A Crumbling Legacy
In 1992, the Los Angeles-based art conservator and writer Rosa Lowinger returned to Havana for the first time since her family left Cuba in 1961, when she was a small child.
“Unlike many Cubans, my parents are not nostalgic people,” she says. “My mother, who grew up poor in Cuba, had bleak memories of old Havana. So when I got there, there was little of the romantic mystery that seems to affect others. And the place was terribly run down and so hot and so bright that it hurt my eyes. But the second day my eyes opened up, and through the peeling paint and crumbling facades, what I saw was some of the most amazing architecture in the world.”
What Lowinger glimpsed on her first visit, and on subsequent trips to Havana, is what strikes most people who come to the overburdened capital--a chaotic fantasia of faded buildings that are the memory of Havana’s centuries-long history as the crossroads of the trading world. Since its colonialization by Spain in 1560, fortunes were made in tobacco, sugar, trading and shipbuilding, and money poured into the creation of lavish monuments to commerce and society, from Baroque mansions with lavish porticos, loggias and wrought-iron balconies, to Art Nouveau business offices surprisingly profligate with stained-glass, to Art Deco apartment buildings accented with elaborate terrazzo floors and bronze and glass doors.
Today, to walk down the streets of Havana is both exhilarating and depressing. “Havana is probably the only place in the world where you can look through a Neoclassical portal and see a live rooster standing on a Soviet refrigerator,” says Lowinger.
Now, after 40 years of neglect under Castro’s communism--during which time most of these buildings have not had so much as a paint job--these testaments to Cuba’s past glories are in danger of being lost forever. Everyday there are what the Cubans call “derumbes” (meaning collapses) as minor as decorative architectural elements tumbling from buildings, as major as entire structures falling into a sad heap of rubble, their broken grandeur left to glisten in the sun or the pale moonlight. The city itself is as shabby as the stray curs which lie in the shade of elegant porticos or lope through streets reeking of the exhaust of camelos, huge bus-like transports, or wheezing Chevies and Plymouths from the ‘40s and ‘50s.
The architectural crisis in Cuba has led to a revolution of sorts in the effort to shore up and, in some cases, totally renovate the city’s architectural wonders, particularly during the last three years. The effort to conserve Havana, as well as the rest of the country for that matter, is beginning to pick up speed. The innovative programs for administering and financing the projects which may well have repercussions both for Cuba’s future and for other international conservation efforts. The urgency, which is raising scaffolding all over the city, has certainly drawn the interest and support of the international community. This interest was particularly apparent at a recent day-long conference held in New York last month under the joint auspices of the Cooper-Hewitt Museum, the National Design Museum and Fundacion Amistad, a New York-based nonprofit organization that promotes charitable and humanitarian activities regarding Cuba.
On May Day, while Havana was awash in celebrations of the fraying edges of the Communist revolution, a group of architectural experts and students from Cuba and the United States gathered in the historic Great Hall at Cooper Union to discuss the daunting challenges of preserving Cuba’s architecture. The meeting also marked one of the few opportunities to lift the veil on the embargo of information between the two countries. There is no question that the 40-year-old U.S. embargo against Cuba has had a serious deleterious effect, and there is now an urgent need to marshal resources and knowledge for the massive projects ahead.
“It is a strange process,” said Lowinger, a speaker at the seminar who has taught conservation classes in Cuba in an unpaid capacity. “I can work within the guidelines of U.S. Treasury Department only if I’m not paid and the project is an academic exchange of information. It’s preposterous that we have to jump through hoops for something as benign as helping to save Cuban architecture. So what if saving a building helps the Cuban government? Who cares? It’s a question of historic preservation, not politics. What architect or historian or conservator doesn’t want those buildings to be in as good shape as possible?”
Another participant at the seminar, Adolfo V. Nodal, a Cuban-American who is director of historic preservation for the city of Los Angeles and general manager for L.A.'s Department of Cultural Affairs, saw such exchanges as mutually beneficial. “Whether we’re talking about L.A., Beijing, Quito or Havana, people who care about historic preservation have the same demons to fight--public apathy and limited resources. It unifies us in a way.”
