Cuba's other classics


Riviera Hotel in Havana, 2009
  Cuba’s much-photographed De Sotos and Cadillacs are famous reminders of the wealth and style that could be found in the country – or at least, in parts of it – in the 1950s.
But another, less-heralded legacy of that period is the Modern architecture that would take form in such bold structures as the Arcos de Cristal indoor cabaret at the Tropicana nightclub and the Havana Riviera hotel that stands proud over the Malecon.
   Strongly influenced by Miami Modernism from across the Straits of Florida, the Havana Modern school nonetheless remains distinctive for its fusion of clean, Atomic Age shapes and the deep eaves, interior courtyards and other time-tested design strategies for coping with a tropical climate.
   American writer Peter Moruzzi believes Havana Modern merits as much celebration as the remarkable colonial buildings that have earned La Habana Vieja (Old Havana) designation as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Yet it remains “largely ignored and unpublicized by Cuba’s tourist industry,” he laments in Havana Before Castro: When Cuba was a Tropical Playground (Gibbs Smith, 2008).
   Lavishly illustrated and printed on heavy stock, Havana Before Castro could help bring this delightful aspect of Cuba into the spotlight.
   This work isn’t just about the buildings. In a broad, if not always deep, examination of the island’s political, cultural and economic history, Moruzzi attempts to explain the complicated Cuban context. He discusses the music, the early attempts to foster tourism, even the famous cocktails.
   But as an architectural historian, his prime interest is the many surviving examples of Havana Modern, from the stacked coins of the Solimar Apartments in central Havana to the stilt-supported Max Borges Jr. Residence in Miramar. Full chapters are devoted to the Riviera, dream project of mobster Meyer Lansky, and the imposing Habana Hilton, renamed the Habana Libre by the revolutionaries who took power just months after it opened.
   Here, we learn that the same forces of necessity that keep Cuba’s classic cars in service have saved these structures from the changes and “improvements” they would have received elsewhere. In the Riviera, the Albert Parvin lobby furniture serves on, reupholstered but otherwise untouched. At the Habana Libre, an original Trader Vic’s restaurant that could be a set for AMC’s Mad Men is preserved as the “Polinesio.”
   Moruzzi is quick to credit Cuban author Eduardo Luis Rodríguez for his pioneering work in documenting this important phase of Cuban development. Rodríguez’s Havana Guide: Modern Architecture 1925-1965 is lauded as “the only comprehensive tour book of Modern Havana.”
  Still, Moruzzi's own Havana Before Castro also is valuable, both as an introduction to this aspect of Cuba's architecture and as a wider look at Cuban history.
   Learn more about Moruzzi and his book here.

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