Los Angeles

A California Architect Visits Cuba


Over the years my love of architecture has served as an excuse for travel. Since Europe has no travel restrictions for American tourists, architectural pilgrimages to visit the Châteaux of the Loire Valley or the Palladian villas of the Veneto were accomplished with relative ease. I wanted to visit Cuba for years, but until recently the embargo of 1959 precluded private architectural tourism. However, changes instituted by President Obama in 2011 now allow the Treasury Department to grant "people-to-people" licenses which permit visits to Cuba that focus on meeting local citizens and learning about the culture. I signed up for such a trip; the itinerary included visiting cultural institutions and speaking with musicians and community leaders. Treasury Department guidelines require these tours to include a full-time schedule of educational exchange activities that result in meaningful interactions between travelers and locals. Visits to historic sites like Old Havana and Cienfuegos, both UNESCO World Heritage sites were included. For me, the appeal of Cuba is fueled by urban myths. One such myth suggests that when the current regime changes, developers will swarm in and "have their way" with Havana's historic colonial architecture, most likely razing buildings in favor of new construction. Another is that no significant new architecture has been built in Cuba since the embargo, resulting in a built environment frozen in time.

Castillo de la Real Fuerza | Photo: Patrick McGrew.

Castillo de la Real Fuerza (1558, Bartolomé Sánchez).
Old Havana

For openers, it appears that Cuba's most important historic resources are not in danger of demolition. The island counts eight UNESCO World Heritage sites among its architectural and cultural treasures, the most important of which is Old Havana and the Castillo de la Real Fuerza. The castle is a remarkably intact fortress that dates from Havana's Settlement Period. In 1994 the Cuban government created the independent Office of the Historian of Old Havana a private, non-profit entity whose mission is to restore historic buildings. This effort is intended to encourage sustainable tourism in Old Havana and elsewhere and provide social benefits to the citizenry. Originally funded by bank loans, at present the Office derives income for its work through management agreements with more than 300 facilities in Old Havana including restaurants, shops, markets, coffee shops and hotels. Its efforts currently extend beyond the borders of Old Havana to include projects like the projected restoration of the historic buildings that line the Avenida de Maceo (the Malecón) a broad esplanade, roadway, and seawall that stretches 4 miles along Havana's waterfront. New businesses are appearing on the Malecón due to economic reforms in Cuba that now allow Cubans a limited ability to own private businesses. The Office of the Historian is also involved in the ongoing restoration of the former Presidential Palace, now the Museum of the Revolution, and the 15th century Castillo de los Tres Reyes Magos del Moro, "Moro Castle," designed by Italian engineer Juan Bautista Antonelli, and built beginning in 1859.

Cuba's oldest extant architecture reflects its Spanish past, examples of which are still commonplace on the streets of downtown Havana and in small Colonial towns elsewhere on the island. Old Havana, the town's historic commercial/financial district, resembles historic city centers in many European capitals with its intact collection of Beaux-Arts hotels and banks. However, it is outside the historic core that the earliest examples of California-influenced architecture are found in Havana.

Hotel Nacional de Cuba | Photo: Patrick McGrew.

The Hotel Nacional de Cuba (1930, McKim, Mead & White) is situated on the Taganana Hill overlooking the Malecón. The battery of Santa Clara was positioned on the Taganana in the 1800s. By locating the hotel in this neighborhood, the once abandoned area was given new life. The building was the first in Havana to use concrete-covered steel beams. Art Deco is clearly identifiable in some aspects of the hotel design; neoclassical and neocolonial elements are also present. There are even elements of the "California Style" (Mission Revival) which make the hotel's eclectic design more interesting. Like Palm Springs in the 1940s & '50s, the Nacional received a stream of famous guests including Nat King Cole, Buster Keaton and Marlon Brando. Sir Winston Churchill puffed Havana cigars in its elegant rooms and Frank Sinatra sampled Cuban rum at the hotel patio bar. Johnny Weissmuller toured his aquatic show at the Nacional and other prominent hotels worldwide (including the El Mirador in Palm Springs) to promote BVD underwear.

