On the Road with the Kimbell: Art and Architecture in Havana, Cuba
- Hello, and welcome to On The Road with the Kimbell. I'm Robert McAn, Head of Donor Relations, Membership and Special Events. I'm also a Member Travel Coordinator for the Kimbell and I work closely alongside our museum director and curatorial staff to arrange high-level travel for our Kimbell membership. Over the past 20 years, I've been privileged to have traveled to the four corners of the globe. But in 2016, a destination very close to home was selected, Havana, Cuba, and it ended up being one of the most fascinating and unusual destinations we have ever encountered. For only a small window of time around 2016, the U.S. government allowed U.S. citizens to travel to Cuba
with only minimal restrictions. That opportunity for U.S. citizens has now vanished. So I hope you enjoy this excursion to Cuba which captures a view of the highlights of the art, architecture, and also gives you a view into the rich artistic community that exists there, which was a dramatic surprise for all of us in 2016.
The program today will revisit our eclectic tour of Havana. And we will begin with a look at the oldest section of Havana called Old Havana, with its Spanish colonial beginnings, beautiful plazas, palaces, and government buildings. Next we'll move to the area of Havana surrounding the Paseo Del Prado, the stunning pedestrian walkway that leads from the centrally located Capitol building to the seawall. Then we'll take a look at some of the more infamous and famous hotels in the city, the National Hotel and the Riviera Hotel. The latter of which is pictured here, The Riviera, it's a veritable time capsule of '50s modern interior design. Following that, we'll explore the creative spirit of Havana with a visit to Hemingway's house.
Several new art galleries and art co-operatives in the city, as well as a visit to the private home of an American ex-pat and her Cuban artist husband. And lastly, we'll refresh ourselves with a look at perhaps Havana's most famous restaurant, along with a visit to a few entertainment venues: one old and one new. Havana was once dubbed the Paris of the Caribbean. And much of the city remains amazingly intact, although in a somewhat shabby condition, mainly due to over a half a century of U.S. embargo. It is as though in many ways, time has stood still since 1959.
Although efforts are underway for conservation and restoration of major buildings. Havana is an archive of every interesting form of Western architecture, especially those between 1860 and 1959. The design chronology ends, however, in 1959, the year revolutionary leader Fidel Castro toppled Dictator Batista. Unchanged is the creativity and pride of the Cuban people. Today, a new generation of artists and entrepreneurs are finding new ways to engage and communicate with the outside world. And their talent and inventiveness is a testament to the human spirit.
As we look at the map of Cuba, you see that the country is located just approximately 100 miles from Key West, Florida. But it is a million miles away culturally and economically. Havana, the capital is located on the North Coast. Cuba was settled by the Spanish in 1511 and was under its rule for some 400 years. And the influence of the Spanish can be found throughout the city.
Major trade reforms in the late 18th century brought in other artistic influences, including neoclassic and Baroque architecture. The national prosperity that ensued with American travel to Cuba during prohibition and high sugar imports during World War II brought about a final surge of building with a focus on more modernist architecture. As I mentioned, we will begin our tour in Havana, as we did in 2016, in Old Havana. In 18, excuse me, in 1982, Old Havana was designated a UNESCO World Heritage site. According to UNESCO, Havana is the most impressive historical city in the Caribbean, and one of the most notable in the American continent as a whole. Old Havana is also the historic heart of the city, and it is full of color and personality.
It is a unique mix of historic buildings, museums, galleries, churches, lovely plazas, and shops. We'll do a quick overview of some of the plazas and I'll point out one or two interesting buildings in each. The oldest and perhaps most important plaza in Old Havana is Plaza de Armas where the city was founded in the 16th century.
In colonial times, the square was a military parade ground. The square contains important historic buildings from the 16th, all the way to the 20th century. Included is El Template, a 19th century Greek style neoclassic temple marking the legendary spot where Havana was founded in 1519. The 16th-century, Renaissance-style Castillo de la Real Fuerza was the first fortress with triangular bulwarks to be built in the new world. Also on the plaza, a former palatial residence from the 18th century now renovated and functioning as the hotel, Santa Isabel. The grand building on the west side of the plaza was built in 1792 on the side of the former parish church, and it is the Governor's Palace.
