by Alex Shoumatoff, based on his visit to the island March 19-26, 2001
Cuba is rife with philanthropic possibility on both the architectural and ecological
preservation fronts. The casual visitor is impressed by how well this last bastion of communism seems to work for all its citizens, how despite the embargo there is food and health care for everyone and no visible misery as there is in Haiti or the pseudo-democratic dictatorship in the adjacent Dominican Republic, none of Jamaica’s lootin’ and shootin’. But Cuba also has, as the USSR did, an entrenched and nasty totalitarian bureaucracy that any philanthropic initiative is going to quickly run up against, so my advice is to move slowly, and see Julian Schnabel’s movie, “When Night Falls.” If you’re thinking of doing anything on this island, it’s a must-see. Not only because it gives you a look behind the revolutionary facade, but because it’s a work of unmistakeably Cuban genius.
I quickly encountered here the same high collective paranoia I have found in other police states– in Beijing, the erstwhile USSR, Mengistu’s Ethiopia, Stroessner’s Paraguay. Everybody in Cuba is a potential informant. That is how you get brownie points, how you rise in your career, how you survive : by ratting out your companeros. E-mail to and from the island is monitored. This could be why I haven’t gotten the detailed proposal, with sites and dollar estimates, that one scientist is supposed to e-mail. He probably had second thoughts, realizing that he could be setting himself up for a tongue-loosening session with the secret police and maybe even a prison sentence for treasonous passing on of information to the enemy.
I offer the following personal experience as an example of the sort of cultural
misunderstandings that coming from a open society and being an American, with all the bells that sets off, you can expect to encounter and even to inadvertently precipitate. I went to see a couple who are fairly well-connected members of the Havana intelligentsia. Marco is in the music business and had a long ponytail and seemed like a hip, laid-back guy. I had brought letters and presents for him and his wife Consuela from mutual friends in Montreal and we had exchanged e-mails and they were all set to help me hook up with the architects and ecologists I needed to see. Consuela e-mailed that she could put me together with a friend of hers at the national aquarium who is supposed to be Cuba’s top marine biologist.
As I went into Marco and Consuela’s once-grand but now decrepit apartment building, the old man sitting on the entrance steps, repairing shoes, undoubtedly took note. He had probably been doing this for years, repairing shoes and reporting any unusual visitors to some apparatchik in the secret police, who passed the information up to his boss if it seemed important enough.
Soon after I sat down in the couple’s livingroom, Marco started really trashing Fidel. I’ve always admired Castro for kicking out the Yanks and being a persistent fly in America’s ointment. Here I was at long last in Cuba, the last relict stand of la revolucion. I’d brought Jorge Castaneda’s biography of Che with me. But Marco and Consuela obviously had a more jaded view of la revolucion, having to live it every day, trying to raise their family of four on $25 a month (which I was making at the time in less than a minute, writing five words for Vanity Fair; there’s a disparity for you, one for the next section I want to put up on this site, called Disparities and Comnnections) even in a socialist society where housing, health care, education, and many of the other basic necessities are taken care of. The collapse of the Soviet Union and the loss of its patronage, coupled with the ongoing U.S. embargo had made the last fifteen years unbearable for the average Cuban.
As I left, Marco agreed to call Ernesto Luiz Rodriguez, the main champion of Havana’s Cuba Moderne architecture, and to try to set up a meeting for the following afternoon.
I arrived at two the next day, and Marco had done nothing. He had called the number I gave him and been told Ernesto Luiz doesn’t work here. He’s a freelance. He works at home. Jose felt uncomfortable asking for his home number. You don’t disturb a man in the afternoon, because you don’t know who he could be sleeping with, he explained. But this was no problem. All we had to do was go down to the headquarters of Patrimonio Architectural, at Mercaderes No. 116, in the small quaintly and touristically restored section of old Havana. There we were given the number of Alina Ochoa Aloma, an architect involved in the Patrimonio’s master plan for the rehabilitation of Havana who had coauthored a catalogue of the city’s 400 most important Cuba Moderne buildings. Luckily, she was in. We went to her heavily wired and barred apartment in a crimey part of Miramar and she drove around with us for several hours, showing us the best stuff, which is in Vedado and Miramar.
