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15 October 2012

Cuba: A Revolution of Forms and Reforms

Having sampled the glitz and gloss of New York and the weed and mushrooms of Jamaica, we dropped out of the sky and into the special period that marks Cuba today.

We were met at the airport by the Castro brothers, who seemed delighted by our arrival and promptly whisked us off to the history-rich Old Havana in an emerald green 1953 Chev. Our destination was the Sevilla Hotel, circa 1908, playground to the likes of Al Capone, Enrico Caruso, Graham Greene and Josephine Baker.

We spent a night and day sampling the sights and sounds of Old Havana before being collected by Juan Carlos, a local architect working on historical renovations, for a two-day intensive architectural tour.

First stop was the Edificio Bacardi, this building is to Havana what the chrysler buildijng is to New York, designed in 1930 in the Italian Renaissance style but changed to Art Deco during working drawings. It is now beautifully restored and includes a bar with the feel of a private club right out of the 1920s – dark and subdued – where we started the day with a shot of Havana Club and a short black. We were there during the time of the Havana Biennale, so we were treated to numerous off-the-wall sculptures around Havana including a giant spinning top in this foyer.

We then visited Manuel Copado’s 1944 Solimar Apartment building, the first wave of modernism in Cuba. It has been likened to the Marina Towers in Chicago built 15 years later. Max Borges 1950 Somellian apartments, with trapezoidal balconies that give a distinctive exterior, came next.

A number of concrete-shell-roofed buildings, including a grandstand and basketball court, were prominent at the time, including the Nautical Club by Max Borges in 1953 that celebrates the sea and shipping industry. These free-form concrete shells celebrate the Cuban spirit of sensuality, sun and salsa.

It was a dream of Fidel and Che’s to build a world-famous School of Arts located in the grounds of the abandoned former golf course and country club of an exclusive neighbourhood. The architects Ricardo Porro, Roberto Gottardi, and Vittorio Garatti were given two months to design before construction was to start. Built at the time of the US embargo that began in 1960 which made steel and cement very costly, they decided to use locally produced brick and terracotta tile in an organic form of the Catalan vault system.

The five schools (Fine Arts, Modern Dance, Ballet, Music and Drama) spring out of the existing undulating topography with serpentine arcades, domed pantheon-like studios and classrooms and freeform courtyards all linked by galleries of circulation that present an ever-changing contrast of light and shadow, of dark subterranean and brilliant tropical environments. This is architecture of poetry, mystery and magic, now listed by the World Monuments Fund as one of the world’s 100 most endangered monuments.

Further afield was the 1972 La Ruinas Restaurant in Lenin Park, built around the remains of the stone walls of a plantation house. It is a concrete post-and-beam structure set in a tropical garden that achieves stunning spatial quality with different ceiling heights that provide a diverse series of spaces using marble, natural stone, wood and stained glass. It was often inhabited by Fidel and his guests.

It was a wonderful experience walking along Havana's Paseo de Prado, the wide, marble-paved, tree-lined promenade, raised one metre above the crumbling streets and bordered by an ornate wall of alcoves and marble benches carved with scroll motifs. Here you can promenade in the shade, free from traffic, and peruse artists’ portfolios, listen to musicians and reciting poets, watch school children play and take lessons, or just marvel at the endless stream of 50s-era American cars and of course the elegant buildings on either side. It is a time warp of prime real estate of past mansions now subdivided for high-density mixed use: shops, garages, flats, dance halls, bars and schools all mixed up together.

The Prado leads from the Parc Central and the Capitol one kilometre to the sea and the famous Malecon seaside promenade with its charming buildings – partly restored, the pastel colours paled by the sun and the salt. This is also a place to promenade, people-watch and even fish as the locals do.

Cuba is stunning. Get there before it's too late.

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