Havana Hilton/Habana Libre Hotel | Photo: Patrick McGrew.

Havana Hilton / Habana Libre Hotel (1958, Welton Becket & Associates with Nicolas Arroyo & Gabriela Menendez1 )
Calle 23rd at Calle "L"
El Vedado
La Habana, Cuba

Designed by Welton Becket & Associates, one of Los Angeles' leading mid-century corporate architectural firms, no building in Cuba captures the California aesthetic better than the 25-story Havana Hilton. The similarities with Becket's Beverly Hilton of 1953 are everywhere. Both hotels included circular ramps at the entrance to take cars down to the basement parking garage. Both hotels utilized the same materials, forms and execution including extravagant cantilevers; interior shopping arcades; a rooftop bar and night club; and steel balusters on the balconies. Even the guest rooms themselves were originally more Beverly Hills than Havana, although the Los Angeles hotel actually had 13 more rooms.

Historic postcard image of the Beverly Hilton.

I spent several years working in Becket's San Francisco office and know few firms who had the marketing skills and political connections of Welton Becket Associates. The team assembled for the Havana project included the Cuban husband and wife architects Arroyo y Menendez; Arroyo having also served as the Minister of Public Works under President Batista. The hotel, operated by Hilton, was built with the personal support of Batista as an investment by the pension plan of the Cuban Catering Workers' Union. The hotel opened on March 22, 1958, with Conrad Hilton himself in attendance. It was Latin America's tallest and largest hotel, and like the Beverly Hilton, boasted a Trader Vic's Restaurant, featuring their popular mix of Polynesian artifacts, unique cocktails, and exotic cuisine. Renamed Polynesia, the restaurant survives intact today, although the food is no longer Polynesian. The hotel also featured a casino, supper club, pool, and rooftop bar. Following the entry of Fidel Castro into Havana, on January 8, 1959, the hotel became his headquarters. The hotel remained in operation as a Hilton for two more unsuccessful years as relations between the U.S. and Cuba worsened. In October, 1960 all American hotels in Cuba were nationalized. The Hilton was then renamed the Hotel Habana Libre (Hotel Free Havana).

A renovation completed in 1997 rehabilitated the enormous original mural by artist Amelia Peláez2 over the main entrance that had been hidden from public view for decades. Less fortunate was the decision to enlarge the rooms by enclosing the balconies and eliminate the usable outdoor space in guest rooms. Today the hotel is in an advanced state of decay; maintenance has been deferred and upkeep is poor, resulting in a hotel that was once ranked among the best in Havana and is now ranked among the worst.

de Schulthess Residence | Photo: Kim McKnight.

Alfred de Schulthess Residence (1956, Richard Neutra)
15012 Calle 19A

A perfect example of California-inspired modernism in Cuba is the Alfred de Schulthess Residence. This Havana residence was Neutra's only tropical project. It was designed for Swiss banker Alfred de Schulthess who only lived in the house for four years (1956-1960). Since then it has served as the residence of the Swiss Ambassador to Cuba. The gardens were designed by Brazilian Burle Marx, who is considered the most important landscape architect of the twentieth century by Cubans. The garden design is far more South American in feel than the house itself. To create one of the best examples of modern architecture in Cuba, Neutra was assisted by local associates Raul Alvarez and Enrique Gutierrez. Entered via a covered walkway supported by Neutra's trademark "spider-leg" colonnade, the geometric elegance of the building compares favorably with Neutra's Lovell Health House (1927) in Los Angeles and his landmark Edgar Kaufmann Desert Residence (1946, Palm Springs California) Before the revolution, Havana was considered one of the bastions of modern architecture. The de Schulthess Residence is an intact example of important early modernist architecture in Cuba, and in 1958 it was awarded the Gold Medal of the Cuban National Association of Architects.

Coppelia  | Photo: Patrick McGrew.

