Colon Cemetery mausoleum. Emilio Escobar was also a joint work in which intervened again and with it we won a contest at the end of 1981. It is easier: consists of a large row of flags of stainless steel which works as a solar clock, throwing every March 13 the shadow along a strip on the floor, where the hours are marked. When you arrive at 3:15, hour of the assault on the presidential Palacio, can ignite a flame at that point as the beginning of the ceremony. The floor of the square is paved to remember the street fighting, and has some embossing requiring walking staring at the floor. Down head to watch where you step, is thus pays tribute to the graves of the fallen. José Villa, a great Cuban, very young sculptor then, collaborated in the execution of the flags.

There were also projects that did not materialize…

-Yes, several, including a monument to Ernesto Che Guevara in Santa Clara because I was poisoned with the project that was going to be, and which finally materialized. My idea was, instead of a sculpture, make a way because what Che left was a road. First there was a natural forest and hence leaving a trail also bordered with trees and that reached to the top of the hill from the Capiro. There should be like a disassembled star, with pieces on the floor and another as a ceiling. We were leaving a space and through it you would see heaven, Earth, people, life. It seems to me that it was a good idea because I say that monuments have to shudder. You don’t have to add one monument by the mere fact of having it, they have to shake, make you think, make vibrate.

I also worked, from 1963 to 1965, with Polish specialists in a project that did not materialize, to Playa Giron. I learned a lot from them, despite their youth, because the Poles have a constructive tradition tremendous were two architects, a sculptor, an interior designer and an engineer.

How an architect can achieve a Cuban stamp in his work?

-Being authentic with himself and to the climate. The Cuban spirit emerges from us in any artistic expression, it not necessary to foist it to work a hat of guano or a guayabera.


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