In fact, the historical symbiosis between Cuba and the United States is reflected in some of Havana’s most prominent structures. The Malecon, the sweeping harbor-front promenade from which the lights of Key West can be seen on clear nights, was built during the U.S. occupation in 1901; the five-star Nacional Hotel, where Winston Churchill and Hollywood movie stars like Gary Cooper smoked puros (big stogies) on the veranda, was designed by the renown 19th century icons of architecture McKim, Mead and White. American architects Schultze and Weaver designed the lush American Jockey Club, and even Havana’s Capitol Building is a dead ringer for our own.
But the similarities end there. While the conference succeeded in its goal “to keep conversations within a strictly cultural context,” politics, of course, is what has brought about the situation in the first place. While the Communist revolution focused on rural areas, diverting resources to build up the interior of the country, Cuba’s cities were left to fall to ruin. Ironically, the revolution may also be the reason why there are so many extraordinary buildings in need of saving. The priorities of the revolution precluded the sort of development that levels whole city blocks. Havana, as one participant put it, is “arrested and lost in time,” a place where one can still stroll down streets where crumbling 16th century palazzos abut Art Deco cigar factories.
“There was a plan developed in the ‘40s,” says Lowinger, “to build an avenue between the Capitol building and the port, which would have decimated one third of the buildings of old Havana. After the revolution, the plan was abandoned because all the buildings then belonged to the state. Preservation of heritage was seen as a rallying point for national pride. With the Cubans, everything is a question of national pride.”
Still, there were limited resources and funds to protect that patrimony until another accident of history--the fall of Soviet Communism--forced the Cuban government to reprioritize and push tourism as one of the chief sources of badly needed hard currency. From there, it was a short leap to the realization that the refurbishment of Havana’s past architectural glory could be a powerful draw for the international tourist trade--and a clue to its financing. “Tourism is now king in Havana and the engine behind the restoration projects,” says Nodal, pointing to the restoration of the Hotels Santa Isabel and Ambos Mundos, which are anchors in Havana’s urban renewal. “That is as good a reason for historic preservation as any. Very few cities ever do it for its own sake.”
Sitting behind that engine is Eusebio Leal Spengler, city historian for Havana, whose power and ability to make things happen is the envy of his peers. As someone who can choose the projects--deftly balancing between the needs of those buildings which are in danger of immediate collapse and need to be stabilized and those which will be fully restored--he is autonomous, answering only to Castro, unlike his colleagues at Centro Nacional de Conservacion, Restauracion, y Museologia (CENCREM), the organization that has been responsible for conservation research, training, and, until Leal consolidated his power in 1993, shared the tasks of historic preservation. CENCREM operates under the Ministry of Culture.
“It’s a form of Caudillo conservation,” says Lowinger with a laugh, referring to the Spanish term for “strongman.” He’s a controversial figure, but he’s undisputedly talented and very good at getting things done. When others have said that a project is too difficult or risky, he has a way of proving them wrong. For example, he wanted to restore the Plaza Vieja in Old Havana, whose grade had been raised in the ‘50s to accommodate an underground parking lot. His plan was to remove the parking lot and cobble the square but the architects of CENCREM opposed it, worried that the level of structural vibrations could knock down the beautiful 17th and 18th century buildings surrounding the square. He went ahead and did it anyway and became a hero.”
Leal could not be reached for comment, but his admirers are many. Nodal says, “No historic preservation officer in the world has that kind of power, and he uses it well, with care and commitment. He has at his disposal a range and tools that I can only envy at. But you need that because it took the government so long to focus on the problem that they are now facing an extraordinary number of significant buildings on the verge of collapse.”
Due to the lack of financial resources, most preservation efforts have been jointly financed by the Cuban government and foreign investments from Europe, Canada and Mexico. (The U.S. embargo prevents American companies from investing in Cuba.) For example, a nonprofit Spanish foundation financed much of the restoration along the Malecon, with brightly painted cafes, shops and apartment buildings standing in bold relief to pocked facades of buildings battered by Cuba’s aggressive tropical climate. Private investors from Holland, meanwhile, have provided the funds to renovate the Hotel Parque Central, maintaining 49% ownership to the 51% owned by the Cuban government, which also keeps control of all technical aspects of the project.
