- Constitutional Modernism: Architecture and Civil Society in Cuba, 1933–1959 by Timothy Hyde
The projection of political values is perhaps architecture’s oldest role, and it is the architectural and urban projections of civil society that are the subject of Hyde’s volume. Hyde states that “constitutionalism produced a potent and decisive confluence of law and architecture and is the crucial theoretical framework to elucidate the acts of design undertaken during this period of Cuba’s history.” The book charts Cuba’s architectural and urban history from the revolution that toppled the dictator Gerardo Machado to the legendary one that brought down Fulgencio Batista. And during this turbulent period the terms “constitutional” and “civil” reflected aspirations more than reality, as governments seesawed between democracy and dictatorship.
The subject is Havana-centric, because Havana is where all the acts are played. Hyde prepares the way with a political and cultural overview that introduces the issues of modernity and identity. The cultural conundrum confronting Cuba, as well as other Latin American postcolonial countries, was how to participate in the universality of the modern and yet retain the identity of one’s own unique culture. For Cubans, identity was cubanidad, which became a fertile field of expression for Cuban intellectuals, writers, and artists from the beginning of the twentieth century and continuing on to today. But in architecture, cubanidad entered the scene later: first in the 1930s and 1940s through the writings of Joaquin Weiss and Pedro Martín Inclán, and later through the private houses of architect Eugenio Batista, known for his Loosian sections and reinterpretation of architectonic elements: persianes, patios, y portales. In 1943 a recently-formed Cuban chapter of the International Congresses of Modern Architecture (CIAM), known as Agrupación Tectónica de Expresión Contemporánea (Tectonic [End Page 772] Group of Contemporary Expression, ATEC), launched an innovative exhibit of colonial architecture that became an early advocate of historic preservation and presented the proposition that the Cuban colonial typologies might inform not only contemporary architecture but also progressive urban design.
Cubanidad in architecture was a regionalist discourse that prefigured regionalist ventures in postwar Europe and North America. In Italy the search to reform or even propose an alternative to modernism was advanced by architects Ernesto Rogers, Carlo Scarpa, Enrico Peressutti, and others. In the United States, Lewis Mumford was a cautious proponent of regionalism, advocating the expression and use of regional culture and materials within the universal values of modernism. Hyde describes this debate and weaves in additional American participants including Harwell Hamilton Harris, Pietro Belluschi, and others, situating the Cuban search for cubanidad within an international discourse.
Cubanidad found its architectural expression primarily through residential work. However, the urban implications of the ATEC exhibit, combined with desires for social and urban reform, went on to inform what would have been the largest-scale project ever in Cuba, the complete remaking of the urban fabric of Havana as represented in the Plan Pilota de la Habana, or the master plan for Havana.
The Plan Pilota was a grand scheme. And fortunately it remained nothing more than that. Despite the participation of Cuban architects Nicolás Arroyo, Mario Romañach, and Nicolás Quintana and the Junta Nacional de Planificación, the design was primarily the creation of Josep Lluís Sert, lead partner with Paul Lester Wiener of Town Planning Associates, and Harvard dean. Unfortunately, Sert’s success as an urban designer was inversely proportional to his success as visionary educator. A diehard disciple of Le Corbusier’s urban planning principles, and with few original ideas of his own, Sert drove a project that would have made Jane Jacobs jump up and down in her grave.
The plan called for a massive overhaul, if not the near-complete destruction of Havana. Old Havana was called out for special attention: a few iconic colonial monuments (the Cathedral, Palace of the Captains General, some others) would be restored and given a privileged position within an otherwise eviscerated...