This was my second trip to Havana and my second opportunity to work with the wonderful people at Unpack Studio. My project, Havana: Behind the Façade, is an ongoing effort to document Cuban architecture and current preservation practices in Havana. This was accomplished through meeting with and interviewing preservationist professionals and by building a photographic documentary series. As in 2017, I was accompanied by my husband, Frank Hellwig, and recognize that so much of my success has come from his assistance.
There was something unique and special about back-to-back visits to Cuba, less than a year apart. First, I was struck by how little things change in Havana. There was a sense of deja-vu encountering familiar faces on the street, being served by the same people in restaurants, and being greeted by the same neighborhood animals. In stark contrast to this, were the physical changes, resulting from Hurricane Irma. It was hard to see buildings that we documented in 2017 recovering from damage or totally gone. An example of this was the disappearance of the ruins of the Gran Hotel Trotcha in Vedado, but true to the Cuban spirit, this architectural loss is being used to benefit the community, as it is now being infilled as an internet park. Other obvious signs of hurricane damage included the loss of many trees and additional street erosion from flooding.
As for my project, over the past year I have learned a tremendous amount about Cuban architecture and how it is being preserved. The benefit of this continued residency is that it allowed me to peel back the layers of Havana’s preservation efforts and bring more focus to the details. I am excited about the new contacts I made this summer and thrilled to have the opportunity to strengthen the relationships that were begun a year ago.
My study revealed that preservation efforts in Havana fall into 3 broad categories: government, private, and international efforts. The most well known governmental preservation efforts come from the Office of the Historian under the Minister of Culture. We were fortunate to meet with Ayleen Robainas Barcia, architect for the Office of the Historian. She shared with us the history and success of the Office of the Historian, explained how projects are prioritized using the Master Plan, and revealed future goals for the waterfront area around Havana Vieja. Though extremely busy, Ayleen was generous with her time, shared published reports on preservation work in Havana, and walked us through the office complex housing the Office of the Historian.
Also, under the Office of the Historian, we met with Juan Jesús Gesen Musa, Specialist in Restoration of Architecture Works for the Gaspar Melchor de Jovellanos Trade School. I met Gesen last year on the 2017 residency where he introduced me to the overall concept of the city’s preservation trade schools, but this year he spent a day taking us into classrooms to observe students as they learn the traditional methods of building preservation. In specific, we spent time with students learning mural painting, stonework, and forging. Students are selected from across Cuba to learn these traditional techniques and, in return, are guaranteed jobs with the Office of the Historian upon graduation. It was also on this visit to the preservation trade school that I was introduced to Cuba’s innovative vegetable coal product, made from the marabou bush weed. This sustainable product has all the benefits of traditional coal but burns with no smoke or ashes. Cuba currently exports over 20,000 tons a year of this product to Europe.
One of the current projects under the Office of the Historian is the restoration of the Capitol Building. Carlos Bauta Martin, marble restorationist, currently focused on the restoration of the Capitol, shared information about the challenges this building has presented and the work that is ongoing. I was thrilled to learn that, unlike a year ago, the restored portion of the Capitol is now available for tours. Laura Rodriguez Balbuzano, the Daily Coordinator for Unpack Studio, took us to see this impressive building. It was great to see the finished work of Carlos and other preservationist, including the preservation trade school students.
Historic buildings owned by other government agencies use their own restoration teams. This is the case with the Museum of the Revolution, also known as the Presidential Palace. Here, we met with restorationists, Leonardo Gomez Gonzalez & Alejandro Rojas Santana, to document the progress they’ve made since last summer when we were first introduced to this massive project. Due to an upcoming visit by President Miguel Díaz-Canel in August 2018, everyone is working overtime to restore many of the rooms that are currently not open to the public. We were able to observe the restoration of moldings, ceilings, window, doors, chandeliers, just to name a few. The work of this restoration team is impressive and an inspiration! I am grateful to Unpack Studio for initiating this contact and to Leonardo Gomez Gonzalez for his time and for sharing this jewel of Cuban architecture with us. It was a highlight of the trip!
This summer’s residency allowed us to delve deeper into restoration work being conducted in Havana by private citizens. Where most private citizens are limited in what they can do, due to lack of funds and resources, there is a growing class of citizen with additional means. Hermes Mallea, in his book Havana Living Today states that “…Cuba’s artists are themselves an exclusive group, occupying a place of privilege in the Cuban economy.” Many are returning to Havana after international success and are investing in repurposing once stylish homes into becoming their new studio spaces. Unpack Studio created an opportunity for us to see the adaptive reuse of historic homes orchestrated by 2 of Cuba’s internationally renowned artist, Wilfredo Prieto and Esterio Segura Mora.
