Minneapolis architecture firm MSR travels to the Cuban capital—and returns with indelible impressions of its architectural beauty and economic hardship

Text by Thomas Meyer, FAIA
Photography by Lara Swimmer

Thirty-eight staff from the architecture firm MSR, where I am a principal, took an exploratory field trip to Havana in late February. The architecture we discovered is a well-worn collage, the result of  500 years of fortification, slavery and colonialism, religion and organized crime, capitalism and communism, revolutions and an embargo, utopian dreams and harsh realities. 

On two previous field trips, we visited the newest and most acclaimed contemporary architecture in modern American cities. Havana would be different. A place oddly frozen in time and ripe with complex history and impending change, Cuba’s capital city promised a rich architectural experience of both the vernacular and the exotic.

The contrast with our previous trips was immediately clear. Unlike the crowded and noisy chaos of sprawling American airports, Havana José Martí International Airport, which serves a city of two million and a country of 11 million, was more like visiting an aging small-town supermarket in 1960. A cow grazed in sight of the front door, and birds chirped in the trees as an occasional colorful 1950s car cruised into the little parking lot. The charm of this tranquility and the lack of traffic, pollution, and other auto-oriented ugliness characterized our five-day visit. Commercial billboards and overt signage are banned. Everywhere people were warm and welcoming. We saw few police officers and little sign of the oppression that has gripped the island for decades. With no Internet, I had no thought of deadlines, violent crime, or terrorism. And, yes, February in the tropics is a wonderful relief from Minnesota.

Things got more complicated as we settled into the 1994 Spanish-operated, 20-story Hotel Melia Cohiba. We learned that hotel workers are paid a fair wage of $8 to $10/hour, but the money goes to the government, which in turn pays perhaps a dollar or two a day to staff eager to have the opportunity. A dollar tip left daily for the maid received an enthusiastic thank-you note. Until recently, Cuban citizens were not allowed in hotels such as the Hotel Melia Cohiba, where they might be corrupted by materialism or be an unpleasant distraction to the guests. The hotel building itself, like its management, is an incongruity: generically luxurious to attract much-needed tourists but reflecting a placeless corporate hotel architecture that, if propagated, is a threat to the distinctive character the tourists are coming to experience.

While the communist government sanctions pockets of privilege such as the hotel, 57 years of their policies (they would argue it was the U.S. embargo) have created disastrous economic conditions. These circumstances prompt the continuous repair of vintage American cars and have created a housing crisis that leaves most of the city’s residents living in the near-ruins of pre-revolution buildings. The flamboyant and tropically colored cars have become a big part of Havana’s identity and a tourist attraction. They embody something of the Havanan spirit of adaptability and resourcefulness in an age of mass-produced, throwaway materialism.

Music, art, and daily life in general, needing little in the way of funding or a reliable plan for the future, seem to pulse with vitality and joy. But decades of poverty and improvisation have overwhelmed the values and ideals we architects take for granted. Architects plan for the future. Much of life in Havana has an on-the-edge-of-adversity immediacy that seems to deny a long-term future. Yet Havana’s remarkable architectural legacy, deteriorated as it may be, endures.

Historic Old Havana, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is a well-planned preservation effort that centers on five distinctive and appealing city squares. Preservation is much too slow to keep up with general deterioration across the city, but concentrating limited funds in the historic district has made a real impact. Between the five squares, much work still needs to be done, but the National Capitol building, Great Theater of Havana (home to the National Ballet of Cuba), historic Bacardi Building, and other prominent landmarks have been or are being restored. The visitor experience here is a very pleasant mix of the shabby and the historic.

Elsewhere, in the dilapidated buildings, we saw a resourcefulness and a rough beauty in the collage of divisions, additions, patches, and personal flourishes. Everywhere, elegant buildings built for one purpose have been taken over as multifamily residences: Mansions, arcaded street fronts, and even a former General Motors office building are now dense with dwellings. The claim is made that more than 90 percent of Cubans own their homes, but the majority of the housing stock is clearly inadequate and deteriorating. I don’t recall seeing any residential building that might have been built in the last 25 years. Instead, makeshift interventions are added inside, in front of, in between, and on top of the original structure. Pipes, water tanks, TV antennae, wires, clotheslines, and AC units accrue.

