When I was studying architecture at the University of Pennsylvania, in the mid-1970s, the chair of architecture was Mario Romañach. Mario was elegant and erudite, possessor of an exquisite eye, a sharp but generous critic, beloved by students. Yet back then none of us had any inkling of just how great an architect Mario was, or had been, in his native Cuba. My own ignorance seems especially telling: I am a Cuban American who had studied art history, yet knew nothing about Cuban architecture. This lack of awareness was a topic of rueful conversation two years ago at a colloquium convened at Penn to mark the centennial of Romañach’s birth and the opening of an exhibition of his work, which for most attendees came even then as a revelation.
The 20th-century architecture of Cuba has received less attention than that of its larger Latin American neighbors, where modernism arrived earlier and at a bigger scale.
Cuba is a small country, so it is perhaps not surprising that its architecture has received less attention than that of its larger neighbors in Latin America, where modernism arrived earlier and at a bigger scale than in the Caribbean. The 1955 exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, Latin American Architecture Since 1945, included just three works from Cuba (and one was by an American firm). The 2015 redux at MoMA, Latin America in Construction: Architecture, 1955–1980, had a larger showing, with the work of about a dozen Cuban architects. 1 (Though now that I think of it, the overall ratio was about the same in both shows.) The few recent surveys of Latin American modern architecture go equally light on Cuba. 2 By far the most comprehensive work on 20th-century Cuban architecture has been that of the Havana-based architect and historian Eduardo Luis Rodríguez. I am thinking of his La Habana: arquitectura del siglo XX, published in 1998 (though never translated into English), and The Havana Guide: Modern Architecture, 1925–1965, an indispensable Baedeker that has enabled my personal project to track down every known Romañach building in Havana and to educate myself on the output of his contemporaries. Now, the publication of Cuban Modernism: Mid-Century Architecture, 1940–1970, by Victor Deupi and Jean-François Lejeune, delivers a welcome addition to the sparse bookshelf of Cuban architectural history.
Let me say up front that this is an excellent book; not without weaknesses and biases (about which more later) but, overall, an admirable production. It is well written in scholarly yet accessible prose. Abundant information about architects and their buildings, government regimes and their urban plans, is firmly positioned in the volatile political and economic context of 20th-century Cuba. The organization is deft and perceptive, less chronological than thematic, with chapters devoted to domestic architecture, urban design, civic construction, landscape, and tourism. The volume is beautifully designed and generously illustrated with new photography by Silvia Ros, reproductions of vintage images, and newly created drawings. Valuable appendices include abbreviated biographies of several dozen architects and an extensive bibliography. I enjoyed reading the book and learned a lot from it.
The authors trace a sustained collective effort to develop an architecture at once Cuban and modern.
Deupi and Lejeuene frame their history with a substantial introduction on “modernity and Cubanidad.” The authors trace a decades-long artistic and intellectual journey to develop an architecture that would be at once Cuban and modern, a complex and sensitive synthesis of “international modernity, tradition, and national identity.” 3 This was a collective endeavor that required island architects to negotiate new relationships with numerous stylistic influences, including the vernacular and colonial heritage of the Spanish era, a French-accented Beaux Arts that had arrived at the turn of the 20th century, and Art Deco and European functionalist influences from the 1930s, among others. Along the way they found ample precedent in the parallel efforts of artists and writers who were already deeply engaged with Cubanidad, or the concept of a unique Cuban identity that was an evolving mix of multiple transcultural influences. 4
It seems to me telling, in an era when a foreign education was a prized credential, that most of the leading mid-century practitioners — including Mario Romañach — were educated locally, at the University of Havana, where the eclectic curriculum instilled an appreciation of the ways in which traditional buildings responded to the Caribbean climate. At the same time, the city was a cosmopolitan port, and it was host to many stellar figures from Europe and North America, including Walter Gropius, José Luis Sert, and Richard Neutra. As Deupi and Lejeune argue, mid-century Cuban architecture was defined by the ongoing effort to adapt international modernism to regional climatic conditions and cultural influences. The authors quote Jorge Manach, a leading critic who in the mid 1940s commended young practitioners for seeking a “creative, imaginative, and elegant architecture that was suited to the natural climate and levity of the island.” 5
The amalgam of home-grown and imported design models is a continuing theme in the authors’ detailed analyses of residential architecture. The Cuban economy was booming after World War II, and, in Havana, prosperous middle-class families were eagerly abandoning the classical and colonial styles of their elders and commissioning modern homes in the rising suburbs west of the Almendares River. Many of the new houses were creative interpretations of the influential ideas of the proto-modernist Eugenio Batista. Before the war, Batista had designed an expansive villa on the sea, in Miramar, for the philanthropist Eutimio Falla Bonet. The house was, as the authors describe it, an exemplary response to its coastal setting, “organized around a series of patios, lined with arcades and windows protected by wooden louvers.” 6
The adaptation of international modernism to regional climatic conditions is a theme in the book’s analyses of residential architecture.
