Sometimes conflicts and revolutions have unexpected side effects. Some positive, others double-edged. Thus, at the end of the 19th century, the Cuban War of Independence ended in the disappearance of the Spanish Empire, which lost its last American possession there. This newfound freedom nevertheless had a bitter taste for the local patriots, since the part taken by the United States against Spain also led to their military occupation of Cuba.
In 1901, the Platt Amendment formalized Washington's interference in the decisions of the Caribbean Island, until the 1930s... The armed presence was coupled with an omnipresent economic weight. Unsurprisingly, Havana thus became a privileged ground for American architects.
First, Hispanic eclecticism had its last fire. Native of the island, but based in Spanish Asturias, Manuel del Busto (1874-1948) signed in 1927 with the Palacio del Centro Asturiano a building obviously prolonging the baroquisitive historicism of the turn of the century. At the same time, the construction of the Capitol under the direction of Eugenio Rayneri Piedra (1883-1960) imposed the continuation of an Americanized Beaux-Arts logic... No surprise: the architect was among the first graduates of the recently opened school of architecture at the Indiana Notre-Dame University. With a dome very inspired by Soufflot’s Pantheon in Paris, Piedra followed in the footsteps of his American colleagues, builders of capitols across the USA, such as Georges B. Post (1837-1913; author of that of Wisconsin), Cass Gilbert (1859-1934; author of those of Minnesota and West Virginia), or Egerton Swartwout (1870-1943; author of that of Missouri).
All buildings with European heritage: in Italy, the Pantheon, the Basilica of Saint Peter; in France, the Invalides chapel, the Pantheon... Cuba, therefore, placed itself in a prestigious lineage, intending to affirm through this colossal monument the solidity of its government, despite a clear dependence on its mighty American neighbor. The metallic structure of the building was indeed carried out by a New York firm specialized in skyscrapers, Purdy & Henderson, which also intervened in Havana for instance on the Centro Asturiano… The regime being also quite authoritarian, this formal proximity to a symbol of the near great democracy was quite ambiguous… So, the Cuban Capitol showed in everything a strong American influence!
This was in line with the substantial orders entrusted directly to American firms. Kenneth Murchison (1872-1938) – trained at Columbia and then at the French Beaux-Arts School, specialist in railway facilities – built the Havana station in 1912. Its facade is punctuated by two Italianate towers, inspired by the Medici villa. A model very appreciated in the Beaux-Arts culture, this building being the seat of the Academy of France in Italy, welcoming the laureates of the famous Grand Prix de Rome.
In 1930, this aesthetic continued in the Hotel Nacional, a late work of the big agency McKim, Mead & White. This mini skyscraper on an H-shaped plan with two towers, still derived from the Villa Medici, was a far cry from the major achievements made by the three founders at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries, such as Columbia University and Penn Station in New York. Moreover, in designing the Nacional, Lawrence Grant White (1887-1956), far from having the creative brilliance of his father, Stanford White (1853-1906), was very dependent on the recent accomplishments of hotel program experts, Leonard Schultze (1877-1951) & S. Fullerton Weaver (1880-1939). In 1925, their Breakers in Palm Beach had already deployed this spatial scheme and the same aesthetic references between the Italian Renaissance and Spanish Baroque. The following year, their Coral Gables Biltmore in Miami developed this neo-Hispanic vein to an even more majestic scale. In short, the Nacional confirmed Havana mainly as following typologies and styles invented elsewhere.
Cuban architects were also faced with the same problem. Trained in Columbia, Leonardo Morales y Pedroso (1887-1965) adapted the New York type of skyscrapers to Havana, with the headquarters of the Compañía de Teléfonos – whose ecclesiastical crowning reinvents the Portuguese Manueline style. Cuban response to the neo-Gothic Chicago Tribune skyscraper by Raymond Hood (1881-1934) and John Mead Howells (1868-1959), then nearing completion. Morales also worked for the American financial elite exploiting Cuban resources. In 1930, his house for the tobacco merchant Pollack adapted to the Caribbean climate the Beaux-Arts neoclassicism, still in vogue in the great American families. This made this architect the Havanese equivalent of a Wallace Neff (1895-1982) in California. This assimilation also guided the headquarters of Bacardi rums, a famed Cuban company. Here Esteban Rodríguez Castell (1887-?), Rafael Fernández Ruenes (? -?), And José Menéndez (? -?) offered to Havana an Art Deco skyscraper with rich colors – similar to those of Ely Jacques Kahn (1884-1972) in New York. These creators shifted the lines towards more modern forms, cubanized to varying degrees, their work nevertheless still quite dependent on foreign styles.