Leal’s office has been given economic muscle through the establishment in 1993 of it own corporation, Habanaguanex, S.A. The firm has the authority to reinvest profits, which it is able to generate through the restaurants, shops and hotels it runs in its rehabilitated buildings, such as the Hotel Ambos Mundos in Old Havana, where Ernest Hemingway wrote part of “For Whom the Bell Tolls.” Habanaguanex also receives income through rents and taxes levied on foreign commercial ventures occupying buildings renovated under its auspices. It rechannels those funds into preservation efforts solely financed by the Cuban government, such as the glazed terracotta and pink granite folly, the Bacardi building, once the headquarters of the famous rum company, and soon to be one of the most glamorous office buildings in the world. The refurbished Lonja del Comercio, a 1909, Renaissance-style building that was once the Havana Stock Exchange, is now a warren of offices housing the Havana headquarters of many international companies.
While tourists may be bringing in badly needed dollars to keep the fragile economy afloat, Isabel Rigol, former director of CENCREM, reminds that historic preservation efforts are bringing many tensions to the surface in Cuba, not only in terms of what buildings will be saved--older versus more contemporary--but more importantly, in how best to balance the needs of the tourist with the needs of the Habanero, the average citizen of Havana.
These points have been hotly debated of late, over cafecitos in the cafeterias springing up along the Malecon, and even from the concert stage, where pop stars have complained about Habaneros being squeezed out of their apartments to make way for tourist hotels. It’s not an unrealistic fear, given the experience of other world capitals. Held up as one such example is the old town in San Juan, Puerto Rico, once a vibrant lower-income community, which has become a spiffed-up enclave for the wealthy.
“Cubanos are becoming increasingly aware of the value and importance of historic preservation, but they must see personal benefits for themselves first, in the way of jobs in hotels and restaurants and cultural centers, cleaner streets and better housing,” says Mario Coyula, the head of a Havana architectural advisory group who participated in the seminar. “They just don’t care about history or art if it’s too far away from their daily needs and just brings social disruption. They’re not interested in beautiful buildings if the toilet’s not working.”
Still, even the average Habanero is intimately connected to the city’s preservation if only because most of Havana’s historic structures are “living museums,” filled with residents, as many as 20 to a room. This overcrowding not only endangers both residents and the buildings, but also creates an urban nightmare in the potential removal of people from their homes if any sort of reinforcement is to save the structures from collapse. The problem is especially severe in Old Havana, where some apartment buildings have already been vacated, with residents temporarily removed to alternative housing, “pulmones” (lungs), until renovations are completed. Who goes, who stays, and who makes the decision is a hot political football that as yet has not been addressed by the government, according to Coyula, but officials have moved to integrate physical rehabilitation of some buildings with improvement in the living conditions of its residents.
San Ysidro, a poor neighborhood in Old Havana, is a case in point. The government is providing jobs for the local residents, along with materials and the proper training to repair the buildings themselves. “If you went into that neighborhood a couple of years ago, the stench was unbearable, and there was garbage all over the place,” says Lowinger. “Now you see dumpsters, and the streets are relatively clean. You can now just see the beneficial effects of the tourist areas start to bleed into the adjacent general population. It makes sense. How can you have a five-star luxury hotel near a slum? It’s still very, very slow but it’s a hopeful and progressive approach to conservation.”
Cuba is a country resistant to change, and the urgency and pressure to preserve Havana’s proud patrimony is pushing a sense that the effort has a number of major hurdles to come, particularly if there is either an end to the embargo or even a radical change in Cuba’s form of government.
Now, because of the embargo, Americans can do little to aid the effort, apart from supplying technical assistance and training. But should a lifting of the embargo pave the way for American investment, Coyula suggests that some hard questions will have to be answered.
“When you are very poor and there are so many relevant buildings to be protected, it’s difficult to choose,” he says. “Which investors can you trust not to destroy in order to save? If there are only two or three large investors willing, then you are vulnerable to political pressure to let them have their way. I’d like tens of thousands of small investors to become involved. They can do less damage.”
Lowinger asserts that any major change in Cuba’s government is likely to make architects and conservators nervous, whether or not one agrees with the present regime. “It has nothing to do with politics,” she says. “It’s simply about people who care about the culture. We know what the present government’s point of view is right now. They want to preserve everything. They just don’t have any money. That’s a pretty straightforward point of view for a preservationist to work with.”
For some at the Cooper Hewitt conference, it was simply a case of the devil you know versus the devil you don’t--and working like hell, at least for now, to keep it from all breaking loose.