by Eric Newill
In light of the recent re-establishment of full diplomatic relations between the United States and Cuba—a mariposa-scented thaw after 54 years in the deep freeze—Orb saw fit to feature some images of the island’s enigmatic capital city. I was asked to visit as part of a Havana Biennial trip organized by the Miami-based art-tourism company LAACS Travel (Latin American and Caribbean Studies), whose co-founder Janda Wetherington has been expertly escorting U.S. collectors to the Pearl of the Antilles since 2012. Though Cuba has seen a 36-percent jump in American visitors over this time last year, it still retains the “forbidden” aura it gained over half a century. And while Yanquis are in evidence, they have happily not yet been able to overrun the place in garish vacation wear.
The theme of the fair was “Between Ideas and Experience,” a phrase that could encompass the city itself. In addition to the astonishing temporary artworks set up around town—everything from an ice-skating rink along the legendary seaside boulevard the Malecón to a full-scale showcase of Cuban artists in the 16th-century Morro-Cabaña—the people, structures, scents and flavors one encounters at every turn offer their own kind of performance art.
Here, reality is unreal and logic seems composed by Lewis Carroll: The Biennial actually occurs every three years. As buildings crumble by the block, the old country club golf course is manicured to perfection, though no game is ever played there. Swaths of neighborhoods lose electricity, but one colonial square is constantly floodlit by LED lights.
Each block offers its own kind of time warp, with the buildings encompassing every architectural style since the 1500s: La Habana Vieja’s 18th-century cathedrals and squares; the neo-classical grandeur of the Capitol and old Presidential Palace; the art deco glamour of the Bacardi Building, a 1930 rival to New York’s Chrysler Building, complete with the company’s bat logo at its summit; the undulating 1950s modernism of the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes de La Habana and Meyer Lansky’s Havana Hilton…and then it all stops, supplanted by grim Soviet concrete.
The city can be seen as a civic Miss Havisham, enveloped in faded finery, mourning something that failed to happen. And yet…an electric, sensual life force is palpable, radiated by those who have only known this reality. With no Internet and little air conditioning, thousands of people gravitate by night to the Malecón, which is wryly said to have produced more babies than pornography has.
Our group—encompassing artists from Argentina, California and Iceland, all repped by LAACS’ gallery arm, PanAmerican ArtProjects—billeted at the luxe Palacio del Marques de San Felipe, named for the Spanish family who owned the 18th-century structure in which is it housed. It is prominently positioned on the cobblestone Plaza de San Francisco on Havana’s bay, opposite the 1580 basilica of San Francisco de Asis and the 1909 Lonja de Comercio, which served as Havana’s stock exchange until the Revolution and now houses the AP and BBC, among other media companies.
Today, we feature two additional structures that caught my interest: the 1932 Edificio López Serrano and the 1908 Hotel Raquel. The first, a splendid apartment house exemplifying art deco at its swankest, was constructed as a luxury dwelling by its namesake, media magnate José López Serrano, and designed by architects Ricardo Mira and Miguel Rosich. Combining ziggurats, soaring symmetrical columns and Aztec flourishes that would be at home on Central Park West, it defines haute style at a moment when a segment of the Cuban population was living as well as anyone on the planet. Today, it continues to house people who have been assigned to it, but reflecting the island’s circumstances, it is sadly rundown, with vestiges of its former glory: shattered and busted deco light fixtures, worn terrazzo and holes in the marble walls. In the building’s lobby, however, there remains a breathtaking relief, El Tiempo, crafted by nickel silver by Enrique García Cabrera. The architects were said to be inspired by Rockefeller Center, and it shows.
Meanwhile, the beautifully restored Raquel Hotel is an art nouveau fantasia. It began life as an elaborate fabric showroom for the Loriente Brothers Trading Company, which distributed fine and exotic goods throughout the island. Cuba’s Chamber of Commerce and customs offices were also housed here. After the Revolution, the building, in an increasing state of decay, was used variously to accommodate the government’s departments of fishing, tobacco and food. In the ’90s, however, the hospitality company Habaguanex, known for its transformation of important structures into luxe hotels for international tourists, began its restoration of the property. Today, as the Raquel, it operates as the city’s premier Jewish hotel, near Havana’s historic Jewish neighborhood and the island’s oldest Sephardic synagogue. Amid the splendor of its nouveau details, stained glass skylights and soaring marble columns, one finds a restaurant serving Kosher fare as well as a piece from Jerusalem’s Western Wall.
In future installments we’ll tell you more about: 1), Cuba’s art scene and the Biennial; 2) the curious history of Havana’s old country club, now the prestigious art school ISA; 3) the people and restaurants; and 4) the magnificent structures that make Havana unlike any other world capital.