Political power actually contributed to this more or less inevitable subjugation. Because, by appealing in 1925 to the French landscape designer Jean-Claude Nicolas Forestier (1861-1930), for a special mission linked to the changes of the city center, they indirectly confirmed their lack of confidence in their own builders abilities.
However, Forestier could be an effective antidote to the rather heavy American influence. He was known for his interest in Mediterranean and Maghrebian gardens, had worked in Spain, and especially with the town planner Henri Prost (1874-1959). He co-founded with him the Société française des urbanistes in 1911, before joining its efficient and subtle works on Moroccan towns, including Fez and Meknes. Their interventions succeeded in combining respect for old centers and the creation of new modern infrastructures. Forestier's sense of landscape was very useful in creating pleasant places adapted to the harsh heat. Then he also acted in Buenos Aires in Argentina. He, Prost, and Donat-Alfred Agache (1875-1959) – who helped reshape Rio de Janeiro in Brazil – were essential in spreading a less academic and more scientific vision of town planning worldwide. These laid key milestones reimagining the past to lead to a new architectural order.
With acuity, Forestier seized the urban potential of the Paseo del Prado along the old center – and transformed this then banal street into a veritable promenade, having well-appointed alleys with low walls and decorated benches. All protected by the shade of trees rows, with species well-chosen according to the climate. Besides these designs, Forestier prepared real city-wide plans to promote its development. To help him in his work in Cuba, he united a team of the Beaux-Arts school young graduates: Louis Heitzler (1895-1951), Théodore Leveau (1896-1971), and Jean Labatut (1899-1986). For the former, his time in Cuba was only a golden parenthesis, before establishing himself as an architect in Nice. As for Leveau, he went on to cooperate in Istanbul renovation, alongside Prost. Only Labatut turned his back on his homeland for good, moving to the USA in 1928, beginning a teaching career at Princeton.
Labatut did not cut ties with Cuba. Joining with his Havanese colleagues Raul Otero (? -?) and Enrique Varela (? -?), he participated in the 1938 competition for the Memorial commemorating José Marti, intellectual killed during the battles for independence. The beautiful award-winning project of the Cuban architect Aquiles Maza (? -?) gave rise to lively debates and above all to three new competitions... To such an extent that at the beginning of the 1950s, the ex-colonel Batista reconquest his power by two coup d’état: the first as proclaiming himself again president, the second by removing authoritatively Maza from the order, and demanding the Labatut team to begin at once work on this so symbolic structure. The plans were reworked, becoming an Art Deco pyramidal tower. This was under the finicky control of a dictator practicing mostly subservience to wealthy estates owners while accelerating the seizure of the economy by the American mafia. In this context strewn with mines, the Memorial and its setting partly escaped their authors. However, Cuba opened to Labatut the doors to his American career, and even his confrontation with a dictatorial context allowed him to create an emblematic monument.
The authoritarian and corrupt Batista regime had other architecturally very ambiguous effects. After 1936, the island received a few survivors from the Spanish Civil War, including the exile Martin Dominguez Esteban (1897-1979). He had cooperated with Secundino Zuazo (1887-1971), the first author of the Madrid republican group of Nuevos Ministerios – before the Franco dictatorship removed him from this work. Dominguez also produced the daring structure of the Madrid racecourse. An admirer of Le Corbusier (1887-1965), he considered modernity as necessary to rebuild the world. Civil war forced him to flee, finding a new homeport in Cuba.
There he was able to realize his modern aspirations, as Batista also aligned himself with the evolution of the US towards modernity.
