Havana Modern

Envisioning a 20th Century Preservation District


by | May 6, 2010


La Rampa. Photo by Leland Cott.


When you think of Havana and architecture, you may envision Old Havana’s restored colonial buildings. Through the notable efforts of the Office of the City Historian, hundreds of structures have been preserved, not as a museum, but reused as a living part of the city and its economy. Yet because of the 50-year old U.S. embargo that dampened construction, Havana is an outdoor museum of architectural styles.

Havana’s international reputation as an intact Spanish Colonial city is so pervasive that few realize it was primarily constructed in the first half of the 20th century. Some of the best examples of Latin American mid-20th century modern architecture are to be found in Havana.

Modern is a (somewhat loose) term that I feel works well to distinguish Havana post 1950s buildings from the other two strong periods of architecture, colonial and Art Deco, which you will also experience in Havana streets. The term modern in this context describes the period after the Art Deco and Streamline movements of the 1930s and 1940s into a more contemporary mode as defined by the new International Style founded in Europe.

Havana’s most notable modern buildings have remained relatively unchanged since their initial construction. The economic forces of real estate development, which long ago would have demolished similar buildings in other cities, have been denied access to Havana. However, this ironically fortuitous situation is likely to end when U.S. travel restrictions ease and the embargo is eventually lifted. At this point in time, it is critical that the Cuban authorities, particularly the Office of the City Historian, recognize the historical significance of Havana’s outstanding works of the mid-20th century.

The Cuban modern movement had its roots in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, but reached its zenith in the 1940s and 1950s. Modernism had always been embraced in Latin America, as Henry-Russell Hitchcock documented in his seminal 1955 exhibit and publication for the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, Latin American Architecture Since 1945. It was then that Hitchcock introduced a selected group of Cuba’s avant-garde modernists—Max Borges, Jr., Aquiles Capablana, Antonio Quintana Simonetti and Gustavo Moreno López—to his largely Eurocentric North American audience. Other important architects of the time, omitted in MoMA’s exhibition and publication, included Rafael de Cárdenas, Manuel Copado, Manuel Gutiérrez and most notably Eugenio Batista, Junco, Gastón y Domínguez and Mario Romañach. Within the next ten years, others names such as Vittorio Garatti, Mario Girona, Roberto Gottardi, Frank Martínez, Ricardo Porro and Nicolás Quintana would become more well-known throughout the hemisphere. A surprising number of notable architects practiced during these two decades of the 1940s and 1950s, especially considering Cuba’s size.

Now is the time to recognize Cuba’s modernist architectural and planning heritage. Nowhere is this more critical than the early 20th century neighborhood of Vedado and, most notably, the mid-century seven-block stretch of 23rd Street known as “La Rampa.” La Rampa was an important tourist entertainment and nightclub center in pre-revolutionary Havana when the street prospered, growing well into the 1960s. It was a modest version New York’s Times Square without the billboards and of Los Angeles’s Sunset Strip of the 1960s without the traffic. Today a quieter version of La Rampa remains, but it is still a vital activity center, with many clubs, restaurants and hotels. Most importantly, it has not lost its excitement and remains a vibrant urban district.

La Rampa’s distinctively modern character emerges through a small group of buildings, each excellent in its own way, and contained within Vedado’s strong planning armature. It is a place of great urban design and architectural strength, with great potential as a tourist venue that has not yet been seriously exploited by Cuban authorities. They are not unaware of the treasure: Cuban scholars Eduardo Luis Rodríguez and Mario Coyula (a former Robert F. Kennedy Visiting Professor at Harvard), have written about the need to preserve parts of Vedado. Coyula and I taught a 2002 design studio here at the Harvard Graduate School of Design, which culminated with the publication La Rampa, Envisioning a 20th Century Modern Preservation District. That book concluded that the preservation and revitalization of this uniquely modern street—with its collection of many outstanding buildings, bus shelters, artist-designed sidewalks and natural topography—could have a transformative effect on Havana by becoming its second defining image as a 20th century city, alongside that of its well known Colonial patrimony.

The first modern era work of architectural significance constructed on La Rampa was the 1947 Radiocentro building designed by Junco, Gastón and Domínguez. This building, revolutionary in its time, was the first mixed-use large scale structure in Havana with three distinct parts—a cinema on the corner of La Rampa and L Street, an office building along La Rampa and a television studio building at the M Street corner. The curved theatre marquee takes its form from the L Street corner before re-emerging on the La Rampa side as a thin-shell undulating canopy that defines the first floor retail spaces. This is a brilliant architectural component of the building leading the user to the second retail level above La Rampa itself as the slope of the street drops away. This urban design solution was used a decade later in the design of the Havana Hilton Hotel. The Radiocentro Building is a keystone of modern Havana and of La Rampa. As such it is worthy of landmark designation. Along with the Havana Libre Hotel across the street, it it the center of gravity of modern Havana.

