The Rome of the Americas

Author: John Nagy ’00M.A.

Photo by MattCashore

Night has not yet broken Havana’s petulant heat. It stalks Luis and me through the tunnel that leads us out under the thick limestone walls of La Cabaña, where Che Guevara tried and executed enemies of the Revolution. We take it on faith that Jorge is still behind us and hasn’t been detained by some ghostly secret policeman.

At least we’re moving with purpose. It’s 9:30, and the smoke from the 9 o’clock cannon blast that once told the merchants and fishermen of the colonial capital that the gates were closing and the sea-chain was rising — a vestigial tradition nearly as old as the old city itself — has spiraled into oblivion. Dinner awaits us under a thatched pavilion that stands behind a tidy, green-stuccoed house, a private restaurant in a neighborhood visible from the fortress’ front gate.

Luis Trelles mops his forehead with a limp handkerchief. “I’m worn out, man,” he mutters, folding and pocketing the cloth without breaking stride.

“I know,” I say. “It’s been a long day.”

Luis’ mouth spreads into a grin that expresses a day’s worth of stress, delight, exasperations and minor epiphanies — all the responsibility that comes to a visiting associate architecture professor escorting eight graduate students, an equipment-laden photographer and an absent-minded writer through Havana under the lazy surveillance of state security.

“No. I mean, I’m worn out with Jorge’s shenanigans,” he explains.

Jorge Trelles is Luis’ brother, and in 36 hours of traveling with the two professors I’ve taken to pronouncing his name “George” the way Luis does. We’ve just spent five uncertain minutes sitting on low walls inside the fort waiting for Jorge to descend a stone staircase he’d climbed to explore the darkened rooftop of a barracks. La Cabaña offers a commanding view of the city. I’m told it’s the largest colonial fortress in the Americas, and I believe it. One could easily lose himself here, but Jorge Trelles isn’t the kind of man who gets lost unless he wants to.

Meditating on the story, I had offered a headline: “Curious Jorge Tumbles into the Sea.” Luis, who has been in Havana with Jorge twice before, trumped it: “Curious Jorge Does 25 Years.”

Yet with the exception of a few prohibido government buildings, Havana endlessly rewards such free-spirited curiosity. Great cities hold the same numinous power as great landscapes. They can inspire, restore hope, summon forth by astonishing example our own creative potency. Hemingway and Graham Greene understood this about Havana; the allure was far more than what could be blended with Cuban rum inside El Floridita or on the rooftop of the Hotel Sevilla.

The city nurtures its own imagination, too, breathing centuries of Spanish Caribbean life into its children through fountain-cooled courtyards and sunwashed waterfronts. Alejo Carpentier, Havana’s homegrown genius of magic realism, dubbed it “the City of Columns” for the shady porticoes and colonnades that define its unique streetscapes.

Havana’s greatness has been obscured to Americans by the last saltwater remnant of the Iron Curtain. But it lives in the couples who dance to the salsa bands, the brassy music spilling out onto Calle Obispo at dusk, and in the barefoot soccer matches that span afternoons at Central Havana’s disheveled Plaza del Vapor. And it lives across the Straits of Florida in the hearts of the exilios for whom Miami has become a new homeland with genuinely global horizons.

The city is an unfinished, 500-page novel in which the Castro brand of communism is only a 50-page chapter. “Every corner of the city is like a story unto itself,” I overhear Luis telling Ian Manire, one of his students. The centuries endure in stone, timber, masonry, colored glass, concrete and steel, teaching layered lessons about the relationship between architecture, culture and the making of cities that an era of ideologically induced stagnation has both preserved and neglected.

That makes it a living textbook for Manire and his peers, who are packing a five-year undergraduate curriculum into an intensive, three-year graduate portal into the architecture profession. As second-years, they’ve learned to draw beautifully and they’ve mastered the basics of building systems, things like ventilation, heating and cooling, lighting, how to get people in and out and up and down, and how buildings can create urban spaces that people love. Their task now is to integrate it all into functional designs.

