Havana’s Art Deco highlights

Art deco made a deep impression on architects and public alike, perhaps because making use of more ‘noble’ elements from Egyptian art, in fashion thanks to recent archaeological discoveries, and some classical reminiscences which fell in with the neo-classicist and eclectic styles preferred by the rich criollos to exhibit their solidity and opulence, it ‘brought up to date’ and simplified ornamentation without reaching the aesthetic synthesis of modern art. Graphically displayed in Conrado Walter Massaguer’s suggestive drawings for the covers of Social, the famous magazine of the fashionable Cuban society of the times, and who as early as October 1925 made a photo story about the Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes held in Paris four months back, a sort of ‘coming out’ for the style, art deco would contribute greatly to outline the appearance of Cuban cities, especially Havana starting in the 1930s.

Given a cold reception by Cuban architects and investors, art nouveau would not leave a significant imprint on the island’s architecture. Confined mainly to domestic buildings of the petite bourgeoisie and the middle class, with outstanding examples in stately homes such as Masía L’Ampurda, designed by Catalan architect Mario Rotllant in the suburban district of Víbora, and a few commercial buildings, it is hardly seen in public or religious buildings because its voluptuous flowing lines and stylized natural forms were considered foreign or perhaps irreverent. However, its intricate ornamentation would pave the way for geometrical art deco, which did make a deep impression on architects and public alike, perhaps because making use of more ‘noble’ elements from Egyptian art, in fashion thanks to recent archaeological discoveries, and some classical reminiscences which fell in with the neo-classicist and eclectic styles preferred by the rich criollos to exhibit their solidity and opulence, it ‘brought up to date’ and simplified ornamentation without reaching the aesthetic synthesis of modern art. Graphically displayed in Conrado Walter Massaguer’s suggestive drawings for the covers of Social, the famous magazine of the fashionable Cuban society of the times, and who as early as October 1925 made a photo story about the Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes held in Paris four months back, a sort of ‘coming out’ for the style, art deco would contribute greatly to outline the appearance of Cuban cities, especially Havana starting in the 1930s.

Although its presence in private homes–an outstanding example is the exquisite interior decoration of the residence of Catalina Lasa and Juan Pedro Baró (1927) located at calle Paseo, No. 406 entre 17 y 19, El Vedado, with a harmonious deco integration in floors, furniture, lamps and decorative objects–can be considered discreet, it became quite evident in the first Cuban skyscrapers, such as the López Serrano Building, located at calle 13 esquina a L, El Vedado, with the typical volumetric play of the H-shaped ground plan and a pronounced verticality; or the emblematic Bacardí Building located at calle Monserrate esquina a San Juan de Dios, La Habana Vieja, which exhibits an exquisite work in majolica in its tower and upper floors, an abundant display in its interiors of marbles and granites from a great number of European countries, an accentuated use of colour, and meticulous carpentry work.

Art deco would also reign in other buildings: hospitals, such as the Municipal Children’s Hospital, built in 1935 on Avenida de los Presidentes entre 27 y 29, at El Vedado, or the América Arias Maternity Hospital on the same avenue on the corner of Línea Street; theatres such as the América (Galiano entre Concordia y San Rafael, Centro Habana), whose decoration lavishly uses the style’s motifs, or the Fausto Theatre (Paseo del Prado esquina a Colón, La Habana Vieja), remodelled in 1938 and which boasts a pure art deco façade accentuated by its illumination system; cinemas such as the Duplex, the Arenal and the City Hall; apartment buildings such as the Rodríguez Vázquez (Galiano entre Neptuno y Concordia, Centro Habana), the Colonial (Reina entre Campanario y Lealtad, Centro Habana), more modestly conceived but with an interesting work in balconies and façade, or the Solimar (Soledad esquina a San Lázaro, Centro Habana), whose curved balconies reveal the presence of the Streamline movement; or commercial establishments (Ultra department store, La Moderna Poesía bookstore). The Monumental Modern trend is present in several buildings at the University of Havana, such as the School of Science, the School of Medicine and the Library, all located on University Hill, and the School of Veterinary, built on the corner of Ayestarán and Carlos III, or Salvador Allende, avenue where two other examples of art deco stand: Biblioteca de la Sociedad Económica de Amigos del País and the National Masonic Temple.

Perhaps the highest expression in Havana of the Monumental Modern is the Centro Cívico de Marianao designed by architect José Pérez Benitoa and built from 1940 to 1948, with a syringe-like obelisk surrounded by imposing buildings whose colonnade seem to reach toward the sky, such as the Maternidad Obrera Hospital, the Kindergarten Teacher’s Training College, the Home Economics School, the Residential Home for the Elderly and the Marianao Institute. During the 1950s, when other architectural styles dominated the national taste, art deco buildings were still being built such as the 1951 Methodist Church and University Student Centre in El Vedado (calle K esquina a J), and the Great National Masonic Temple (Avenida Salvador Allende esquina a Belascoaín), whose construction ended in 1955 as a sort of reminder that art deco was set on staying alive–as if the hundreds of humble homes and buildings that for decades adopted its most basic decorative codes to ‘adorn’ without making it too expensive were not enough. From Massaguer’s sophisticated girls to the monumental buildings of Marianao’s Civic Centre, art deco covered a long stretch in Cuban culture and is still a distinguishing feature of the motley silhouette of its cities.


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