SAH Blog

  • Former U.S. Embassy in Pakistan Saved as Heritage Building

    By
    Barbara Lamprecht
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    Apr 3, 2013
    Designed by the partnership of Richard Neutra and Robert Alexander, the former U.S. Embassy in Karachi, Pakistan, has much in common with the Cyclorama. Both were prestigious commissions acquitting complex briefs scrutinized by powerful branches of government. Both were designed in the 1950s and completed in the early 1960s.



    They shared the same structural engineers, Parker and Zehnder. The strong forms of the Cyclorama and the Embassy, intended as monumental expressions of mid-century American confidence and prowess, were both eventually emptied, their functions moved elsewhere, to await an uncertain fate.

    However, in contrast to the actions of the National Park Service, a group of Karachi citizens led by the Institute of Architects, Pakistan (IAP) succeeded in having the property listed on December 17, 2012 as a heritage building by the Department of Culture, Government of Sindh. Under the Sindh Cultural Heritage (Preservation) Act, 1994, the structure is protected from demolition and any external alteration. It will be sold, rehabilitated and adaptively re-used.



    The embassy complex is located on a pivotal corner in a smart area of downtown Karachi, opposite leafy Frere Park, Frere Hall, and the Sind Club, all developed by the British in the 19th century. The east-facing building servicing main embassy duties comprises a large sleek rectangular glass and concrete four-story structure, its horizontality underscored by bands of louver-clad clerestory windows. Its full-height glass entry façade expressed a transparent democracy, a characteristic typical of Cold War Embassy design. The north façade features a series of louvers fronting glass windows, a strategy Neutra began employing in the late 1940s.

    To the west, a broad lawn fronts a one-story masonry warehouse linked to the main building by an interstitial two-story building. The warehouse is roofed with an array of nine thin-shell barrel vaults. The foot of the eastern most vault curves into the large reflecting pool terminating the angled main lobby, symbolically integrating the warehouse to the larger composition. The team’s careful distribution of landscape elements included reflecting pools, areas for prayer, water channels, and ablution basins for Islamic employees that percolated throughout the compound, even reappearing at the curved entrance driveway. While reflecting pools are a well-known Neutra trademark, seen to great effect at the Cyclorama, here they were even more important because Neutra well understood the significance of water in Islamic architecture and the need for ritual cleansing.



    There was a tortured path through planning and completion. On the heels of the “Red Plot” of the unrealized Eylsian Park Height housing project, Neutra had to defend his loyalty to his adopted land. Alexander’s protest at learning that payment would be tied to the unstable rupee almost lost them the commission. Construction was no easier, in part undertaken by local Pakistani workers unaccustomed to American methods and materials, which were hard to procure in any case. The concrete mix was so erratic that Alexander feared structural failure. Yet a terrible irony awaited the Embassy. During its construction, Pakistan moved its capital inland to Islamabad, 700 miles to the north, away from the vulnerable coast and Raj associations. In 1966, the Embassy was reclassified as a Consulate. Though “hardened” with new security measures, the building could not sufficiently withstand the terrorist attacks that began in 2002. It was vacated in 2011.

    While the U.S. demolished, Pakistan preserved.

    Barbara Lamprecht, Lamprecht ArchiTEXTural

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  • This Week's Links

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    Mar 29, 2013
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  • Why the Humanities Matter

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    Mar 27, 2013


    How will the Society of Architectural Historians address the financial crisis confronting the Humanities? Many of our peer organizations, the American Historical Association and the American Philological Association, have formally initiated conversations at the local, regional and national levels. Pauline Saliga, our Executive Director, has wisely urged us to voice some support for the general plea for the Humanities but also articulate responses that might be specific to our discipline. As we activate our SAH Blog towards greater connectivity, we should use it as a venue to begin this conversation. 

    Our conversation might begin with a historical perspective, assessing the role of architectural history in the humanities revolution in American education. Louis Menand's The Marketplace of Ideas (2010) offers the most concise historical overview. According to Menand, the humanities were inserted as general education to bolster the development of professional fields in the late 19th century, a process that peeked in 1970. Accordingly, between 1870 and 1900, most disciplines were outfitted with external national organizations that helped define the disciplinary integrity of academic life within the university (ASSA 1865; MLA 1883; AHA 1884). In this respect, our SAH was a relative late-comer, established in 1940. Since 1970, enrollment in the humanities began a reverse trend. By 2000, the number of undergraduates majoring in the humanities was down to 4%, almost half of the number 30 years earlier (7.6%). At the same time, the majors in business have grown to 22% of all college graduates. In contrast to other countries of nationalized education, America prides itself on mechanisms of the free market that can swiftly respond to societal needs, rather than linger in sclerotic bureaucracies. The shrinking demand for the humanities has facilitated an economic crisis in its academic departments and professional organizations. The equation becomes even more complicated when graduate education enters the system. Universities have been adjusting to the humanities crisis by continuing to produce PhD and then exploiting them as cheap labor (see SAH Blog post on adjunct labor). To use Menand's words, "Doctoral education is the horse that the university is riding to the mall." An organization like the SAH can wait it out, ride the crisis and hope for the best. It can also try to highlight "the value" of the humanities with the hope of inserting it back into market demand. Joan Ockman's new book, Architecture School: Three Centuries of Educating Architects in North America, might help us situate the teaching of history in one of our strongest constituents, the training of American designers.

