Former United States Embassy, Havana, Cuba
The U. S. Government purchased a residence in Havana for the ambassador to Cuba in 1916. By 1928, the neighborhood of the embassy residence was considered too undesirable for the diplomat and the ambassador began renting in city. In 1938, Director of the Foreign Building Operations, Fritz Larkin explored purchasing two new sites for both and office building and an embassy in Havana but was prevented by legal restrictions. By 1945 the legal restrictions were lifted allowing him to sell the undesirable site of the first residence by 1952. Larkin was able to purchase a prominent seaside site for the embassy among modern apartment housing developments in an area of large investment by the Cuban Government. The new building would house consular offices, visa services, public information services and the ambassador’s office. With the Havana embassy, the FBO was able to make use of $502,000 in foreign currency and was able to finance the construction of the building using 30 percent foreign credits and 70 percent dollar expenditures. These foreign credits were from post-war debt owed to the United States and resulted in most of the building materials being imported from European countries.
The former U. S. Embassy Office Building in Havana, Cuba consists of a seven story rectangular office block that rises above a low, sprawling first floor. The building is set on a terrace three to five feet above the street level for protection against potential storm surges. The building is faced with travertine and green heat-resistant glass. The building was designed for air conditioning but the windows of the office tower have an operable sash for ventilation. The ground floor level windows have a travertine grill to screen the offices from sun and ocean spray. The property walls of the site are faced with a pink-gray native coral called jaimanitas. The layout of the building was originally designed for the first floor to serve the public functions of the embassy with more sensitive administrative tasks occurring in the tower where vertical access is easily controlled. The original interior furnishing was by Knoll Associates and used bright colors of blue-green, yellow and persimmon in contrast to white surfaces to reflect vibrant Cuban color schemes. Fidel Castro ordered the building to be confiscated when the United States severed diplomatic contact in 1963 yet United States maintained possession of the building. The building was re-opened in 1977 as a building for the U. S. Interests Section in Cuba.
While working on the U. S. embassy in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil (1948-52), Harrison and Abramovitz began work on the embassy building in Havana in 1950. The building was completed in 1952 and opened in 1953 (United States Interests Section Havana, Cuba).
The embassy building was originally constructed in an oceanfront area of Havana among contemporary modern apartment complexes. The site was desirable as the Cuban government was investing heavily in parks and amenities in the growing fashionable area.
The building utilizes reinforced concrete slabs to span the 40’ width of the building to create a column free interior space within the office tower. The columns on the perimeter of the tower are 10” x 24” and spaced 5” on center. The building is designed with an air conditioning system but is sited along a north-south access and equipped with movable sash windows to take advantage of the west-east ocean breezes. The windows are made with blue-green heat resistant glass to reflect solar heat and were equipped with Venetian blinds to assist in blocking the sun inside the offices.
Much of the building’s materials came from abroad, as it was largely financed utilizing post-war credits. The travertine came from Italy, steel from Belgium, concrete and furnishings from France, and elevator equipment and office partitions from England. Overall foreign credits paid for roughly 30 percent of the building’s cost.
The building represents a short period of post-war relations with Cuba. When it opened its doors in 1953, it was looked upon favorably by both the United States and Cuban government. When the site of the embassy was chosen, the area of Havana where it was located saw heavy investment in amenities by the Cuban government to attract development. By 1963, just a decade later, the building’s function as an embassy ceased and the building’s future was in peril. As it was reopened in 1977, the embassy has managed to remain standing and in the possession of the United States. As diplomatic tensions gradually ease between the United States and Cuba, the building becomes more relevant as a representation of United States diplomacy abroad.
