Cuba’s Vanishing Modernity: The Architecture of Nicolas Quintana (1925-2011)


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By Josef Asteinza

The architecture of the Cuban Modern Movement is represented in a broad collection of exceptional and original buildings, especially in Havana and Varadero. In spite of their quality, duly recognized in Cuba and abroad, the survival of many of these works is threatened by neglect, lack of resources, or more recently, the forces of development, as the fate of Nicolás Quintana’s works clearly demonstrates.

Yacht Club Residential Condominium/Cabañas del Sol, Nicolás Quintana, 1957. Collection of Nicolás Quintana.

Nicolás Quintana, the subject of a documentary film which I am co-producing, belonged to the generation of architects who played a significant role in the introduction of the Modern Movement in Cuba. It included his predecessors such as Mario Romañach, Emilio del Junco, Antonio Quintana (no relation), Aquiles Capabianca, Max Borges Recio, Nicolás Arroyo and Gabriela Menéndez, as well as his contemporaries, especially his classmates Frank Martínez and Ricardo Porro. In 1947, the latter group, while they were still students, in an act of protest against the architectural curriculum at the University of Havana, burned copies of Vignola’s Treatises in the courtyard of the architecture school, which brought them a measure of notoriety but also a voice in the conversation on the direction of architecture in Cuba.

These architects were part of a larger but informal cultural movement that flourished in Cuba in the mid-20th century. With a keen self-awareness, a number of leading artists and writers rigorously explored their own history and identity while experimenting with ideas from abroad. For many architects of that generation, there was a similar examination of Cuban colonial and vernacular architecture for its functional, esthetic and social elements. They took international Modernism and transformed it into an architecture that expressed its time and place and people. Quintana’s inquiry into the idea of Cubanness or lo cubano informed his architecture in Cuba and later in life.

This search coincided with an expansive urban development driven by rapid population growth and, with it, the opportunity to put ideas into practice. The result was an extraordinary output of buildings that combined technical innovation, a strong formal vocabulary and an integration of esthetic and functional elements. A selection of these works, including those by Quintana, appears in Docomomo Cuba’s Arquitectura del Movimiento Moderno, edited by Eduardo Luis Rodríguez and published in 2011.

Quintana was the son of a prominent architect, also called Nicolas Quintana, who co-founded the firm Moenck & Quintana in 1928 with Miguel Angel Moenck. Moenck & Quintana produced many notable buildings in Havana, mostly Eclectic in style, among them the Biltmore Yacht and Country Club, the Pro-Arte Musical Auditorium and the School of Engineering and Architecture of the University of Havana. After his father’s death in 1950, the younger Quintana, a committed Modernist, became co-director of Moenck & Quintana.

Quintana’s career as an architect in Cuba was brief but prolific. In less than a decade he designed two dozen projects, represented Cuba at two International Congresses of Modern Architecture (CIAM IX and X), and oversaw the master plans for the cities of Varadero and Trinidad for the National Planning Board. His projects consisted mostly of private houses and resorts but also the National Bank of Cuba. His conflict with Che Guevara, the new bank president after the Revolution, decisively ended his career in Cuba.

Over the last few years I visited several of Quintana’s buildings and other significant sites and interviewed his former colleagues, family, friends, architecture historians, preservationists, residents of his buildings, and clients’ children. Many voiced their concern about the future of his work. Three projects illustrate the various conditions of his buildings.

Alicia Blanco House
One of Quintana’s earliest built projects, the Alicia Blanco House shows the influence of Le Corbusier, including its domino principle of construction. All the functions of the house are contained in a single rectangular block with the exception of the glass-enclosed dining room that projects from the main block on two pilotis. The eave of its flat roof extends to provide shade during midday hours. Quintana presented the house, which was completed in 1953, at CIAM IX in Aix-en-Provence that year.

The house has undergone a few changes, most notably the reduction of the large glass surfaces, eliminating the sense of transparency, and the accretion of balconies, exterior stairs and other features that interrupt the original lines. Because Modernist architecture in Cuba and elsewhere often strikes a balance between interior and exterior space and between the detail and the ensemble, the design integrity of many Modernist houses is vulnerable to even minor modifications. Nevertheless, the house is in a better condition than most others and relatively safe, given its location in a quiet suburb and that it has remained occupied by a single family for over five decades.

Alicia Blanco House, Nicolás Quintana, 1953. Collection of Nicolás Quintana.
Alicia Blanco House, Nicolás Quintana, 1953. Credit: Josef Asteinza, 2014.

Mardonio Santiago House
In 1957, the tobacco dealer Mardonio Santiago asked Quintana to design him “the most modern house in Cuba.” He had purchased a plot of land for his wife and four children in Biltmore, one of the then new suburbs in the western part of Havana. Santiago left the country for a few months on business but left Quintana free to design whatever he wished. The house Quintana designed, a balanced composition of formal and functional elements, articulated his ideas about the modern Cuban house. Despite Biltmore’s zoning regulation mandating single detached houses (which Quintana considered too Americanized), he arranged the different sections of the house to define a series of private outdoor spaces. The two prominent units – a larger one-story block for dining and entertaining and a smaller two-story block for sleeping – have each a boldly folded concrete roof. They are connected by a glass breezeway which divides the courtyards. Colored glass and louvered windows punctuate the facades. Additional elements like the garage and freestanding walls that echo the geometry and dimensions of the roofs complete the enclosures of the courtyards.