    Architectural history has an added burden in the recent financial crisis once we consider the role that architectural practice has played in contributing to the crisis. On the one end of the spectrum, architecture has contributed to economic speculation by means of the star-architect system that we have implicitly endorsed. Frank Gehry's success at Bilbao has contributed to "the Bilbao Effect," where desperate cities bank the future of their economic development on a brand-name building. This pseudo-urbanist strategy has wreaked havoc, since most Bilbao attempts have failed (see Witold Rybczynski's discussion of the problem in Makeshift Metropolis). The same strategy has been deployed in the speculation over university finances, known as the Edifice Complex. A recent investigation by the New York Times has shown that such real estate binges by college presidents have fallen on the shoulders of tuition-paying students.

    On the other end of the spectrum, architectural history's relationship to domestic architecture indirectly implicates it in the cause of the financial crisis, the housing bubble. The construction industry artificially sustained the American economy through the 1990s but caused its inevitable collapse. When times are good for building, times are also good for teaching architecture. But when times are bad, disintegration is vividly evident in the disintegrating urban fabric. The ruins of Detroit or Camden generate an architectural discourse as objects of reception, excavation, preservation that fall into the domain of our discipline. Thus, on both sides of production and destruction, architectural history has a disciplinary presence. 

    Our discipline has an additional purview in the form of vernacular architecture and alternative forms of dwelling. We must thus turn our deepest attention to the development of new architectural objects like shanty towns, favelas, man camps, or Occupy tent-cities. Both desperate and new, these new architectures offer a fundamental challenge to our natural tendencies towards the collection of architectural masterpieces that fill our surveys. We could, therefore, de-commodify our object of study while also recognizing the risks of losing our standard of quality. Moving far down the masterpiece ladder, for instance, would fold our discipline into Anthropology and would make us extinct. The choice to hold the 2012 Annual Conference in Detroit and to invite geographer Don Mitchell as plenary speaker shows that our institution is developing such sensitivities. "La Casa de Esclavos Modernos: Exposing the Architecture of Exploitation," revealed one way by which architectural history is more vital at a time of crisis.

    The crisis in the humanities is complex. We need to join forces with other disciplinary organizations, while also addressing the particular challenges of our own architectural discipline. Hard questions need to be asked. As Howard Zinn has taught us, historians are never neutral observers. So, where do we stand? Our we part of the problem, or part of the solution?

    Photo above: Detroit Fire Station across from SAH Annual Conference in Detroit, 2012
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  • Friday Links

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    Mar 22, 2013

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  • Friday Links

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    Mar 15, 2013


    • The blockbuster for architectural historians this year is definitely Labrouste at MoMA. It opened this week and the exaltations have started rolling in. See video here to understand how a handful of American historians (Neil Levine, David Van Zanten, Barry Bergdoll) reshaped Labrouste. Labrouste at MoMa in 1975 was radical (Ecole des Beaux-Arts show). Will Labrouste in 2013 have a similar impact?
    • What if the entire world live in one city?
    • Two ways to build a bridge. On public-private-partnerships
    • Many fronts on the preservation of Post Offices. Follow Steve Hutkins' blog Save the Post Office.
    • Live in Downton Abbey for a week (Highclere Castle, Newbury) or read this new architectural history of the Edwardian country house
    • ... or just live with less
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  • Friday Links

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    Mar 8, 2013
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  • Friday Links: Oscars, Acting, Food

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    Mar 1, 2013

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  • Friday Links

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    Feb 22, 2013



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  • Constructing Orders: From the Vault

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    Feb 20, 2013



    From the Vault is a series of postings on the intellectual impact that the Society’s journal has made on how we think about the architectural discourse of the past. It is an opportunity to reflect on the essays that have made personal impact on the readers or simply stand out vividly in the rolling sequence of memory. If you are interested in posting a similar reflection, please email it to kkourelis@gmail.com.

    I will begin the series by reflecting on two covers from JSAH 62:4 (2003) and JSAH 71:4 (2012), the former orderly, mechanical and measured, the latter sketchy, informal, and layered. Spaced by nine years, the covers testify to the ceaseless relevance of Renaissance historiography with the probing of different modalities explored by Mario Carpo’s “Drawing with Numbers: Geometry and Numeracy in Early Modern Architectural Design” (2003) and Michael J. Waters’ “A Renaissance without Order: Ornament, Single-sheet Engravings, and the Mutability of Architectural Prints” (2012). If Carpo makes the Renaissance relevant to AutoCAD, Waters makes it relevant to cutting-and-pasting.

    Central to both essays is the question of practically reproducing the classical orders. Alberti’s uncoupling of design and building, gave the architectural drawing an autonomy that it never possessed (not even in antiquity). With a series of studies from the 1930s, revised in 1962, Rudolf Wittkower established the canonical reading of Renaissance architecture that we still hold dearly. The Architectural Principles in the Age of Humanism offered the precise dose of idealism for the age of barbarity, as experienced by World War II and the Holocaust. But the dominance of modernism after the War, ushered in a new kind of utopian or progressive humanism with little patience for classical imitation. Le Corbusier had so successfully encrypted his humanism, that it took a whole generation to discover it, think Colin Rowe’s “The Mathematics of the Ideal Villa.” Between 1930 and 1980, the Renaissance seemed utterly irrelevant. When revived in the 1980s, theatrically by Charles Moore, religiously by Alan Greenberg, and ironically by Robert Venturi, the Renaissance had become a polemical caricature.