They could do this in northern Indiana, as some of their predecessors have. But Notre Dame trains architects to touch the past. Time and the Trelles brothers are giving the school a rare opportunity. In Havana, which may soon be a simple four-hour flight away, every building is a lesson.

Photo by Matt Cashore

Before we left South Bend, each student selected one for study. They began working around the limitations of international politics to track down whatever plans, drawings, photographs and data they could find to create “pictorial essays” about their buildings they might enhance by personal encounter in Havana. That first project would prepare them for the semester’s signature achievement, individual proposals for a new market building at Plaza del Vapor, where the city’s once-great market, the Mercado Tacón, was demolished in 1962 by a Cuban government that had no interest in rebuilding it.

It is often said that Havana is frozen in time, an impression reinforced by the classic American cars which dominate its streets like segments of a rainbow on wheels. Apart from specific changes like the demolition of the Tacón, the city we see today is essentially the same one Meyer Lansky greedily pondered from the veranda of the Hotel Nacionál, the same one Castro’s grubby barbudos entered on tanks, jeeps and horses in 1959. We may be glad Havana became neither Las Vegas nor Karl-Marx Stadt but remained true to itself, a view with which UNESCO agreed when in 1982 it declared Old Havana and its fortifications a World Heritage Site.

Now the economic realities that effectively prevented new construction inside the city during the communist era are transforming, leaving Havana with an exciting if precarious future. Raúl Castro’s modest reforms have revealed Cubans’ appetites for an entrepreneurial renaissance, as we learned during that meal of fresh seafood, icy fruit juices and Bucanero beer after La Cabaña.

Other market forces are already at work. At Plaza Vieja, the city’s oldest commercial square, the central market building is long gone, but the edifices that once shaped the narrow streets around it have been exquisitely restored by the Office of the Historian of the City of Havana, creating a space where neoclassical detail and pastel hues frame the moon in the clear periwinkle of the Havana twilight. On the front of one grandly porched building, the brass logos of foreign companies — Pepe Jeans London and United Colors of Benetton — hint at the hurricane winds of globalization now gathering offshore. They may batter the island, once American firms are permitted to enter and all companies are free to sell their products directly to Cuban citizens.

The impact on real estate will be no less radical than in any other sector of the economy. Luis grimaces at talk of the gated resorts that will likely eat up undeveloped coastline flanking the city, leaving the whole looking like virtually every other tourist catchment on the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean Sea. But as much out of love of Cuban architectural traditions as from some anticipation of external pressure to change their city, Havana’s architects restored where they could not build new.

The Office of the Historian, which oversees this work, is no dusty, part-time museum operation. It’s serious business. The historian himself, our guides tell us, holds a position in Raúl Castro’s equivalent of a cabinet and manages a workforce of thousands in departments that include four state-controlled construction companies and Habaguanex, the agency which runs hundreds of hotels, restaurants, shops and coffee bars. The work that started in Plaza Vieja is surfacing in other cherished parts of the city, as architects and laborers develop a practical expertise in restoration and historic preservation that stands them today among the best in the world.

Photo of Luis Trelles by Matt Cashore

Jorge and Luis Trelles can relate to the limitations an economy may impose on architecture. The recession has affected their firm, Trelles Cabarrocas Architects, drying up new construction in Florida and focusing their efforts on additions and renovations. They have worked together — and alongside Jorge’s wife, Mari Tere Cabarrocas Trelles — as professionals and educators for a quarter century. The homes, schools and businesses they’ve designed and built — ranging from a seaside pensione to the offices of a Miami shipping concern — combine neoclassical discipline with a zeal for bold colors and materials and a fierce commitment to the architect’s freedom to respond to climate, history and building traditions when designing a project. Léon Krier, among the most influential architectural theorists and designers of our lifetime, offers this simple praise of their career portfolio: “The Trelles brothers have style.”