It served as Spanish colonial government headquarters until 1898, after which it served as the center of U.S. military administration, then as the Cuban president's residence, then the City Hall, and today it is the city museum or the Museo de la Cidudad. The two-story limestone building completed in 1835. The facade is adorned with the shield of the city and features a deep loggia supported on thick columns.
Peacocks roam the tree-filled courtyard where a Carrara marble statue of Christopher Columbus presides. The Plaza de Armas is also famous for the second-hand book market that takes place all days except Tuesdays. Now let's move to the Plaza de San Francisco.
The Plaza de San Francisco was founded in 1628. The Basilica of San Francisco dominates the square. Built between 1580 and 1591, it features a 135-foot high bell tower and contains the remains of many influential Havana citizens.
Next to this Basilica is the Fuente de los Leones, fountain of the lions, loosely modeled after the one found in the Alhambra in Granada, Spain. Here's the one in Havana and here is the one it was modeled after found in the Alhambra in Granada. I do want to share with you that when we were traveling, Havana began to come to life in the Plaza de San Francisco. Wafting through the plaza was the smell of foods, paella, and a strange sickly, sweet perfume. Also the scents of mango, papaya, and the sounds of music.
In this case, the saxophone. And of course the laughter of street entertainers who were always willing to pose for a photograph with you for a small fee. Across the plaza, the Havana Arts and Crafts Market also exists, a must-see for all visitors. But you see here, the image of the cathedral and the Plaza de la Catedral. The plaza features the Catedral de San Cristobal, constructed from 1748 to 1777 mostly by African slaves. The cathedral features elements of Baroque architecture, and includes asymmetrical towers, and a rustic, yet, theatrical facade.
Rustic because of the minimal instruments that were available to build the cathedral. The church name was changed in the late 18th century to its current name when it supposedly began to house the remains of Christopher Columbus, although no hard evidence exists. We'll now leave Old Havana and focus on the monuments and architecture near the National Capitol situated near the city center. As you can see, the National Capitol was most likely loosely inspired by the U.S. Capitol building and was constructed between 1926 and 1929.
The building at the time of our visit was undergoing a major renovation and restoration. It was closed for visitors, unfortunately. But according to the architect, the inspiration for the cupola came from, among other sources, the Pantheon in Rome. Moving down the street, we encountered the Gran Teatro de La Havana, Grand Theater, which is home to the Cuban National Ballet. Characterized as a Baroque Revival building, the current building was built around the earlier Teatro Tacón Theater. The exterior was highlighted by four white marble sculptures by Giuseppe Moretti and Geneva Mercer.
They represent charity, education, music, and theater. The grand staircase with its undulating curves, extensive marble work and skylight literally set the stage for the performing arts hall to come. The theater seats 1,500. During the 19th and 20th centuries, many of the world's greatest artists performed here, including Enrico Caruso, Anna Pavlova, Sarah Bernhardt, as well as numerous ballet companies, including the American Ballet Theater.
Looking out from the upper lobby terraces, you can enjoy the formal gardens and landscaping of the Capitol building next door. In contrast to the exuberant theater exteriors, next door, we find the neoclassic Hotel Inglaterra. The original building opened in 1875 and the hotel has undergone several renovations.
In 2016, the hotel went into renovation under the management of Starwood. The first hotel in Cuba to be managed by an American company in over 55 years. But in 2020, the U.S. Treasury Department
declared that all American companies must cease plans to open any plant properties in Cuba. Across from the hotel is the beautiful Parque Central. Completed in 1877 it is an oasis in the city, containing palm trees, benches, and sculpture. The most notable sculpture being the statue of José Marti.