    At least, that is how we taught the story of the Renaissance, a fascinating chapter in the canon of western architecture, relevant when the west was in crisis, abandoned by modernism, and superficially revived by postmodernism. Coherent as this story may have been, it was growing a little dull. I confess, I had personally checked out on the Renaissance in the 1990s. And suddenly, in the Winter of 2003, my issue of JSAH arrived and brought with it a jolt. Mario Carpo took a simple problem. How did Alberti construct the shape of the Doric base? We all knew the answer: by following Vitruvius’s geometrical construction carried out visually on paper. Fast forward to the mid-16th century. How did Vignola construct a similar base? Carpo here shows the proportional measurements printed as numbers on the illustrations. By the 17th century, number-based proportions dominated shape-based proportion, and modern numbers had won the battle over ancient geometry. Although seemingly minor to the big questions of architectural theory (form, function, materials, labor), Carpo’s analysis of growing numeracy offered an architectural window into the mercantile revolution of capitalism and the growing mitigation of print. Carpo’s essay brought architectural history in closer alignment with pioneering art historians like Svetlana Alpers (on 17th-century Dutch art). More importantly, Carpo concludes his essay with a “Morality” challenge. Isn’t the quantification of design similar to our current digital revolution? “The change that is being brought about by computer-based design processes is so drastic that it compares with the consequences of the first rise of architectural numeracy five centuries ago.” What happened between the 15th and 17th centuries becomes hugely relevant to the realities of architectural practice today. The implication is that we cannot successfully tackle our own digitization without understanding its internal history.

    Carpo’s essay had made me so happy. I assign it to many classes and pose the digital challenge to my students. No student leaves my class without learning the Vitruvian/Albertian construction of the Doric base and its afterlife. But in the last issue of JSAH came another jolt. Michael Waters has thrown a wrench in Carpo’s notions “that mechanical reproduction created stable, authoritatively identical reproductions that removed the creative drift inherent in the system of drawn copies.” Waters’ wrench comes from a series of unpublished 16th-century engravings from Ferrara. The drawings show what we might today call collage and appropriation, a dismembering of stable printed images into creative configurations. Print culture, Waters argues offered both stability and instability. The obvious stability that Carpo has so well examined was destabilized by processes of appropriation familiar to us in modernist collage and postmodernist digital manipulation. Through cutting, copying and pasting architectural prints, the early modern architect became a collage artist, an early bricoleur, a deconstructivist.

    Between these two JSAH essays, we have a conversation and a universe of possibilities. Although seemingly antithetical, they reveals two sides of the same coin, as one needs stability in order to destabilize. But most importantly, this double-sided coin has an incredible currency in the concerns of the present. The Renaissance is not a simple style that generations reject (modernism) or endorse (postmodernism), but a problematic. Both Carpo and Waters unleash the powers of the case-study. The present becomes incomprehensible without the aid of the case-studies from the past. The Renaissance is simply unavoidable. We cannot briskly teach over it as a nice period or consume it for its obvious beauty. My own personal interests in the Renaissance are marginal at best. Yet what I do as a scholar on a daily basis depends entirely on Wittkower, or Manfredo Tafuri, or Dalibor Vesely, for whom the Renaissance is an early chapter of the book we are living at this very present.  Carpo’s JSAH essay has been indispensable to my teaching, and I am thrilled to supplement it with Waters’ contrasting voice.

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  • Friday Links

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    Feb 15, 2013

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  • Cuba: Day 0 - Miami

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    Feb 6, 2013

    Throughout the day we trickled in to Miami from various places in the United States and Canada in anticipation for our charter flight to Havana the following day. The trip to Cuba is usually a multi-day process in order to accommodate the particularities of taking a charter flight from Miami. You may wonder where I fit into this trip. I was fortunate to have the opportunity to participate in this study tour as the Student Fellowship Recipient. This generous fellowship allowed me, a Ph.D. candidate in art history at the University of Illinois – Chicago, to take part in what proved to be an incomparably enriching experience. This trip is of particular relevance to me as my scholarship focuses on architecture and urban design in Cuba and Puerto Rico. More specifically, my work investigates how the architecture of tourism played an important role in shaping national identity and international relationships, and was tied to the spheres of culture, economics, and diplomacy. This SAH Study Tour was going to take me to see sites and architecture in Cuba that I had never experienced before.

    In the evening, we all convened for an orientation meeting to help prepare us for the days ahead in Cuba. After we covered the logistical details of our upcoming travels, our knowledgeable and charming study tour leader and organizer, Monty Freeman (Belmont Freeman Architects), treated us to a fascinating overview of Cuban history and architecture. Monty, an American of Cuban descent, has been traveling to Cuba for many years, and has also been researching, speaking, and publishing on Cuban architecture for some time.

    Monty’s lecture provided us with a wonderful context for the buildings and sites we were going to experience in the next thirteen days. He painted a broad picture of the history of Cuba while also pointing out details related to the financial and political history that played an important role in shaping the built environment of Cuba. Equipped with newly acquired knowledge related to the Spanish explorers, the coffee and sugar industry, the age of U.S. influence, and the hopes and realities of the country after the Revolution in1959, we drifted back to our rooms at the hotel. We were all eagerly anticipating what tomorrow would bring when we took the short flight (less than an hour) to Cuba—an island so physically close to the United States, yet worlds away in many respects. 

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  • Cuba: Day 1 - Havana

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    Feb 5, 2013

    No sooner had the plane finished its short ascent that it started to descend, swooping in along the northern coast of Cuba and a little bit to the west of Havana for our landing at José Martí International Airport in the afternoon. We exited the airport and were greeted by Osmin Rivero Soto, our ever-smiling Cuban guide from a state tourism agency who was to accompany us throughout the trip. We boarded the bus and immediately started our adventure and Osmin gave us some important information as we drove into the city, not to our hotel, but to Castillo de Los Tres Reyes del Morro.  Commonly referred to simply as el Morro, this military fortification, started in the 16th century, is located on the opposite side of the bay from the main city center. There we took in views of Havana extending from Old Havana out west as far as the neighborhood of Miramar, on the far side of the Almendares River.