Coppelia (1966, Mario Girona)
Calle 23rd at Calle "L"
El Vedado
La Habana, Cuba

After the Embargo, shipments of steel beams to Cuba became difficult. Local architects, who were already being influenced by the biomorphic modernism of Italian, Mexican and South American modernists like Pier Luigi Nervi, Felix Candela and Oscar Niemeyer saw this as an opportunity to abandon the rectangular forms of the steel high rises and explore the plasticity of reinforced concrete. These undulating forms are much more characteristic of Cuba than the examples of American modernism from the 1950s that dominate the Havana skyline as symbols of another time. Across the street from the Habana Libre there is a perfect example of this style: the amazing and popular ice-cream parlor Coppelia. This local outlet of the state-run ice cream chain is one of the town's most popular informal gathering spots. It is located in a square-block park, on the site of a demolished hospital in the commercial core of Havana's modern and formerly elite El Vedado neighborhood. The park features lush groundcover and a canopy of towering Banyan trees that shade open-air dining areas. Curvilinear paths lead to an elevated, circular pavilion where the only indoor seating is found. The complex was named by Cecilia Sanchez, Fidel Castro's long-time private secretary, after her favorite ballet. The park itself is an urban place that recalls elements of the traditional Latin American plaza. It is also said to illustrate ways in which populist ideology and orientation helps shape the design and use of public spaces. Coppelia employs more than 400 workers and serves 4,250 gallons of ice cream to 35,000 customers each day. In many ways, the building's clean lines, unadorned façade, and structural supports recall the LAX Theme Building.

LAX Theme Building | Photo: Patrick McGrew.

LAX Theme Building (1961, Luckman & Periera, Welton Becket, Paul R. Williams)
201 World Way
Los Angeles

Cuba - a world forcibly divorced from the American mainland - has acquired a mythology of separation based upon politics. In truth, its architecture reflects longstanding cultural and artistic connections to Cuba's northern and southern neighbors. It is not a world apart, but a synthesis of the major design movements of the 20th Century and a rich repository of architectural history awaiting rediscovery by the world at large.


1Nicolás Arroyo-Márquez (31 August, 1917 Havana, Cuba - 13 July, 2008 Washington, D.C.) was a Cuban architect, diplomat and minister. He was the last Cuban Ambassador to the United States in 1958 before Fidel Castro's rise to power. He had previously served in the government of Fulgencio Batista as the Minister of Public Works (1952-1958). Arroyo was third of five children born to the lawyer, Nicolas Arroyo and Hortensia Marquez. He graduated as an architect from the University of Havana in 1941. In December 1942, he married fellow architect Gabriela Menendez-Garcia-Beltran (died 10 July 2008) and formed the architectural firm "Arroyo y Menendez".

2An exhibition of Pelaz' work is currently on display at the Cuban National Museum of Fine Arts.

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Top Image: Panorama from the Havana Hilton | Photo: Patrick McGrew.

About the Author

Architect, author, architectural historian and photographer, Patrick McGrew received his Bachelor of Architecture degree from the University of Oklahoma in 1965. He has been actively engaged in the architectural profession, specia...
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Mr. McGrew, did you have a chance to visit the National Art Schools of Cuba while you were in Havana? I traveled to Cuba in December on a people-to-people license focused on the country's architecture and got to tour these incredible buildings and meet their architects. Their fascinating history is told in the documentary "Unfinished Spaces" (http://www.unfinishedspaces.com/); anyone interested in Cuba or architecture should see it.


Brilliant, just brilliant. However, I don't see any pictures of the trash piles on the streets which have caused the recent outbreak of cholera on the island. Where are those pictures?

How about the pictures of the buildings that are crumbling to the ground, yet people need to live in them? How about the photos of the "grocery" stores that have no doors and fill with flies as people get their government-rationed items?

Hey now, 1 container of milk for a family of 4 for a month - yeah you really captured the REAL Cuba with these pictures. You're only posting what the Cuban government has allowed you to see. This is pathetic.

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