Saving Havana

If you drive west along the sea in Havana, through Miramar, with its grand villas lining the boulevards, and into the chic leafy suburbs of Cubanacan--home now to embassies--you'll eventually come to a strange and magical place. Scattered across acres of rough lawn and overgrown jungle is a ghostly complex of buildings, in brick and terra cotta, with beautiful domes, vaulted passageways and silent courtyards--the Escuelas Nacionales de Arte, or National Art Schools. Wandering among these semi-abandoned ruins, you occasionally come upon a student. One young artist was using a white-tiled bathroom as a studio, working on a Warholesque painting of a big cigarette pack with Che Guevara's face on it; a scattering of teens practiced lifts and turns in a sun-dappled dance space. But in the never-finished School of Ballet, with its domes open to the sky, the jungle has won, and long tentacles of branches and roots creep through the interior.

In early 1961, just two years after the revolution, Fidel Castro and Che Guevara, playing a couple of rounds of golf on a once exclusive course, dreamed up the Art Schools for that very spot. They imagined the students, chosen on merit from families of workers and peasants, bunking near the country club in the fancy houses that had belonged to wealthy Cubans who'd fled. The schools' architects, Ricardo Porro, Roberto Gottardi and Vittorio Garatti, worked with astonishing speed--and creative abandon--to build a place so stunning and rich in its curves and textures. "You cannot begin to understand what were the hopes of those years," says the painter Ever Fonseca, a student in the first class, according to John Loomis's fine book, "Revolution of Forms: Cuba's Forgotten Art Schools." "We truly believed that all could be transformed merely by our work into a utopia." But the newly minted communist government was shifting; by the late '60s, under increasing Soviet influence, the experimental style of the schools--with their frankly sensual forms, built of "bourgeois" brick--fell from favor.

Today, Castro's government, though strapped for cash, plans to spend $20 million to restore the Art Schools. It's the latest sign that the regime wants to save at least some of Cuba's once glorious architecture--and not just its astonishing inventory of early colonial buildings but modern examples as well. Since the Soviet Union collapsed and cut aid in the early '90s, Cuba has been desperate for dollars and eager for tourists. In Havana, the Office of the City Historian has an unusual mandate to plow money from tourism directly into the restoration of the crumbling but elegant buildings of the Old City. That's made Habana Vieja (Old Havana) a destination nearly as hot as Cuba's beach resorts; about 55 percent ofhe country's 1.7 million annual tourists come to the capital (more than half of them are from Europe). Visitors stroll the colorful narrow streets and spruced-up old plazas, listening to salsa music spill from the cafes, stopping for a mojito at the bar of a freshly gentrified hotel. And now, some design buffs are making the pilgrimage out to the Art Schools, too; one visiting New York architect said the complex rivaled Cambodia's Angkor temples. Or they're checking out the modern high-rises of La Rampa downtown, or the fabulous '50s houses in the districts of Vedado and Miramar.

Havana's allure comes from the visibility of its history. "The aristocrats moved out of Old Havana in the late 1700s or early 1800s, abandoning their baroque palaces for El Cerro," says Mario Coyula, a leading planner and architect just back in the capital from a semester teaching at Harvard University. "Then they abandoned those villas for Vedado, then later for the newer Miramar. Some of those houses were neglected for more than 100 years." The city's sophisticated past was evident in the abundance of fine colonial buildings, the sprinkling of art nouveau houses, the art deco structures and modernist designs with a tropical twist. But with the revolution in 1959, Havana's development screeched to a halt. Most big-shot architects followed their wealthy patrons into exile. Except for building a handful of idealistic projects--such as the public housing in Habana del Este--the communists channeled their resources to smaller cities and the countryside. Though age and tropical storms have regularly toppled decrepit structures, nothing much has been torn down (people desperately need housing, even ancient, leaking housing). Blessedly, Havana missed '60s-style urban renewal, with its highways and high-rises ripping through old neighborhoods. "Usually modern architecture was very destructive of cities," says architect Antonio Choy. But not here.

