Great arches of Havana in the modern era

The article discusses architectural remodelling in Cuba during the 1950s, a period of outstanding works performed on pre-existing buildings, although very different from the trend of the times. Martín also proposes a reflection on the tolerance demonstrated in the undertaking of bold works on buildings of great visibility that would acquire unusual importance in the island’s urban life.

The 1950s was a time of great achievements in Cuban architecture. The modern spirit, which by then had become consolidated in all aspects of culture, was imposing its aesthetic in new constructions and fostered the conception of works that rescued national values, while it also advocated abstract projects with a solid individuality and nearer to sculptural forms than to the tried and tested parallelepiped covered with various decorations, according to their stylistic leaning.

A younger generation of architects, immersed in the search and consolidation of a new cultural environment, generally tended to break away from the recent past and avoid previous models in the surroundings of the new building. It also became a regular practice to remodel and expand pre-existing constructions, which, apart from their individual features, were subjected to a process of modernization in favour of a new image that at the same time satisfied the requirements of functionality and space required by the transformation of the building in question.

Two significant examples of architectural remodelling carried out during this period were the famed Tropicana Cabaret and the Club Naútico, both in Marianao. Both had been built decades before and were exponents of the architecture of their respective periods. The architect of choice for their reinterpretation was Max Borges Recio, a leading exponent of the Modern Movement in Cuba and author of innumerable residential and public buildings.

Borges, who studied architecture as an undergraduate at Georgia Tech and earned a master’s degree at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design, set out to create works with a new aesthetic based on innovative structures that distanced themselves from the buildings’ original images. The result of Borges’s efforts significantly surpassed its predecessors to the point that for the visitors to those buildings, the previous architecture is practically inexistent.

The Tropicana Cabaret was built next to a 19th-century “quinta” owned by a Cuban upper-class family composed by Regino Du Rapaire Truffin and Nieves (Mina) Pérez Chaumont. In 1939, the villa had been adapted into a modest nightclub, after having been leased by Truffin’s widow to impresario Victor de Correa. It was later expanded by a different entrepreneur, the Spanish-born Martin Fox, who having “rediscovered” the paradisiacal location, teamed up with Victor de Correa and began to carry out construction alterations to the building and expand its capacity. Towards the end of 1949, and as sole owner of the place, Fox conceived an unprecedented transformation of the building hoping to make it the world famous cabaret that it actually became and continues being so to this day. The construction of the grandiose project was actually an intelligent excuse to keep the wives of the gentlemen who left their money at the casino, which by then was pretty successful, entertained.

Located in the municipality of Marianao in the outskirts of the city, the villa was a sturdy three-floor level building surrounded by lush tropical vegetation in which palm and other tall trees grew in abundance. Its spacious rooms, where social activities were held, were lavishly decorated in an eclectic style with upholstery of rich fabrics, all of which were the result of a refurbishment that had begun in the early 20th century.

The remodelling project prompted by Fox as president of the company Turística Villa Mina, S.A. was commissioned to the architect Max Borges Recio, whose father, the also architect Max Borges del Junco, had designed Fox’s home in the exclusive Miramar district. Borges made the most of the original house and especially its natural surroundings, which all in all covered an area of almost 40,000 square meters. On this land, he created a true recreational paradise, which was both a medium and a complement to leisure activities. To achieve his and the visionary promoter’s goal, the avant-garde designer, obsessed with the abstract forms that various artists were concerned with at the time, did not hesitate in adding different modernist structures, which covered the old house entirely –the foyer; the Arcos de Cristal; the new casino, now an upscale restaurant; today’s Rodney’s Café, which was a result of the renovation of the original house’s outdoor service areas; and the gallery that connects the latter with the main areas of the cabaret. These additions are, without doubt, the ones that make up the “personality” of the charismatic cabaret. They were very innovative for its time, not only from a formal perspective, but also because of the avant-garde constructive solutions that were used in their execution, notably the thin-shell concrete structures and the hyperbolic paraboloids held up by a single central support.

The Arcos de Cristal cabaret (1951), whose distinctive feature is the friendly dialogue between nature and construction, is one of the most interesting objects in the place. The interiors were defined by a succession of shells that encircle the colonial house, stemming from it to a height of 8.5 meters and descending onto the stage where they reach the lowest height of 3.8 meters. The arches cover various lights that accentuate the telescopic character of the interior, and rise 6-20 meters, joined together through transparent glass walls that allow visual contact with the outside vegetation. A curious detail is that these daring structures were built without any previous calculations, which makes them more interesting still and confirms the innovative nature of its creator.

