HAVANA LIVING TODAY
In HAVANA LIVING TODAY its author, architect and architectural historian Hermes Mallea sets the record straight as regards who is living where and how well in today’s Cuban capital.
As in Mallea’s previous book, Great Houses of Havana, the new book’s abundant illustrations tell stories that words could not begin to match in color or expressivity. There are real life visual and narrative accounts about a creative class primarily made up of visual artists, American and European expatriates and young entrepreneurs that has managed to create exciting environments in which to live and work and thrive in a society where needs are great and resources few.
The book, just published by Rizzoli, is so beautiful that one is tempted to merely display it on top of a coffee table and let friends on a visit casually leaf through its two hundred-plus pages. But for those who are seriously interested on how life is lived on the island 90 miles from our coast and, in many cases, 90 light years behind the times, this is the definitive source on the subject: a gem of a book to look at, read and savor.
In its first chapter, The Revolution and the Family Home, the author describes with respect and objectivity the lives of the heirs of a dowager who have managed to continue living in the old home of their grandparents – a feat of ingenuity in a system that did away with that sort of high end living almost sixty years ago.
In revealing photographs in various other chapters one sees the remnants of a lovely past: cane back furniture, Cuban hand-made tile floors, Caoba and marble tabletops with an assortment of bibelots, objets d’art and knick-knacks keeping company with art and found objects and souvenirs obviously collected by the new generations that grew up in Cuba over the past half-century.
19th century antiques and kitschy 1950’s conversation pieces either uncertainly or happily coexist side by side in the apartments and single family homes of the few who chose to stay after the arrival of the Revolution in 1959, some of whom have repurposed their former dwellings and have become restaurateurs, hoteliers, art and antique dealers, and even in one case an event planner who will rent anything from a groom’s tuxedo to a debutante’s gown to Cubans with little cash starved for a once in a lifetime splurge-fantasy.
On a totally different level, the homes and interiors of the residences of the ambassadors of Norway, France, Switzerland, Canada, Brazil, Argentina, Holland, Germany, Italy and Spain range from the stunning – the mansion that accommodates the English Ambassador and his family, complete with its 1928 indoor pool – to the sensibly modern home of the Dutch ambassador. In each and every instance these are residences capable of hosting parties for the entire diplomatic corps, furnished tastefully with mostly imported furniture and décor, but still functioning as family homes
Cuban law does not permit foreign nationals to owe property in Cuba, only to rent. For that purpose, the government agency PALCO will help the foreigner looking for a pied-à-terre in one of Havana’s toniest neighborhoods to find the home of their dreams. PALCO’s catalogues a list of exquisite properties formerly owned by Cubans who went into exile from 1959 through the end of 1960. Now appropriated by the Cuban government as eminent domain, these homes and apartments serve as residences for a small colony of Europeans who enjoy spending one third of the year in the balmy Cuban winter during which the temperature rarely rises above the low 70’s.
Turning to other chapters we discover the homes of visual artists who by dint of wit and grit have stayed afloat in the stormy seas of the Cuban art scene, in which a now I give, now I take away department of culture looms on one side like a tropical Cuban Scylla opposite the censorship whirlpools of Charybdis on the other shore. No small miracle then that a young generation of painters manages to live and work in Cuba in spite of such difficult circumstances.
Mallea’s book is replete with color photographs that tell in one strong image what a thousand words cannot. All along the author’s prose is lively, elegant and cautiously apolitical.
Leafing through and reading this gorgeous book is most pleasurable and informative, especially for the lover of beauty, regardless of what political backdrop may be behind it.
Rafael de Acha http://www.RafaelMusicNotes.com October 25, 2017