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Architecture

Before the arrival of the Spaniards in 1492, Cuban Indians, such as the Siboney and Taíno, lived in bohios (thatched huts). After Cuba was conquered by the Spaniards, the conquistadors imported Spanish and Moorish colonial styles. From 1511, conquistador Diego Velázquez de Cuéllar founded the seven villas (towns) of Cuba. Fortresses, homes, and buildings centered around courtyards in Mudéjar style, and, in later years, Baroque-influenced and neoclassical architecture bloomed. Havana's Old City is the Spanish colonial prize and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. For example, in La Havana Vieja, the Castillo de la Real Fuerza, built between 1558 and 1577, was the first fortress in the New World. The rest of La Habana Vieja is a treasure trove of Spanish colonial architectural excellence. Outside of La Habana Vieja, the historic core of Trinidad is an architectural gem and also a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Parts of Santiago de Cuba and Camagüey also preserve remarkable examples of Spanish architectural styles with the 16th-century Casa de Diego Velázquez in Santiago, named the oldest house in Cuba.

Wonderful examples of art nouveau structures can be found in the Vista Alegre suburb of Santiago, and the Havana suburb of Vedado. An art deco highlight in Havana is the outstanding Edificio Bacardí, built by Esteban Rodríguez Castells and Rafael Fernández Ruenes in 1930 on the edge of La Habana Vieja, topped by the trademark bat symbol. Other highlights are the 1941 Teatro América building on Galiano in Centro and the ziggurat-topped Edificio López Serrano, designed by Ricardo Mira and Miguel Rosich in 1932 in Vedado. Other noteworthy buildings in Havana are the 1952 Tropicana cabaret, by Max Borges Jr., and the 1957 Hotel Habana Riviera, by Igor Polevitzky and Philip Johnson, which was commissioned by Meyer Lansky.

The 1959 Revolution brought not only a change in the country's ideals and policies, but also a change in architectural styles. A crush of Brutalist Soviet blocks were erected, mainly in the form of residential buildings and hotels. Some of these structures evoke the style of famous Swiss architect Le Corbusier, with impersonal open-plan style buildings. Highlights of the post-Revolution period include Ricardo Porro's 1961 sensual and erotic Instituto Superior de Atte (continued until 1965 by Roberto Gottardi and Vittorio Garatti) and Mario Girona's 1966 Coppelia ice cream parlor.

A Guide to Cuba's Architectural Details -- While you're traveling through Cuba, keep an eye out for these architectural and decorative details that adorn the interiors and exteriors of Cuba's buildings:

  • Mediopunto are stained-glass windows positioned above wooden doors, introduced in the mid-18th century. Some of the best examples are found on the facade of the Casa del Conde de Bayona and the Hotel Santa Isabel in La Habana Vieja.
  • Mamparas are half-door screens inlaid with plain or decorative glass that were installed in the houses of the rich.
  • Barrotes are window grilles made of turned wood that date back to the 18th century.
  • Guardevecinos are plain or decorative wrought-iron grilles that date back to the 19th century; these grilles served to divide neighbors' balconies.
  • Stone balustrades (small posts that line the upper rail of a railing) line the roofs of many mansions; this became common in the 19th century.
  • Ornamental urns line the roofs of many mansions; this became a popular feature in the 19th century. An example that has this feature is the Palacio Junco in Matanzas.

Art in Cuba

The history of artes plásticas (plastic arts) in Cuba dates back to 1818, with the foundation of the San Alejandro Academy (www.sanalejandro.cult.cu) in Havana. The Academy was created by French painter Juan Bautista Vermay (who painted the frescoes en el Templete in La Habana Vieja) to promote Fine Arts and work made by the black and mulata community. Thus begun a century of academic painting -- mostly of landscapes and portraits -- influenced by European models.

The 19th century brought new developments for Cuba: a national hymn, a national flag, and nationalistic sentiment; during this time, there was a backlash against academic national art, which gave way to modern art. In the 1930s, Cuban artists began to focus their attention on Cuban roots and the search for national values, resulting in a characteristically Cuban art. Some of these first-generation artists are Víctor Manuel (1897-1969), Carlos Enríquez (1900-1957), Eduardo Abela (1889-1965), Fidelio Ponce (1895-1949) and Wifredo Lam (1902-1982). Subsequently, the 1940s and 1950s brought abstract and expressionist art to Cuba.