You don't have to spend much time in Havana to recognize the other missing byproducts of modern globalization: there are almost no advertising signs (there's little to buy) or litter (no one throws anything away). Like Sleeping Beauty's castle, the city has been sitting in isolated splendor for more than 40 years. But given all its charms--its spectacular waterfront, the romantic beauty of its buildings and the elegance of its urban design--Havana fans fear for the future. What will happen when the U.S. trade embargo is finally lifted one day? Will the kiss of market capitalism bring, along with sorely needed investments, an unstoppable wave of McDonald's and Nike stores, shopping malls and skyscrapers, as it has to post-communist cities from Berlin to Beijing?

In a dark paneled office overlooking the Plaza de Armas in Habana Vieja, city historian Eusebio Leal is talking about achieving the right balance between preservation and livability. "Everyone agrees that it's a city covered with a veil of nostalgia, of beautiful crumbling decadence," he says in Spanish. "We've always believed it's also necessary to reveal it as a functional city, not a museum piece." In 1982, UNESCO declared Habana Vieja a World Heritage Site; nine years ago the Cuban government gave Leal unprecedented authority to rehab the district and manage tourism. His office not only restores old buildings, but also converts some to hotels and then runs them, rehabs museums, creates jobs and manages workers, and operates social services and housing for the neighborhood's residents--especially those displaced by the renovation projects. Last year the office earned $70 million in tourist dollars, and reinvested $21 million in more restoration. "We're finishing a 16th-century castle and three beautiful historical hotels," he says. "I'm very aware of what is lacking. We have poverty and problems, but in the main we've initially solved very acute problems."

Still, others remain. Havana is all about pulse, an ineffable mixture of the culture, the street life, the music and the cityscape, aglow in the tropical sun. But in the restoration of parts of the Old City, someone has turned down the volume. The density of the population is lower in rehabbed buildings: places that once housed dozens of people in crowded conditions now have roomier apartments for fewer families. (Social workers from the historian's office help to relocate many families to new housing outside the neighborhood.) Fewer people hang out in the street and less salsa blares from the windows. Havana's admirers tend to romanticize the decay of poverty, so the fixed-up streets seem a little sanitized. The city historian is determined to deal with that. "We've denied from the outset that there's any validity in creating a theme park," says Leal. His office has been careful to mix libraries, schools and housing among the tourist facilities. "In front of one of our most important hotels is a home for women and children," he says. "So we desperately continue to look for the balance. The people, through their character and their way of living, don't renounce the street."

While Old Havana has been getting all the attention, scholars of modern architecture have despaired. The city has a stunning stock of houses and office towers from the cha-cha '40s and '50s--most of them shabby and neglected. "Everyone agrees about the need to preserve colonial architecture, but not everyone agrees about the value of modern architecture," says Coyula. "They would be aware of the practical values but not the esthetic ones." In the past two or three years, the city historian has begun to lend his powerful voice to promoting 20th-century design. "We're interested in all of it, the architecture of the past and modern architecture, too," says Leal, whose team is restoring the gorgeous 1930 art deco Bacardi Building. "The fact that [Leal] is including the subject of modern architecture and its protection in every speech is of the greatest importance since he is so influential," says Eduardo Luis Rodriguez, whose "Havana Guide: Modern Architecture 1925-1965" is the best book in English on the subject.

To find modern architecture in Havana, you don't have to look very far. It's around almost every corner, even in the Old City--it was built to fill in the tightly woven fabric of buildings that line each street. A cool, modern parking garage, with a perforated concrete-block screen, for instance, will bang right up against an over-the-top 19th-century building, all bulging balconies and brilliant blue.

But to get a full dose of '50s Havana, amble up La Rampa, the wide boulevard, toward the Habana Libre, formerly the Havana Hilton, a midcentury-modern tropical fantasy. Nearby is one of the best modern high-rises, the 1958 Segura Medico apartment and office tower. Like the acclaimed Lever House in New York City, this building's slender rectangular tower is turned 90 degrees from its base, so the narrow end faces the street. Its multicolored sea-view balconies are faded now, and it cries for the kind of care that's been spent in the Old City.