There are no apparent building codes or life-safety standards. No effective legal or financial structure defines how the common envelope enclosing individual units is to be maintained. Tropical dampness and termites continue to erode wood, metal, and porous limestone. Even in our fancy hotel, the water was undrinkable, and the lights flickered with power surges. As with houses in Detroit or post-Katrina New Orleans, Havana’s inhabited-but-decaying homes have a kind of sensational, voyeuristic, even romantic appeal that masks the misery and untapped human potential beyond the facade. Photography of these places by those privileged enough to live in better circumstances has become known as “ruin porn.” It’s all a lesson in the necessity of infrastructure, maintenance, and a functional economy and government.

Visiting the improbably radical utopian architecture that is Cuba’s National Art Schools (Instituto Superior de Arte) is like nothing I have experienced before. Everything from its allusions to African villages and the female body to its conceptualization by army-boot-clad revolutionaries playing golf and its current state as a glorious ruin is fantastic. Shortly after the 1959 revolution, Fidel Castro and Che Guevara visited the Havana Country Club (whose members had fled the country) to consider its future. They proposed creating a complex of experimental, tuition-free art schools on the site to serve talented young people from all over the socialist world.

There were to be buildings for the fine arts, drama, music, modern dance, and ballet. The schools were planned to create a “new culture” for the “new man,” with buildings that would reinvent architecture much like the Cuban Revolution sought to reinvent society. These were heady times. Architects Ricardo Porro, Roberto Gottardi, and Vittorio Garatti set up their design studio on the site. They agreed on three guiding design principles: integration with the rolling landscape of the golf course; use of locally produced brick and terra-cotta tile (the U.S. embargo made more conventional modern materials very costly); and use of a construction system based on the Catalan vault and organic form similar to what Gaudí had used in Spain.

In 1961, construction began on five eccentric, sensuous, and serpentine buildings spaciously arrayed across the verdant landscape. The design was thought of as a critique of the prevailing “capitalist” right-angle International Style. Soon setbacks in the socialist world brought reality to utopia. The government began to see the project as an extravagance in a declining economy, and the architects were criticized as elites. The schools themselves were criticized for “ideological errors.” In 1965, construction came to a halt, leaving the project incomplete. Recent international attempts to fund completion have been stalled by new complexities. Today, the School of Modern Dance and the School of Plastic Arts continue to be used while the other three structures sit in various states of abandonment and decay. We visited the functioning School of Plastic Arts and the abandoned School of Ballet.

The School of Plastic Arts is a wonder of curves and light and human activity with its sinuous streets, oval studios, and open-air spaces. Rainwater is collected in a consciously vulviform interior courtyard. A lush landscape of entwined, multi-trunked banyan trees surrounds the earthy warmth of the open-air, terra-cotta complex. It all makes you smile and want to be an art student.

An empty shell of vaults, domes, and stairs, the School of Ballet is nestled into the land along a shady creek. The ruins of the 1,000-foot-long Music School lie in the far distance, across a great green lawn; the only sounds are birdsong and the breeze. The dramatic entry sequence begins at the top of a wooded hill. As one proceeds down, the terra-cotta domes emerge, and the path descends into a winding passage that links the major spaces. In places, the landscape leads onto the roofs, merging earth and structure into an organic whole. The spiraling spatial experience of moving through and around the building is a marvel of architectural choreography made magical by the emptiness. It is easy to imagine the whirling ghosts of ballet dancers.

As an architect, I wonder what the future may hold for Havana. Will the deterioration of the housing stock and landmarks continue under failed communism until it is too late to save the rich fabric that has built up over centuries? Or will the need for tourism and money lead to the worst of capitalism—anywhere/everywhere corporate architecture, fast-food joints, and traffic jams? Although many buildings are too decayed to salvage, I see optimism for the architecture in the resourcefulness of people who not only can keep a 1959 Buick running and beautiful but also can transform it into a proud icon of Cuba. More money, better governance, and more professional design will be needed. But I see hope in the currently deployed strategies of incremental adaptation, which preserves the most useful and the most beautiful of the past while prudently and beautifully changing for the future.