It was also an illustration of the lessons Batista had been teaching in his university lectures in which he extolled the three “P”s of Cuban domestic architecture: persianas (louvers), patios (courtyards), and portales (porticoes). Over the decades these three elements would inform disparate projects ranging from the Corbusian box that Max Borges Recio designed for himself in 1950; to the rationalist Pérez Farfante house, a masterpiece by Frank Martínez, from 1955; to the Brazilian-inspired house for Eugenio Leal designed by Eduardo Cañas Abril and Nujim Nepomeche in 1957; to the organic eccentricities of Ricardo Porro, including the curvilinear house for Timothy James Ennis, from 1957. The houses designed by Mario Romañach were outstanding, especially those for Ana Carolina Font (1956), Rufino Alvarez (1957), and José Noval Cueto (1949), which the authors describe as “the masterpiece of residential architecture in Havana.” 7 After the revolution, the custom-designed single-family house ceased to exist in Cuba, and the discussion of residential architecture ends abruptly, in 1959; too abruptly, I think, for some investigation of domestic design in the socialist era would have been fascinating.
Cuban Modernism highlights the significant number of women practitioners in the 1950s, particularly in the residential sector. Starting in the 1920s, women were admitted to the architecture program at University of Havana, and by mid-century, as the authors write, “through passion and perseverance” they had “forged ahead and broke through the glass ceilings of the academy and the profession.” 8 Some worked in partnership with their husbands, including Gabriela Menéndez (running the successful firm Arroyo y Menéndez with Nicolás Arroyo) and Mercedes Díaz (with Ernesto Gómez-Sampera;) others practiced independently, as did María Elena Cabarrocas and Lilliam Mederos. Cabarrocas, after designing several single-family homes in and around Havana, developed a specialty in mid- and high-rise apartments in collaboration with her builder husband. 9 It is perhaps needless to mention that all these women and their male colleagues were White. The racial integration of the architectural profession in Cuba was one of the unequivocally positive outcomes of the revolution.
Cuban high-rise architecture was influenced less by glass-walled North American skyscrapers than by the more climate-responsive tall buildings of Brazil and Venezuela.
Cabarrocas’s practice got a boost after the enactment of a 1952 law that enabled condominium ownership and thus accelerated the vertical expansion of Havana. Deupi and Lejeune convincingly argue that high-rise residential and commercial architecture in Cuba was influenced less by the glass-walled skyscrapers of North America than by the more climate-responsive tall buildings of Brazil and Venezuela. In this sense, as they put it, the city was being “South Americanized.” 10 A prime example is the Tribunal de Cuentas (Office of the Comptroller, now the Ministry of Finance) by Aquiles Capablanca, constructed in 1953 on the new Plaza Cívica then being developed south of the city center. With its gridded concrete brise soleil and extruded ground-level assembly space, the building is a skillful homage to the Ministry of Education building in Rio de Janeiro, designed in 1943 by a team led by Lucio Costa. 11 Likewise, the Seguro Médico Building, a 1958 design by Antonio Quintana, is a perfect example of a mixed-use urban edifice adapted to the tropical climate. The design incorporates a five-story commercial podium with delicate vertical louvers to block the sun and a spectacular cantilevered entrance canopy; above, a thin 17-story slab of floor-through apartments is turned perpendicular to the main street to face the ocean view.
The casino hotels contributed to an image of Havana as modern, wealthy, and stable; but this gaudy veneer belied the corruption and instability of Cuba on the eve of revolution.
In contrast to corporate and residential programs, the tourism sector was deeply enmeshed with North American fashion, finance, and operations. In the postwar years Americans were flocking to Cuba — just 90 miles south of Florida — for holidays filled with sun, sand, and sin. U.S.-based organized crime syndicates took control of Havana’s gambling industry — often through back-channel dealings with the kleptocratic dictator Fulgencio Batista and his cronies — and the casino hotels they built were flashy in the high modern resort style of Las Vegas and Miami Beach. Sometimes their American developers imported favorite architects, as the crime boss Meyer Lansky did for the flamboyant Habana Riviera, which was designed by the Miami-based architects Igor B. Polevitzky and Verner Johnson. The Mafioso Santo Trafficante, on the other hand, hired the Havana architect José Canavés Ugalde to design the Hotel Capri, famed for its rooftop swimming pool.