    We piled back in the bus, which was to be navigated throughout the trip by our chofer Roberto, and made our way to check-in to what would be our home base in Havana, the Hotel Nacional. Designed by McKim, Mead and White, the Nacional has been one of Havana’s grandest tourist hotels since it opened in 1930. After a quick check-in we reconvened to enjoy a group dinner at one of the near by paladares—private, family-run restaurants that have been allowed in Cuba since the onset of the economic crisis after the fall of the Soviet Union, referred to as the Special Period. 


       
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  • Cuba: Day 2 - Old Havana

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    Feb 4, 2013

    Though our camera batteries were dead and our feet were tired by the end of the day, none of us could complain about our day Old Havana. Monty led us on an enlightening day-long walking tour that opened our eyes to the many sides of Havana, the good and the bad, the hopeful and the sad. We considered not just historical buildings, but the role they play within the larger context of Old Havana’s standing as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the restoration and preservation efforts of the Office of the City Historian of Havana, the state branch charged with these duties.

    We started our tour in Plaza de Armas (Arms/Weaponry Square), a square that dates back to the 16th century and is layered with buildings and landscaping that reveal the genesis of the city. One of the highlights of the square is the Palacio de los Capitanes Generales (Palace of the General Captains), which now houses the Museum of the City. Built between 1776-1791, this building is considered one of the fines examples of Cuban Baroque architecture, second only to Havana’a cathedral. As the seat of the Spanish governors in Cuba, the palace’s location in this square, which was used as a military parade ground, helped establish the square as the military and administrative center during the colonial period. The palace was one of the first projects to be restored by the Office of the City Historian and they maintained the exposure of the raw stone, which was how the building had appeared since a restoration in the 1930s, though the building was originally plastered and painted.

    Our next stop was the Plaza de Catedral (Cathedral Square), a plaza that, despite its current name, originally developed as the main square to collect water as this was where the aqueduct terminated. Because Plaza de Armas developed as the administrative center, it was decided that the parish church that stood there should be demolished and rebuilt in what is now Plaza de Catedral. Conveniently, there was already a church project that was started in this square (begun by the Jesuits but abandoned when the Jesuits were expelled from Spanish colonies) and the church was completed and consecrated as the cathedral in 1787. The rest of the square is composed of colonial villas that were privately owned but have now been dedicated to various state enterprises: a restaurant, a museum, and the offices of a branch of the Office of the City Historian.



    In Old Havana, four historically and architecturally important squares have received the attention of the Office of the City Historian (Plaza de Armas, Plaza de Catedral, Plaza Vieja, and Plaza de San Francisco de Assis). The four plazas often form the core of walking tours of the historic city center and ours was no exception. We stopped in
    Plaza Vieja (Old Square), which developed during the colonial period as a residential square. A tour around this plaza is a lesson in the work of the Office of the City Historian, almost all the edifices are adorned with “before and after” photos that chronicle the massive restoration efforts necessary for the salvation of these buildings. Our tour was punctuated by lunch in the courtyard of a colonial building in this square. 



    While our tour did stop at the four main plazas of Old Havana in a manner similar to other walking tours, our tour was anything but average. Monty led us down the streets that could serve as postcard for the efforts of the Office of the City Historian and he led us down streets untouched and seemingly forgotten by the government. We saw buildings in sad states of neglect, disrepair, and decay, some of which were in the middle of a slow process of collapse. We saw buildings held up by pieces of timber and other types of scaffolding and at times it was hard to tell what were the personal interventions of inhabitants and the efforts of a preservation office that has too many buildings to save and not enough available materials on hand. 


    Our walking tour ended with us cruising through the streets that gave Havana the nickname “the Wall Street of the Caribbean.” We saw a large number of banks built in the 19th and 20th century, both local and foreign and ended with the Banco Pedroso (1952-1954), the last significant bank to be built in Old Havana.



    Our day did not end here! After a few hours to rest at the hotel we were back in Old Havana again, this time in order to enjoy the New Year festivities taking place in Plaza de Catedral. Here we were treated to party favors, a full dinner, drinks, and amazing Cuban music and dancing. Perhaps the highlight of all of this was on-stage salsa dancing by Monty and Carla Yanni!

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  • Cuba: Day 3 - Centro Havana and Vedado

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    Feb 3, 2013

    After a day in the Old Havana, what was originally contained within the city walls, we continued our exploration of Havana by moving outwards to the area the was developed where the city walls used to stand. We started near the beginning of the Malecón, the 8-kilometer oceanfront walk that was started at the turn of the twentieth century. We first visited the Presidential Palace (1920) designed by Paul Belau and Carlos Maruri. Outside the front of the building were some remains of the original city walls. We only got to poke our head in the front door, as the building now houses the Museum of the Revolution.

    Our walking tour continued up Paseo del Prado, an impressive boulevard with large sculptures of lions capping the landscaped, central walkway at the foot of the street and where Paseo meets Neptuno Street. Even before the walls came down this was a chic carriageway to see and be seen. Originally the walls stood on the east side of the street, which has since been developed. Some of the buildings on this side of the street are the Cine-Teatro Fausto (1938), a sleek Art Deco edifice and the Hotel Sevilla (1908/1923), whose original Moorish-inspired façade is on Trocadero Street.

