touring the bush (17) : caribbean, tropical nonplace (castro)

on new year’s 1959 a different rumble shook havana. it wasn’t the usual stompin’ and rompin’ at the tropicana. it wasn’t the roar of hot-rods around the capri or the glitterati gushing drinks down at the nacional. this time, it was la revolución.

havana was done with the gilded days. done with the fierce batista dictatorship. done with dirty business with the miami mafias and santo trafficante. done with being the continental whorehouse of the rich and famous.

batista fled havana for spain (he died comfortably in mallorca) as castro and his guerrilla troupes marched in. cuba finally had a chance to break with being the sparkling outhouse for the worldpower in turn –first spain, then the u.s. architecture played a key role in building a face for the island in the (modern) world arena. until the fifties, this face was meant to seduce. havana became a very concrete (poured concrete, to be exact) rendering of the tropical arcadia, paradise lost and found. it was a mix of tijuana in the twenties and acapulco in the sixties, or in mtv-realworld-generation terms, what you’d get if vegas and miami decided to have a baby-city. havana was to be a tropical mistress, a western-hemisphere take on honkytonkhongkong.

the castrists must’ve looked (and felt) somewhat out of place in havana, with their ugly commando suits and their unshaved faces, looking like bushmen and smelling of wilderness. they didn’t fit in with the vaults and arches and lounge furniture of the gorgeous max borges addition to the tropicana, or in the supercosmopolitan glass lobby of the riviera hotel. not with the shiny creped silk of the local pop idols like celia cruz and her sonora matancera. havana needed a new face. and castro would make sure she got one.

architecture would join the revolutionary mission. cuba needed an architecture of solidarity, architecture for the dispossessed. in cuba just like everywhere else revolutions sparked in the xxth-century (be it mexico or russia), the first years after the break were times of ferment and rich experimentation –economic, political and certainly in terms of cultural production. and like elsewhere, as revolution turned to regime, these active forces would be subjected and tempered (in mexico the wild and amazing architectural diversity of the 30’s would be substituted by the ugly and poor official architecture of the “institutionalized revolution,” in the former soviet union, stalinism would suppress not only political dissonance, but it would also put out the architectural avant-garde in favor of state-glorifying kitsch.)

cuba’s revolutionary modernism was a relatively late arrival, and it already had a sturdy modernist heritage, basically the canons of international style. the modernist road seemed a bit narrowed compared to the early-xxth-century. still, in these early years, the quest for a new architecture seemed viable. a great example of the (eventually) trampled energies and the failed architectures of the early revolution is the national art schools. in this set of buildings, ricardo porro, the architect for the project, said he wanted to capture a “sensation of explosion.” the school was set on the now-abandoned havana country club, an absolute symbol of pre-revolutionary excess. legend goes that castro thought of building a school at the site playing a round of golf with el che in the months following his rise to power.

the architecture for the art schools was passionate, eloquent, strong, experimental. it was an architecture of search and ideals and hope. it was an architecture that couldn’t last. buried under financial burdens, political doubt and cries against the tinges of bourgeois, the project remained unfinished, and later abandoned.

the same would be the fate of other projects stemming from this brief gap of creative, flourishing architectures, which produced everything from stadiums to innovative housing projects to ice-cream parlors "for the people". architects in cuba were left with one sole client: the castro regime, the became “operatives of the state”. a new set of values and priorities were established : simplistic “rationalism,” prefabricated structures, minimal-resource construction, and standardized architectures.

but most importantly, the productive engine of the cultural revolution had to shift its energies from the revolutionary questioning to the promotion and adoration of the revolutionary regime. havana changed her face, she grew a beard. now she would cater to a different set of just as avid consumers : the fans of enduring state communism. in the end things didn't even change that much : tourists are again getting the special treatment in their own resort microislands, off-limits for cubans; and now they come, skip the cocktails and the bow ties and go straight to the prostitute. the only “democratization” going on is making all these special little treats super-accessible (to dollar bearers), dirt cheap.

next : tropical nonplace (echeverría)

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