Human Rights in Cuba

Time To Change

Waiting for help
Waiting for help

As Cuba’s embraces global , modernist works fall under threat
By ANTONIO PACHECO • April 25, 2017

This article appears in The Architect’s Newspaper’s April 2017 issue,
which takes a deep dive into Florida to coincide with the upcoming AIA
Conference on Architecture in Orlando (April 27 to 29). We’re publishing
the issue online as the Conference approaches—click here to see the
latest articles to be uploaded.

Preservation efforts aimed at recognizing and restoring Cuba’s storied
architectural relics—long a pet project within professional and academic
circles—might finally become mainstream as the country adopts
market-based policies.

The implications of these economic and political changes for Cuba’s
cultural heritage—much of which suffers from decades of deferred
maintenance—are potentially vast and unknown. Architect Belmont Freeman,
who has led many tours to Cuba on behalf of Docomomo and the Society of
Architectural Historians, said, “There are a lot of cranes in Havana
right now, every one of them related to a project.”

Recent years have seen a ballooning interest in Cuba by international
hoteliers. European luxury-hotel group Kempinski is set open its first
hotel in Cuba this summer. The hotel will feature 246 rooms in the
renovated Manzana de Gómez building, a UNESCO World Heritage site that
was designed as Cuba’s first shopping mall in 1910. Starwood Hotels &
Resorts Worldwide is also entering Cuba by taking over operations of
Havana’s neoclassical Hotel Inglaterra, the Hotel Quinta Avenida, and
the colonial-era Hotel Santa Isabel. The move makes Starwood the first
United States hotelier to enter the Cuban market since 1959. Hotel
Quinta Avenida was renovated in 2016 and opened last summer. The Hotel
Inglaterra, originally built in 1844, is expected to open in late 2017
after its renovation.

Real questions exist, however, not only in terms of the quality of these
renovations, but also with regard to the status of other cultural,
archeological, and architectural artifacts in the country. Cuba is home
to a vast array of architectural history, including relics and sites
important to the indigenous cultures that originally inhabited the
island. However, colonial-era fortifications and more recent building
stock, including successive waves of 18th-, 19th– and 20th-century
development, make up the vast majority of structures across the country.
What will happen to those less prominent and more sensitive relics? Many
of the city’s inner neighborhoods are filled with eclectic Beaux
Arts–style structures, while the outer city and its environs are a
hotbed of proto- and early-modernism, with works like the Hotel Nacional
by McKim, Mead & White from 1930 and the Habana Libre Hotel by Welton
Becket with Lin Arroyo and Gabriela Menendez from 1958 standing out both
in terms of architectural style and for their respective roles in local
and international history.

Furthermore, the Revolution’s communist utopianism was codified through
the prodigious production of radically progressive works of architecture
by Cuban modernist architects. Those works include the expressionist
National Schools of Art by Ricardo Porro, Vittorio Garatti, and Roberto
Gottardi from 1961; the Brutalist Ciudad Universitaria Jose Antonio
Echeverria (CUJAE) building by Humberto Alonso from 1961; and the vast
neighborhoods of Habana del Este that are made up of locally derived
designs modeled after Soviet modular apartments.

It is unclear if and when future building improvements are undertaken
across the city, whether more recent works of architecture will be
prized to the same degree as colonial-era works. Freeman painted a grim
picture, saying, “There has been a steady pace of cosmetic refurbishment
of old buildings in the colonial core of Old Havana, but (generally
speaking) historic preservation efforts have not picked up in any
significant way except for those related to tourism infrastructure.”

The effects of the recent formal economic and political changes in
official policy are not necessarily new phenomena, however: Havana has
strong track record of using historic preservation as an economic
driver. The office of the City Historian, led by Eusebio Leal Spengler,
has pioneered local attempts to embed the preservation and restoration
of Old Havana’s neighborhoods into economic development plans. Old
Havana is a UNESCO World Heritage Site in its own right, and while many
projects in the colonial core have benefitted from Leal Spengler’s
efforts—namely the restoration of Plaza Vieja and a slew of other
properties the office has converted for hotel and tourismuses—many of
the city’s early modernist and post-revolutionary architectural marvels
sit in various states of decay and disrepair. The restoration of the
National Art Schools was, until recently, slated for completion and
renovation. Those efforts have petered out, subsumed by a new economic
downturn following geopolitical turmoil in , one of Cuba’s
chief oil providers.

Cuban architect Universo Garcia Lorenzo, who was coordinating the
renovations for the National Art Schools until the funding dried up,
explained that with the Cuban government strapped for cash, major
restoration projects in the country will have to rely on international
funding. Some help is coming: The Italian government is funding the
continuation of work on Gottardi’s of Dramatic Arts and also,
England’s Carlos Acosta International Dance Foundation was working to
finance the rehabilitation of the ruined, Garatti-designed School of
Ballet. But, Garcia Lorenzo said, “I can’t speculate now on when the
restoration will be completed,” adding that despite the fact that
Porro’s School of Plastic Arts and School of Modern Dance had been
completely renovated in 2008, the current funding lapses meant there
would be a shortage of funds “dedicated to maintaining those structures
into the future.”

International funding cannot come soon enough, as the partially
completed and dilapidated structures are exposed to the tropical
elements. Garcia Lorenzo said, “Essentially, the three unfinished
buildings are frozen in time, slowly decaying and waiting to be restored.”

Antonio Pacheco
West Editor, The Architect’s Newspaper

Source: As Cuba embraces global tourism, modernist works are threatened
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