    During this walk we also saw two other structures that reminded me of how cosmopolitan and modern Havana was. The first is the 1930 Edificio Bacardí (Bacardí Building). Originally designed in an Italian Renaissance revival style, the design changed after architect Esteban Rodriguez visited the Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes in Paris in 1925. The rich exterior and interior of the building, fashioned from materials from around the world, proudly proclaimed the international success of the Bacardi rum company. The second is the Manzana de Gomez (1894-1917). Seeing the magnificence of this building takes a little more imagination as it has fallen into a state of disrepair. However, this building, which is the size of an entire city block (manzana means block), was the first building of its size dedicated to commercial purposes. It is a European-style shopping arcade with two diagonal passageways that cross in the center. Though plants are sprouting from the architecture in various places within the arcade, one can imagine that in its glory it rivaled the great shopping arcades of Paris and Milan. We learned that there is hope for this structure as there are plans to restore the building as a hotel.






    As we continued up Paseo del Prado we passed the Capitolio Nacional (1929). The similarities to another well-known capitol building are unmistakable. The huge expenditure and graft associated with the construction of this building made it a symbol of the corruption of the Machado government, which was overthrown soon after the completion of the Capitolio.

    On our way back to the hotel for lunch we passed by the Solimar Building (1944) by Manuel Copado. As Monty commented in the tour notes, “it is a startling presence in the more traditional fabric of Centro Habana,” and I couldn’t have agreed more. Startling yes, and completely captivating!

    After lunch we continued our walking tour, but this time in the neighborhood of Vedado. Vedado, which means forbidden, got its name from old laws that prohibited the felling of trees in this area. The neighborhood was actively developed in the early twentieth century, and its gridded organization with ample sidewalks and lots of green areas reveals the influence of City Beautiful and Garden City philosophies. We first walked by the Edificio FOCSA (1954-1956). Designed by Ernesto Gómez Sampera and Martin Dominguez, it was the largest reinforced concrete structure in Latin America when it was completed. I can also add the views from the bar at the top are amazing!

    Our walk continued throughout the neighborhood, stopping to admire the exteriors of many early-twentieth century villas that now serve as houses of culture or state. We also saw an amazing Art Deco apartment building, the Edificio Lopez Serrano (1932). The similarities to New York skyscrapers are apparent, and many Cubans jokingly point it out as their Empire State building.

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  • Cuba: Day 4 - Habana del Este, Matanzas and Varadero

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    Feb 2, 2013

    Today took east out of Havana to the towns of Matanzas and Varadero. To leave the city we passed through the Tunnel, completed in the 1950s under the Batista government. As we made our way along the Via Blanca (White Road) we soon came to Habana del Este (East Havana), a huge social housing project built in the early years of the Revolution. The Batista government had been developing the area of land for luxury apartments, and SOM had drawn up designs for these. However, after the new Revolutionary government took over in 1959, this project was reconceived to meet the demands for housing for the average person. Designed and built in under three years (1959-1961), the master plan by Hugo D’Acosta divides the housing into seven sectors, each with its own facilities and outdoor areas. These sectors share one centrally located town square that includes schools, a clinic, and commercial and administrative areas. Habana del Este is anything but a boring social housing project, in fact, as one of the three “Proyectos Grandes” (grand projects) of the early years of the Revolution, it displays an attention to thoughtfully employing modernism on a grand scale for housing. The housing structures range in height and design, as they were conceived by ten different architects, though their variety does not prevent them from existing harmoniously next to one another.

    As we traveled east towards Matanzas the landscape changed. We crossed over hills with steep ravines and the vegetation was lush and green.


    Matanzas, a port city, became an especially important urban area in the nineteenth century, when a large portion of the island’s sugar was going in and out of this city.

    We moved on the Plaza de la Libertad, which was once the Plaza de Armas. After another rousing exegesis of the Laws of the Indies by SAH Board Representative Ken Breisch (we never did find a plaza that adhered to all of the points in the Laws), we visited La Botica Francesa, which now houses the Museo Farmaceutico (Pharmacy Museum). Purpose-built by a French pharmacist named Triolet, the structure houses a wonderful collection of items related to pharmacies and medicine, including ampoules full of strangely colored medicines and beautifully painted ceramic jars for storing and displaying herbs and medicines. The pharmacy stayed in the Triolet family until the son of the original owner turned it over to the government in 1964 to be run as a museum, which he was in charge of until his death in 1979.



    After Matanzas we drove on to Varadero, a beach resort town on a spit of land that boomed in the post-World War II period. We visited the Dupont Mansion, where we enjoyed a lunch overlooking the ocean. The Dupont Mansion was commissioned by Irenée Dupont, who had bought a large amount of land in Varadero, which he subdivided to sell to other wealthy Americans. Completed in 1926, the house is beautifully constructed, including a top floor mirador, or lookout, that has a wonderful colonial-style wooden ceiling. It is now a hotel (though with very few rooms) with a restaurant.






    The icon of the postwar boom in Varadero is the Hotel Varadero Internacional (1949-1950). Designed by Havana-based firm Mira and Rosich (architects of the Edificio Lopez Serrano), the Internacional is a sleek example of International Style modernism with accents of Streamline Moderne that hugs the sandy beaches. Unfortunately the hotel, which currently functions as an all-inclusive resort, is slated for demolition in 2015.



