Just last year, on March 2013, Havana, for the very first time ever, was chosen as the official host of The World Congress on Art Deco, thanks to the beauty of some of the city’s stunning art deco properties. On this post my personal aim to showcase the finest Art Deco masterpieces that grace this peculiar Caribbean city.
It’s a well-known fact that Havana dazzles and bewitches because of its unique collection of buildings, monuments, parks, squares and most of all – the striking mix of architecture from different time periods, perfectly coexisting in the same space. A very unusual city; some say a puzzling one, astonishing in many ways, simply wonderful in others; Havana, may well be all that and more for me, but I hope it’s you who can make that judgment after you visit.
More specifically, if you’re an architecture lover with a special interest in the Art Deco movement, you will find Havana to be a simply delightful city in which to spot many of these buildings, ranging from different time periods and epochs, from Colonial to Baroque, Neoclassical to Art Deco and from Modernism to Eclecticism – you will find it all in this wondrous city.
Havana’s Art Deco – in perfect harmony with eclectic styles
The diversity of architectural styles you can see in the Cuban capital is one of its most distinctive characteristics. It’s a very common occurrence to walk along the streets of Havana and surprise yourself with the multitude of architectural styles perfectly coexisting in total harmony with each other, sharing the very same space whilst standing in stark contrast to one another.
As result of its unique history and blend of cultures, while wandering around the city you will more than once come across a mansion of neoclassic style, with very intricate details, made of materials like pink marble and mirrors with Carrara statues of Hellenic heroes; and you will find it sitting right next to a modern building with a certain degree of neglect or next to an architectural piece with a rather eclectic design. As a matter of fact, this is what Havana’s architecture is all about and one of the factors that make this city so unique and so attractive to architecture lovers from all corners of the world.
While walking along its streets, more than once you will find an ornate building and classical time piece standing right next to a totally eclectic building or a neoclassical edification with a contrasting façade - two very different styles perfectly coexisting together with neither of them matching the other.
The thing about Havana is that it has been one of the world’s greatest melting pots; a city where you can find all these architectural gems living side by side in total harmony. One of the best preserved styles, aside from Neoclassical, Colonial and Baroque, and with a large number of examples is Art Deco, and if you’re a lover of this artistic design you will find plenty of buildings to admire in Cuba’s eclectic capital city.
After all, it wasn’t long ago, only on March last year in fact, that Havana was honoured with the privilege of hosting the World Congress on Art Deco for the first time ever. With the purpose of restoring many of the city’s Deco heritage, many global specialists gathered and special Art Deco tours were organised. While these are no longer offered to visitors, here I’ve compiled my very own guided tour through Havana’s Art Deco beauties so that you can enjoy them during your time in the city.
Art Deco in Havana, its origins
Sometime between 1920 and 1940, Art Deco comes to Cuba and particularly to Havana around the end of 1920s with the first of these buildings having been residential dwellings and blocks of flats built sometime in 1927, in the leafy suburban neighbourhood of Miramar.
The artistic movement was initially brought to the scene through publications from the USA which awakened the interest of local architects. The art movement itself soon became a heated topic in the schools of art of the country and it wasn’t long before it became materialised in the form of new buildings springing up along the city.
Whilst Art Deco and Art Nouveau (its predecessor) didn’t become as widespread in the city’s landscape as eclecticism, it certainly left a mark in Havana’s urban and residential areas. Perhaps because modernism (another term popularly used in the island to group together both Art Nouveau and Art Deco) wasn’t as appealing to the wealthy classes at the time and, because of its undulating lines and sensual grace, wasn’t considered a “serious” enough style to be appropriate for official government institutions, banks and commercial properties, Art Deco as big an impact as it could have.
But nevertheless, Havana still managed to gather an impressive collection of outstanding Art Deco buildings that have stood the test of time and still wow the most knowledgeable and experienced of architects around the globe, despite the battering of the weather, the relentless passing of time and the years of neglect. Their voluptuous beauty is as mesmerising today as it was when they were given their first lick of paint and first introduced to the world. Their timeless beauty now stands in sharp contrast to the city’s numerous eclectic buildings and rather insipid, more contemporary dwellings with uninspired modern aspirations.
