Cuba: Deco with a Tropical Twist
By Kathleen Murphy Skolnik
Anyone who has traveled to Cuba is well aware that the island’s delights extend well beyond a sunny climate, royal palms, daiquiris and mojitos, and vintage automobiles. Cuba possesses a rich architectural legacy that dates from its centuries as a Spanish possession through its nearly twelve decades as an independent nation. The colonial-era palaces lining the city squares and the undulating Baroque façade of the Havana Cathedral may be the images seen most frequently in the pages of travel magazines. But impressive examples of Art Deco architecture—commercial buildings, churches, theaters, hospitals, hotels, and single and multifamily residences—can also be found throughout the island. In fact, Cuba’s striking Art Deco heritage led the International Coalition of Art Deco Societies (ICADS) to choose Havana as the site of the 2013 World Congress on Art Deco.
The Francisco Argüelles house in the Miramar neighborhood of Havana.
Main dining room, Catalina Lasa house, now known as Casa de la Amistad. Photo: Randy Juster/decopix.com
The first Cuban city to embrace Art Deco was Havana, where it arrived in the late 1920s during the first term of Cuban President Gerardo Machado. Machado was intent on modernizing the capital and this modernistic approach to design embodied the image he was striving to create.
What has been called the most magnificent Art Deco interior in the city was unveiled in 1927. Surprisingly, it lies behind the doors of the Baró-Lasa house, a rose-colored Italian Renaissance Revival mansion on Avenida Paseo in the El Vedado neighborhood, west of Havana’s downtown area. The romance of Juan Pedro Baró and Catalina Lasa, who was married when they met, caused quite a scandal among Havana’s elite and led the couple to self-exile in Paris until Cuba legalized divorce in 1917. The interior of the new home they moved into ten years later reflects the avant-garde design trends percolating in Paris during their time there. The Art Deco spirit pervades the furnishings and finishes—floors, metalwork, glass, lighting. The most spectacular space is the conservatory or sunroom, designed by the couple’s friend René Lalique and sheathed entirely in white opaque glass. Today the house is Casa de la Amistad, or Friendship House, welcoming visitors from around the world, and the former conservatory is a café.
The conservatory designed by René Lalique for the Baró-Lasa house in the El Vedado neighborhood of Havana. Photo: Randy Juster/decopix.com
The Francisco Argüelles House in Miramar, the first private residence in Havana to adopt Art Deco for both its interior and exterior, was also completed in 1927. A symmetrical design with two wings extending diagonally from the cylindrical entrance, it resembles the pavilion of the La Maîtrise design studio of the Galeries Lafayette department store at the 1925 Exposition internationale des arts décoratifs et industriels modernes in Paris.
Above the entrance is a relief panel by Cuban artist Juan José Sicre said to represent the struggle between the old and the new, perhaps a reference to the challenge posed by the avant-garde design of the house to Cuban architectural traditions.
The Bacardí Building of 1930 is widely acknowledged as one of Havana’s Art Deco jewels. The winning entry in the competition to select the architect was an Italian Renaissance-inspired design, but by the time of the building’s completion, the historic decoration originally proposed for the façade had been replaced with motifs reflecting trends displayed at the 1925 Paris Exposition. The multicolored bricks covering much of the façade are woven into geometric patterns, and terra-cotta nymphs peer down from the top floor. The tower’s ziggurat roof is topped with a bronze bat, its wings outspread, the company’s corporate logo. The spirit of Art Deco continues in the metalwork, moldings, floors, lighting, and elevator doors of the marble-clad lobby, but the highlight of the interior is the exuberant mezzanine bar with its tropical motifs. The company’s products could once be sampled there and, until the space was recently closed for renovation, visitors could sip Cuban coffee or rum—now Havana Club rather than Bacardí.
The terra-cotta clad Lopez Serrano Apartments in Vedado might be just as comfortable in New York or Miami as in Havana. Occupying an entire half block, this stepped back residential tower was the tallest multifamily building in Havana when it was completed in 1932. Entrances are framed by ziggurat-like arches, repeated in the lobby, which contains an Art Deco nickel-silver relief panel symbolizing the arrival of modernity by renowned Cuban artist Enrique García Cabrera. The panel was the inspiration for the logo of the 2013 World Congress on Art Deco in Havana. Art Deco motifs appear in the lobby’s terrazzo floors, and colorful Art Deco designs cover the tile floors of the individual apartments.
Many of Havana’s later Art Deco designs incorporate the aerodynamic forms that typified the Streamline Moderne apartments and hotels being constructed in Miami’s South Beach in the 1930s and 1940s. Among the most noted examples is the 1939 La Moderna Poesia, a bookstore located at the edge of Old Havana. Its beauty stems primarily from its gracefully curved lines rather than from a profusion of ornamental embellishments. The rhythmic undulating walls of the Solimar Building also reflect the streamline aesthetic. Completed in 1944, the residential Solimar marks a transition from the later phase of Art Deco into the age of Modernism.
The Bacardí Building with its pyramidal roof topped with its bat logo. Photo: Roberta Nusim
The Bacardí Building lobby.
The undulating façade of the Solimar Building.
From Havana, Art Deco spread throughout Cuba. One of the country’s largest collections of Art Deco architecture is located in Camagüey in the east central part of the island. A survey of the city’s historic buildings identified more than 1,000 examples representing a wide variety of building types. Art Deco arrived later in Camagüey than in Havana. Its first appearance dates to the mid-1930s but the trend persisted into the 1940s and, in a few cases, even into the 1950s.