    Adjacent to the Hotel Varadero Internacional is a community of little beach villas referred to as the Cabañas del Sol (Sun Cabins) designed by Nicolás Quintana. We would soon learn that this architect is often referred to as “Quintana el Bueno” (Quintana the Good) as opposed to another architect named Antonio Quintana, though many of us on the trip admired the architecture of both. These tiny villas came in a variety of forms, containing anywhere from one to three bedrooms. While we were wandering through this area some members of the group struck up a conversation with a woman who stilled lived in one the cabins. She was kind enough to invite us all in so we could see the interior of one of these buildings, which she have lovingly kept in great condition. Like the hotel, these cabins are slated for demolition as well, and the area that contains the Hotel Varadero Internacional and the Cabañas del Sol will be re-developed into a large-scale resort.



    Our final stop in Varadero impressed upon me the strong ties between Cuba and the Soviet Union and the hopes that were bound in the earlier years of space travel. We visited the Casa de los Cosmonautos (House of the Cosmonauts), a small hotel built on the beach in 1975 that was meant to serve as a place where Russian cosmonauts could come and relax after their missions in space. Although developed for a very small segment of the Russian population, this hotel did make me think about Russian-Cuban relations, and how they compared to previous U.S.-Cuban relations. Was the notion of Cuba as a playground for Americans, a reputation that Castro fought to squash with the Revolution, simply replaced with a similar a relationship in which Russians viewed Cuba as their tropical paradise to enjoy as they saw fit? While certainly these complex international relationships can’t be reduced to solely the issue of beaches, it does raise questions about Cuba’s long struggle with foreign interest and influence.



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  • Cuba: Day 5 - Havana Modernism

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    Feb 1, 2013

    Today we were treated to a day of Havana Modernism led by Cuban architect and historian Eduardo Luis Rodriguez. The author of numerous books on 20th century Cuban architecture, Eduardo Luis also curated Architecture and Revolution in Cuba, 1959-1969 at the Storefront for Art and Architecture in New York in 2004. We met up with Eduardo at the Colegio de Arquitectos (Institute of Architects, 1944-1947) at the corner of Humboldt and Infanta streets. Infanta is the broad street that delineates Centro Havana from Vedado. Eduardo Luis sees this building as one of the turning points toward modernism in Cuba. The current building replaced a neoclassical structure that used to stand on the same spot. To the left of the building is a later addition, the College of Architects’ Rental Office Building (1953-1956). This Miesian-inspired building is evidence of the Cuban architecture community’s participation in practices of international modernism, though the architects unfortunately did not consider the climate when incorporating a large façade of unshaded glazing in the design. Likewise, Eduardo Luis pointed out an apartment complex across the street done by the same architect who did the Bacardí building. Gone is the Art Deco emphasis on decoration in favor of a more streamlined design focused on rationalism.



    From this point we made our way up La Rampa (The Ramp), the nickname for an area of 23rd Street from its origin point at the Malecón up a number of blocks toward the center of Vedado. This section of the city is testament to the city’s commitment to modernism after World War II. We stopped first at the Seguro Médico (Medical Insurance) building (1956-1958), which now houses offices of the Ministry of Health. Designed by the firm Quintana, Rubio y Pérez Beato, the building won a Gold Medal from the Institute of Architects. We were lucky to be granted access to the two entry lobbies of the building, one that leads to the tower of apartments above, and the other that leads to the base area composed of offices. The architectural composition of the building, a tower-on-podium parti, is similar to SOM’s Lever House in New York. In the lobby to the apartments we saw Boomerang by Mariano Rodriguez, a mosaic mural that references the coming and going of the building’s inhabitants. The other lobby contains a mosaic mural by Wifredo Lam.



    We traveled up along La Rampa, enjoying a view of Juan Campos’s Pabellon Cuba (Cuba Pavilion), which was built in 1963 to house an international congress of architects, as well as terrazzo decorations incorporated in the sidewalk that were designed by a number of Cuban artists for the same congress. A number of us followed Eduardo Luis up a staircase at the Hotel Habana Libre (formerly Havana Hilton, 1958 by Welton Becket and Associates with Nicolás Arroyo and Gabriela Menéndez), we found ourselves on a sidewalk in the sky. An interesting proposition of urban design, mirrored on the other side of the street, this section of La Rampa has a street level sidewalk and an elevated sidewalk, creating twice the walking space and twice the retail opportunities.



    We moved on, passing through the block that contains Coppelia (1966), an amazing example of Revolutionary architecture for the people. The Revolutionary government inherited a cleared city block here, and they took this valuable space and devoted it to an ice cream parlor that can seat more than 1000 people. In more prosperous times Coppelia offered more than 30 different flavors, and although the selection is much smaller now, Cubans can still enjoy a trip to Coppelia for only a few pesos.

    After boarding the bus, we headed to Plaza de la Revolución, where we had a few minutes to walk the giant paved central plaza to take photos. The plaza was conceived in the Republican period under J.C.N. Forestier in 1925 as a civic square to be landscaped and filled with vegetation and benches in the center area and surrounded by government buildings. The project faced many difficulties and it wasn’t until the 1950s that the famous Monument to José Martí was built, the design of which is a hybrid of two designs submitted in competitions for the monument. In 1959 the Revolutionary government started using the square as a gathering place, one of the reasons why it was never landscaped.

    One of the many buildings surrounding the square is the Office of the Comptroller, designed by Aquiles Capabianca and built in 1953. The same year the building was awarded a Gold Medal by the Institute of Architects. The building is now perhaps more famous for the Che Guevara portrait added in 1962 than for the architecture underneath, an impressive example of modernism designed with attention to the climate.

    The afternoon was filled with a number of visits to mid-century houses, some of which we could only view from the bus. One of the houses we visited was the Residence of Isabel and Olga Pérez Farfante. Any early work by Frank Martinez, Eduardo Luis told us how Martinez used to drive through Cerro, a neighborhood full of neoclassical buildings, as he worked to develop his personal style. Thus, the center area that connects the two apartments can be seen as a reinterpretation of the interior courtyard of Cuban colonial houses.