So, going back to our introduction of how the movement started and developed in Havana, it was between the late 1920s and until the late 1950s that Art Deco symmetry quickly became popular with affluent Cubans and started showing its face around many new buildings of the city. Soon after the first Art Deco masterpieces, many others followed until the triumph of the Cuban revolution, which saw the construction of new buildings come to a dramatic halt and then progressively slow down until this very day.
Iconic examples – Havana’s most famous Art Deco buildings
Now, although in Havana you will come across many beautiful period properties, wildly varying in shape, colour and style, there are some truly stunning Art Deco pieces that proudly stand out among the crowd because of its originality, timeless beauty and fidelity to the Art Deco style. And whilst some of these may have some slight touches of different styles (eclecticism in its vast majority), there are a select few that remain very loyal to the Art Deco movement, so much so, that they deserve a detailed and lengthy introduction.
The Bacardi Building – the first Art Deco landmark in the city
One of the first to be built in the city, and certainly the finest example and most famous of Art Deco buildings in Havana is without a doubt the magnificent Bacardi building (Edificio Bacardi), which also was, incidentally, the city’s first skyscraper.
Considered the epitome of Cuban Art Deco in all its splendour, this rare beauty truly stands out among the crowd, thanks to its great, tall structure of massive dimensions and the attention to detail in its vibrant outside façade with intricate touches.
Once the headquarters of the Bacardi rum empire, this majestic structure is Havana’s signature Art Deco masterpiece; thanks to its unique and quirky twists, original design and geometric flourishes, topped by the iconic bronze bat motif – Bacardi’s legendary logo.
You’ll find it in Old Havana, on the western side of the historic city centre, right on the corner of Monserrate and San Juan de Dios, proudly rising and towering above the more mundane neighbouring structures that look rather insipid in comparison.
The construction, first design and final structure
It was built on 1930 according to the design of E. Rodriguez Castells and with the help of architect Rafael Fernandez and engineer Jose Menendez. The architects chosen to build this impressive property were picked through a competition in which the Bacardi family called upon a selected number of architects offering a reward of 1,000 pesos reward to the person who came up with the winning design.
Initially, Mr Rodriguez Castells had won the competition with a Neo-Renaissance proposal, but after attending the 1925 Exposition International des Arts Decoratifs et Industriels Modernes in Paris, he revisited his design and altered it completely to fit in with an Art Deco style.
Soon after its construction, which took 300 days to be finished, the building won the National Architecture Award on the same year of its completion. Thus the new 12-story-high building also became the city’s first ever skyscraper, remaining Havana’s highest point for a very long time.
In 2001 the building was given maintenance and restoration works took place with care to preserve all the original features. The renovation project was carried out by the Office of the Historian in the City, the very same office responsible for restoring much of Old Havana’s decaying colonial houses and hotels.
Once you find it after a scenic cab ride or a leisurely walk along Od Havana’s cobbled streets, you have to make an obligatory stop to admire its ornate external façade and fully take in its overwhelming beauty from every angle.
With touches of Catalan modernism, such as the use of brightly coloured glazed tiles that give the building a unique chromatic effect, the building’s exterior is truly eye-catching to say the least. This together with the use of red granite, fine glasswork, intricate ironwork, and unique design in the shape of a Babylonian ziggurat, make of the structure a true one-of-a-kind.
With red Bavarian granite inlaid and brass embellishments, the façade of the building is lavishly decorated with rich details and unique touches that include an Art Deco version of the city’s coat of arms.
According to the suppliers of the time “The Bacardi building can be said to contain marble and granite from almost every European nation, with materials imported from Sweden, Germany, Norway, France, Italy, Belgium and Hungary.”
Two remarkable figures that stand out from the upper part of the building’s façade are the beautifully decorated enamelled terracotta panels of naked nymphs created by American artists, Maxfield Parrish, and which are positioned on either side of the top tower.
The interiors of Edificio Bacardi are equally exquisite and you have to venture inside to appreciate its internal splendour and opulence. Fom the pink Baviera marble floors and walls to the green shade of the marble ceiling – the first ever to be painted in this colour in Cuba – you will find the beauty of the inside of the building to be truly overwhelming, some believe it even surpasses the external façade – it highly depends on taste .