The Cuba Moderne buildings in Havana are the most interesting thing we saw in Cuba. The colonial buildings in old Havana are wonderful, but this stuff is unique. It is the foremost flowering of this type of architecture anywhere, and has to be one of the most exuberant architectural outpourings of the twentieth century. There are a few fabulous Deco buildings in Rio, a few more in Miami, Spain had some good examples but they were destroyed during the Civil War. But nothing that has such flair or seems so wild and avant garde, even today, 50 to 80 years later. This is purely Cuban. The same creative energy as the son music which flourished around the same time.
Many of the buildings are in extreme disrepair. Saving them is unquestionably a worthy project, I thought, but where do you begin ? In the case of many buildings, if they aren’t restored in the next ten years, it will be too late. Already the concrete and brick and wood of some structures is so blackened with mildew, coated with algae, and ravaged by tropical rusts and smuts and insects and microbial detritivors that they are deliquescing into something decidedly more organic. They have been left to decay, completely unmaintained, for 50 to 80 years because they were regarded as decadent. The people who commissioned them were the very ones the revolucion overthrew and drove to Miami, and after the revolucion there were far more urgent priorities than keeping them up, like housing and educating and treating the people. But these buildings are eminently worthy of UNESCO World Heritage designation, which the viceregal structures of old Havana have already received. Securing this designation would be a good first step in getting them the recognition and attention they deserve.
Even in their crumbling state, they are incredibly avant garde, which produces a sort of cognitive dissonance in the viewer that somehow, to me at least, echoes the cognitive dissonance of the whole society, the tension between its relaxed tropical and its repressive totalitarian aspects. They’re like a funky, surreal exercise in future decay. The fate of these buildings, I realized, is completely tied to what is going to happen after Castro. If there is no abertura or rapprochement with Washington or lifting of the embargo or influx of foreign capital (including even perhaps the Miami exiles who originally owned these buildings coming back to claim them, a far from unimagineable scenario), but more of the same, these treasures are probably not going to make it. I can’t see how the transition to the next stage of Cuban history is going be anything but very chaotic and violent. Despite the grumbling about Castro, there is a strong feeling among Cubans that they were not colonized by Spain, America, and the Soviet Union and have not suffered 40 years of socialist deprivation only to be recolonized yet once more, this time by the Miami Cubans. “Castro is a clever bugger,” says a Canadian film-maker who has visited the island many times. “He’ll get up before his people who have been bitching for weeks and in a few minutes he’ll have sold them again on his ferkakate revolution and there will be tears streaming down their faces. No one has been able to get rid of him for a reason. Who’s left on the island ? The poorer, browner Cubans, who know that when the oligarchy comes back and globalization takes over, they’ll be no better off. It’s this lower class fear of being totally disenfranchized that keeps him in power. They know what’s happened in Russia.”
So this train of thought, my concern for the buildings, led me to ask Marco and Alina
innocently, what’s going to happen after Castro ? Suddenly the atmosphere in the taxi I had hired for the afternoon became very tense. Everybody shot nervous glances at each other. Here they were, two Cubans who were meeting for the first time— three actually, including the taxi driver. “Quien sabe ? Who can say ?” Marco finally ventured. Later he told me, “This is not a question you ask among strangers. For all I know if I had said what I hope will happen and started in on Fidel, that woman could have denounced me— because maybe her career is stagnating and she wants a promotion. Or the taxi driver could have report our conversation to the authorities.”
After this gaffe, Marco’s attitude toward me became noticeably more guarded. I could hear him thinking : Who is this gringo journalist ? Is he CIA ? What’s he really after ? Who does he report to ? What do I say when I am called in and asked who is this gringo Shoumatoff ? He told me after we had dropped off Alina back at her place, that he wasn’t going to fall for my typical journalistic set-up, trying to get him to say something that would get his permit to travel abroad revoked.