    A highlight for many was the House of Alfred Schulthess (1956), designed by Richard Neutra with associated architects Raúl Alvarez and Enrique Gutiérez. Built for a Swiss banker, it is now the home of the Swiss Ambassador to Cuba. We passed under the spider-leg covered walkway (originally rendered in wood to complement the wood elements of the façade), and enjoyed an interior visit. We had time to walk through the gardens, which were designed by Brazilian landscape architect Roberto Burle Marx.


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  • Cuba: Day 6 - Post-Revolution Architecture in Havana

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    Jan 31, 2013

    We had already seen one of the three “Proyectos Grandes” of the early years of the Revolution when we saw Habana del Este. Today we were going to see the other two: CUJAE (Ciudad Universitária José Antonio Echeverria (1959-1965) and the Escuelas Nacionales de Arte (1959-1964). That the three “Proyectos Grandes” were a social housing project and two universities reinforces the Revolutionary governments emphasis on housing and education. We first visited CUJAE, where Dr. Jorge Peña Diaz, professor in the architecture department, gave an introductory presentation on the architecture of the university and the current work of the university. Looking at the architecture it was apparent how the architects embraced the creative possibilities of using modular building systems. The campus really is like a city, with covered walkways (to protect against rain) connecting buildings and creating sheltered areas for students to gather and interact.




    Before lunch we made a quick stop at the Reparto Abel Santamaria, an area of a neighborhood composed of circular houses and a circular market. We had the opportunity to enter the market building, where Osmin explained to us how Cubans by food with their ration cards.

    For many of us, we had been looking forward to our visit to the Escuelas Nacionales de Arte (Nacional Schools of Art) before the trip started and the lived experience did not disappoint. The visit was all the more memorable thanks to Universo Garcia, the architect in charge of restoring the schools who accompanied us throughout the campus. This campus was quite a contrast to CUJAE. While the architecture of CUJAE is cohesive and based on a modular system, at the National Schools of Art the different schools are spread out across the land and rendered in highly individual and expressive styles often reliant on traditional building techniques. We first visited the School of Plastic Arts, designed by Ricardo Porro, who also designed the School of Modern Dance and was the lead designer of the project. Universo described how Porro’s design for the School of Plastic Arts was an homage to Cuban roots, and he looked to African villages and the Santería goddess of fertility. The school has been beautifully restored, and Universo described the various interventions made in the restoration and his hope for future maintenance.



    We then moved on the School of Music, designed by Vittorio Garratti, an Italian architect that Porro had befriended while at Carlos Villanuevas’s office in Caracas, Venezuela. A visit to the School of Music allowed us to see how much had been done with the restoration of the School of Plastic Arts. The beautiful Catalan roof vaults there were a sharp contrast to the School of Music, where we saw the roofs crumbling because of the tile delamination.

    We then visited Garratti’s other contribution, the School of Ballet, which was near completion when Alicia Alonso, head of the National Ballet, declared that the school was unfit and the company would not move there. Visiting this school was an adventure, as we had to cross a half-collapsed bridge to get to the school. This school was the most haunting to me, with large cavernous openings for practice areas, and curving hallways punctuated by openings in the ceiling that let in disorienting strips of light.


    Our final visit was to the School of Modern Dance, also designed by Porro (we were unable to visit the fifth school, the School of Dramatic Arts). This school also reminded me of an African village, though I’m not sure if this was Porro’s intention. Like the School of Plastic Arts, this school is still being used, and we could here music coming from some of the classrooms, and students were presumably training inside.




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  • Cuba: Day 7 - Las Terrazas and Soroa

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    Jan 30, 2013

    Today we headed west out of Havana about an hour and a half to the province of Pinar del Rio. We stopped first at Soroa, an interesting example of the Revolutionary government’s new approach to tourism—“Cuba for Cubans.” The emphasis was on creating affordable vacation spots, largely focused on nature, for everyday Cubans, rather than catering to foreigners. The Soroa Tourist Complex (1960) was one such effort. A modest workers’ vacation village, Soroa is composed of small, connected cabins with steeply pitched roofs. In the center is a ranchon, an open, thatched structure that functions as a social space where people can have drinks and listen to music and dance. 

    For me, the highlight of the day was visiting the built community of Las Terrazas. The Sierra del Rosario was an area that had been devastated by subsistence farming and deforestation for lumber and charcoal. In the early 1960s the government initiated a program to restore the environment and attract tourism. To house the community members working in this area the government sponsored the construction of a settlement using the Novoa prefabrication system. The system is composed of pieces small enough to be carried by two or four men, allowing it to be a community built by its inhabitants.




    Adjacent to the residential area of the community is Hotel Moka, built to accommodate ecotourism. The hotel was designed to accommodate a giant tree that grows up through various floors of the hotel.

    We enjoyed lunch at
    Cafetal Buena Vista (1801), the main building of a coffee plantation that has been restored and now functions as a restaurant. It was established by a French family who fled Haiti during the Revolution and was a working plantation until the 1940s. We visited areas that have been recently cleared to reveal the coffee bean drying platforms and slave barracks. 

    We hurried back to Havana with the hopes of getting to visit a few places that we couldn’t fit in our itinerary in previous days. First we stopped at the House of José Gomez Mena (1927), which has housed the Museum of Decorative Arts since it opened in the 1960s. Yosvanis Fornaris, who works at the museum and is also pursuing a graduate degree in Art History at the University of Havana, gave us a tour of the collection. The collection underscored how committed the Cuban elite were to collecting fine things from around the work.