All the original interior design has been immaculately preserved during restoration works so that you can enjoy it in all the full glory of yesteryear. One thing you will repeatedly see while you walk along its grand and plush interior spaces is the iconic Bacardi bat motif adorning every wall, etched into every hanging lantern, moulded into door fixtures and found pretty much everywhere you look.
Other exquisite indoor details include numerous stucco reliefs, blue mirrors, mural paintings, brushed and polished brass, mahogany and cedar panelling as well as pale green and black inlaid marble imported from a selection of European nations (as mentioned above). Other interior fittings that count as excellent examples of Art Deco styling include the ornate lamps and exquisite wrought iron work present on doorways and lifts.
Have a mojito at the Bacardi family’s private bar
On the mezzanine level you will find the former Bacardi Café Bar, which was rescued from oblivion and reopened in recent years. Complete with light shades stamped with the company’s bat logo and with plush, dark leather furniture, it offers an inviting space for chilling out and relaxing.
Another must-stop when inside the Bacardi building is the little bar, once the private bar of the Bacardi family and now open to the public to serve some of the best cocktails in town. On all the walls you will be able to appreciate frosted glass light sconces etched with the famous Bacardi bat while once you look down to the floor you won’t help but notice the white, brown and black stone tiles laid out in an Art Deco pattern. The coolest thing about this place is that it’s so little known, so well hidden from the main tourist trail, that you will hardly ever find it crowded and in fact, on most days you’ll have the place all to yourself. You can access this gem by taking a quick right upon entering the building through the main doors and then a sharp left, you’ll see a small staircase, climb it and you’re there!
Climb to the top for sweeping city views
And while you’re here, just before you leave, don’t forget to ask permission in the lobby to climb up to the top tower, the doorman might charge you $1 or $2 CUC but the amazing views of Havana from the top of this building are more than worth its price – truly mind-blowing! A word of caution to those with a fear of heights though, the views are a staggering 360 degrees!
Lopez Serrano – the greatest example of crumbling Art Deco
Two years after the construction of the grand Bacardi building, another Art Deco masterpiece was completed to instantly become the most talked-about edification of the times. Even when its work had started a year before the Bacardi building, in1929, because of its sheer size it took considerably longer to be finished. It surpassed the Bacardi building in height and thus at once became Havana’s tallest structure – a title it proudly held until the construction of the Focsa building in 1956.
Built with an iconic design inspired by New York’s Empire State Building but in a miniature format (about 70 stories shorter than its American cousin), the Lopez Serrano building was named after its owner and the man who commanded its construction. It was, Jose Antonio Lopez Serrano, the son of a rich magnate, locally known as “Pote”, who migrated to the island from Galicia in his adolescence, only to become one of the country’s richest bankers and businessmen – quite a feat considered he arrived to Cuba as an illiterate, penniless youngster.
With a central location in downtown Havana, in the municipality of Vedado, you will find the majestic Lopez Serrano building on Calle L (L Street), on the corner of Calle 13 (13 Street),
Even when the Bacardi building was completed first, we could say that the Lopez Serrano building was the real Art Deco pioneer in the city, as work on it started earlier and the project itself was the first of its kind in Havana, undoubtedly one of the most ambitious. Inspired by the new Art Deco movement with some strong American touches, the building was designed and built by architect Ricardo Mira and engineer Miguel Rosich.
The initial purpose of the Lopez Serrano building was to house blocks of flats and apartments as residential dwellings, whilst also devoting part of the structure (the ground floor and lobby) for offices and businesses such as hairdressers, post office and shops. Nowadays however you will only find it inhabited by residential dwellers, as all manner of business and commercial offices have moved away, due to the crumbling state the building is found in today after more than half a century of total abandonment and neglect by the local authorities.
The exterior structure
Spread along ten lower floors and four upper floors in the tower section, this imposing structure was built with steel frame and brick walls. But it is ultimately, the predominance of straight lines in its exterior façade that make of this building one of the most celebrated designs of the Art Deco movement in the city.