As a college student, Professor Mario González Sedeño visited the cabaret when it was being constructed and was told by its architect that the arches had not been calculated. González considers that this fact adds to Tropicana’s condition as a masterpiece of Cuban architecture.

The unusual connection that occurs between the spacious rooms filled with eclectic ornamentation from the old Villa Mina and the magnificent canopy of heaven in the cabaret testify to the bold spirit of its designer and his little interest in preserving intact the image of the old house or, in any case, in making an organic transition between the two buildings.

Club Náutico
The Club Náutico (Yacht Club) of Marianao was based since 1937 in a comfortable spot which had been promoted by the international company Ferrocarriles Unidos de La Habana y Almacenes de Regla Limitada and designed by the architect Rocha del Castillo. The clubhouse, which was built on grounds owned by the company and adjacent to the “Playa” railroad station to the west of Havana, was only used in the beginning by the railroad’s office workers and their families. Although, at that time, the site was somewhat far away from the centre of the city, and separated from it by the Almendares River, the transport facilities provided by the railroad easily covered the distance and ensured the continued flow of visitors to the club.

The solid building made of brick walls, concrete slabs and multicoloured terrazzo floors was built at an estimated cost of 40,000 pesos, and complied with the maximum comfort and sanitary requirements in force at the time. Its large terrace facing the sea, the horizontal balustrades made of metal pipes, the parapets accentuated by continuous railings, the circular windows, and a few masts as complementary ornamentation gave the building, as a whole, a modern architectural image that would be ascribed to art deco, which was moving from a geometrical architecture of vertical lines toward more voluminous and rounded forms that tended to horizontality.

Many of the buildings in that period were linked to the Modern Movement based on the aesthetic of machines. In the case of Club Náutico, the result was a large boat-building anchored in the sand, very much in keeping with its seaside location. This suggestive image that went beyond the subjective character and became a reality was reflected in post-construction advertisements as a marketing scheme to promote the sale of lots in the adjacent residential neighbourhood of El Náutico, which was in the early stages of development. Having such an important building nearby no doubt stimulated virtual owners to buy land there.

In 1940, the clubhouse underwent some modifications and expansions, but maintained the strong seafaring image that dominated the entire surrounding context. At the request of the owners, Borges conceived new ideas for remodelling the building to which two vaulted bodies were consecutively added in 1952 and 1953, to assume the new functions demanded by the growing popularity of the institution. The first one, almost 14 meters wide, became the entrance and main lobby, adjacent to the original building, but without obstructing visibility from the beach. However, with the addition of a second 26-meter wide vault for a reception room juxtaposed to the famous clubhouse terrace, the original building was concealed and only a sharp visitor would be able to see a part of the upper parapet from the sea.

These two additional bodies are composed of thin concrete vaults supported by arched porticos, which are hidden over the roof and create in the space between the two adjacent rooms an interesting fabric in the sequence of supports that separate both rooms. The monumental archs also acquire a telescopic image that reaches heights from 7 to 12 feet. Here too the shells connect with clear glass frames that allow the passage of light, providing lightness to the curled concrete shells. The resulting image may be conveniently associated with the seascape, which it faces, given its similarity to large waves that, instead of attacking, shelter the bathers.

Tropicana and Club Náutico are emblematic examples of Modern Movement architecture in Havana, and part of the large catalogue of buildings that came out of the creative work of architect Max Borges Recio. The deft handling of structures as an inescapable support to his revolutionary aesthetic positioned him in a prominent place among a group of contemporary, also creative, architects.

The two buildings depicted here continue to be valid for the role they play and the formal response that the creator gave to their respective plans. They were at the time examples in the use of advanced technologies and received prizes and awards for their undeniable contribution to the national Cuban architectural culture. Furthermore, they constitute representative examples of a holistic relation between architectural space, supporting structure and surroundings.

It also faithfully reflects the architectural ideology of the time as to how to take on the remodelling of an existing building with an aesthetic considered conveniently modern at the time of intervention.

However, today, with our respectful and somewhat conservative view of our architectural heritage, would we be capable of openly accepting such bold interventions in well-built buildings, which are representatives of a period and style, and have unquestionable architectural values such as Villa Mina and Club Náutico in Marianao had at the time?

If the answer is no, another question, which should be carefully considered before answering, would follow: Would we be losing the best architecture?

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