We are familiar with the two bearded physiognomies, and cigars, but looking at indexes in a number of books on architecture and urbanism, one could think that Cuba does not exist. The country can be confusing. Columbus encountered the island on 27 October 1492. He thought that he had reached Asia and sent his men to search for 'the Great Khan's King of Cities'. In 1881 J W Steele, the us Consul to Cuba, wrote in his Cuban Sketches: 'In your total unlikeness and inhability [sic] to all your surroundings, it requires some degree of self-respect not to begin to regard yourself as a monstrosity.'
This realisation requires sensitivity and reflection, both currently in short supply. Not much of future heritage value is being built in Cuba today. The most visible new structures are hotels, of which many have little to do with Cuba. Alien to the country, its climate, history, nature and society, and frequently employing theme park-type historic references, they are shallow, graceless manifestations of an equally shallow perception of tourists' expectations. Ironically, some really bad examples have been designed by the Cubans themselves. Hotel Santiago in Santiago de Cuba massacres the panorama of this delightful, low-lying port city (the cradle of Cuban music). This book's author describes the hotel with a neutral reference and a picture of its pool. Hotel Melia Cohiba dominating Havana is not even mentioned.
Cuba's built environment created today leaves a dubious legacy - a lowest common denominator combined with excesses reacting to years of bland system- building. This is a sad situation for a country blessed with such environmental and human beauty. The lack of grace and intelligence in these latest additions to Cuba's built environment is in stark contrast to its true and spectacular heritage from the previous 400 years (Cuba has three unesco sites). Cuban architects, some of whom, given the chance, could outshine many world stars, are lamenting the situation but their voices are no longer heard.
In the early years of the revolution Celia Sanches led a group committed to searching for contemporary identity for Cuban architecture. One of the results of this effort is the breathtaking complex of art schools in Havana. It has incredible buildings, and indeed ruins. The circus school, never used, totally overgrown and glamorous, stands like a haunting and seductive invitation to sin. So does the only partially used music school. The book does not do justice to this effort aimed at creating national, revolutionary architecture in Cuba.
'The past is not a rule, it is a date,' declared architect Silvio Acosta in a 1928 issue of the journal of the Colegio de Arquitectos de la Habana. Cuba has some very respectable buildings, modern, yet Cuban and environmentally responsive. The book skims over this period, leaving out important works and architects, not least Hugo Manuel d'Acosta-Calheiros Salgado. He was responsible for a number of good buildings, including a rigorous house in Vedado, but also designed single-shell glass-fibre chairs ahead of anybody else in the world. The last remaining chair, a red wine-coloured sexy creature, is still casually used by his children, both architects, in their kitchen in Havana.
During a recent seminar on tourism in Cuba, the Cuban Ambassador, H E Rodney Lopez, said: 'Cuba is a country, not a beach.' The book goes some way to bear this out. Although it is confused as to its genre (there is a short index, bibliography and a thin string of references, but not a single contextual or city plan, or aerial view, or even a full building plan), I recommend it to Cuban aficionados. Those with a serious interest in the splendour of Cuban colonial architecture should consider the monumental La Arquitectura Colonial Cubana by Joaquin E Weiss.
Cezary Bednarski is a visiting professor at Instituto Superior Politecnico Jose Antonio Echeverria in Havana