Beloved by the Cuban people, Marti was a poet, writer, lawyer, and was instrumental in the fight for Cuban independence. Running from near the park and the city center down to the sea wall or the Malecon is the Paseo Del Prado. In colonial times, this promenade received several names including Nuevo Prado, Paseo del Prado. And with Cuba's independence, it became Paseo de Marti in honor of José Marti. However, people keep calling it simply El Prado. Construction began in 1772.
Over time, the street became extremely popular with the city's bourgeoisie. In 1884, it was remodeled and gained prominence with improvements on the street, including lighting, paving, and benches. Additionally, important buildings and other construction began to be erected on either side, which made the area even more appealing. In the late '20s, as part of the expansion of Havana led by the French landscape architect, Jean-Claude Nicolas Forestier, and a team of French and Cuban collaborators, the Paseo Del Prado was upgraded with bronze lions, lampposts, and the beautiful marble benches that we see today. Here's just a moment that we captured.
The past and the present coming together along the Paseo Del Prado. Moving just a few blocks from the Paseo, we find the first example of art deco architecture in the city. The Bacardi Building commissioned by Emilio Bacardi to be the headquarters of the famous rum company. Architects E. Rodriguez, R. Fernandez, and J. Menendez
designed the building and construction was completed in only 300 days. At the time, it was Cuba's tallest building. The lobby is decorated from floor to ceiling and marble are different colors, imported from all across Europe. While the facade is covered with red Bavarian granite.
Visitors today can enjoy visiting the main lobby and the exteriors, where the deco building shines forth with intricate metal and interior gated doorways, along with an unusual candy-colored pastel color scheme in the lobby anteroom. The building is stuck in time. This national architecture award-winning building was renovated in 2001 and currently houses offices from a number of Cuban companies. Now I wanna turn your attention to the Hotel Sevilla.
I couldn't leave the central district without showing you a few images. The hotel opened in 1908. It's a four-story Moorish revival building.
What's interesting is the hotel ownership included the Biltmore group in the '20s and '30s and then it moved into the hands of a mobster, Amleto Battisti y Lora. He added a huge thriving casino to the hotel. The casino was later, though, destroyed by mobs in 1959 when Castro came into power. The Sevilla Biltmore was featured in Graham Green's novel, "Our Man in Havana," the lobby, the scene where the protagonist joins the British Secret Service. Another hotel of note. The famous and infamous hotel, the National in Cuba, the Hotel Nacional.
The hotel looks over the straits of Florida and opened in 1930 under the partnership of hotels, including the Savoy group. The hotel is notorious for having been the site of the Havana conference in 1946. A gathering of organized crime leaders, including Lucky Luciano and Meyer Lansky. Francis Ford Coppola dramatized this meeting in "The Godfather II" movie. The hotel guests register is a veritable who's who of the world's most famous celebrities and powerful businessman.
Here's a look at the bar near the courtyards where our group stopped to have a daiquiri, one of the best daiquiris in Havana. Following the revolution in 1959, the National Hotel Casino closed. And during the Cuban Missile Crisis and the aircraft guns were set up at Santa Clara Battery nearby, an elaborate tunnel system was established under the hotel.
Tours of the tunnel system are available. And the hotel is once again, open for guests. And now the Riviera Hotel, it's across town but I wanted to show it to you. The hotel was originally owned by mobster Meyer Lansky, who was inspired to build it after visiting the Riviera in Las Vegas.
The architect was Igor Polevitzky, one of the deans of Miami modern architecture. And Lansky hired Albert Parvin of Los Angeles for the interior design. Exterior fountain and interior sculpture are by Cuban artist Florencio Gelabert.
The hotel was the first in Havana with air conditioning. The hotel opened in 1957 with Ginger Rogers as the opening act. Other famous acts included Abbott and Costello, Steve Allen, and many others.
Unfortunately for Meyer Lansky, the revolution in 1959, just two years after its opening, put an end to the glory days of the Riviera, when Castro seized control of American properties. What remains today is an amazing art and design time capsule from 1957. Almost none of the interior spaces had been altered when we visited. They were in their original form: furniture lighting, decorative motifs, all remained. In my opinion, it may be one of the few untouched examples of '50s modern hotel design in the world.