The ultimate icon of glamorous and hedonistic Havana — and the quintessence of Cubanidad — was the fabled Tropicana, originally opened in 1939, with an extraordinary expansion by Max Borges Recio in 1953. Situated in the lush gardens of a neoclassical mansion in the suburb of Marianao, the nightclub featured an outdoor stage with elaborate sculptural scaffolding along which half-naked dancers would descend, as if alighting from the trees, and an equally fantastical indoor cabaret, the Arcos de Cristal (Crystal Arches) with its roof of seemingly weightless vaults. 12s These architectural extravaganzas all contributed to a carefully constructed and zealously marketed image of Havana as modern, sophisticated, wealthy, and stable; but this was little more than a gaudy veneer that belied the rampant corruption and social instability that marked Cuba on the eve of revolution.
In January 1959, after the victorious march of Fidel Castro into Havana, the character of architecture in Cuba would change radically. The new socialist government moved quickly to abolish private real estate development and to set a fresh agenda for the newly nationalized construction industry. Deupi and Lejeune dutifully report on three major government-built projects of the 1960s: the large social housing complex Habana del Este; Ciudad Universitaria José Antonio Echeverría, a new campus for the technical faculties of the University of Havana; and the Escuelas Nacionales de Arte, or National Art Schools, on the former grounds of the Havana Country Club. 13 The authors discuss these works with respect, if not total admiration. They also, I think, overemphasize the importance of the celebrated Art Schools when they write:
In light of the anti-urban and pro-rural policies developed by the revolutionary regime, the representation of the new state was left to instances of propaganda through radio, television, hours-long live speeches on the Plaza de la República, and the installation of gigantic billboards representing Che Guevara and other inspirational leaders of the revolution. On the ground, the only “monument” of representation became the former golf course in the Country Club neighborhood in the western suburb of Cubanacán, where the National Schools of Art — Ballet, Dramatic Arts, Modern Dance, Plastic Arts, and Music — were designed by the Cuban Ricardo Porro and two Italian architects, Roberto Gottardi and Vittorio Garatti. 14
The post-revolution decade produced architecture of superior quality. I would even argue that only in the ’60s was Cuban architecture truly avant-garde.
While their description of the revolution as anti-urban is accurate, it seems to me reductive to single out the Art Schools as uniquely representative of the ideals of the revolution. Indeed, throughout the 1960s the government pursued a construction campaign of tremendous ambition, sponsoring schools, housing, hospitals, and recreation facilities to advance the revolution’s social programs. Much of this construction was of superior quality. Indeed, I would argue that the ’60s were the only period during which Cuban architecture was truly avant-garde. 15 To cite just two of my favorites: the Edificio Girón, an audacious brutalist apartment tower by Antonio Quintana and Alberto Rodríguez, situated on Havana’s oceanfront boulevard, the Malecón, reflected the government’s ambitious housing equity agenda, and the nearby Centro Deportivo José Martí, by Octavio Buigas, with its dramatic concrete canopies, underscored the commitment to public recreation. Both projects are located on waterfront sites that were once the exclusive territory of those with wealth or power.
The book’s relatively slight treatment of the post-revolutionary decade no doubt reflects the uneven geography of scholarship. The authors had ready access to the archives — and personal memories — of Cuban exiles, many of whom are based in Florida, and this proximity has given depth and texture to their narrative of the 1940s and ’50s. Conversely, research inside Cuba these days is difficult; access to government archives is complicated, at best. A further challenge is that some of the best post-revolution architecture is located outside Havana. The University of Oriente Medical School in Santiago de Cuba, for example, designed by Rodrigo Tascon in 1964, is one of the greatest Cuban buildings of the modern period. The entire oeuvre of Walter Betancourt (whose projects are like tropical hallucinations of Frank Lloyd Wright) is in the eastern provinces. Neither of these architects or works are mentioned in Cuban Modernism, which focuses almost exclusively on metropolitan Havana. 16
Nowhere did I read the pejorative term “Soviet-style prefabrication.” If anything, the authors downplay the influence of the Soviet Union.
Despite such oversights, Deupi and Lejeune carry their history of Cuban modern architecture from 1940 through the revolution and the first decade of the socialist era with commendable even-handedness. They deplore the degradation of the architectural profession on the island after 1959, which caused many leading practitioners to leave Cuba, including my future teacher, Mario Romañach. Yet they articulate the generative aspirations of the revolution quite honestly and praise the work of several architects who chose to stay and apply their talents to the new society. They endorse expressions of Cubanidad that honor the African elements of Cuban identity, especially as these were introduced to architecture by Ricardo Porro at the National Art Schools. Likewise, they give proper credit to architects like Humberto Alonso, Juan Campos, and Fernando Salinas for developing advanced systems of prefabrication. Nowhere in the book did I read the pejorative term “Soviet-style prefabrication,” which is perennially misapplied by scholars and critics who should know better. If anything, the authors downplay the influence of the Soviet Union — which by the mid-1960s had assumed sponsorship of the Cuban Communist party — on the country’s architecture. This is consistent with the book’s overriding theme, which is that Cuban modernists, before and after the revolution, sought to borrow from international movements while producing architecture that was uniquely Cuban.