In 1947, its Radiocentro Building stood out for its curtain wall. This was followed in 1952 by his imposing residential building Focsa, co-signed with the Cuban Ernesto Gómez Sampera (1921–2004). This Y-shaped skyscraper, a vast functionalist structure, still dominates the Havanese landscape with pride. Now forming a trio with Gómez Sampera and structural engineer Ysrael Seinuk (1931-2010) – son of Lithuanian emigrants living in Cuba – he created the Ministry of Communications according to a close contemporary spirit. Their latest joint work, the INAV collective housing, played with more finesse the alliance between concrete structure and exterior claustra, with open staircases enlivening the silhouette. In 1959 this team again studied with the Edificio Libertad another skyscraper. The superimposed blocks of which and the passageways of the facades should have formed an almost tectonic whole in its appearance. The project which unfortunately remained in limbo, following another great historical turnaround.
The last facilities built at the end of this period experienced an inflation typical of unbalanced systems. Designed to accommodate opulent tourism – serving the financial interests of a greedy criminal underworld – several large hotels bear witness to this insatiable megalomania. Such was the case with the majestic Riviera, which should have been created by Philip Johnson (1906-2005) – then crowned with his New York Seagram Building involvement. But his disagreements with the sponsor, Meyer Lansky (a mobster controlling the Cuban market) resulted in his withdrawal. He was replaced by the more flexible Igor Polevitzky (1911-1978), from a Russian family who emigrated to the United States after the Bolshevik Revolution, and based in Miami. This architect made the Riviera dome covered with mosaics and the tower with protruding terraces a key example of tropical modernism. His expressionism bears a resemblance to the works of his rival in Florida, Morris Lapidus (1902-2001) – also from Russia, and have found a land of opportunity in America.
A different approach, at the Hilton. Builder benefiting Conrad Hilton’s confidence, Welton Becket (1902-1969) signed this more rigid tower in 1958, cooperating with a couple of his local colleagues Nicolás Arroyo (1917-2008) and Gabriela Menendez (1917-2008). Both trained locally, the husband even served Batista as Minister of Public Works and then Ambassador to the United States. Among their personal works stand out the Coliseo de la Ciudad Deportiva and the Teatro Nacional – large structures marking the height of modern Cuban capabilities. The modernity of these achievements now constituted a lingua franca, vividly signifying the infusion of innovation to gloomy economic and despotic backstage. While the Brazilian Oscar Niemeyer (1907-2012) also worked with expressiveness for the new capital of his country, without making a secret of his communist opinions, by coming to Cuba Polevitzky or Becket served a completely different kind of power.
Like many dictators, Batista saw architecture as a means of perpetuating his reign. Far from just rolling out the red carpet for mobsters, the former officer however understood that the old center insalubrity required responses other than repression – especially when the country was experiencing growing social protest.
Undoubtedly on Arroyo’s wise advice, a singular tandem was called upon, made up of two emigrants with very different backgrounds. Close to Le Corbusier, with whom he cooperated in the failed overhaul plan for Barcelona, José Luis Sert (1902-1983) also left Spain during the Civil War. As for Paul Lester Wiener (1895-1967), he trained in his native Germany before quickly settling in the USA. Both convinced by the principle of functionalist city, they studied together several brilliant projects of industrial cities in Colombia and Peru during the Second World War. The Ciudad Motores and Chimbote plans being intrinsically linked to the consequent economic interests of American firms in Latin America.
For Havana, they worked with Cuban urbanist Mario Romañach (1917–1984). Together, through the Piloto Plan, they defined a strategy that set aside the Corbusian clean slate, proposing targeted conservation of most of the historic urban fabric – partially hollowing it out to insert modern buildings, and advising to carry out the curettage of old blocks, endowed with new gardens and trees. After the tree-lined avenues were made according to Forestier’s plans, the Sert/Wiener projects further pushed the principle of the overall improvement of an existing urban core. In addition, their innate Corbusianism led them to consider a daring extension of the city by an artificial island posed in front of the maritime boulevard of the Malecón. Good balance between preservation of heritage and contemporary innovation?
Despite this collectively useful initiative, Batista remained a despot wanting to celebrate triumphantly his power. The new presidential palace subsequently commissioned from Sert and Wiener for his own use required reinforcements, with more foreign specialists such as structural engineer Félix Candela (1910-1997) – another Spaniard who fled Franco's dictatorship, who settled in Mexico – and the landscape gardener Hideo Sasaki (1919-2000) – of Japanese family but native of the USA. Talents knowing the milieu, Romanach and Menendez completed this multi-faceted team.