That alone would make them incomparable guides to a city that Michael Lykoudis, Notre Dame’s Francis and Kathleen Rooney Dean of the School of Architecture calls “the Rome of the Americas.” But their qualifications only begin there. Twenty-two years ago, while teaching at the University of Miami, the brothers co-founded the Open City Studio with their colleague, Teófilo Victoria. The concept, which has taken them to world-class cities from Iquitos, Peru, to Saint Petersburg, Russia, is to immerse students in the culture and built environment of a great city, giving them five weeks to explore, sketch and draw inspiration while sampling its food, street life and arts. More recently they helped develop a course in which students travel to absorb the work of Renaissance Venice’s grand master, Andrea Palladio.

Taking students to Havana, even for three days, even after teaching in places like Cape Town and Mumbai, is analogous to the difference between the X-Games and the Olympics — way outside the comparative comfort zone. Navigating the travel regulations of two countries that don’t recognize each other is only the beginning. You enter the country ready to leave it, foreswearing credit cards, ATMs and, practically speaking, cell phones and Internet access. But in a new moment of openness to academic travel, the potential rewards were too alluring both to the Trelleses and the School of Architecture not to follow through.

The Havana studio satisfies yearnings the brothers have felt since leaving Cuba in their mother’s lap and had cultivated through graduate thesis work — Luis’ plan for a new Key West and Jorge’s vision for a reborn Havana — as students of the late, influential Colin Rowe at Cornell. But their eyes for the city are nearly as fresh as their students’. Their first homecoming, just two months before our trip, was both fact-finding mission and personal pilgrimage to the house their father built and other places of special meaning to their family.

Notre Dame isn’t the only U.S. university visiting Havana to assess its instructional value and seek a role in its future. But if Havana has much to offer Dean Lykoudis, his faculty and students, Notre Dame offers something rare in exchange. “It’s a very important institution,” Jorge says. “It has a voice on classical architecture, preservation, the importance of knowledge.” And it already has relationships with the city that decades of separation have not erased.

As the sky darkens over Plaza Vieja on our first night in the city, Luis introduces us to our third guide, Rafael Fornes, an architect and professor who left Cuba as an adult and who now teaches Havana Studies at Miami. Fornes trained and practiced in Cuba with a generation of architects who were becoming irrepressibly inquisitive about the world. It is through Fornes and his contacts that the Trelleses have set up visits with professors at the University of Havana and the new College of San Geronimo, where the faculty have overseen some of the city’s most important restorations.

Fornes has arranged for us to enter sites now closed for restoration, such as the city’s mind-blowing Capitolio, erected in the 1920s under the supervision of Eugenio Rayneri Piedra, class of 1904, the first Domer to graduate with an architecture degree. Its stately cupola dominates the skyline from the plaza 12 blocks away.

We make our way through narrow lanes toward the district known as Little Wall Street, where a century ago U.S. steel and administrative technique combined with Cuban traditions to introduce into the colonial streets a collection of moodily elegant stone banks worthy of the early skyscrapers of New York and Chicago. One 12-story structure encloses an atrium open to the sky. Fornes and the professors Trelles take turns directing our attention as we walk past men setting out a chessboard and a trash picker rolling a massive gray plastic bin. A child calls down from a balcony where socks have been hung to dry.

Any time-traveler from ancient Rome could walk Old Havana and understand it, the tight streets that capture the trade winds and provide shade at any time of day, the hidden courtyards, the easy mix of public and private spaces designed to blend modesty and wealth. Jorge shows us the palacios built in the 18th century as fashionable townhomes for Havana’s elite, who would rent space along the street to artisans and foodmongers. The city historian has reclaimed the most significant palacios as hotels and restaurants that serve tourists, but most are interior ghettos that may be home to as many as 50 families, their bare entryways cobwebbed with jury-rigged electrical wiring. “People are living here,” Jorge observes. “It’s not all tourists. It’s a living city.”

While the students sketch, Jorge offers a short course in Cuban architectural history. He explains how the Spanish Crown’s Law of the Indies laid down guidelines for city building that were founded on Roman architectural principles unearthed during the Renaissance and fused with Moorish techniques for battling the heat. “In a way, America is the platform for Renaissance theory, even more than European cities because they were already existing,” he says. On the mainland, Spanish architects engaged with established Aztecan, Mayan and Incan methods and engineering, but no such precedent existed in Cuba. So Havana became a European city in a new world.