The soft pink hues and off-white tones of the facade (which may appear white in the distance) immediately catch your eye as it clearly makes the building stand out amongst the leafy surroundings and the considerably smaller, more mundane residential houses and buildings sitting next to it.
Beautifully decorated with zigzagged arches and flower friezes characteristic of the Art Deco style, the imposing outlook of this stately property is truly resplendent, even despite its visible state of slow but steady decay.
On first glance the grandiosity of its sheer size and imposing shape will take your breath away but upon closer inspection you will discover doors closed and boarded up, intricate glasswork in ruins, stained walls eroding away and once glorious gardens turned into trash dumps. It’s really sad to contemplate the state of neglect this grandiose building structure is now in after years of non-existent maintenance. Still, if you’re a lover of Art Deco, you simply can’t afford to miss it – it still stands as the largest-scale carried out in the city.
The exquisite interiors
Some say that whilst the external façade of the Lopez Serrano building is certainly attractive, the true highlight of this building lies inside. And when they say inside they mean the awe-inspiring vestibule, paved with terrazzo designs and featuring a timeless nickel-silver relief motif know as El Tiempo (Time) – a true masterpiece in its own right.
Designed by Enrique Garcia Cabrera, Cuba’s most famous graphic artist (his former residence in Havana is another fine example of Art Deco design), the intricate relief, placed right on the entrance as its main focal point, reveals the shape of a manly figure in motion, in a pose that tries to capture the fast-paced passage of time, whilst also depicting the world’s increasing obsession with technology and mechanisation during the 20th-century.
Other beautiful touches of the building’s interior décor include the lavish marble floors with a central motif in the shape of a star, and the red Moroccan marble walls adding an even superior air of sophistication to the place. Grand ceiling lamp shades (with an impressive accumulation of decades of dust!) complete the picture.
The great shame and ultimate thought-provoking sadness of this outstanding timeless architectonic piece is the fact that is has been progressively deteriorating over the years, with the local authorities and government doing absolutely nothing to stop its relentless decay. Quite sadly, many experts fear that the entire building or parts of it could collapse within a decade if it does not receive urgent and extensive repairs.
If you have time during your visit in Havana, pop in inside and see for yourself the tragically crumbling beauty of this once great building’s interiors. Walls are badly chipped, the large spots of humidity are swallowing the place alive …and yet an air of former grandeur and glory remains.
Hotel Nacional - Classic Art Deco meets eclecticism
There are numerous other examples of Art Deco present in Havana, too many in fact to mention them all, but most of them bear distinguishing touches of eclecticism or other architectural influences. One of this is the remarkable Hotel Nacional de Cuba, a famous structure for its centric seaside location, for the long list of famous people that have stayed here over time, and, not least of all, for the sheer beauty of its shape and exterior design, as well as the exquisite décor of its interiors.
Relatively close to the Lopez Serrano building, still within the boundaries of the Vedado neighbourhood, but closer to the Malecon seawall (right in front of it in fact), the legendary Hotel Nacional stands as one of the island’s proudest, most historic hotels, famous for having hosted some of the world’s most famous celebrities through the years (the likes of which include Winston Churchill, Frank Sinatra, Ava Gardner and Hemingway).
Easily identified as an Art Deco structure due to the use of the clean, straight lines, this hotel is often better known for its rich interiors, in which you can find the perfect blend of past and present, harmoniously coexisting in a conservative and contemporary space.
Opened in December 1930 (almost coinciding with the opening of the Bacardi building), the Nacional also features visible Arabic influences with Hispanic-Moorish architecture, perfectly coexisting with neo-classical and neo-colonial elements.
Art Deco touches at the Hotel Nacional can be found in the use of geometry, the fine ironwork, the ornate lamps, the staggered arches, the distinctive design of the ceilings and the extensive use of marble in the different shades and tones.
Where to spot more, less well-known Art Deco pieces in Havana
While we’ve dedicated more time and space to the grandest, most famous and most opulent representations of Art Deco in Havana, it’s not like there is a shortage of equally awe-inspiring but significantly smaller Art Deco representations in Cuba.