Not long after the Santiago family moved in, the Revolution came and the family left Cuba. The house is now the home for six families. Over the years the new families subdivided the house. The glass breezeway was demolished and a new house filled in the front court. Although the residents are well aware of the former prestige of the house, their basic housing needs take precedence.

Mardonio Santiago House, Nicolás Quintana, 1956. Collection of Nicolás Quintana.
Mardonio Santiago House, Nicolás Quintana, 1956. Credit: Josef Asteinza, 2014.

Condominium Residencial Yacht Club (Cabañas del Sol)
The Cabañas del Sol in Varadero were one of Quintana’s best projects and a high point of the Cuban Modern Movement. Its demolition last year brings into focus one of the more challenging forces that threaten other significant buildings: economic development without regard for cultural heritage. Located on the Hicacos Peninsula, a long beach of fine white sand about 140 kilometers east of Havana, Varadero is the premier tourist beach destination in Cuba and a major economic engine for the nation. Since the end of the Soviet subsidies to Cuba in the early 1990s, Varadero has become an increasing source of revenue and was redeveloped as a series of all-inclusive high-rise hotels for foreign tourists. In the first decade of the 21st century, 11 large hotels totaling over 6,000 rooms were constructed.1

Originally called the Condominium Residencial Yacht Club, the Cabañas del Sol consist of dozens of seaside bungalows on a parcel of land between the Dupont estate and the Hotel Internacional. The houses are arranged in four staggered rows perpendicular to the beach and to the main highway of Varadero. Between the rows, a central axis for cars provides parking spaces while the two parallel axes landscaped with pedestrian walkways connect the houses to each other and to the beach. Two clubhouses, one for adults and one for children, occupy the beachfront. The bungalows, built of ashlar limestone block, vary in sizes and height, depending on the number of bedrooms. Flat or butterfly roofs and projecting windows with sliding glass and hardwood louvers give a lively rhythm to the entire ensemble.

Quintana’s use of building materials and elements here is consistent with his other Varadero beach houses. Club Kawama, on the western end of the peninsula, was developed before the younger Quintana’s tenure at Mounck & Quintana. However, between 1954 and 1956, Quintana built additional buildings at Club Kawama. He said he was fond of the local pine trees; he felt that buildings in Varadero should not exceed the height of the pines; and he proposed such regulation in the Master Plan for Varadero.2 Indeed, the low-rise Cabañas del Sol offered a sharp and inviting contrast to the holiday citadels that line the Hicacos Peninsula today.

Concerned groups, such as Docomomo Cuba, and a few of the last residents of the Cabañas del Sol led efforts to preserve the site and that of the neighboring Hotel Internacional, built in 1949-50 and designed by the firm Mira y Rosich with Ricardo Galbis and Vicente Llarena. Rumors of plans by the Ministry of Tourism to build a new hotel on both sites were substantiated around 2010, when the residents were approached with offers to relocate. Among the factors cited in the decision to demolish the buildings were the close proximity of the bungalows to the fragile coastline and the condition of the aging hydraulic system. That neither the Cabañas del Sol nor the Hotel Internacional had been designated protected sites at the time left no procedural recourse to halt demolition. In July 2015, the construction company Bouygues Bâtiment International released a press statement that a new 924-room Hotel Internacional will be ready on that site in 2018.

Yacht Club Residential Condominium/Cabañas del Sol, Nicolás Quintana, 1957. Collection of Nicolás Quintana.
Yacht Club Residential Condominium/Cabañas del Sol, Nicolás Quintana, 1957. Credit: Josef Asteinza, 2014.

What Now?
Recent changes in Cuban-U.S. relations, working to end a half-century of estrangement, bring a new set of promises and perils to the legacy of the Modern Movement. The efforts to lift the embargo offer hope to Cuba’s crumbling cities. Meanwhile, the increased influx of tourism offers immediate income and the resources to implement short-term fixes. The prospect of economic development is a welcome opportunity for many, but without a keen sense of priorities, that prospect can also pose a threat to the already fragile environment of Cuba’s architectural heritage.

Information is not enough. The demolition of the Cabañas del Sol, in spite of the efforts of the Cuban preservation community to stop it, took place in the virtual silence of the international press. But even good publicity is not enough, as the case of the National Art Schools makes clear. Conservation resources are scarce.

Foreign funding – and specifically U.S. funding – of restoration projects of value to Cuba is still new territory, but working with those in Cuba to protect monuments, enable economic development, build infrastructure, and affirm cultural priorities is territory worth exploring.

About the Author
Josef Asteinza is a campus planner at NYU Langone Medical Center. He is the writer and co-producer of the documentary film Havana Modern: Nicolas Quintana and the Architecture of the City. He first visited Cuba in 1999 on a travel grant from the Architectural League of New York.
1. Recondo Pérez, Ramón Félix. (2010). Varadero, ayer y hoy. Revista de Arquitectura e Ingeniería. Empresa de Proyectos de Arquitectura e Ingeniería, 4(3)

2. Nicolás Quintana. (2011). Casa Bacardí Lecture, “Sentir y Hacer.”