It has been renovating and modernizing ever since, cultivating a distinctly Cuban identity while keeping an eye on Europe and eventually the United States. Ambitious colonial governors and presidents of the young republic drew up or commissioned master plan after master plan, extending the city outside its colonial walls, introducing the railroad and erecting lavish city markets that defined streets with their porticoes, and combined residential and commercial uses once more on a Roman model.

A few years after Vienna tore down its city walls in 1857 to make room for new development, Havana did the same. The human scale of Spanish colonial urbanism opened into the baroque grandeur of public promenades and broader streets and boulevards, where a proliferation of porches assumed the task of shading and sheltering the Habaneros and their visitors. We feel the shift instantly as we step off Calle Obispo into the brighter lights and brisker pace of cars and motorbikes that glide around the city’s Central Park.

After lunch the next day, we pick up what Jorge calls one of those “funky cab rides” from the same spot. A Kelly green 1950 Chevrolet whisks Fornes, student Joshua Shearin and me into Havana’s western third, the “suburb” of Vedado that has become the heart of the contemporary city. The Chevy leaves us at the iconic stone steps that form the front entrance to the University of Havana, where we rejoin the group. Our host, Professor Orestes del Castillo, welcomes us into the gated campus while undergraduates eye us with casual curiosity. It is the first day of classes.

Luis introduces the white-haired architect, whose English is clear and precise. They have met before, at a conference in Canada. Del Castillo mentions his son’s current work on restaurant refurbishments in Washington, which presents Luis a segue to describe his students’ work. “We are preparing, Orestes, to exercise on a theoretical project to design a market in the grand tradition of the great markets of Havana. And we will use the site of the old Mercado Tacón.”

Del Castillo doesn’t comment on the choice, but he recognizes the demolished building as the work of that first Notre Dame alumnus’ father, Eugenio Rayneri Sorrentino. The son did a lot of work in Cuba, he notes, adding, “I would like to express my satisfaction at having you here, having the possibility to begin an exchange with Notre Dame, to collaborate with your ideas.”

As we tour the buildings and gardens we find shade under banyan trees and notice a young Cuban, dressed like a student, taking pictures of our group for a file somewhere. Del Castillo speaks about his restoration of the stock exchange building that Joshua Shearin has selected for his first project, praises the durability of its Bethlehem Steel frame and turns to the historical ties between Cuba and the United States and their “artificial” separation. “There’s a cultural link between these countries,” he says. “It’s a matter of a relationship . . . people to people.”

On the surface, these sentiments seem like pure cordiality, but it represents our first formal connection and colors our visit in the hues of warm diplomacy. Subsequent visits build the Trelles’ confidence. When architect Daniel Taboada shows us the Casa de Obra Pía, an exemplary palacio where he led a major restoration, he mentions an active friendship with Jorge’s father-in-law, David Cabarrocas, going back to childhood. Taboada and his colleagues at the College of San Geronimo — the dean, Eusebio Leal, is also the powerful city historian — affirm that the Cuban government views collaborations with U.S. architecture students as “a very important bridge toward change and a new relationship.” The door now seems explicitly open to Notre Dame.

When we part, Jorge and Luis exchange backslapping embraces with their Cuban colleague. “We’re over the hump,” a relieved Luis explains. “Now we’re in the hands of people with official status who have made it clear to us that we are officially welcomed.”

All of which means that if students like Rob Duke and Stacey Philliber accept their invitation from the notable Cuban architect Julio César Pérez for his 2012 studio on Central Havana, they may work freely alongside peers from Cuba and Italy. And they won’t have to tiptoe around security guards to measure the pilasters of architectural treasures in government service. The windows have opened, so to speak, pulling a breeze into the courtyard. For now, Pérez even offers to share his own notes, photos and sketches with them as they return to their drafting tables in Bond Hall. “Anything I have,” he says, “is yours.”

John Nagy is an associate editor of Notre Dame Magazine.