After the success of the United Nations Headquarters in New York City, Leland King of the Foreign Buildings Operations (FBO) commissioned the firm Harrison and Abramovitz to design two new embassy buildings in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil and Havana, Cuba. In the United States’ postwar dominancy, the modern design of these new embassy buildings was described as a way for the United States to export the best architecture the country had to offer. An article in Progressive Architecture in 1953 entitled “U.S Architecture Abroad” described that through its embassies, the FBO was “displaying to the rest of the world a colorful picture of a young, progressive and modern-minded America.” Harrison originally gained notoriety for his work on the Rockefeller Center project in New York City. Harrison had more recently led the international design team for the United Nations project and Harrison and Abramovitz produced all of the working drawings for the project. In addition to being an influential American architect, Harrison had served in Washington D.C. as a cultural advisor on foreign affairs. Abramovitz was also named to head the cultural affairs division of the Office of Inter-American Affairs in 1945. Harrison and Abramovitz were a logical choice not only for their ability to design buildings, but also for their political experience as cultural advisors. Both partners had also previously completed buildings in Latin America like the Avila Hotel in Caracas, Venezuela (1941) and government facilities in the Panama Canal Zone. Leland King was familiar with their experience in Latin America which influenced his initial decision to award them the Rio de Janeiro Embassy commission. The modern design of the Havana embassy was intended to represent the United States as a forward looking and progressive nation. The use of a clean modern aesthetic in the international style, along with foreign materials and materials native to Cuba, this building is representative of the United States diplomatic mission. The incorporation of a progressive, ahistorical style with international appeal corresponds to a post-war society where international bodies like the United Nations sought to unite different nations. While the United States wanted to appear forward-thinking with the design of modern embassies, the Havana building was constructed in the midst of other modern apartment buildings and was in keeping with design of its contemporary surroundings. By the time the embassy building was built in Havana, Cuba had already developed its own modernist architecture. Prior to the Cuban revolution, the modern architecture of Cuba was considered on par with the modernist movements in Brazil, Mexico and Venezuela. The simple and elegant Harrison and Abramovitz design fit in with the modern attitude of new Havana. Yet the design failed to incorporate a brise-soleil or other sun shading devices typical of local modern buildings and the building was severely troubled with climate control issues stemming from the large amount of exposed glass.
The Harrison and Abramovitz designed embassies in Rio de Janeiro and Havana are the first two true modern embassies built by the United States. This embassy represents the United States emergence as a military and diplomatic superpower after World War II. When considered along with the United Nations complex, the Rio de Janeiro embassy and the later Headquarters of the Central Intelligence Agency, the embassy in Havana embodies the prominence of Harrison and Abramovitz in designing specifically American buildings. Because of their involvement with the FBO and other government projects, the work at Havana is truly representative of how the government wanted to be portrayed through architecture abroad. The design of the building seems to be influenced by the Latin American international style. Harrison and Abramovitz would have been aware of the development of Latin American modernism in part through the Museum of Modern Art’s exhibit in 1943 entitled “Brazil Builds.” Heavily featured in this exhibit was Brazil’s Ministry of Education building. This building would become the prototype for a type of modern building that places a glass tower above a low, sprawling base within a plaza. This design of the Ministry of Education building inspired the international design effort headed by Harrison for the United Nations headquarters in New York. Harrison and Abramovitz found this originally Latin American form suitable on a much smaller scale for the U. S. Embassy in Havana, Cuba.
As an early example of a modern U. S. embassy, the Havana embassy is significant in understanding the nation’s self-portrayal following World War II. The appeasing modern design and use of international materials is representative of international cooperation. As a work by Harrison and Abramovitz during a period where the firm designed prominent buildings for the U. S. Government, the building is a fine example of exported American architecture. Yet while the modern design was appealing and the building tailored to its environs, the building did not perform well in the Havana climate. Even while the architects determined that the reflective glass and cross ventilation would be adequate in cooling the building without fins or shades, the building’s air conditioning system was deemed inadequate. The ambassador’s balcony seems representative of the time period as attacks on U. S. embassies would later dictate that the location of the ambassador’s office should not be plainly visible. This building is significant as an early example of the modern building program of the United States as it emerged as a global presence in the years after World War II and the beginning of the Cold War. The U.S. Embassy in Havana is a midcentury modern work by a prestigious American architectural firm chosen to represent the nation abroad. Additionally, the work of Harrison and Abramovitz both as cultural advisors and leading the United Nations complex further enhances the embassy’s significance as a cultural symbol designed to convey American ideals. The embassy is representative both of the influence of Latin American modernism as well as the work of a prestigious North American architectural firm of the 1950s, Harrison and Abramovitz.
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“Embassy Rooms.” Progressive Architecture 117. (April 1955): 132-137.
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Rodriguez, Eduardo Luis. The Havana Guide: Modern Architecture, 1925-1965. Translated by Lorna Scott Fox. New York: Princton Architectural Press, 2000.
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Gray, Christopher. "Havana's New York Accent." New York Times (March 18 2012): 6(L). Business Insights: Essentials. Web. 10 February 2013
United States Interests Section Havana, Cuba. Web. 25 January 2013