This is what I mean about the paranoia.
An invaluable resource with an encyclopedic knowledge of island’s natural history is
Julio de la Torre, an exile who lives in Connecticut. Julia is one of the de la Torres, Cuba’s most prominent family of naturalists. He is also an opera singer and a world-class authority on owls. In the seventies he used to come after dark to the Marsh sanctuary in Mount Kisco where I was the resident naturalist and call the screech owls out of the trees to the delight of local children and parents. Now he has Forrestier’s disease, a degenerative disease of the bone and cartillage, his spinal chord has calcified and he is “unable to walk more than a small budget of steps a day.” But he is still so brimming with zest for life that it is hard to get a word in edgewise.
Julio gave me this overview of the island’s terrestrial ecology. “There are three parts of particular interest : the extreme east, the extreme west, and dead center. The extreme east, the former province of Oriente, the head of the crocodile [which the island resembles], has extraordinary biodiveristy. There is a great mountain chain that runs from one end of the crocodile to the other. In the east it is called the Sierra Maestra. This is where Castro started his guerilla war against Batista. The access to the Sierra Maestra is from the city of Santiago de Cuba. There are primeval forests of 250-feet-tall bamboo in the sierra. No light penetrates them. On the Pico de Turquillo you will find feeding on plants, the freshwater snail Boymita made famous by my uncle Carlos.
“The south coast, facing Jamaica, has many wild and pristine stretches. On the north coast, in Victoria, is the Carlos de la Torre Museum of Natural History, run by his nephew, my cousin Alfredito de la Torre. Alfredito is the brother of the lepidopterist Salvador, who was the first to use the electronoscope to decorticate the structure of butterflies ‘scales. Alfredito is now early 70s. He will lead you to the Jiguari Plateau, declared by E.O.Wilson (the eminent Harvard ant expert and biosociologist) the best biodiversity area of Cuba. It has one thousand endemic plants. We’re not talking lichens, clubmosses, or bryophytes. We’re talking plant plants.
“Cuba has many wonderful naturalists, and every one is a product of my family,” Julio went on immodestly. . “The most prominent one today is Orlando Garillo, who was a disciple of my father Ricardo, who was the preeminent paleontologist for the Carribean in his day. Orlando has just published a field guide to the birds of Cuba that had been translated into English. He is connected with the Museo Nacional de Historia Natural but works at home. He is now the grand old man, along with Alfredito.”
I spoke briefly with Garillo on the phone. He sounded, as ornithologists can sometimes be, quite full of himself. According to Julio, there are no more ivorybill woodpeckers. “It’s a myth, a scam. People pay big money to go on ornithological expeditions to Cuba looking for them. In the late fifties American millionaires vied for the privilege of shooting the last ivorybill. The last reliable sighting was in l987, by John Terry [who was later the editor of Audubon Magazine and author of the voluminous Encylopedia of American Birds.]
“Moving to the extreme west– the tail of the crocodile— is Viñales Valley, four hours from
Havana. The valley is a jumble of mesa-like monadnocks, each of which is smothered with rainforest and watered by cavern-riddled artesian springs and separated from the others by the sedge-like sawgrass that carpets the valley floor. Each of these hills has a completely separate fauna. Viñales is known as the Galapagos of the Carribean because of its numerous endemic amphibians and butterflies and molluscs.
“In the thirties Uncle Carlos revised all the shells of the world and became recognized as the world’s greatest malacologist because of his work on these things. In pre-de la Torre days there had been a feud among malacologists, which his revision resolved. There is a bust of Carlos in the central hall of the Smithsonian. He taught [the late Harvard malacologist and natural history essayist] Steven J. Gould. Gould knows a lot about Cuban land snails He worked on the genus Eurocaptus all over the Antilles, particulary in northern Cuba and the southern Bahamas. He changed the names of a lot of snails. Tucker Abbott [Florida malacologist] also knows a lot about Cuban land snails. But Alfredo knows the most.
