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A Crumbling Legacy

Restorationists try to come to the rescue of the eclectic, grand buildings of Havana. But after 40 years of Castro, is it too late?

June 14, 1998|Patrick Pacheco | Patrick Pacheco is a regular contributor to Calendar from New York

NEW YORK — In 1992, the Los Angeles-based art conservator and writer Rosa Lowinger returned to Havana for the first time since her family left Cuba in 1961, when she was a small child.

"Unlike many Cubans, my parents are not nostalgic people," she says. "My mother, who grew up poor in Cuba, had bleak memories of old Havana. So when I got there, there was little of the romantic mystery that seems to affect others. And the place was terribly run down and so hot and so bright that it hurt my eyes. But the second day my eyes opened up, and through the peeling paint and crumbling facades, what I saw was some of the most amazing architecture in the world."

What Lowinger glimpsed on her first visit, and on subsequent trips to Havana, is what strikes most people who come to the overburdened capital--a chaotic fantasia of faded buildings that are the memory of Havana's centuries-long history as the crossroads of the trading world. Since its colonialization by Spain in 1560, fortunes were made in tobacco, sugar, trading and shipbuilding, and money poured into the creation of lavish monuments to commerce and society, from Baroque mansions with lavish porticos, loggias and wrought-iron balconies, to Art Nouveau business offices surprisingly profligate with stained-glass, to Art Deco apartment buildings accented with elaborate terrazzo floors and bronze and glass doors.

Today, to walk down the streets of Havana is both exhilarating and depressing. "Havana is probably the only place in the world where you can look through a Neoclassical portal and see a live rooster standing on a Soviet refrigerator," says Lowinger.

Now, after 40 years of neglect under Castro's communism--during which time most of these buildings have not had so much as a paint job--these testaments to Cuba's past glories are in danger of being lost forever. Everyday there are what the Cubans call "derumbes" (meaning collapses) as minor as decorative architectural elements tumbling from buildings, as major as entire structures falling into a sad heap of rubble, their broken grandeur left to glisten in the sun or the pale moonlight. The city itself is as shabby as the stray curs which lie in the shade of elegant porticos or lope through streets reeking of the exhaust of camelos, huge bus-like transports, or wheezing Chevies and Plymouths from the '40s and '50s.

The architectural crisis in Cuba has led to a revolution of sorts in the effort to shore up and, in some cases, totally renovate the city's architectural wonders, particularly during the last three years. The effort to conserve Havana, as well as the rest of the country for that matter, is beginning to pick up speed. The innovative programs for administering and financing the projects which may well have repercussions both for Cuba's future and for other international conservation efforts. The urgency, which is raising scaffolding all over the city, has certainly drawn the interest and support of the international community. This interest was particularly apparent at a recent day-long conference held in New York last month under the joint auspices of the Cooper-Hewitt Museum, the National Design Museum and Fundacion Amistad, a New York-based nonprofit organization that promotes charitable and humanitarian activities regarding Cuba.

On May Day, while Havana was awash in celebrations of the fraying edges of the Communist revolution, a group of architectural experts and students from Cuba and the United States gathered in the historic Great Hall at Cooper Union to discuss the daunting challenges of preserving Cuba's architecture. The meeting also marked one of the few opportunities to lift the veil on the embargo of information between the two countries. There is no question that the 40-year-old U.S. embargo against Cuba has had a serious deleterious effect, and there is now an urgent need to marshal resources and knowledge for the massive projects ahead.

"It is a strange process," said Lowinger, a speaker at the seminar who has taught conservation classes in Cuba in an unpaid capacity. "I can work within the guidelines of U.S. Treasury Department only if I'm not paid and the project is an academic exchange of information. It's preposterous that we have to jump through hoops for something as benign as helping to save Cuban architecture. So what if saving a building helps the Cuban government? Who cares? It's a question of historic preservation, not politics. What architect or historian or conservator doesn't want those buildings to be in as good shape as possible?"

Another participant at the seminar, Adolfo V. Nodal, a Cuban-American who is director of historic preservation for the city of Los Angeles and general manager for L.A.'s Department of Cultural Affairs, saw such exchanges as mutually beneficial. "Whether we're talking about L.A., Beijing, Quito or Havana, people who care about historic preservation have the same demons to fight--public apathy and limited resources. It unifies us in a way."

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