Then there are the vestiges of Havana as sin city--the mobster mambo hotels. Near La Rampa is the Capri, now undergoing renovation, built by the American gangster Santo Trafficante. The Capri isn't a great design--though an interior decorator might kill for the lavish '50s chandeliers hanging in the lobby. But down the Malecon, Havana's glorious seafront road, is the glittering Riviera, built by Miami mobster Meyer Lansky on the eve of the revolution. Its early-Vegas style is something we've come to appreciate in hindsight. The Cubans should run '50s tours for young American urbanites who crave this stuff (the vintage American Chevys and Buicks parked all over the streets heighten the illusion)--if only the U.S. government would let its citizens travel here. Walking into the Riviera's swanky lobby is like stepping into a time machine: the curving walls and low-slung couches, the sunburst clocks behind the check-in desk and a floating stairway to nowhere--a homage to Miami Beach's Fontainebleau hotel. You can practically hear the clink of ice cubes and the Latin beat as you cruise its terrazzo floors.

Saving architecture may seem like a luxury in today's Cuba. While the Castro government has concentrated on education and health care--the country has a 95 percent literacy rate and you can have open-heart surgery in a dozen Cuban centers--severe poverty persists. But as fine examples of Cuba's design culture fade and disintegrate, the need for preservation grows more urgent. In the face of future change--Castro is 75 years old--Havana's leading architects and scholars worry about their city. In 1998, Coyula made an emotional speech to the union of artists and writers about the need for good design and planning. "I was saying globalization is not a theoretical threat, it's already here," he recalls. "It's happened with this very cheap banal architecture brought by foreigners." Already, there are a few ugly postmodern hotels in Havana, built by overseas developers. "I said, 'We cannot afford to lose this city--not just because of culture and nationalism but also because it's money. The moment Havana starts to look like any other city in the world, why come here?' " Castro and other top officials were there. "Fidel was only listening and listening, which is rare because he always has something to say," Coyula says. "Then he said, 'Thank you, because you have talked about things I never knew were happening'."

Coyula and some of his colleagues are a little more optimistic these days. Buildings such as the Tropicana nightclub from 1951 have been landmarked. There's a commission to review new projects. "I think that the initial moment when every proposal by a foreign investor was approved without any further consideration--it was just about the money--perhaps is slowly passing," says Rodriguez, who's part of a younger generation of architects and critics intent on preserving the design culture. Still, in a country that doesn't even register property values, there's reason for ongoing concern.

The international spotlight on Havana could help forestall disastrous development. Leal and his office have been showered with honors for their work from the French, the Spaniards and the Italians; most recently they won Belgium's Philippe Rotthier Prize for Urban Reconstruction. North American scholars, architects and critics--who are allowed by the U.S. government to travel to Cuba--are going in greater numbers. Just last week the Association of Collegiate Schools of Architecture, based in Washington, D.C., held a conference in Havana. Next spring in New York, an exhibition called "The Architecture of the Cuban Revolution," focusing on some of the idealistic '60s projects, including the Art Schools, will open at the Storefront for Art and Architecture, organized by Rodriguez. For Belmont Freeman, a Manhattan architect and president of the Storefront, launching the exhibit gives him a link to his own heritage--his mother, now 81, left Cuba in the 1940s to marry his American father. Freeman took her back to Cuba for a visit last year. "My mother was so happy to see that the Cubans are still Cuban no matter what the form of government was."

It's a point worth remembering: Cuban culture and the Cuban spirit seem to transcend almost anything else. Orestes del Castillo, a thoughtful and dapper architect who has devoted himself to restoration, puts it this way: "I'm not a politician. I'm just a technical adviser, a teacher. I'm not a member of the Communist Party. But I am working for my country, for my city, and I do it for love." Even if you're not Cuban, it's almost impossible to resist Havana's spell.