“The Legus snails are conical, but the most interesting ones in Viñales from an evolutionary point of view are the round Polymitas. They are polymorphic, with. fifty-some suspecies. The radix of the snail picks up whatever crap it is feeding on and secretes it, shooting it into the aragonite (a new type of calcium carbonate named by Carlos) gloss on the back of its mantel. It’s like the pigment that the glans of mother of pearl oysters shoot into their shells.
“Adjacent to Viñales Valley is a mountain road that takes you up into the Sierra de Los Organos, so named because of its cliffs which resemble organ pipes. The road borders a brook whose source is a hot sulphur spring. You come to a little valley surrounded by rainforest-covered mountains, which are known as the Sierra de Rosario, a subgroup of the Organos. This is cloud forest– little trees encrusted with orchids and full of gorgeous birds like the extraordinary red-legged honeycreeper which is attracted to the hibiscus and is known as El Aparecido de San Diego. The place is known as Zoroa. Orlando Garillo has done a lot of work here. On top of one of the mountains is a mansion built by an eccentric Spanish tycoon which is now a restaurant.
“As for the center of the island : the government will not let you off without showing you Fidel’s favorite place : the Zapata swamp. This was where the Bay of Bigs invasion was thwarted.
Here live the huge endemic Cuban crocodile, Crocodilus rombifer, and other weird endemics like the Zapata wren, which has the smallest range of any bird; the Zapata rail; and the Zapata sparrow, Torreornis inexpectata, the unexpected bird of the tower, which belongs to a monotypic genus and is named for another of my naturalist relatives; and Fernandina’s flicker. There is a superb visitor center with a platform where out you can go out after dark and see the quasi-endemic Stygian owl, Asiostymis, catching Cuban mastiff bats as they are catching insects. The owls are a large black version of the long-eared owl. They have orange eyes and a deep hoot and they sit on the railing of the platform, waiting for the moment to snatch a bat out of the air.
“East of the Zapata Swamp is the Topes de Collantes, a massif of hills cross from top to bottom by a canyon created by the Agabama river. E.O.Wilson did his first field work on ants here and is convinced that there are many still unnamed species. Before him, in l905, this was Frank Chapman’s (legendary ornithologist with the American Museum of Natural History) first bird collection site. The Canyon and the Topes are also quite intact. One road leads up into the mountains from Trinidad, which is a showpiece of 18th century grandee architecture. Two brothers Iznaga vied for the grandest palazzo. The one at Guaracabuya was grander but its towers collapsed. Everyone said it was God punishing that brother’s hybris.. The other brother paved the walk to his house with gold dubloons. At the top of the ridge, where the river starts to cut the canyon, Batista built a tuberculosis sanitorium. From there it is an easy climb to the 1024 meter summit of the Pico de Potredillo, the second highest mountain in Cuba. I spent a year on a small farm on its slopes, waking up to enormous garrulous flocks of Cuban aratinga parakeets. Each major Carribean island has its own endemic species of aratinga. It’s a huge genus. Tinga is a Tupi Guarani dimunutive, arara is a macaw, and the aratingas are like 10 inch to a foot long macaws. You also find the Cuban trogon in the canyon. There is a local saying if you ever dip your hand in the Acabama you will never die until you do it again, so you have to go back.”
The Museo Nacional de Historia Nacional is part of the National Science Museum. Its
director, Marian Saker, was in the middle of hosting a marine biology conference, but I was heartily welcomed by its platopterist, Estevan Guttierrez. Guttierrez gave me a reprint of his Annotated Checklist of Cuban Cockroaches, published in the Transactions of the American Entomological Society, in which he describes Cuba’s more than 80 species of cockroach, of which more than 60% are endemic.
