Observations | Working to Save Architecture in Cuba
Cuba, the largest Caribbean island, is a place of contradictions and mystery; beautiful, but dilapidated; vibrant, but struggling; separate, but open. With US travel restrictions in place from 1960 to 2016, Cuba has been mostly off-limits to Americans and still requires special visas to visit. As such, I jumped at the chance to obtain a visa to travel to Cuba with my surgeon father as a guest of the American Urological Society New York Chapter, which conducted their educational meetings in conjunction with the Sociedad Cubana de Urologia.
The topic of architecture was heavily discussed by the tour guides and presentations from three different architects occurred throughout the week. Having worked at Bailey Edward for the past three years, I obviously had a different perspective than others on the tour. I kept comparing and drawing parallels between Cuba and my work at Bailey Edward.
• The architecture in Cuba is phenomenal. Serving as a gateway port between Europe and the Americas since the 1500’s, Havana features exquisite examples of Baroque, Moorish, Art Deco, and Brutalist design having been influenced by the Spanish, French, Americans and Soviets. The US embargo of Cuba served as a catalyst event, removing funding and resulting in the deterioration of many of these fine buildings. In fact, the Cuban architect we spoke with mentioned Havana experiences approximately three building collapses per day. By contrast, BE’s headquarters, the City of Chicago, is also renowned for its architecture, albeit from the 1870’s and after, with its catalyst event, the Chicago Fire.
• Also evident in the presentation was the passion the architects of Cuba have in preserving these amazing buildings. However, the government of Cuba, typically the only entity with enough funds to preserve these buildings, only employs 35 architects – the same number of people employed by Bailey Edward. As for non-government-employed architects in Cuba, there’s only another 35. Not nearly enough to handle the immense amount of work of over 50 years of deferred maintenance.
• The government of Cuba compounds the building maintenance problems in other ways. First, each individual is promised housing. However, similar to some of BE’s explorations into the fair housing market, demand exceeds supply and what housing is considered ‘fair’ can be put into question. Second, due to the government’s acquisition of land and the inability for individuals to own property, there are no laws or regulations regarding building management. Each person is responsible for their own apartment. However, no one is responsible for the common areas or the building itself. The concept of a “Home Owners Association” does not exist. Therefore, the outside of the building could have peeling paint and missing stonework and the tiles in the entryway are broken, but looking through the window to the apartment you might see a fantastic, fully-maintained room with original woodwork, art deco lighting fixtures, and modern artwork.
• Currently, preservation work is reserved for buildings with historical significance or which convey power or prestige to visiting tourists and businessmen. One such example was the Casa de la Amistad, a mansion in the middle of Cuba’s greatest love story. Isobel Rigol, the preservation architect who is very similar to BE’s Susan Turner for her love of old buildings, showed us around the house discussing the Lalique glass windows, French ironwork, original Art-Deco lighting fixtures, and more. Although the house is now used as a restaurant and event space, Isobel is happy the building received preservation work, but still dreams that the space could be returned entirely to its former glory. She lamented that all of the original furniture with one exception was removed from the house, but original photos could be used to recreate the experience and turn the house into a museum. The one exception? A marble dining table twenty men could not budge.
• In juxtaposition to Casa de la Amistad, the group was taken to a privately-owned residence that had not been restored. Architect Pedro Vazquez and the eighty-nine year old homeowner answered questions about the history of the residence and possible preservation. If Isobel was “Cuban Susan,” Pedro is very similar to BE’s principal Robin Whitehurst in his positive outlook. While many of the tour group members looked around the space disheartened, Pedro commented “It’s all here. We have everything. We just need to restore it.” Talking with the owner, reviewing the building’s plans, and identifying the best tradesmen would all be part of Pedro’s mission once he had the opportunity to return the house to its former glory.
While we were in Cuba, the Trump Administration reversed some of the 2016 policies and tightened restrictions on trade and travel, which is unfortunate. Cuba is a wonderfully diverse island with lush landscapes, creative and proud people, and, of course, amazing architecture. While I think opening the US doors to Cuba should be carefully done to preserve the culture and heritage of the island, I sincerely hope everyone has a chance to visit someday.