Outside of the main Art Deco trail in Havana you will find one too many examples of this movement while walking along this eclectic city. As a matter of fact, you can come across numerous Art Deco examples on virtually any corner of the city. Many of these are nameless and thus hard to identify, but always walk with your camera ready because you may come across a remarkable
Theatres and cinemas, for example are other fine examples of the Art Deco movement. One of these is the Teatro Fausto in Old Havana, built by architect Saturnino Parajon in 1930 and visibly standing out among the surrounding buildings thanks to its clean-cut horizontal and vertical lines, its bright white façade, in stark comparison to neighbouring structures.
Other cinema with clear Art Deco touches is the Teatro Sierra Maestra, formerly known as Lutgardita (named so after the mother of former Cuban president, Fulgencio Batista, who ordered its construction) and depicting an out-of-this-world Mayan fantasy. Beyond its rather modest, typical Art Deco exterior lies a fascinating interior mixing a powerful blend of contrasting styles. Inside you can find imitation sculptures from the Mayan civilisation, sub-tropical jungle murals climbing up the walls and an eerie lighting provided by the light bulb eyes of exquisitely crafted aluminium Mayan face masks adorning the auditorium walls - a truly marvellous Mayan spectacle; you simply won’t be able find anything of the like anywhere else in the world! Unusual art deco lamps and murals on the vestibule complete the picture. You should try and come visit on a Sunday after 2pm when they host an event that includes dancing, music performances, storytelling, comedy and more – a fantastic way to make the experience come to life.
Likewise, the Teatro America, on the lower floor of the Rodrigo Vazquez building, is a fine example of an Art Deco cinema. Inaugurated on March 1941 and built by Fernando Martinez Camps and Pascual de Rojas, this colourful (although somewhat decayed) 11-story building features every Art Deco element, from clear defined lines, to symmetrical and elegant forms. Something you may not know is that this cinema’s auditorium was also the location of British singer, Will Young’s video for the song “Evergreen”. You will find it located in Old Havana, on Galeano Street.
And if you want to visit an authentic residential example of an Art Deco dwelling in Cuba then a stop at the house of Cuban artist Enrique Garcia Cabrera is a must – the interiors are far more spectacular than its attractive façade – you just have to see it to believe it. A renowned graphic artist, professor and painter, Mr Garcia Cabrera showcased his talent in the building of his not-so-humble abode. He himself designed and implemented the relief on the façade of his house, built in 1938 by Cuban architect Max Borges, while he commanded his student, Manuel Rodulfo to create the relief inside the house, on the ground floor – truly spectacular too. Admire the quirky interiors, the exquisite detailing on the staircases, the checked floors with differently coloured tiles, the stunning ironwork, and the general beauty of the place with a design that exudes harmony and understated simplicity.
There are some truly inspiring blocks of flats, beautifully displaying an original Art Deco design. But as I mentioned earlier many of this are nameless and difficult to locate so you’ll just have to wander, camera in hand and wait to be surprised by the heavenly apparition of one of this architectural masterpieces.
An architectural style that marked an era and still lives on
As true gems of the not-so-distant past, Havana’s vibrant Art Deco time pieces still stand today as a reminder of times of opulence and wealth, when the city flourished as a trendy and up-and-coming Caribbean nation.
But even today, in the early beginnings of the 21st century, Havana’s Art Deco buildings still turn heads and captivate the heart and imagination of those who truly appreciate and love exemplary works of art and timeless architectural marvels.
All of the buildings I mentioned here might be some of the easier to spot, most famous and grandest (in terms of sheer size) Art Deco examples in the city, but they are by no means the only remarkable ones; in fact I've become so fascinated with Art Deco in Havana that my next blog post will be dedicated to another grand example of this artistic style, this time inter-twined with a tempestuous love story that scandalised the high Cuban society of the times - La Casa de la Amistad and the two infamous lovers who lovingly designed it, built it and lived in it before the untimely death of one of them. It still stands today as the island's ultimate love nest. Also a fine example of Art Deco is the two lovers' final resting place, the Catalina Lasa and Juan Pedro Baró Mausoleum, one of Havana's most ornate tombs, designed by French glassmaster, Rene Lalique - but I won't say more, if you want to find out all the juicy details of this inspiring love story and the buildings that witnessed its unfolding, make sure you don't miss my next blog.