Following the 1959 Revolution, art began to promote the ideals of the Revolution. For this reason, the 1960s witnessed an intense movement expressed through painting, poster art, and documentary photography that was attuned to the climate of enthusiasm that prevailed in Cuban society. During the 1970s, many artists born in the far-flung corners of the island began to graduate from new schools of art -- like the National Art School founded in 1962 and the School for Art Instructors founded in 1961. Some of the artists that graduated during this era today are grand masters of Cuban art, such as Tomás Sánchez, Nelson Domínguez, Flora Fong, Flavio Garciandía, and Eduardo Roca (better known as CHOCO). They worked at a time when new artistic genres such as Pop Art, kinetic art, and photo realism began to enrich the island's art scene. The 1980s marked a period of thriving growth of the visual arts in Cuba. This was the first time that Cuban artists began to use diverse mediums such as art installations and performance and group art; it was also a time when artists portrayed subjects of political satire, which had previously been taboo.

Cuban modern art has continued to develop and has won both national and international acclaim. The variety of themes and styles of Cuban art today reveal a richness not reached in previous years. For more information on galleries, exhibitions, and artists, consult www.galeriascubanas.com, www.opushabana.cu, and www.cubarte.cult.cu.

Cuba's Contemporary Artists -- On a tumbledown street in Havana's Centro district is a wonder room of shoes. Artist Liudmila López Domínguez (1977-present) is fascinated by heels, and her studio is adorned with photos of shoes, bronze shoe sculptures, and an installation of shoes on white shelves that forms the colors and shape of the Cuban national flag. Femininity, sensuality, and female life inspire mixed-media artist Domínguez.

Artist Enrique Baster (1973-present) lives in a light and airy apartment in Vedado. Here, a large oil painting depicting the Hotel Nacional, towering above a forest of traffic lights, hangs on the living room wall. "The forest is difficult to get through," Baster explained, "and the traffic lights are saying you can go, you can't go, you can go . . . up to the Nacional." This powerful piece of art is a metaphor of the government rules that, prior to 2008, did not allow Cubans to enter their country's hotels. (This rule was later overturned by Raúl Castro.)

The work of Rocío García (1955-present) focuses around homoeroticism, a subject she has worked with for around 20 years. Some of her artworks are titled Geishas and Hombres, Machos, Marineros. Her living room is dominated by an enormous work which depicts broad-shouldered topless red men in black masks, black codpieces, and black boots. Rocío has enjoyed a long and prolific career and is considered one of the masters of contemporary Cuban painting. She also teaches at the Academy of Bellas Artes San Alejandro.

Raúl Castro Camacho, known as Memo, lives in Vedado. Paintings from a 2009 exhibition called Entre Muros line the walls of his bedroom. The instantly recognizable Havana Malecón appears as a circular labyrinth in one of these works, Depresión Tropical. Memo explained that "the Malecón is the border -- a cultural, geographical and political border." Memo pushes boundaries by creating works that are strong political commentaries. His next exhibition, which will show in 2011 at Galería 23 y 12, is called Penumbras, a theme that reflects "la cosa está negra" (the thing is black), which refers to the subjects that Cubans cannot talk about publicly and do not know about -- the country's political situation.

Artist Eduardo Yanes Hidalgo (1977-present), who lives in La Lisa, creates paintings that that depict chess pieces, which he uses to represent relationships of power, family, society, and the struggle between enemies.

It is clear that Esterio Segura (1970-present), who lives in the district of Playa, likes to play. His apartment is decorated with various installations from his frustrada (frustrated) series, depicting speakers and typewriters imprisoned in cages. Segura's pièce de résistance is a series of irreverent images that he is preparing for the 2012 Havana Art Bienal: 48 Entradas Victoriosas del Héroe a La Habana. This audacious work consists of 48 framed drawings that portray Fidel Castro posing in various Kama Sutra-esque positions, having sex with the Virgin de la Caridad del Cobre. The 48 images represent the 48 years of power that Fidel was in power. Whether this art work will be approved for exhibition by the government remains to be seen.

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