The Viguma Real Estate Co. building, two blocks west of the Radiocentro on La Rampa and J Street, is a mixed-use apartment and retail structure designed by Benavent and Malinovski in 1950. Its main façade skillfully employs a vertical Art Deco element on the upper left façade juxtaposed against a strong horizontal two-story curved building façade. This is a highly sophisticated example of early modern Havana urban design that was surely a precedent for the multi-level 1950s retail facades all along La Rampa down to the Malecón. An elegantly proportioned modern stair and rail at the corner contribute to the overall design excellence of this building.

The 1953 Odontological building, now the Havana University School of Economics, near the corner of L and 21st Street was designed by Quintana, Rubio and Perez Beato and is the first of architect Antonio Quintana’s La Rampa high-rise buildings. The small ground floor with retail space and the building lobby provides two spectacular surprises for the visitor. The first is a beautifully designed concrete stair that is designed to appear to float in space. The second is the impressive 1952 Mariano Rodríguez fresco, El Dolor Humano.

The 1956 Seguro Medico building, on the corner of La Rampa and N Street, was Quintana, Rubio and Perez Beato’s second La Rampa high rise and winner of another Gold Medal from the Cuban College of Architects. Because of its prominent site and strong composition, the Seguro Medico building is one of the more dominant buildings along the street. The 24-story tower has three distinct uses with retail at the pedestrian level, office space on the lower five stories and residential apartments on the upper floors. The office space, entered through a first floor lobby on La Rampa, features a classic 1950s cantilevered canopy that penetrates the building façade into the lobby. The original ceramic tile mural was executed by Wifredo Lam, Cuba’s most famous contemporary artist. A free-standing concrete stair to the second floor is located adjacent to the entry doors. The lobby to the apartments above is entered around the corner on N Street and is decorated by another beautiful ceramic wall mural, this one by Mariano Rodriguez.

The 1958 Havana Hilton (renamed the Habana Libre after the revolution) was designed by the Los Angeles firm, Welton Becket and Associates, with the Cuban firm of Arroyo y Menéndez. This 415-foot tower with 630 rooms on 27 floors has physical prominence and high visibility from nearly all of Western Havana because of its location on the hillside at the boundary of central Havana and the Vedado district. In spite of its size and location, the tower has a surprisingly minimal impact on the immediate neighborhood. The Habana Libre sits astride La Rampa and occupies a full city block between La Rampa and 25th Street and L and M Streets. Its shopping arcade is three stories taller on the lower end due to the sloping site. The architects placed the tower structure on a wide pedestal, a signature Hilton feature of the 1950’s intended to create separation from the street; and to provide a level platform for the pool and cabanas above and an organizing line for the retail shops below. The vehicular and pedestrian entries appear as an extension of La Rampa onto the site, thus connecting the building to the street. The Havana Hilton provides valuable lessons for future large scale architectural interventions in Havana.

The 1963 open-air Cuban Pavilion, at the corner of 23rd and M Street, was the last of the period structures built along La Rampa. Designed by Juan Campos and Lorenzo Medrano to house the 6th Congress of the International Union of Architects, the building is entirely built of pre-cast concrete in a deliberately referential manner of traditional Cuban wooden design and construction. The design further reveals the undisturbed topography, evident under its flat coffered concrete roof.

Each of these six individually noteworthy buildings are joined by a second tier of important structures that complete the proposed La Rampa 20th century Modern Preservation District. Included is the 1947 six-story N Street Apartments building, near the corner of 21st and N Street, designed by Junco, Gastón and Domínguez in the same year as their Radiocentro building; the 1948 11-story Ambar Motors building, constructed on the corner of La Rampa and the Malecón, by Cuban businessman Amadeo Barletta for General Motors; The Capri Hotel, 1953, designed by José Canaves Ugalde at M and 21st Street; the former Boleras Tony building, 1955 (now the La Rampa Theater) designed by Gustavo Botet at La Rampa and O Street; and the futuristic La Copelia ice-cream pavilion, 1966, designed by Mario Girona at La Rampa and L Street. Although not technically a part of the modernist genre within the La Rampa neighborhood, The Hotel Nacional, 1930, at the Malecón between La Rampa and 19th Street, designed by the American firm of McKim, Mead and White deserves inclusion with the proposed district.

When taken as a group of 12 structures, this proposed preservation district contains lessons for architects, planners and historians in much the same way as Colonial Old Havana. Each are recognized as being outstanding examples of their period and each has a particular place in the history of mid-century modern Havana. Now is the time to intervene and advocate for their restoration and continued protection. The La Rampa mid-20th century Modern Preservation District would be like no other in the world.

Spring | Summer 2010Volume IX, Number 2

Leland Cott is a founding principal of Bruner/Cott Architects and Planners in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and an Adjunct Professor of Urban Design at the Harvard Graduate School of Design. His recent design studio class, titled Havana in our Time: Developing Urban Design and Planning Strategies for Change, studied the likely effects of the end of the embargo upon Havana’s built environment. Most recently, he was a co-leader of a joint Cuban/American preservation effort to restore Ernest Hemingway’s home outside of Havana.

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