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Norman Foster on the classic cars and architecture of Havana

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The world’s most famous architect on his fascination with Cuban buildings and street culture, and his new book Havana. Autos & Architecture

Havana. Autos & Architecture has its origin in a visit to Cuba that I made in 2012. My wife, Elena Ochoa, and I attended the XI Bienal de Arte de La Habana and spent time with two artist friends, Marco Castillo and Dagoberto Rodríguez, otherwise known as Los Carpinteros. They had created a major event called Conga Irreversible to coincide with the Arts Festival. Imagine a scene in the heart of the city through which scores of dancers, all immaculately dressed in black, are parading. The traffic is halted as they move, not forwards but backwards.

While I was photographing this extraordinary happening, two impressions came together as I looked through the camera’s viewfinder. First there was the backdrop of ageing buildings and cars, like a time warp of suspended decay that is unique to the island. Cuba is a veritable museum of classic American automobiles, mostly from that golden age of the 1950s. In their colours and condition there is a visual rapport between the architecture and the autos, both miraculously surviving the ravages of time.

1955 Mercury Monterey at the Palacio de los Capitanes, Plaza de Armas. Photo: Nigel Young

1955 Mercury Monterey at the Palacio de los Capitanes, Plaza de Armas. Photo: Nigel Young

In between these musings, the second impression, prompted by my thoughts on the paradox of Conga, was an awareness of change in the air. For example, on this visit we discovered that the local real estate market had been opened up by the government and Cubans could, for the first time since the revolution, now buy property.

It seemed to me, as I watched this huge line of people snaking through the city, that soon everything in Cuba might be like anywhere else in the world. Gone would be the exotic vehicles like dinosaurs from an age long past, to be replaced instead by the technically superior but totally characterless cars of today. In a similar spirit, a new-found affluence might lead to wholesale redevelopment of the very particular and equally exotic mix of styles that comprises Cuban architecture.

Thus was born the idea for this book – to make a record for present and future generations as well as lovers of architecture and cars to appreciate a rich cultural heritage, frozen at this critical point in time. I resolved to create it with the best talents that could be found for the task. Elena was not only supportive of the concept as my wife but, as a publisher, her Ivorypress team was central to the venture. We decided that the context would be set visually with images of the transition period that marked the unfolding of the revolution by Luc Chessex, a Swiss photographer who lived in La Havana in the ’60s. His pictures, now half a century old, appear as fresh as ever, with a wonderful sense of immediacy. The next challenge would be to find someone who could write word pictures to summon up the history and spirit of the place. I could not think of anyone more qualified than Eusebio Leal Spengler and there is a pleasurable link in his being the first person who introduced us to the urban delights of Havana. I greatly appreciate not only his insightful essay, but also his contribution on the ground of his home territory.

A 1954 Mercury cruises past Havana’s Palacio del Centro Gallego (1915) by Belgian architect Paul Belau. Photo: Nigel Young

A 1954 Mercury cruises past Havana’s Palacio del Centro Gallego (1915) by Belgian architect Paul Belau. Photo: Nigel Young

There was a certain inevitability about the choice of photographer. Nigel Young has for many years been an integral part of my studio in London and with his technical expertise and a discerning eye he has recorded our projects from their inception through models to completed buildings.

There is a powerful idea that drives this book and it was a concept which was suggested by Mauricio Vicent, our chosen writer. He had lived many years in Cuba as a correspondent for the Spanish newspaper El País, so he was very well connected. His idea was to bring forth insights through the recollections of the owners of a small number of important automobiles, mostly spanning more than one generation. Mauricio has a warmth and infectious enthusiasm, which in his many interviews has drawn out memories from his subjects to bring the past alive. The tales that he records are full of colour and human frailty – they are the opposite of any dry official history.

Street scene: a view of the Calzada de 10 de Octubre. Photo: Nigel Young.

Street scene: a view of the Calzada de 10 de Octubre. Photo: Nigel Young.

This book is a testimony to the ingenuity that keeps this vast fleet of antique autos moving, largely in the service of the community. But there is another kind of Cuban automobile that exists in a parallel world – those of aficionados who have a love affair with original examples and painstakingly restore them to pristine condition, reaching a point where they are newer than new. In a society with the utopian quest to level everything to an equal shade of grey, the brilliant colours of the automobiles and the architecture that frames them is unsurpassed anywhere in the world for its sheer flamboyance. Notwithstanding economic strictures and abject shortages, somehow those ancient carriages not only survive but, six decades later, are still status symbols to be displayed with pride, and their finer points of detail to be the subject of discussion and debate between friends and neighbours.

The architectural context of a typical street in Havana may be far removed from the leafy suburb portrayed in a 1950s marketing spread, but the social message is the same. Everything has changed but nothing has changed. Because, at its essence, pride in possession and the innate desire for the individual to stand out from the crowd remains the same.

This article is also published in El País


Havana. Autos & Architecture, by Norman Foster and Mauricio Vicent, with photography by Nigel Young,
Published 2014 by Ivorypress, 380pp, hardback, English and Spanish, £60


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