Claudia Giannini is an arts writer and has been Development Associate for the Mattress Factory since 1995. She prepares written material for grant proposals & exhibition publications, and oversees publication production. She holds a M.Ed. in Museum Education, and M.F.A. in Visual Art and is a practicing artist. This was her first trip to Cuba.
Cuba has a long history and its story can be read in its architecture. Columbus landed in Cuba on October 28, 1492 and settlement began in the 1500s. The Spanish built forts in strategic places on the coast out of blocks cut from coral reefs. It’s fun to pick out the shell forms in the walls. These fortifications, built for strength not looks, are in remarkably good condition.
Because there has been little development, Cuba’s buildings are like an architecture textbook in 3-D. Domestic architecture modeled on Spanish palaces built around a central courtyard began in the 1600s. Many buildings—like our hotel Palacio O’Farrill—combine elaborate Spanish Baroque, Roman-inspired Neoclassical, and Art-Nouveau/Art Deco.
In the last seven years, a lot of restoration of the colonial-era buildings has taken place in Habana Vieja (old Havana), which is a UN-designated World Heritage site. One is struck by the lyrical beauty of the wonderful restorations, side by side with the haunting crumbling masterpieces, that are home to many people carrying on their everyday lives.
The “official” post-revolutionary architecture is a combination of Soviet bloc non-descript concrete and really interesting modern design. Cuba’s art schools were lavished with architectural care, but deteriorated during the Special Period in the ‘90s. We saw an example of this when we visited Institute Superior de Arte (ISA), an art academy that has been rescued from the tropical climate and jungle encroachment.