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Art Deco in Havana

Art Deco in Havana

Coexisting with the recent neoclassical heritage and with eclecticism, and frequently exhibiting a combination of elements from these trends, approximately from the beginning of the 20th century to the 1920s, a number of buildings, which joined in the impetus for renewal and European Art Nouveau aesthetics—the term preferred in the island was ?modernism,? giving away the Catalan origin of a good many of the builders affiliated to this trend—began to appear in the urban landscape of Cuba?s capital. Although Art Nouveau, or modernism, did not become as widespread as eclecticism—perhaps because its plant and animal motifs, its curving and undulating lines and its sensual grace did not respond to the goal of solidity and opulence of the wealthy classes, or the seriousness and security that official institutions and banking and commercial entities wished to portray—there are nonetheless outstanding examples of this movement in Havana, especially in the outskirts. Despite the ravages of time, these buildings exhibit a voluptuous beauty that contrasts sharply with a good many of the numerous eclectic constructions and the later insipid dwellings with ?modern? aspirations.

Habana Vieja (Old Havana)
Casa de Los Pel?canos (Mercaderes entre Teniente Rey y Amargura – 1913)
Although modified by later reconstructions, this apartment building has preserved its beautiful entrance of carved wood with floral motifs, flanked on both sides by two slender pelicans, which give rise to the name by which the building is popularly known: House of the Pelicans, and plaster decorations of sinuous flowing lines. A strangely curved wooden structure above the door must have been the window frame for the pane that no longer exists.

Hotel Palacio Cueto (Inquisidor entre Muralla y Sol ? 1906; architect Arturo Marqu?s)
This is most probably the only hotel in the city in the Art Nouveau style, combined with neo-Baroque, which was much favoured by Cuban eclecticism. Although the scaffolding that surrounds the building due to the restoration works undertaken by the City Historian?s Office does not allow one to appreciate it in all its splendour, the two atlantes that guard the main entrance as well as the elaborate tangles of reliefs with animal and plant motifs lend great beauty and movement to the fa?ade, which highlights the colonial historical buildings in the Plaza Vieja.

Farmacia La Reuni?n, Teniente Rey y Compostela
This is one of the few cases in which Art Nouveau is more visible in the interior, rather than in the exterior of an inexpressive academicism. Recently restored by the City Historian?s Office, its carved wood counters and shelves, and stunning stained-glass windows exhibit an interesting mixture of neo-Gothic and Modernism.

Group of houses on C?rdenas Street
It is unusual in the city to find in such a short stretch so many interesting examples of Art Nouveau constructions. Only very recently has the City Historian?s Office—apparently this Office is giving value to 20th-century architecture—begun restoration works on some of the buildings. Although there are several structures here of interest, the houses marked with 101, 103, 107, 159 and 161, which are very similar in their design, carried out by the Catalan architect Mario Rotllant, should be given special attention. These houses feature delightful details, such as side windows shaped as leaves and ornamented with colored glass, exquisite wrought-iron balconies, expressive plaster moldings, and carved wood doors with delicate floral motifs.

Centro Habana (Central Havana)
301 Reina Street; architect Eugenio Dediot
Known as ?El Cetro de Oro? [The Gold Sceptre] after the name of the bakery that used to occupy the ground floor, this majestic three-story building features admirable details, including columns based on plant motifs, pilasters that support female faces, beautiful carved wood doors with stained-glass windows on top, which open onto peculiar balconies, as well as the delightful little figure symbolizing the name of the store.

352 Reina Street
The home of Jos? Crusellas y Faure, a Catalan tycoon of the Cuban soap industry, this building is one of the most cited examples of Art Nouveau in Cuba, despite having been built in the 19th century. Having been expanded and remodelled in the early 20th century, the initial construction was subdued by the Art Nouveau style. Its wrought-iron, rhythmical, curved balconies; the three-lobed arches on floors, the filigree-like plaster ornamentation; the light-hearted and sensual caryatids on the ground floor and the presence of curved lines in the interior are all exquisite details of a building that has been fairly well preserved.

Diez de Octubre
Although this municipality on the outskirts of the city is never included in any tourist package, it is worthwhile to go off the beaten track to take a look at two gems of Art Nouveau architecture, among the numerous examples that its battered streets and avenues hold. I recommend driving down the long avenue that gives name to this very large municipality, Calzada del Diez de Octubre, formerly known as Jes?s del Monte. Behind its porches, one can find every style of Havana?s 20th-century architecture, from Neo-Classicism prolonged from the 19th century, more evident in buildings closer to Monte Street; eclecticism, with both humble and grand examples in former mansions, which have become tenement houses; at least one modest home in the Art Nouveau style, which is run-down due to the passing of time and the many ?remodelings? it has been subjected to; numerous buildings which are attached to the ?lesser? form of Art Deco; insipid and cheap modern buildings, which have nothing to do with the high-rise buildings in El Vedado; and even some of the post-1959 ?massively-built? structures.

Home of D?maso Guti?rrez (Patrocinio 103, entre Saco y Heredia ? 1913; architect Mario Rotllant)
Liberated from the prevailing ordinances for the main arteries in the city that demanded the use of porches, or from the inconveniences of establishing businesses on the ground floor, and taking advantage of the uneven land at one of the highest sites known as Loma del Mazo in the vicinity of La V?bora, and despite the ravages caused by time and negligence, this house still shows the beauty and harmony that makes it one of the most significant constructions of Cuban Art Nouveau. The scenographic access (also common to eclecticism), the reiteration of female faces in different stages of life on the capitals of columns, the beautiful carved wood doors, the plaster ornaments with flower motifs, the elaborate wrought-iron work, the multicoloured stained-glass windows of which there are still vestiges, the formal diversity of its numerous arches, the handsome watchtower and the consistency between the ornamentation of the exterior and the interior justify the appreciation of architects and historians for this forgotten treasure of Havana modernism. A nearby mansion at 209 Santa Catalina Ave., entre Luz Caballero y Saco, is by the same architect and the same style.

Mas?a L’Ampurd? (Gertrudis esquina a Revoluci?n ? 1919; architect Mario Rotllant)
Another modernist gem by Rotllant, who on this occasion proclaimed his Catalan ancestry. Like in D?maso Guti?rrez?s home, the stylistic harmony between interiors and exteriors surprises pleasingly.The delicate work in glazed pottery (the benches outside are reminiscent of those at the famous G?ell Park by Catalonian architect Antoni Gaud?), the display of stained-glass windows and wrought-iron work, and the harmony in size are prominent in this house. Occupied today by a school, as well as that of D?maso Guti?rrez?s, it has experienced a better fate. It has been fairly well preserved (despite the change of color on the outside) and, amazingly, the magnificent staned-glass window with the image of peacock, which is considered the most significant in Cuba Art Nouveau, is still intact.

El Cerro
Jardines de la Tropical (Baire esquina a Rizo)
If you attend any of the concerts that are held here in an effort to save this place from the state of semi-neglect it has been plunged into for many years, it would be a good time to appreciate the modernist elements in the repeated plant motifs of its exotic pavilions. Owned by the Blanco Herrera family, it reveals their taste Art Nouveau or modernism, equally visible in the Maltina T?voli factory (Atocha entre Palatino y Paniagua, El Cerro), also owned by this family, and their residence at Calle 11 entre D y E, El Vedado. October 2010

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