Travel

Havana Rising

After years of isolation, Cuba is catching up with the globalized world in unexpected ways.

After years of isolation, Cuba is catching up with the globalized world in unexpected ways.

Josie Alonzo at home in Havana.

In Havana, you never know what you’ll find behind closed doors.

In the back streets of the Vedado district, I arrived for dinner at the warehouse loft of artist Esterio Segura—from the outside, a crumbling colonial structure—and stepped straight into a glimpse of Cuba’s possible future.

With a dozen fellow guests, I explored several white cube gallery rooms undergoing creative renovation, each one filled with politically-charged sculptures involving Pinocchios (a reference to less-than-truthful government officials), cages (prisons), and airplanes (exile). Groomed waiters served prosecco in a moonlit courtyard, which would soon have a rooftop patio for partying beneath the stars. Most startling was the open kitchen, where an Italian chef was whipping up a five-course extravaganza that included beef cooked in a chocolate sauce. There, the host, Segura, presided beneath a wall covered with his most original artwork: four dozen ceramic plates adorned with images of Fidel Castro making love to Cuba in the form of a woman, cheekily titled “48 Glorious Entries of the Victorious Hero into Havana” (or as Seguro jokingly put it: “Castro fucking Cuba”). Each image represents a year of Fidel’s rule, metaphorically depicted as an imaginative sexual position with the bodies sketched in raw, earthy detail. In the last two, meant to correspond with the bearded macho’s disappearance from the scene, lonely Cuba is left to pleasure herself with a rifle.

It’s a sign of the changing times that such a provocative work exists in Cuba, even if a private invite to Seguro’s studio is the only way to see it. “I wanted to show during the last Havana Biennale,” says the artist, whose hefty frame and hearty appetites evoked a young Diego Rivera. “But my friend in the Culture Department took one look at the images and advised, ‘Esterio, maybe you should show something else!’” He collapsed into helpless laughter.

As far as fiestas go, this was little short of historic. Despite being separated by only 90 miles of ocean, relations between the United States and Cuba have been infamously (and melodramatically) dismal almost since the day the revolution triumphed in 1959—there were moments of espionage, poisoned cigars, failed invasions, and nuclear missiles. The mutual enmity endured long after the collapse of the U.S.S.R. in 1991, to the bafflement of the rest of the world, which is why Obama’s restoration of diplomatic relations in 2015 has been such a gift to U.S. travelers. The trade embargo is still in place, but Americans can now come and go freely by filling out a few simple forms, and find themselves in places that could once only be dreamed about—like Esterio Seguro’s studio, dining with Cuban artists beneath images of a fornicating Fidel.

In fact, the haute bohemian spirit of the party felt like Paris in the ’20s, and the sense of anticipation as Havana’s isolation fades—I was actually amongst several guests who were visiting from the United States—evoked Berlin before the wall came down. On one side of the dinner table was the musician Carlos Varela, celebrated as the “Cuban Bob Dylan” in a recent HBO Latino special, The Poet of Havana, and who has sung with Jackson Browne and Bonnie Raitt. “Look at us tonight!” he roared, gesturing with his glass of molasses-like Añejo rum. “This evening would have been unimaginable two years ago.” From the yanquí side was Rhett Miller, the lead singer of the band the Old 97’s, who was in Havana for a solo show. Carried away by the goodwill, he leapt up with his guitar for an impromptu concert, to raucous applause from the crowd.

Near the Havana Harbor.

For a moment, we could imagine that the decades of isolation had dissolved, and Cuba had rejoined the rest of the world.

The first time I traveled to Havana, 20 years ago, such a lively intersection of art, music, food, and design would have seemed like the purest science fiction. In the mid-’90s, the tropical island nation was still trapped in the Cold War. Portions of my journey seemed to have been pilfered from a John le Carré novel.

I had to fly there via the Bahamas, where I had been told to find a disused airport terminal and hand $1,000 in cash to a man lurking in the shadows, known simply as Lionel. He gave me a handwritten ticket and pointed to a Russian-made propeller plane that looked like it had seen action during Hitler’s siege of Leningrad. I arrived in a city that was at the nadir of its fortunes after the collapse of the U.S.S.R. Havana was in extravagant decay, crumbling into the Gulf of Florida, and food rations there had been cut at some times, some Cubans told me, to two pounds of rice and one pound of beans per month. The meat ration was sometimes a single hot dog.

The few restaurants were dismal, the nightclubs filled with jineteras—prostitutes—and at my hotel, women randomly telephoned at night asking if I might like to get married. There were only a handful of rental cars on the entire island, and I spent days trying to obtain petrol on the black market. When I drove into the countryside, mine was the only vehicle on the eight-lane highway—a grave loneliness that I was able to combat by squeezing hitchhikers in the car, taking them from town to town and chatting about Cuban life, which had plunged overnight from relative comfort to an existential state of uncertainty.