At the time of our visit, the hotel was about to begin a $35 million renovation. I certainly hope that they will not destroy this archive. Here was the bar, the Riviera, just absolutely as it was. Now let's turn our attention to several impressive museums in Havana. This is the decorative arts museum, the National Museum of Decorative Arts, and it's housed in the former home of sugar baron, Jose Gomez-Mena. In the 1920s, he built the mansion which was later bequeath to his widowed sister.
The Castro regime seized the mansion after the revolution, leaving its art and furnishings intact, some 33,000, renaming it the National Museum of Decorative Arts. The museum opened in 1964. Gomez's sister, Maria Luisa Gomez-Mena was a prominent figure in Havana society. At the residence, she hosted parties and gatherings which were attended by celebrities from Cuba and across the world. Aristocratic wealth, taste, and passion are revealed through the more than 33,000 objects.
Works of artistic and historic value from the reins of Louis XV, Louis XVI, and Napoleon III, as well as Oriental works from the 16th to the 20th century. The beautiful museum, perhaps has one of the most attractive staircases to be found in Cuban residential architecture. As interior decoration by Janssen of Paris and French mahogany carpentry. The first floor has Louis XV period furniture, tapestries, paintings, a Regency-style dining room with walls covered in Italian marble and paintings by Hubert Robert, among others.
The second floor has collections of Chantilly, Meissen, Sevres, and Wedgwood ceramics, porcelains, Oriental porcelains, and Chinese crystal and decorative folding panels. Now let's look at the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes, The National Museum. The National Museum in Cuba is housed in two buildings with perhaps the most interesting being the building and collection dedicated to Cuban artists. The 30,000 plus pieces that form the Cuban collection are divided, as described by the museum, in to specific sections. Colonial arts, turn of the century, the emergence of modern art, modern art and contemporary art. We toured a small exhibition of charming colonial portraiture, but we found most interesting, the work of Cuban artists of the last 70 years.
Reason being, many of the works have a subtle, and sometimes not so subtle, political undertone and message. Unfortunately, no photography was permitted in the museum. But I have researched a few of the artists that our group found captivating. Wifredo Lam. He was born at the beginning of the 20th century and worked in a variety of styles.
But his overriding interest was in portraying and reviving the Afro-Cuban spirits and culture. Those are his words. He did travel internationally early in his career and was inspired by and in contact with some of the most renowned artists of the 20th century, including Picasso, Matisse, and Frida and Diego. His unique style is characterized by hybrid, surreal, abstracted figures.
Next Lázaro Saavedra. He's one of the few Cuban artists of his generation, he was born in 1964, who did not immigrate to the United States. And was also very interested in a critical dimension of his work, the criticism.
This is one of his emblematic works: the "Detector de Ideologias," the "Ideology Detector." The artwork evaluates the political opinion of the person who it is used on. The object can give a verdict. As you can see, if it's attached to your arm or your wrist, supposedly it will register whether you are sin problema, problematica contrarrevolucionaria, or diversionismo.
Loose translation: compatible, problematic, counterrevolutionary, or heretic. It's really rather audacious. Saavedra is recognized internationally as one of Cuba's leading conceptual artists. He's exhibited widely and his work is in numerous collections, including Daros Latin America, the Mattress Factory, among many others. But I'm going to leave the museums for a minute because you really can't address the arts in any culture without examining also the writers and performing artists who create the essence of a place. So let's take a short drive to the edge of Havana to visit La Finca Vigia.
Translated: The Lookout House. The beautiful Finca Vigia or Hemingway's house is located in the San Francisco de Paolo district of Havana. The house was built in 1886. Hemingway lived in the house from the '30s to around 1960.
