Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Historic Preservation in Cuba: a First Impression

In the late 1950s – probably like every other high school kid not immersed in sports and cars (I was into pothunting and chess), I dreamed of joining Fidel Castro’s cadres in Cuba’s Sierra Maestra. Had I only been a couple of years older, with better eyes, been a better shot, more able to roll my “r’s”…..

The aspiration was soon enough forgotten as I went off to the Navy and then to college, and as Cuba found itself with no choice but to align itself with the Soviet Union. But its memory echoed around in my head last week as I visited the island nation with my wife, daughter, and son on a Smithsonian Institution “People to People” tour. Such tours are among the several ways that U.S. citizens can now visit Cuba, despite our continued idiotic embargo (the Cubans call it el bloqueo – the blockade). Keeper of the National Register Carol Shull was on the same tour with her husband Joe; we carefully avoided philosophical discussions.

The tour – well organized, well directed, jam-packed and exhausting – wasn’t particularly focused on historic preservation, but naturally I paid special attention to the historic fabric of the places we visited – several parts of Havana, Matanzas, Cienfuego, Trinidad, the reforested 19th century coffee plantation at Las Terrazas. And came home with a range of impressions and puzzlements.

I don’t pretend to have become in any way expert – or even knowledgeable – in Cuban historic preservation, but such deficiencies have seldom prevented me from expounding on a subject, and the visit certainly provided lots of food for thought. So here are some first impressions.

What they say about Cuban historic architecture is true; the major cities at least are amazing mélanges of Neoclassical, Baroque, Art Nouveau, Art Deco, Moderne, Moorish, and the well-named Eclectic styles. Lots and lots of elegant, handsome buildings, quite a few of them very well preserved, restored, or rehabilitated.

But the well-preserved or fixed-up buildings are mostly major government and ecclesiastical edifices, high-end house museums, places entered in the World Heritage list and getting help from UNESCO or ICOMOS, and/or hotels and restaurants attractive to tourists. And even many of these show the sad fruits of much-deferred maintenance. I saw several major rehab projects – facademized gut jobs, often – abandoned in mid-career, scaffolding festooned with vines. I failed to ask, but my guess is that these were underway in the early 1990s when the Soviet Union collapsed and Cuba, deprived of its major trading partner, descended into the profound economic crisis now referred to as the “Special Period.”

In the neighborhoods, the graceful little houses and streetscapes that reflect the lives and values of ordinary people are pretty uniformly rotting and weathering away.

So I found myself puzzling over what a country like Cuba could possibly do – if it wishes – to maintain its historic character, respect the traditional cultural values of its people and communities and neighborhoods as expressed in architecture, while staying true to its socialist principles. I reached no very useful conclusions.

Just “opening up” to its northern neighbor (casually referred to as “the Empire”) is surely not the answer. That way has to lie a return to the days of Batista and his cronies, or rather to their steroid-infused ideological descendents on Wall Street and K Street and Miami’s Calle Ocho. But that’s clearly what a lot of people expect and want to see happen. “Five years,” crowed our airport shuttle driver in Miami (himself a fairly recent immigrant), “and then it’ll be wide open; you’ll be able to do ANYTHING!”

Yes indeed, and we can imagine what that anything may look like, both in socioeconomic terms and in terms of the historic, cultural, and social fabric of neighborhoods.

So what devices might Cuba employ to preserve its character while improving the lives of its citizens and achieving some sort of détente with the Empire and the rest of the capitalist world? And are such devices anything that we elsewhere in the world ought to consider emulating? We were shown a couple of maybe-models.

Art in support of preservation

We visited an art studio in a private home. Mimes performed outside – to expose the neighborhood to culture, we were told, in which its residents must have been perceived to be deficient. Proceeds from the sale of the art in the studio go – in part, I assume – to preserving and “restoring” (stabilizing?) the picturesque ruins of an old slave-operated sugar mill out in the country.

The president of the local Committee for the Defense of the Revolution (CDR) lived in a vernacular wooden house across the street with a weathered, unpainted facade; its residents and those of neighboring homes watched both the mimes and the tourists with what appeared to be studied impassivity.

It struck me that the model of using art to support preservation had promise, but I wondered if – especially for consistency with socialist principles – it couldn’t be reoriented somewhat. If one wants to involve the neighborhood in the arts, why in the world use the proceeds of your sales to preserve some ruin out in the bush? Why not use them to help the people fix up their houses, which are just as much a part of Cuba’s cultural fabric as are collapsed sugar mills? Wouldn’t this be truer to the spirit of the Revolution, and build a better relationship with the community?

There probably aren’t enough artists or art buyers to have a huge impact on the deterioration of Cuba’s unique architecture and neighborhoods, but it could make a modest contribution. And the model is doubtless exportable; I found myself imagining something similar being done in a pueblo in the U.S. Southwest, with pottery and weavings substituting for studio art. I don't know about the mimes.


Our very accomplished guide, Amircal Salermo Llanes1 (who thoughtfully goes by “Cal” among yanquis) told us about the “microbrigades” that in the 1970s built a good many of the apartment blocks around Havana and elsewhere. In essence, those who were going to live in them built the structures, using standardized plans and with supervision by a core of trained builders.

The structures are pretty ugly, though Amircal, who grew up in one, says he loved it and its community of residents. They not surprisingly reminded me of the brutalist slab-like structures you see all around Beijing, and that I understand are common in Moscow and other cities that fell under the humorless sway of the USSR after World War II. But the notion of investing sweat equity in building one’s own place is a widely attractive one, that a lot of governments (one thinks of Israel) have used to good effect.

In the midst of one group of Microbrigade apartment blocks there was a massive old building – I don’t know what it had been, but it was a handsome neoclassical masonry pile, about the size of the apartment buildings – standing vacant, windows and doors blown out. “Sadly,” Cal said, “there’s no use for it.”

“Huh?” I thought. Why couldn’t it be – have been – rehabbed as an apartment building along with all the new (sic) construction? Of course, I don’t know the particulars, but suspect that it didn’t fit into the Microbrigade program because it wasn’t amenable to (re)construction following cookie-cutter plans. But surely it could be rehabbed, and there’s no intrinsic reason why a Microbrigade couldn’t do it. Is that a model worth considering? Put people to work rehabilitating usable old buildings under modest professional supervision? Would such a model make sense in the U.S., too? A sort of neighborhood-scale urban homesteading program? One couldn’t expect rigorous attention to the U.S. Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for Rehabilitation or their Cuban equivalent, but it would surely be better to get people comfortably housed and retain good old buildings than to be sticklers for principles that, on the whole, are most meaningful to preservation specialists.

The Old Havana section of downtown Havana has been, on the whole, handsomely maintained and/or restored, as has the Plaza Major of Trinidad, with a good deal of help from UNESCO. All well and good, but I have to wonder whether there’s a tendency toward all or nothing – either preserve/restore fully or ignore. It’s an easy tendency to adopt. One of our fellow Yanqui tour participants engaged me in conversation and brought up the Old Post Office in Washington DC – as an example of poor preservation because it’s been converted to federal offices! Never mind what Donald Trump’s going to do to it, but my oh my, have we so badly failed to alert the public to the acceptability and practicality of adaptive use?

I continue to ponder lessons learned, or at least glimpsed, in my brief introduction to Cuba, and certainly have no answers. I just hope that someone is thinking creatively about its remarkable urban fabric, and how to preserve and make good use of it as the doubtless inevitable opening up proceeds.

1. amiricalsalermo@gmail.com; HIGHLY recommended to anyone seeking a guide or translator in Cuba.

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