Traveling to Havana in 2016 was a more glamorous affair, to say the least. This time, I flew direct from Miami on an eight-seat private jet operated by a company called Victor, which had just gained permits to fly to Havana from 19 American cities. Cuban officials whisked me through the airport into a restored 1955 Buick in a fluorescent shade of blue, which glided to the Saratoga, an artsy hotel with Spanish floor tiles, a balcony overlooking the Parque Central, and WiFi that actually worked.

And yet, the minute I stepped out the door, there was an instant sense of déja vu. The crumbling urban landscape still looks the same as it did on my first visit—which is to say, presumably, just as it did in 1959, when Fidel and Che rode triumphantly into town, plunging Cuba into a temporal impasse. The colonial Old City is still gloriously decrepit, with oak doors and stone curlicues from the days when Havana was the jewel in the Spanish crown. Neighbors gossip to one another across balconies, kids play soccer in the street, and walking down the narrow sidewalks, you still have to dodge piles of debris, gaping holes and the occasional whiff of open sewers. I ended that first day watching the waves crash over the Malecón, Havana’s famous seafront promenade, where another rusty 1950s American car with tail fins—a Chevy this time—rattled through the spray.

“Havana is the last virgin city,” says Miguel Coyula, one of Cuba’s leading urban planners. “It has never experienced urban sprawl or modern development.” Rather than knock down neighborhoods, each generation created a fresh residential district, moving in stages west. The result is that Havana is a virtual encyclopedia of Western architecture. There is the baroque brocade of the Spanish colonial center, unchanged since the days when conquistadors were loading galleons with plundered Aztec and Inca gold; grand aristocratic mansions from the sugar-fueled wealth of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, laden with art nouveau flourishes; and the tropical modernism of the 1950s era. “It’s like a giant urban onion,” Coyula says.

Today, this architectural heritage hangs in the balance. Caught between the past and future, Havana has the potential to come full circle as the Western Hemisphere’s most ravishing city, just as it was two generations ago—so long as when the trade embargo finally ends, the blitz of U.S. investment doesn’t lead to a slew of strip malls and fast food restaurants. Decades of decay could also prove to be problematic. According to Coyula, on average, three buildings now collapse in Havana every day, making a tourist’s nostalgia seem like an indulgence. “It’s a unique moment for the city,” he says. “Will we bulldoze the past or preserve it?”

There is cause for optimism. As a result of tentative economic reforms put into effect by Fidel’s younger brother, President Raúl Castro, in 2011, Cubans are now permitted to own and sell private property, and to work as entrepreneurs in more than 200 industries. As a result, certain sections of Cuban society—including artists, filmmakers, and musicians—have access to dollars, international travel, and, compared to their compatriots, an opulent lifestyle, rather like the arty version of Russian oligarchs basking in post-Communist wealth. “The normalization of relations with the U.S. hasn’t changed life much for Cubans,” says Collin Laverty, an American who has lived here for a decade, whose company, Cuban Educational Travel, has escorted the likes of Bernie Sanders and executives from Facebook, Airbnb, and Netflix to the island. “The average income is still $20 a month, and so long as the U.S. trade embargo is in place, a lot of areas are unlikely to improve,” he says.

Orlando Inclan in La Guardia's stairwell.

The uneven new system has resulted in pockets of modishness sprouting in unlikely corners, and tracking them down can have a surprisingly clandestine feel. On my first night, I visited one of the city’s best private restaurants, La Guarida, which involved passing through a shattered foyer with a faded revolutionary quote from Fidel on the wall and climbing a broken marble staircase with headless classical statues before the packed dining rooms were finally revealed. I climbed a few flights higher and emerged into a spectacular new rooftop bar, whose sumptuous white vinyl lounges had a neo-Georgian air. Stealing the show were the panoramic views. Enormous empty white picture frames focused the eye on the skyline, the sun setting on the glittering blue horizon beyond.

Gazing through the frames at the mysterious urban landscape, I had to wonder what else was out there, hidden in Havana.

The creative force behind La Guarida’s rooftop bar—providing much of the new energy for preservation in the city—is a group called Habana Re-Generación, which brings young Cuban architects, artists, and designers together on projects that preserve the traditional style of the city with contemporary twists. I went to meet several members, whose day jobs are in the office of the Historian of Havana, the government bureau charged with restoring the colonial Old City, the famous enclave that was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1993. Their office is in a grand mansion, with urban plans papering the walls and rows of computers mapping the spider web of baroque streets.