Guttierrez introduced me to the museum’s curator of herpetology, Luiz A. Diaz, a sweet man in his thirties who Julio hears is the up-and-coming naturalist of his generation and everyone at the museum looked up and said was the person I ought to talk to. Diaz is someone who is obviously completely in love with his subject. He illustrated the mucho endemismo of Viñales and the Sierra de los Organos with specimens of Viana rock snails; a pickled giant knight anolis, A luterogularis, known locally as the chipojo, as is the false chameleon, Chaeoleolis chamaeleonides, which lives in the Sierra de Rosario, in and around Zoroa. . Diaz had a terrarium with several Eleutherodactylus limbatus, which are among the smallest frogs in the world and also hail from Zoroa.
Marston Bates and Salvador de la Torre did classic work on the lepidoptera of Cuba in the thirties (when my father Nicholas Shoumatoff and his uncle Andrey Avinoff were making what is still the definitive collection of the butterflies and moths of adjacent Jamaica). Recently, Christina Dockx [sic], a Colombian student of Lincoln Brower, has studied the monarchs on the island. There are populations of both the migratory Danaus plexippus plexippus and the smaller, blacker, resident Danaus plexippus megalippe. Dockx has found that when strong winds blow monarchs migrating in the fall down the east coast of North America out into the Atlantic, some of them make it down to Cuba, where they come into reproductive readiness and mate with the resident megalippes and then lay their eggs and die, without attempting a northward return.
So the monarchs of Cuba are “somewhat intermediate,” according to Brower. Usually (in Mexico, for instance, where the bulk of the monarchs overwinter), the two subspecies are not in reproductive contact.
Returning to the herps, Luiz Diaz said that the other notable Cuban species include pygmy boas, the Cuban racer, the endemic colubrid snake Arrhyton, the giant Cuban toad (Bufo Fustiger a west-island endemic), the cave-dwelling rock frog, Eleutherodactylus zeus, and the spiney aolies, Eleutherodactylus klonikowskii. “We need money for a field guide to the reptiles and amphibians,” Diaz told me. “It would be an invaluable tool for conservation, monitoring, and education. We have a good illustrator in Cuba and the field guide could be produced for three or four thousand dollars, including financial support for field trips which will produce new species.”
Frogs the world over are experiencing inexplicable mass die-offs. They are the
canary at the mouth of the mineshaft , passing out from the carbon monoxide fumes— an indicator of the health of the overall ecosystem. So to support the embattled frogs of Cuba and Diaz, who is a first-rate scientist, to make a real difference for the island’s terrestrial ecology with such a little layout, seems to me something that really ought to be followed up on.
Diaz already has a species by species breakdown of the frogs on his computer, with photographs and a recording of each one’s song which he layed for me. It was a thrilling experience.
My wife and our three boys and I drove to Zoroa, which is an easy hour and a half drive west from Havana, and spent a day and night. It is a magical place, a zona afrodisiaca, popular with couples, according to our taximan whose name was Ruben. We stayed in one motel cabins on the valley floor and discovered a path that led up through the forest up a road that led up to the ridge of the Santa Rosarios. From one side you could see down out over the sugar cane- blanketed plane several thousand feet below which was quickly lost in haze. The other side looked out to more remote and undisturbed forested mountains. The cloud forest was alive with birds. The adorable Cuban tody, the long brown tail of a huge cuckooid rustling in the trees, hummingbirds galore, overwintering warblers soon to start on their spring migration back to North America. We found bleached white shells of round rock snails. Way down below the river fed by the hot sulphur spring spills over a 25 foot waterfall, of worldclass
The Cuba Moderne Architecture.