On the plateau adjoining Fort El Morro and near the trench of the tunnel recently created under the bay in cooperation between engineers from Cuba and from the French Société des Grands Travaux de Marseille, the Sert brigade envisioned an imaginative overhaul of the past sumptuary monarchic habitat, applied to the modern forms of the 20th century. A drawing was produced, comparing favorably on the same scale the plans of the Cuban presidential palace with the royal ones of Madrid and Stockholm in particular, but also with the White House. Courtier document intended to flatter the despot megalomania? With its square plan and its singular succession of staggered boxes under an umbrella of concrete palm trees, if it had been built this palace would have been an essential architectural landmark.
But no power is steadfast. Based on ruthless oppression and cynical exploitation, the Batista dictatorship finally collapsed in 1959 under the battering of the revolutionaries led by Castro. The revolution and its procession of atrocities led to the emigration to the United States of many of these architects, who served the previous regime. Wiener tried naively enough to convince the new leaders to keep the Piloto Plan going. More lucid, Sert stayed in the background – better understanding that another era was coming.
First tolerated by Washington, Castro soon met with American wrath when the new strongman proceeded to nationalize foreign property and turn to communism. Taking up residence at the former Hilton, aptly renamed Habana Libre to erase the capitalist symbol, Lider Maximo made it the first unofficial center of the revolutionary regime. The rapprochement with the USSR and the Cuban missile crisis led to a severe American blockade of the island – creating lasting shortages of materials. Faced with this critical situation, Cuban architects had to deal with the few available supplies. Thus Ricardo Porro (1927-2014) began in 1964 a surprising example of organic architecture: the double complex of the school of dance and the Fine Arts. There, the rationed use of concrete combined with inspired vaults and brick domes ensured a spatial, visual and climatic inventiveness marvelously combining strength and grace. Alas, this masterpiece was never completed, due to lack of means – Porro then emigrated to France where he adapted his expressionist vision to different resources.
The Russians then entered the Cuban ball, consolidating their presence on the island at all levels. The urbanist of the Togliatti new town, Boris Roubanenko (1910-1985) tried to export heavy prefabrication there to solve the crying problem of the lack of housing. In addition to this pragmatic intervention, the USSR joined in 1967 a competition intended to mark the triumph of communism over this fragment of America. So, two Soviet architects thus proposed for the Playa Girón – place of the Bay of Pigs failed American landing – a Monument to the Victory (of the Castro Revolution). Elena Novikova (1912-1996) deployed three abstract triangular pylons next to a hollow tetrahedron serving as a memorial altar. Mikhail Markovsky (1927-1992) also used two parallel pylons, associated with a simpler statue of a woman brandishing the laurel of peace ... Very different careers: one became a teacher, the other worked mainly for the Russian capital metro and its administrations. Their Cuban projects were an attempt to break out of the Soviet production restrictive frameworks. Nothing was achieved – showing how such propaganda could be a futile sword-stroke.
However, the growing importance of the USSR was made evident by the imposing complex of its embassy. This was designed by Aleksandr Rochegov (1917-1998) who completed most of the structures around 1984. This architect had contributed after his training to the construction of one of the Moscow Stalinist skyscrapers, before adapting to the second Soviet modernity then to the semi-modern Brezhnev monumentality. Towering over the seaside residential district of Miramar, Rochegov's massive and abstract diplomatic tower literally seems like an intimidating dungeon guarding the island. Most of its materials were brought in by ship, as before the missiles that nearly sank the world into nuclear fire. Such a monument signified where the real power lay, Moscow's watch over a useful though too agitated ally.
The architectural destiny of Cuba in the twentieth century was therefore riddled with contrary currents, often hostage to strong external influences. These shaped Havana, the architects each infusing their vision of a Caribbean America. Under pressure from shifting powers, coming from various backgrounds – sometimes with dramatic journeys – all transformed the city. This by first continuing the exported models of American origin. Then by gradually inventing modern creativity. This strongly determined the Cuban identity, between a hospitable refuge for emigrants and the affirmation of native builders who also wished to achieve their own contemporary capacities.