“From 9 to 5 we work in Old Havana,” says one of H.R.G’s co-founders, Orlando Inclán. “But from 5 to 9 we think about the rest of the city.”

Two members of H.R.G, Camillo Darias and Isell Guerrero, offered to show me the city’s forgotten heritage. We hired an old-school taxi—a 1952 Chevrolet with cracked windows, tan leather seats that felt like they could fit five across, and an antique engine mysteriously held together by wires, rubber, and tin cans. Chugging like a lawn mower, the vehicle ground towards the enormous bay that dominates the south of the city. “The restoration of the colonial city has been a fantastic success,” Darias says, noting that it brings in $500 million a year to Cuba in tourism, mostly from Europe and Canada. “But the next generation needs to look beyond it, to districts like the port.”

The Tallapiedra electric plant.

More than 70 abandoned sites lie around Havana Harbor, creating a landscape reminiscent of New York City’s derelict waterfront in the 1970s. Relics from Cuba’s industrial heyday a century ago include abandoned railway stations, markets, and an austerely beautiful wrought-iron elevated train track. “We call it our horizontal Eiffel Tower,” Guerrero says, noting that if the Parisian icon ever fell over and began to rust, it might look a lot like it. The highlight of the expedition was a monolithic edifice dating from 1915, the Tallapiedra electric plant. Its turbines once powered much of Havana, but the American trade embargo meant that no parts could be replaced, so one day in the 1960s the doors were simply padlocked. Today, Tallapiedra looms behind barbed wire as a monument to a lost era. The interior is a graveyard of rusted machinery, but the bones of the building, elegant white-tiled columns and arches, soar like a cathedral. It is also exploding with natural light, although most of the hundreds of glass windows are shattered, letting in pigeons and tropical rains—possibly why a guard told me that photos were prohibited.

Only one of its four original chimneys is intact, which is an ominous sign. “This is a key site for the future of Havana,” Darias says. “But if we don’t act quickly, it will be beyond repair.”

Re-Generacíon is pressing ahead with feasibility studies for the plant’s future. It could be repurposed as a majestic historic hotel, a commercial complex, or a museum like the Tate Modern in London. “Our ideal would be for it to become a center for contemporary art, with spaces for studios, dance groups, theater,” Guerrero says. They just need to scrounge together $30 million. “So far it’s only a dream.”

Scenes at la Gaurida

We continued along past empty cement warehouses and chemical plants. Our last stop was a colonial fortress on a hilltop that gave sweeping views of the bay. “The harbor was once the heart of Havana,” Guerrero says. “It was the reason for the city’s existence. In a sense, Havana needs to be re-founded.” Water currents no longer circulate in many pockets of the harbor, so it has become deeply polluted.

Still, there are now enough success stories to show that such visions are no longer complete fantasies. The most famous is La Fábrica de Arte—or FAC, as it’s known—opened in 2015 in a former peanut oil plant in Vedado. Created with state funds by Cuban rock star X Alfonso, the complex combines concert halls with art gallery spaces, design stores and bars, while one of Havana’s best restaurants, El Cocinero, which occupies the base of its chimney and much of the rooftop. The entrance fee is kept to the equivalent of $2 to ensure that young Cubans can afford it, so by 10 p.m. a line of more than 1,000 people was snaking through the neighborhood. When I managed to get inside, a trova band blasted on one floor, while a reception for a local painter was underway on another. FAC has been so successful that it has inspired a second site, the Candy Factory, set up in a derelict sweets warehouse by artist Damián Aquiles and his wife, American-born art advisor Pamela Ruiz, in March. If the momentum were ever extended to the ruins of Havana Harbor, you could imagine it becoming as awash with hipsters as Brooklyn.

Over the last five years, the new property laws have also led to a flurry of private renovations of mansions surviving from another architectural golden age: the sugar boom years of the late 19th to early 20th centuries. For travelers, the most accessible are the paladares (home-spun restaurants) and casas particulares (family-run hotels). Filmmaker Rafael Rosales, for example, has turned his town house, built in 1919, into Madrigal, a café and meeting spot with bizarre murals and memorabilia from Cuban cinema.

Inside 331 Art Space.

In the district of Playa, three up-and-coming young artists whose work sells in the six figures banded together to renovate a mansion into the slick 331 Art Space, whose crisp white lines and sun-filled skylights evoke a gallery in Chelsea. “Things have been busy since The New York Times and Wall Street Journal [both] profiled us,” says Frank Mujica, one of the trio, who creates works of graphite on canvas. “There have been so many visitors that we have to limit access. We need to work some time!”