Helen Malkin is the assistant director for exhibitions and publications of the Canadian
Center of Architecture in Montreal. In l998 she was given a tour of the Havana’s Cuba Moderne heritage by Eduardo Luiz Rodriguez, its foremost champion, who is dedicated to bringing back the moderne and rescuing it from its decadent rep (or rap) and is the author of Modern Architecture in Cuba . “The colonial is incredible, but what really knocked me out was the modernist stuff from the 20s to the 50s,” she says, echoing my sentiments precisely.. Part of the old city got UNESCO World Heritage Site designation five years ago, so that will help [although no actual restoration has happened so far except in the small section where the Patrimonio Architectural is headquartered. Most of the Habana Viejo looks like Dresden after the war or as if it had been leveled by a neutron bomb]. Havana is crumbling, in such a state of disrepair it’s amazing but certain buildings are still salveageable. They haven’t targeted the moderne. Some of the hotels are great like Conrad Hilton’s late moderne flagship Hilton which was taken over by Castro and is now known as the Havana Libre. Meyer Lansky divided his time between the Hotel Riviedra, a real Deco hotel, and the Club Tropicana. The Sevilla, which I inspected, is nothing to get excited about : reminiscent of the flagship Hilton in Albuquerque, La Posada, and the old Best Western Hotel on the Zocalo in Mexico City. Lots of tile, architecturally more ersatz than uplifting.]
“Eduardo Luis Rodriguez is the editor of Architectura Magazine [or was at the time of
Malkin’s visit. I was unable to confirm whether the magazine still exists. I had gone to see the National School for the Arts that Castro commissioned from the Venezuelan
Ricardo Porro [and Vittorio Garretti] in the early 60s. By the mid-60s it was deemed decadent by
the Russians. Of the 4 buildings two are ninety percent complete. One is so overgrown with
trees [smothered with strangler figs roots that have dripped down the brick wall like wax from a melted candle] it looks like a Piranezi ruin. It’s in the country-club area [Cubanacan]. The dance and art buildings were converted from the old clubhouse. They’re very expressionistic, phallic and phallopian, representing the clashing together of old and the new that the revolution was bringing in.”
Apparently it was Che’s idea to convert the Cubanacan Country Club into a national school
for the arts for the children of the people. Che grew up in an impoverished family of the Argentine oligarchy and caddied and golf as a boy and loved the game, but hated the snobbery and class consciousness it engendered. There is a famous snapshots of
him in guerilla fatigues walking purposefully down one of Cubanacan’s fairways to his shot with
an iron in one hand. So the conversion of the country club had a symbolic dimension for him.
Golf, all the rage in Batista days and sometimes an occasion for good architecture, appears to have died with the revolution. Only one nine hole course, at Veradero, an hour and a half from Havana (where there is also a Vanderbilt mansion on a bluff) was kept open for the foreign diplomatic corps. The Russians covered with fairways of Cubanacan with soulless student housing.
Ernesto Luiz Rodriguez’s colleague, Alina Ochoa Aloma, ended up showing me around. Aina is an architect who has spent the last fifteen years in preservation, two of them years in the office of the historian of Havana, Eusebio Leal (a key figure who was out of town), and three years exclusively on the moderne heritage, which resulted in her co-authoring Arquitectura en la Ciudad de Habana : Primera Modernidad, Electa Press, Asturias, Spain, 2000. In which the 400 most important buildings are catalogued with foto, address, date, and architect. So she knows her Cuba moderne, and is definitely someone you could work with.
“Havana in the twenties and thirties was like Mexico City and Buenos Aires,” Alina told me.
“Like Miami today,” I said, sticking my foot in my mouth again.
“I wouldn’t know,” Alina replied drily.
“It was a luxurious city, and the most technologically advanced in Latin America, and more advanced than many North American cities. It had a railroad system by 1827, electricity by l894, before Philadelphia, telephones by l941, color t.v. by l950, automatic tellers by l957. So modern architecture blossomed in this fertile, technologically sophisticated terrain.