Wifredo Prieto met us at his property, one of the oldest houses in Vedado, formerly the home of Mercedes Alfonso. He shared his plans to turn this once elegant building into a cultural space containing an art gallery and artist residency. Effort to retain the original architectural character of the building is a priority, as well as honoring the history of the house. Wilfredo also took us to his studio warehouse where we were introduced to his architect, Fernando Martirena Cordoves, and viewed study models of the project. This gave us the opportunity to learn more about his work and see a sample of his art.
A visit to the studio of Esterio Segura Mora in Cerro also did not disappoint. Esterio explained how he had taken a Spanish Colonial home and turned it into a modern space for the purpose of creating and displaying his work. Architectural features that were changed were carefully encapsulated for easy future restoration. He also shared his plans for future renovations to the building, as he expands the space to encompass an artist residency, space for specialized art techniques, and an outdoor rooftop gallery with room for entertaining. Computer aided drawings were used to show how the building will evolve as these plans progress.
In addition to these artist, Dannys Montes de Oca, curator and art contact with Unpack Studio, introduced us to Cuban international entrepreneur, Henry Walon, who has also returned to Havana from Germany to restore a private residence. Henry showed us around the space and shared his vision for his future home. Henry’s vision, along with that of Wilfredo and Esterio, reflect the evolving future vision for Cuba, as reinforced by the recently announced changes to the Cuban constitution recognizing free enterprise and private property.
Along with these examples of government and private restoration work, international efforts to preserve significant Cuban architecture was also observed. We were fortunate to be invited to document the British Ambassador’s Residence, the former home of Pablo Gonzalez de Mendoza. We met with Sandra Lopez of British Embassy Corporate Services, as well as Emilio Molina and Michael Sanchez of the Technical Work Group (TWG) to learn the history of this building and how it is maintained. Built in 1916, this home has served as an ambassador’s residence since 1934 and the British Ambassador’s Residence since 1957. Since the revolution, confiscated properties, such as this one, are rented to foreign countries by the managing state agency, Palco. This agency is responsible for exterior repairs and restoration work but struggles to maintain all its properties with limited materials and resources. The British government is responsible for interior repairs and restoration work. Each year, a proposal for needed work is submitted to the British government and approved work is funded. Many materials can be brought in from Great Britain, but like everyone in Cuba, the lack of resources impacts the work. A special thank you to Sandra Lopez, who went out of her way to send me additional materials and photographs of this wonderful home.
In addition to these specific buildings, we walked the streets, documenting the state of architecture in Havana. We met wonderful people across the city. I would especially like to thank the Valdivia family for inviting us into their home. Their hospitality made for a memory I will not soon forget. We made it part of our mission on this trip to spend time in the Centro neighborhood. Most restoration work in el Centro appeared limited to a fresh coat of paint, but this historic neighborhood has many architectural features worthy of notice.
Between all this work we enjoyed learning more about the Cuban culture by touring the National Decorative Arts Museum, the Captains Generals’ Palace, Club Habana (the former Biltmore Yacht & Country Club), the nightly cannon ceremony at Castillo de San Carlos de la Cabaña, and a day trip out of Havana to the Vinales region. We loved the live traditional Cuban music, the salsa dancing, and getting to know the people. We also enjoyed reconnecting with friendships established last year, in particular, that of Irma Bergantiños, whose friendship I cherish.
All of this would not have been accomplished without the support of Unpack Studio. One of the highlights of the trip was getting to know Omar Estrada, curator of Unpack Studio. We learned much from Omar and thoroughly enjoyed his company. And then there is Laura Rodriguez Balbuzano…I enjoyed so much seeing her again, learning from her, and renewing our friendship. A special treat was meeting Laura’s husband and Omar’s son, Omar Alberto Estrada. Thank you to Dannys Montes de Oca and Alexandra Majerus for their support and time and to Anna, for taking care of us at the apartment. I owe so much to Unpack studio for the opportunities they have given me over the past year…for the ability to make invaluable contacts, to broaden my way of thinking, to develop a body of work worthy of peer-review dissemination, and to build memories and friendships that will last a lifetime.