And while there, wrote his perhaps most famous novel "The Old Man and the Sea." The author and his wife abandoned the house in 1960 following Castro's rise to power. Everything has been meticulously preserved as it was when Hemingway left it: bottles and glasses still on serving trays, magazines and books laying atop coffee tables and on the bed. It's a time capsule.
Visitors are encouraged to take photographs and most of the residence is open for viewing through the open doorways and windows. Visitors cannot enter the home. Visitors can view the author's living and dining room, office and study, bedroom.
It's fascinating actually to walk around the property. You can even see the typewriter used by the author. Behind the property is the swimming pool and the dry docked fishing boat, Pilar. Hemingway's outings with his fishermen friend, Fuentes, on the boat Pilar, many believe were his inspiration for the novel "Old Man and the Sea." Today, the house is a museum operated by the Cuban government. Now for another one of a kind artistic experience in Havana: Casa Fuster.
In the Havana neighborhood called Jaimanitas is the mosaic explosion, literally, of the artist, José Fuster. He's still alive today. And he has, over the course of many years, transformed an entire neighborhood. The Gates of Casa Fuster shown here invite you to look inside. And they only hint at the menagerie to come. Fuster describes his influences as the motifs of nature, the abstractions of Picasso.
And of course, Antoni Gaudí. While Fuster has been at work for decades, which is definitely expressed here, there are also other artists in Havana that are doing really incredible things. New galleries have come on the scene, artists cooperatives have taken hold, and exciting new entertainment venues have popped up. Let's take a look at a few.
Here's a gallery that's very popular, Santa Cana. Ceramic gallery with sculptures somewhat figurative, abstracted, obviously, and tile work for walls. This images shows the entrance to studio 331.
A new cooperative run by three talented Cuban artists: Adrian Fernandez, Alex, excuse me, Adrian Fernandez, Alex Hernandez, and Frank Mujica, who work in different mediums, photography, painting, and drawing. Frank Mujica's drawings were a bit of a standout. The small scale, photorealist pencil drawings captured the changing landscape of Cuba.
They were both comforting and disquieting all at the same time. Another gallery nearby was called the merger. A collaborative venture between three Cuban entrepreneurs. The artwork, as described on their website, ubiquitous and mundane objects on a small and grand scale pressing palatable socio-political metaphors. This piece caught my eye.
Shown here, you see Disney-like characters blowing bubbles. The transitory, fleeting bubbles taking the shapes of Cuba and the U.S. And now a space for everyone in Cuba.
It's called The Factory. We were amazed when our tour rolled up to the exterior of this huge facility. The site is an old warehouse and the building was the headquarters originally of the Havana Electric Company. When we arrived, there was a line of young people and some older people around the building waiting to get in for a night of art exhibitions, theater presentations, music, dance, and of course, a few drinks.
Who would have guessed that this type of sophisticated art center existed in Havana? It would seem much more fitting to have been found in Brooklyn, Los Angeles or in Miami. Multi-storied with areas for art exhibitions, music presentations. It's fascinating. Of course, a few areas, lounges, VIP rooms. The Factory curator has written, "The project is designed for people to show up and consume art.
We are not working for the usual gallery hopping crowd that puts its hands in their pockets looking for something new. We wanted to find a way to reach people who have never gone to a gallery or a theater before." And from what we saw, the people are coming. A small cover charge, it gets you into the space and a wristband is used to tally up the food and beverage you consume. You pay as you leave The Factory. It's an interesting model.
So now onto another startling site. As if The Factory wasn't enough of a shock to the system, the next visit we made was to the home of American ex-pat, Pamela Ruiz, and her Cuban artist husband, Damian Aquiles. Creativity rules at the couple's home. Located in a former neighborhood full of villas, the gated home is unassuming from the exterior. But when the gates open, it was a masterpiece of eclectic interior design and artistic power, both inside and out.