Given the fraught politicization of Cuban history, such equanimity cannot be taken for granted. 17 After the revolution, it was as if there were a virtual ban, in the U.S., on publications about Cuban architecture. To be sure, the Cuban practitioners who had exiled themselves to Florida and elsewhere reinforced the silence: they wanted nothing to do with socialist production in their former homeland. I am unaware of any U.S. publications on the subject in the first two decades after the revolution aside from a couple of articles in professional journals. 18 John Loomis’s 1999 Revolution of Forms: Cuba’s Forgotten Art Schools cast a welcome spotlight on that iconic project, but inadvertently perpetuated the illusion that little else of importance was built after 1959.
After the revolution, it was as if there were a ban, in the U.S., on publications about Cuban architecture. Willful neglect persists to this day.
Willful neglect persists to this day. In 2003, when Eduardo Luis Rodríguez and I were collaborating on the exhibition Architecture and Revolution in Cuba, 1959–1969, at the Storefront for Art and Architecture in New York City, I attempted to hire a respected U.S.-based Cuban translator to edit the catalog text. After she read Eduardo Luis’s draft, she abruptly declined. The projects being exhibited looked fascinating, she told me, but she could never participate in any initiative that might cast the revolution in a positive light. A few years later, in 2010, Eduardo Luis and I participated in a symposium on Cuban architecture sponsored by the Cuban Cultural Center of New York. We agreed that he would focus on modern architecture up to the revolution and I would present the work of the 1960s. Eduardo Luis’s slideshow was received rapturously, with happy shouts from the audience when familiar buildings appeared on screen. My presentation, conversely, was met with stone-faced silence. Afterwards I overhead one attendee complain about the time wasted on “communist garbage.” Deupi and Lejeune’s own essay in the 2019 anthology Picturing Cuba: Art, Culture, and Identity on the Island and in the Diaspora, is titled “Cuban Architects at Home and in Exile: The Modernist Generation”; yet it mentions not one Cuban architect “at home” after the revolution and dismisses post-1959 modernist production as “a tool of propaganda and politics.” Here one might point out that the right-wing dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista never hesitated to manipulate public works and civic space for propagandistic purposes.
In Cuba, the work of the mid-century modernists was dismissed as bourgeois decadence, and rarely taught in schools.
A reciprocal cultural blindness has characterized architectural discourse on the island. A Cuban friend once told me that when she was studying architecture in Havana, in the 1980s, she was taught little about the modernists of the ’50s, and that any reference to their work was presented as a negative example of bourgeois decadence. This was the pedagogical stance of Roberto Segre, the Argentine Marxist historian who moved to Cuba in 1963 and taught for decades at the University of Havana, where he became the leading proselytizer for the architecture of the communist government. Segre would even condemn some early post-revolution projects — most conspicuously, the National Art Schools — for being too individualistic and elitist. 19 Decades later, Eduardo Luis Rodríguez, who had been Segre’s student, stirred controversy with his 1997 essay in the journal Arquitectura Cuba, which described the 1950s as “La década incognita,” the “unknown decade.” The essay precipitated a reassessment of pre-1959 modernism that continues to this day. Within Cuban architectural circles, the postwar modernists are now highly regarded, and their works enjoy special status among the general public as well. Many home-seekers aspire to live in a well-designed house or apartment from the “capitalist” era (that’s how they are described on Revolico, the Cuban equivalent of Craigslist). When I meet architects in Cuba, they are interested enough to learn that I run a design practice in New York and teach at Columbia; but nothing impresses them as much as hearing that I studied under Mario Romañach.
The sad truth is that none of the stellar architects who left Cuba were able to sustain a level of creativity comparable to their earlier careers on the island.
In their final chapter, on “exile and tradition,” Deupi and Lejeune make the case that Cuban architecture, after 1959, became a binational enterprise, with Cuban architectural culture recentered in Miami while on the island both the art and the profession withered. 20 The tracking of the careers of Cuban architects who left the island after the revolution is one of the strongest and most original contributions of Cuban Modernism. The sad truth is that not one of the stellar midcentury architects who left Cuba was able to adapt to the professional climate of the United States and sustain a level of creativity and productivity comparable to their earlier careers. Some, like Max Borges, survived with practices that produced unremarkable architecture, deprived as they were of the clients and commissions that their social connections had provided them in Havana. Many younger practitioners were able to thrive, mostly within larger firms, inevitably being assimilated into American design culture. A few of the greats, like Mario Romañach, found hospitable homes in academia, instructing generations of students who were unaware of the achievements that made him such a remarkable architect and teacher. Victor Deupi and Jean-François Lejeune deserve credit for retrieving the legacies of these Cuban modernists with this splendid book.