Nearby, the painter Hector Frank designed his own studio addition to his house, in part funded by a successful exhibition at the Chelsea Hotel in New York. Frank, now in his fifties, is self-taught, and began making art in the austere Special Period—an era of economic turmoil in the early ’90s, precipitated by the fall of the Soviet Union. As a result, he takes a more ironic view of the fashionable Cuban art scene. His subtle portraits are embedded with found objects from the city streets—sections of old doors, window frames, rusted handles. “I need to find more garbage,” he says. “These discarded fragments have life, they have history. Havana is a treasure trove.”

Cafe Madrigal.

This trend of renovating privately is still an experimental field in Cuba. Architecture is not on the roster of professions permitted by the government, so the work must be done with guile. Artisans can now make and sell items like furniture and tiles, but they and interior designers often have limited access to raw materials, so they become experts in improvising. As one designer told me, “This is Cuba. If something is not available, it is really not available!”

Alonzo's bedroom, where Rihanna was photographed for Vanity Fair

Still, I got a sense of the potential when I dropped by the mansion of Josie Alonzo, a tiny, elderly woman who came to Cuba from Spain seven decades ago and has lived alone since her husband’s death a few years ago. Her rambling home was a Catholic version of house from The Addams Family, but also an artistic dream: Designers in London, Paris, and New York would kill to recreate her naturally distressed walls and ceilings. I was clearly not the only one fascinated by the house’s eerie beauty. Sitting on her dressing room table was a copy of last November’s issue of Vanity Fair. It turned out—in a twist only true to modern Cuba—that Rihanna had been photographed by Annie Liebowitz here for a cover story. “Rihanna was awful!” Señora Alonzo says, as she puttered in the kitchen. “Such terrible manners. She didn’t say a word to me. But Annie was a wonderful person.” (Rihanna’s spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment.)

Havana’s last golden age for architecture occurred in the 1950s, when Cuba became a virtual client state of the American mafia and a sensual, flowing style called tropical modernism put Havana on a par with Mexico City and Caracas as a design capital. The decadence of the era has passed into myth, thanks to The Godfather: Part Two. Poker machines were flown in from Las Vegas and prostitution became a major enterprise. After hopping from nightclub to nightclub, tourists would watch the famous gigolo Superman measure his spectacular erection with a ruler. But against this debauched backdrop, buildings like the Solymar and Club Nautica rose with lines that echoed the waves of the sea.

The era’s most evocative relic is the Riviera hotel, which was built as a gambling palace by the infamous mobster Meyer Lansky in 1957. The Revolution saw it as a symbol of capitalist depravity, and so it was left frozen in time, the casino dark and the swimming pool filled with leaves. Today, the sleek marble lobby again boasts the bold red and blue color scheme of a Mad Men set, and the pool area is being restored to its former glory, complete with triple-level diving tower straight out of a Busby Berkley film. The Copa Room, where Frank Sinatra sang, Lou Costello cracked jokes, and Ginger Rogers appeared on opening night, will finally lose its fetid original carpets and attract entertainers once again.

The last architectural sacred site dates from the Revolution. After purging the casinos in 1959, Fidel largely ignored Havana, or wallowed in kitsch flourishes such as imposing the face of Che Guevara on the Ministry of the Interior. But the era had one unlikely design triumph in the Instituto Superior de Arte, which was built in the early 1960s on the site of a golf club after Fidel and Che played a final round. Its raw brick design was overseen with erotic flair by Cuban architect Ricardo Porro, who modeled the cupolas after breasts. Today, Cuban architects recognize it as the Revolution’s only masterpiece.

Scenes at La Guarida.

There seemed to be no end to the secrets behind the frayed portals of Havana. On my last morning in the city I walked along the seafront promenade as huge waves were surging across the road, blocking traffic, to find Malecón 663. An oceanfront family house that was being renovated into a boutique hotel with only four suites, each one reflecting a different Cuban design era. It’s the love child of Orlandito, a famous star of charanga, a type of Afro-Cuban jazz, and his French-born wife. The 19th-century building had been gutted, but we were able to climb to the rooftop via a series of three rickety wooden ladders—a nerve-racking experience with 50-foot drops to tangles of rusted materials.

Once aloft, we breathed in the fresh sea air, while Orlandito showed me where the jacuzzi would be placed so guests could take in the famous Malecón views. “Cubans don’t want old things for their own sake,” he says. “We need to make it fresh.”

As we pored over the dreamy renderings of the future building, I asked when it might be finished. A silence fell over the group.

“Well, it’s supposed to be May,” someone says.

“Maybe summer … ?”

“September perhaps?”

“It depends on when we get the materials.”

For a second, we hovered on the edge of the construction site. Then everyone burst out laughing. “This is Cuba,” one of the designers said. “It will be finished when it is finished.”

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