From baroque to midcentury modern to eclectico cubano, many of the island’s historic structures are embellished with decorative features and integral artworks. In an article adapted from the Getty Conservation Institute newsletter, Rosa Lowinger talks about steps being taken to preserve some of the most visible elements of Cuba’s architectural patrimony. Here are some excerpts from a version published in Cuban Art News. Follow the link to the complete article and all the photos.
Barely the size of California, and with a population slightly greater than that of Los Angeles County, Cuba abounds in historic buildings and museum collections. This Caribbean nation has seven UNESCO World Heritage cultural sites and several hundred historic centers, cultural landscapes, and individual sites designated Monumento Nacional by Cuba’s Ministry of Culture. It also boasts both the oldest and the largest extant Spanish fortresses in the Americas and roughly one hundred fifty museums, many established to serve small communities.
They are also in dire need of conservation.
The penchant for ornamental finishes and art within architecture was as common in the countryside as in the capital. Eighteenth- and 19th-century sugar barons and landed gentry regularly contracted local artists and Italian muralists to adorn their homes, churches, and theaters. Pairing art with architecture proliferated during the building boom associated with the 1863 removal of Havana’s city wall, peaking in the decades following the 1902 establishment of the Cuban Republic.
The grand hotels, cigar factories, theaters, casinos, social clubs, and government buildings of the era contain important artworks, including decorations by the Tiffany Studios in the Presidential Palace (1920) and by René Lalique in the Vedado mansion (1927) and mausoleum (1933) built by sugar magnate Juan Pedro Baró.
The astonishing range of ornamentation includes concrete trees and starfish pavilions in the early 20th-century beer garden and dance hall Los Jardines de la Tropical and colorful glazed terracotta block and bronze bat fittings for the 1930 office headquarters of rum maker Bacardí.
Preservation and conservation institutions followed, beginning with the 1978 establishment of the conservation workshop at the National Fine Arts Museum and with the 1980 founding of the National Center for Conservation, Restoration, and Museology (CENCREM).
With seed money from UNESCO, and located in a 17th-century convent in Old Havana, CENCREM was Cuba’s first national institution expressly created to train conservators, undertaking major projects with a scientific approach. [. . .] In 1997 the college-level Superior Art Institute [ISA] began granting undergraduate and master’s degrees in conservation in concert with CENCREM.
Although CENCREM closed in 2012, largely because of deterioration of the convent where it was located, the degree program remains.
In the mid-1990s, the Office of the Historian of Havana came under the direction of historian Eusebio Leal Spengler, who devised—and was allowed to implement—a unique model for preservation and conservation that reinvested revenue from hotels and restaurants located within the World Heritage Site into conservation projects.
As part of this initiative, several key treatment centers were established. The first was a state-of-the-art paintings conservation studio, staffed by Cuba’s most experienced paintings conservators, cherry-picked from CENCREM. The second was La Escuela Taller Gaspar Melchor de Jovellanos, a workshop that now trains at-risk youths in historic-building trades including masonry, glasswork, stone carving, iron forging, bronze casting, carpentry, painting, plaster work, and mural painting, and that guarantees employment to its graduates.
Yet despite these efforts, conservation is arduous in a country of such limited economic resources. When economic strictures are coupled with the limitations on materials imposed by the US embargo and the bureaucratic roadblocks created by top-down control of projects, the fact that anything has been adequately conserved is a minor miracle.
And therein lies the conundrum of Cuban preservation efforts. It’s a good thing to have strict laws protecting heritage, but if there is no project funding, and if access to materials is restricted, conservation is hobbled.
However, Cuba’s changing economy and foreign investment are beginning to alter that.
Today, Havana is a city of cranes. They tower around the historic district, snarling traffic, and the sound of jackhammers permeates the city. Cuba is racing to restore its historic-building stock, a drive fueled primarily by the need for hotel rooms. . . . There are approximately twenty new hotel projects in the capital alone and many others around the country, most involving renovation of high-value historic buildings.
A 2011 Cuban law that allows private ownership of residences by Cubans and repatriated Cuban Americans is spurring private restoration to create Airbnb-style lodgings called casas particulares.
The opening of borders is bringing opportunity to individuals, and even non–property owners are beginning to benefit. For historic buildings, however, this is potentially dangerous. There is little or no control over intervention on structures not nationally registered or outside World Heritage districts, and even though the National Council of Cultural Heritage and the National Monuments Commission retain authority over high-value sites, investors, hotel developers, and the government’s tourist ministry press for work to be done quickly.
Moreover, new laws allowing limited private enterprise have led to the creation of restoration and construction “brigades” staffed by artists, often in conjunction with graduates of the Escuela Taller. These enterprises can sell their services as “restorers of architecture” not only to the private sector but also for work on high-value buildings, often without trained conservators providing oversight. As a result, some damaging methodologies are employed on historic finishes and integral artworks.
This peril is not lost on Cuba’s preservation professionals. Gladys Collazo Usallán, president of the National Council of Cultural Heritage and the National Monuments Commission, says her greatest concern is maintaining preservation values at a time when so much urgent work needs to be done. The council regularly convenes panels of experts to vet projects in the highest-value buildings. They strongly advocate for the inclusion of conservation professionals in all projects and for conducting thorough analysis prior to intervention.
But the pressure is daunting, especially for architectural artworks. To combat this, the council is trying to encourage best practices. A significant project under way is a nationwide inventory of murals and decorative finishes in historic buildings. Directed by Eliza Serrano, a venerated scholar and practitioner who founded the murals department at CENCREM and now teaches at ISA, this ambitious undertaking aims to catalog “everything that is a decorative surface that is part of the spatial atmosphere of a building.”
It is a formidable task, but the council hopes this data will also help train regional historic-sector workers in identifying and understanding what constitutes a historic decorative surface.
“In Defense of Decorative Finishes: Cuban Architectural Conservation in the Twenty-First Century” was originally published in Conservation Perspectives, the GCI Newsletter 32: 2 (Fall). Online. Authored by Lowinger, Rosa, 2017.