With last week’s death of Fidel Castro, the world’s attention has once again turned to Cuba. I’ve just returned from a happy sojourn with friends and clients on a “People to People” tour of this island nation. The 500-year cultural veil has now been lifted on this extraordinary place whose architecture echoes its complex social and political history. During a memorable week, I learned about Cuba’s history and politics and enjoyed music, salsa dancing, mojitos and hearty Cubano home cooking. But perhaps most importantly, I gained a deep appreciation for the island’s incredibly varied and rich architecture, art and design.
Just ninety miles from Miami, Cuba is frozen in time, not just decades, but centuries removed from anything we’ve ever experienced in the U.S.
I found Havana to be one of the most beautiful and architecturally diverse cities I’ve ever seen. The city is a visibly decaying 300- to 400-year old metropolis of 2.4 million people. It feels European, with cobblestoned streets, courtyards, arches, stone and stucco buildings with clay tile roofs. People walk in the streets, not on the sidewalks, to protect themselves from falling building parts. There are just a handful of public buildings, including the National Museum of Fine Arts (a must see), that are of 20th century vintage, but that’s about it.
Everywhere in Havana we walked through an architectural pastiche of Spanish Colonial palaces, Belle Époque mansions, 1950’s style beach bungalows—one painted more flamboyantly than the next—all crumbling and decaying. Jewel-toned ‘57 Chevys cruise palm tree-lined streets, and when we entered the storied Hotel Nacional de Cuba—built by Myer Lansky in 1946—we were truly transported to another era.
Havana’s Presidential Palace is riddled with bullet holes from the revolution of 1959. A bust of Abraham Lincoln is prominently displayed in the palace; Cuba freed its own slaves in 1886. And the intact office of deposed President Batista (Meyer Lansky’s partner in the Hotel Nacional) includes beautifully crafted original furnishings that any designer would guess had been handmade by artisans in Europe. But no, our guide told us, they were made in Trinidad, Cuba.
One of the highlights of our trip was a chance to meet several local Havana artists. We were especially enchanted by a young (39 years old) contemporary conceptual artist named Yoan Capote, whose work is gaining international renown. Visiting Capote’s studio and spending time with him as he shared his work with us was a thrill—a mix of politics and art uniquely Cuban. We hope to join him at a gallery show in New York in 2017.
Trinidad, in central Cuba, is about a five-hour drive from Havana and definitely worth a visit. It is a perfectly preserved Spanish colonial settlement where the clocks stopped in 1850 and have yet to restart. Built by the sugar barons of the early 19th century, the glories of the town’s history remain in colonial mansions decorated with crystal chandeliers, ornate furniture and Italian frescoes.
Declared a World Heritage Site by Unesco in 1988, Trinidad is a delightful outdoor museum with quiet cobblestoned streets and local crafts people trading handmade baskets, embroidery and textiles. Trinidad’s spectacular Opera House dominates the main square, financed and built by a wealthy Cuban slave trader whose name—Terry—adorns the imposing façade.
In Trinidad I was thrilled to meet a 70-year-old, fourth-generation potter and watch him work his magic with clay. I also learned how clay Spanish roof tiles were manufactured in the 16th century–the clay was molded on the thighs of female slaves.
Since the U.S. restored its relations with Cuba, there’s been a surge in tourism to the island, and many predict that the boom will unleash an invasion of Starbucks and McDonalds amidst Old Havana’s stunning mix of architecture. Cuba’s capitalist embrace is imminent, so make arrangements to visit before it loses its nostalgic charm. And if your architecture interests lie closer to home, let’s talk about enriching your living space with character and charm, transforming it into a place you’ll love coming home to… whether returning from vacation or a stroll around the block.