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Revolutionizing Modernities: Visualizing Utopia in 1960s Havana, Cuba

Fredo Rivera
[Duke University]
Andrew W. Mellon Fellow, 2011–2013

Che Guevara (1928–1967) closed the 1963 World Congress of Architecture in Havana, Cuba, with an impassioned speech, published the next year in the periodical Arquitectura Cuba, on the role of architecture in the postcolonial and socialist world. Guevara emphasized that Cuba was not following the model of other communist nations of that era and was open to an influx of ideas geared toward the arts and architecture. At the same time, he asserted that the architect “existed within society” and that architects cannot take an apolitical approach given that “man in modern society is by nature political.” Organized under the aegis of the International Union of Architects (UIA), the triennial congress brought architects from around the world to discuss architecture in “underdeveloped” nations, with Havana fashioning itself as the ultimate prototype of the modern, postcolonial city. New approaches to architecture and urban planning across the island were here presented alongside a myriad of exhibitions and urban design initiatives, marking Cuba’s unique contribution to the arts and architecture.


Ricardo Porro, architect, School of Plastic Arts, The National Arts Schools, Cubanacán, Havana, Cuba, 1961–1965. Author photograph, 2008

My dissertation principally concerns the ways in which Cuba’s modern architectural past was put to a new purpose following the conclusion of the Cuban Revolution in 1959, as well as the ways in which Cuban modernity was reimagined in new architectural projects, in the governmentally supported visual arts, and in curatorial work that brought the fine and popular arts into Cuba’s new and reinhabited spaces. Taking a thematic approach, I investigate a variety of case studies in order to provide a broad overview of the entire decade of the 1960s. Topics explored range from the legacy of the Cuban vanguardia (or avant-garde) from previous decades to new debates regarding the concepts of tricontinentalism and decolonization in the cultural congresses of the mid-to-late 1960s.

As the 1963 World Congress of Architecture reveals, new ideas regarding the “revolutionary” and that which constitutes the “vanguard” were implicated within new architectural projects as well as within institutional displays of art. The major exhibition of the congress, titled Historia y Arquitectura en Cuba, highlighted Cuba’s contributions regarding innovative approaches to architecture and exhibition design. Housed in the gargantuan, portico-like Pabellón Cuba, a concrete prefabricated structure built in a mere seventy-two days, the exhibition utilized multimedia displays such as film, projected images, and geomorphic sculptures featuring photography and graphic arts as well as plans and images of new projects. The display attempted to express the promise of architectural innovation to an international and professional audience, providing a teleological narrative stemming from Cuba’s pre-Columbian and colonial heritages.

The exhibition highlighted new architecture projects in Cuba, which themselves speak to debates regarding the role of visual arts and architecture during the first years of the Cuban Revolution. In my dissertation I focus on two significant ciudad universitaria (urban campus) projects in the suburbs of Havana: the Ciudad Universitaria José Antonio Echeverria (CUJAE), completed in 1964, and the National Arts Schools of 1961 – 1965. The latter, designed by a team of architects led by Ricardo Porro (b. 1925), was a campus of five sprawling schools that took over the city’s most prestigious golf course. Referring to a myriad of influences ranging from the medieval city to Afro-Cuban religion and Taíno indigenous housing, the architects employed anthropomorphic and geometric forms in an attempt to express cubanidad (Cubanness) on an impressive scale. Later abandoned because of ideological and economic concerns, the building demonstrates both the utopian and political contours of architecture following the revolution. In both ciudad universitaria case studies the relationship of art to architecture is central to the architecture and urban design of the campus.

My dissertation spans a decade, exploring the complicated relationship of political ideology to art and architecture at a key moment in Cuba’s history. Working at CASVA has allowed me to think critically about the relationship among architecture, urban design, exhibition, and works of art, particularly as they function within a nationalist context. My colleagues have been especially helpful in clarifying key concepts across various media, especially with regard to my discussion of space as it relates to the plastic arts, museology, and architecture. My dissertation closes with an exploration of major events, congresses, and exhibitions taking  place in Havana during the late 1960s, such as the Salon de Mayo (1967) and El Tercer Mundo (1968). Like new architectures and the plastic arts, these exhibitions speak to developing intellectual trends on the island as well as Cuba’s significant role within an international setting at the height of the Cold War.