“Most of Havana was built in the first half of the twentieth century. There has been very little construction since except for social housing. After the war, Havana continued to expand, but Caracas and Lima exploded more. By the forties and the fifties there was a large middle class, whom an abundance of very creative and talented architects was ready to serve. Their designs weren’t only modern. There was also a flourishing Republican style from l902-59 [which there
are numerous example of in Vedado but which is nowhere as interesting.] The middle class tried to copy the details of the colonial mansions of the rich a hundred years later. In the fifties we were starting to have high rises but this stopped with the revolution. There were other priorities.
“Most of the modern buildings are in the districts of Vedado and Miramar. Central Havana has 82, old Havana 24, Vedado 136, and Miramar, which part of La Playa, has 145, the best of which are in a once-chique section known as Las Alturas de Miramar. They belong to what Alina classes as “first modernity,” from art deco to early modern, 1924 to l950, with some spillover into the fifties.. The most important ones were designed by Rafael de Cardenas, Cristobal Diaz, Eugenio Batista [no relation to the dictator], the firm of Mira y Rossitch, and Julio de la Torre’s uncle Achilles Capablanca [“the guy with the bad heel white cape,” as Julio translates his name. “He was one of the prime movers of the whole modernist movement and did many of the first modernist buildings in Cuba in the 30s. His maquettes and things have been exhibited at MOMA.”]
“The first example is the l924 apartment building at Calzada y 9th. It’s in bad shape and needs a lot of work. The Edificio Baccardi is one of the paradigmatic ones. Other particularly outstanding examples include the apartments at Lopez Serrano l032, the l952 blue apartment building at Calzada 101-103 and 11th [which has a swimming pool in the center of the penthouse and can be glimpsed from the Avenida del Alecon, which runs along the ocean in Vedado; the stadium, which has peeling, crumbling flair, too, is later, from the l960s], the apartment building at Galiano 478 (near Chinatown), the abandoned Cine Moderno at Diez de Outubre 365, the residencia Canteras Infanta 15-21, the moderne mausoleums in the pantheo of the principal cemetery (especially that of carnival star Catalina Laza), the l937 Edificio Santeiro (by Emilio de Soto, it anticipates the Guggenheim), the 1941 Edificio Triangula between 23rd and Zapata (by Cristobal Diaz. It anticipates Frank Gehry). La rampa, the main drag of Vedado, which slopes down to the sea is where the moderne really took off in the 40s and 50s. Buildings of incomparable flare and delapidated brio like the Ministry of Public Health, and the Alberto Prieto apartment building. Further west, up the Rampa, it gets more Republican. The closer to the sea, the more moderne, because the real estate was more expensive and much of the construction was done with American capital. The Partagas building is striking, but eclectic. The l941 Apartamento L y 25th has the deep, narrow central patio that is a signature of first modernity. The l945 Cinema Arenal is completely deco. The l955 Gran Templo Masonico, by Emilio Vasconcelos, is one of the last first moderne works. Already by then the more rationalistic, less flamboyant second moderne movment, was taking off, spendid examples being the l949 Casa de Jose Noval Cueto in Miramar and the l951 Cabaret Tropical. The most important architects of this wave were Max Borges, Frank Martinez, and the firm of Bosch y Romanach. They were the last of the avant garde.
In the 30s and 40s the richest people lived on 5th Avenue in Miramar and in the Alturas
(which is, or was, the counterpart of the Lomas district of Mexico City). The very rich, the aristocrats, went in for Florentine palaces. They looked to Europe, while the middle class looked to the States and commissioned Havana architects who took the moderne style to new heights. In the 50s the very moved west to the country club area. The moderne stuff starts at 5th and 60th and continues to the end of the 5th, at 14th.
There was so much to see that we drove around for three hours. The funky futuristic time
warp was accented by the old Chevvies and Buicks from the forties and fifties, Edsels and Cadillacs and fantastic luxury models I’d never seen before that still make up the bulk of Havana’s running automobile stock and exhibit the same retro deco flair in their grills
and tails and other flashy details as the moderne architecture.
So there is a huge amount of good work to do in Cuba, but it isn’t going to be at all easy.