Ruiz, an American, came to Havana three decades ago and met her now-husband, Damian Aquiles. In 1999, she spied the dilapidated villa in the Vedado neighborhood not far from The Factory. After years of renovation and gathering of a smattering of '50s modern furniture and accessories salvaged from Havana's glory days, the result is a tour de force of innovative interior design, paired alongside installations of Havana's best contemporary artists. And included on the walls are the works of the husband, Damian Aquiles. His works include paintings and mixed media sculpture.
Found objects are the foundation of many of his pieces, such as discarded paint cans, rusted signage, and scrap metal. The assemblage is a sophisticated reminder of the ongoing intersection of old and new Havana. His work is now found in collections worldwide. Also want to note that when we visited in 2016, Ruiz and Aquiles had just opened a new space, The Candy Factory, a large exhibition space for Cuban artists.
Okay, so we've been all around the city. We visited the Old Havana, the Paseo Del Prado, museums, galleries, stopped in at a collector's home, and an artist's home. So maybe now it's time to wet our whistle. One of the most famous bars in Havana is undoubtedly Floridita.
And one you don't want to miss if you ever go there. You'll want to try the Hemingway daiquiri. Of course, Hemingway was a regular. This was one of his haunts.
And the Hemingway daiquiri is made with less sugar and more rum. When you're there, you can also take a picture with the bronze Hemingway at the bar. Now, when we were traveling to Cuba after we visited Floridita, we jumped into pedicabs to take us to dinner. A great way to get around in a city with narrow alley ways and crowded streets. We went to La Guarida, perhaps the most famous restaurant in Havana.
Famous because it was the location of the movie "Strawberry and Chocolate." You may remember that from years ago. And for the celebrities who have visited such as Madonna, Mick Jagger, film director Almodóvar.
And also Annie Leibovitz shot the famous photographs of Rihanna at the restaurant. From the outside, no one would ever suspect the gastronomy within. The dilapidated mansion entrance opens up to a marble staircase with a headless statue. You then progress two more flights up to the restaurant, no elevators here.
Once having arrived, the dining rooms are jam-packed with old and new artworks and ephemera. And the roof decks giveaway to elegant casual dining. You can see that it's certainly been modernized.
There's a staircase running through that glass exterior and spiral staircases up to a roof deck. This is our group. The rooftop bar was incredible, especially at night. But I captured this just as the sun was beginning to take its close for the day. The rooftop bar eloquently frames the expansive views of Havana and the sea.
Now, okay, so we've gone to dinner. Now, let's go here a little bit and learn about some of the performing arts. When we were there in 2016, we were nearing the end of the tour. We were really winding down. Habana Compas Dance emerged in 2004, merging Spanish dance with Afro-Cuban percussion. The mostly all girl company and school has gained national and international recognition through their artistic use of percussion instruments.
Some typical, and others, not so typical, including bongos, tambourines, drumsticks, chairs, and the human body. It was a very vibrant performance that we saw. (percussive music) Okay, yeah, those performances lasted about 30 minutes.
The performers were exhausted. It was fantastic. Huge round of applause at the end of those. And so I encourage you to find your way to Habana Compas Dance.
When you at some point, hopefully, are able to go to Havana. Of course after leaving that, we jumped in some '50s cars, which are available throughout the city, as you can imagine. These cars have been restored by very creative mechanics who build parts because they can't really import the parts for these American cars.
There's also a smattering of newer automobiles from China. And so these are used mostly for the tourists, all the '50s cars. And so we headed off for the Tropicana. The open air Tropicana has welcomed tourists and the jet set for 80 years with its high point in the 1950s. Still today, every show is filled with a carnival-inspired floor show with beautifully costumed showgirls. The show ticket, although pricey, includes a bottle of rum for four, a rose for the ladies and a cigar for the guys.
It was a great way to top off the tour to Havana, and it's a great way for us to finish out our tour. Havana is a place unlike anywhere else on earth. With one foot in the past and the other foot hoping to take a step into a brighter future.
As the sunset for us and as our tour ends for you, I want to thank you for joining me today for On the Road with the Kimbell. I hope you enjoyed the program, and I thank you for joining us today. (gentle music)