The Champagnat School on Martyrs Avenue in the La Vigia, or Watchtower, neighborhood, is considered to be the finest example of Art Deco both in Camagüey city and the entire province of Camagüey. Founded by the Marist order, it opened in 1941. Although the Marist brothers are gone, it continues to function as a school. The modest three-story structure has a five-part façade with the entrance and the two corner pavilions projecting from long recessed expanses in between where most of the classrooms are located. The symbol of the Marist order remains etched in the glass of the tympanum above the doors, which are surrounded by chevrons and flanked by continuous projecting pilasters that extend almost to the full height of the building. The façade is decorated with stylized low relief panels containing symbols of education and learning—a book, globe, and compass—and stylized foliage against a fluted background.
Also on Martyrs Avenue in La Vigia, not far from the Champagnat School, is the Ignacio Agramonte Provincial Museum. The structure itself dates to the colonial period when it housed a cavalry barracks. In the early twentieth century, the building became the Camagüey Hotel, considered the finest in the city at the time. In 1948 it was transformed into a museum. The remodeled façade is an example of the Art Deco variant known in Cuba as Modern Monumental, an austere modernistic interpretation of classical elements known in the United States as Classical Moderne or WPA or PWA Moderne. The portico or covered walkway fronting the entrance was part of the building’s adaptation to a museum. It is supported by twelve monumental fluted piers and echoes the public arcades of the older buildings lining Martyrs Avenue.
Development of La Caridad, a neighborhood southeast of the original city boundaries, began in the nineteenth century when Camagüey’s historic core became overcrowded. Its principal commercial street, Liberty Avenue (originally Charity Avenue), is the location of the Art Deco Alkazar Theater, which opened in 1948 and at the time was the largest theater in Cuba outside of Havana. The continuous piers and vertical bands of windows of the theater’s upper façade are balanced by the horizontal canopy, once topped by the marquee, and a horizontal band below the roofline that originally displayed the theater name. The theater is currently under restoration.
The Streamline Moderne façade of the La Moderna Poesia bookstore.
Camagüey has literally hundreds of Art Deco residences. One of the most outstanding is a two-story home in the La Vigia neighborhood dating to 1940. The design incorporates an intriguing combination of curved and straight planes separated by a vertical molding that rises above the level of the roof. Inside, a graceful curved staircase lit by long narrow windows filled with colored glass and surrounded by geometric woodwork leads to the second floor. One of the most surprising and spectacular features of the house are two original Art Deco bathrooms.
Most Art Deco residences in Camagüey, however, are much more modest. They consist primarily of simple one-story single-family homes whose sole nod to Art Deco may be a stepped parapet or low relief panels with a seemingly endless variety of stylized floral and geometric designs. The style has been labelled Art Deco Pobre, or poor Art Deco, because it is so simple, but it is often this simplicity that makes these buildings so appealing.
The Wenceslao Infante Theater in Holguín.
Chapel of the Convent of the Servants of Mary in Cienfuegos.
Holguín, Cienfuegos, and beyond
About 100 miles northeast of Camagüey is the city of Holguín, another repository of Art Deco design. As in Camagüey, Art Deco first made its appearance in Holguín in the 1930s. The most significant Art Deco building in the city is the Wenceslao Infante Theater, which opened in 1948. The façade of the three-story rectangular structure features fluted vertical bands, stylized relief panels, and ziggurat motifs topping the continuous pilasters that rise above its entrance, which was originally illuminated by blue neon at night.
Holguín’s Art Deco National Medical College overlooks one of the city’s many parks. The red panels that rise the full height of the façade of the two-story building convey a sense of verticality, despite its modest height. A zigzag pattern fills the panels that decorate the upper part of the façade, which also displays the school’s emblem. Art Deco detailing continues in the interior, as seen in the rectilinear design in the balustrade of the staircase leading to the second level.
The city of Cienfuegos lies on Cuba’s south coast about 150 miles east of Havana. Most Cuban churches are Baroque, Neocolonial, or Gothic designs, so the two Art Deco churches in Cienfuegos, one Catholic, the other Baptist, are somewhat of a surprise. The Art Deco features of the chapel of the Convent of the Servants of Mary from 1940 are confined primarily to the entrance, which is framed by colossal fluted pilasters. The monstrance, the receptacle for the consecrated host, shown in relief over the entrance is reflected in the design of the stained glass window overhead. The Baptist church, which dates to 1936, is located on the Cienfuegos Prado, the city’s most significant street. Its tower is decorated with geometric latticework and topped with a pyramidal roof. Stained glass chevrons fill its windows.
Art Deco in Cuba is by no means confined to the cities of Havana, Camagüey, Cienfuegos, and Holguín. Examples exist in Matanzas, Santa Clara, Las Tunas, Santiago de Cuba, and many of the small municipalities that lie in between. Unfortunately, the preservation of Cuba’s Art Deco masterpieces has, for the most part, been a far lower priority than the conservation of its colonial-era architecture. Hopefully, the attention generated by events such as the 2013 World Congress and the efforts of the Art Deco Societies now active in a number of Cuban cities will awaken the need to preserve and restore these treasures of the more recent past as well.
About the Author:
Kathleen Murphy Skolnik teaches art and architectural history at Roosevelt University in Chicago, and has led seminars on Art Deco at Chicago’s Newberry Library. She is a member of ADSNY’s Advisory Board. She lectures extensively on Art Deco topics and is the co-author of The Art Deco Murals of Hildreth Meiere and the editor of the English translation of Havana Art Deco: Architectural Guide by Maria Elena Martin Zequeira.
All photos unless noted otherwise: Kathleen Murphy Skolnik
Article originally published in the Art Deco New York journal, Vol. 3, Issue 2, Winter 2018. View a digital version of the full journal here.