    We finished the day at the House of Juan Pedro Baró (1927), where we were impressed by the Lalique interiors we found when we passed beyond the Italian Renaissance style exterior designed by Govantes y Cabarrocas. The house is complemented by gardens designed by J.C.N. Forestier.   

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  • Cuba: Day 8 - Last Day in Havana

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    Jan 29, 2013

    Today we toured Cemeterio de Colon (Colon Cemetery) in Vedado. Built between 1871-1886, the cemetery followed the plan devised by Spaniard Calixto de Loire. Designed with two main streets on a central axis, the cemetery is a gridded mini-city of the dead.









    We saw some familiar names, such as the Baró-Lasa Mausoleum. Besides hiring Lalique to do the interiors of his house he also commissioned the atelier to design a mausoleum for his wife, Catalina Lasa, who was reportedly the most beautiful women in Cuba. Theirs was a scandalous relationship—they had an adulterous relationship before they divorced their respective spouses.



    We then moved on the Tropicana cabaret in the neighborhood of Marianao. Owner Martín Fox decided that he needed an indoor stage, so he wouldn’t have to cancel the show every time it rained. He commissioned architect Max Borges Jr., who designed what came to be known as the Arcos de Cristal (Crystal Arches). Awarded a Gold Medal by the Institute of Architects after its completion in 1951 the structure is evidence of Borges’s fascination with concrete vaults (he was influenced by time spent with Felix Candela). The series of vaults decrease in size as they approach the stage and are all slightly offset from one another. These gaps were glazed and at night outdoor lights illuminated the palms and other vegetation for visitors to see from the inside. In addition, the vaults were painted black, with tiny pinpoint lights that created the illusion that perhaps the audience was seated outdoors. Fox also commissioned Borges to create an outdoor sage, Bajo las Estrellas (Under the Stars), the following year, and a casino a few years later. Unfortunately, we were prohibited from taking photography inside the cabaret.



    Fountain of the Muses, by Italian artist Aldo Gamba, was originally located outside of the Casino Nacional. When it closed in 1952, Martín Fox bought the fountain and had it installed outside of the Tropicana. 


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  • Cuba: Day 9 - Cienfuegos

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    Jan 28, 2013

    This morning we bid farewell to our headquarters in Havana, the Hotel Nacional, and embarked on the segment of the trip that would take us more than 500 miles through the eastern part of the island to Santiago de Cuba. We headed southeast on the National Highway, passing through predominantly non-urban areas. Along the way we were able to see various types of housing. As we moved further from the city we saw less apartment buildings and more single-family dwellings. Most of these were basic designs, though always suited to the climate. Almost all houses had some or many aspects that would maximize shade and ventilation in order the keep the interiors cool.

    We were headed first to Cienfuegos, the third largest port in Cuba, and of these the only one located on the Caribbean side of the island. Because of its location it has always been an important port, which helped promote the development of the city. Access to the national railroad system in the mid-nineteenth century only encouraged its growth. The present city is a grid design and we entered the city via a main avenue. Like Havana, this avenue was lined with structures with porticoes, creating shaded walkways for city inhabitants.

    First we stopped at Parque Martí (Martí Park), the main square in the city. Though the park now exhibits an early Republican design, the importance of this spot dates much further back as it is the spot where the first settlement was pronounced and used to be the Plaza de Armas. After awhile I have come to find a sort of harmonious relationship between the colonial architecture and the prolific amount of political propaganda throughout the country.



    We first visited the Teatro Tomás Terry (Tomás Terry Theater), built in 1895. Inside we encountered an amazing performance space, and were fortuitous enough to arrive in time to hear the end of a group of students practicing. The design ingeniously incorporated a moving auditorium floor, which can be raised to the same level of the stage to transform the theater into an expansive ballroom. It’s easy to see the relationship between Terry, the namesake of the theater, and the history of Cienfuegos. Terry made his fortune off of the goods coming into this port city—the slave trade in his case. He then imported steam engines into the country (he was one of the first to do this) in order to power his mills on his sugar estates. In addition, he also worked to develop the region via the implementation of a railroad.



    On the adjacent side of the square we visited the Palacio Ferrer (c. 1900), though we only had a quick peak inside as the building is undergoing renovations. This structure, now a cultural center, was originally built as the mansion of José Ferrer Sirés, a powerful sugar magnate. Note the spiral staircase leading to the top of the cupola, which provides a panoramic view of the city and which we unfortunately could not climb.

    We then traveled on to the area known as Punta Gorda (Fat Point), a district developed by the wealthy in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. One such building was where we had lunch, Palacio del Valle (1912), which now functions as a restaurant. As Monty pointed out, the house is actually more Mughal than Moorish, despite the owner’s wishes for an Islamic-style mansion, with Venetian, Gothic, and French Baroque details incorporated as well. The design is truly visually over-stimulating, everywhere you look there is some sort of decoration, perhaps two incongruous designs juxtaposed. Though very eccentric, and surely not to everyone’s taste, none could complain about the view from the terrace on the top of the palace.




    After lunch we took a leisurely walk through part of the Punta Gorda district. Though the sun was hot, it was worth it to see some of the summer homes built by Cienfuegos’ wealthy that still line the coast. Many were built predominantly of wood and were painted in a wide array of colors. These houses made me think of the inter-Caribbean architectural dialogue that must have existed. Various details of these houses reminded me of what I have also seen in other Caribbean islands, such as Puerto Rico, Jamaica, and the Bahamas, and I’m sure connections could be made to other islands I have not yet visited.



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