If walls could talk, what would Havana’s eclectic architecture tell us? The Baroque buildings might offer a story of Spanish colonialism, while the neoclassical could recall how French landowners arrived in the early 19th century fleeing Haiti after a slave uprising. Meanwhile buildings infused with a mix of Art Nouveau and Art Deco could offer many tales from the period when the Cuban capital was once considered one of the finest cities in Latin America, as sugar barons rivalled each other to build ostentatious mansions.
But these iconic architectural tropes from Cuba’s colonial and first republic periods also coexist with the ruins of the later social and political project, frustrated in part as diverse international circumstances saw the country’s economic development freeze and then stagnate.
“Architecture tells you about people, their needs, their suffering and hopes. In Havana it tells you a lot about the loss of faith in the future, and also of individual and collective memories,” remarks Carlos Garaicoa, one of Cuba’s foremost contemporary artists whose practice since the 1990s has focussed on the disconnect between the hopes and promises generated by the political idealism of the 1959 Cuban revolution and the realities of day-to-day life in a broadly hostile political environment.
Born in Havana in 1967, Garaicoa grew up under Castro’s regime and witnessed the economic impact of the 1962 U.S. financial and trade embargo on Cuba and then much later the fall of the former USSR with the subsequent dwindling of financial support to the Castro regime.
The multi-disciplinary artist says his country’s political situation marked his work from the very beginning, when he first took a camera to create provocative commentaries that reflected his frustrations with the crumbling modernist ideal, using the architectural ruins he saw in Havana as a starting point to reflect on his country’s failing utopian dream. “As I was raised in Old Havana I was of course interested in the shapes of the ruins, in the idea of that sadly ephemeral city, full of symbols and political statements and at the same time crumbling and leaving empty spaces all around us,” the artist says.
While Havana’s streets were the artist’s first subjects, studios, and exhibition spaces, his practice quickly evolved from a black and white documentary to a more creative interpretation as he started to intervene in the spaces, for example using stretched string to recreate the outlines of lost structures.
The artist came to international attention with a work titled Continuity of Somebody’s Architecture for the 2002 Documenta 11, in Kassel, Germany, in which he departed from the physical ruins of buildings constructed mostly between the late 19th and early 20th centuries to focus on buildings built after Fidel Castro had come to power, which he described as an “aborted architecture which failed both in its useful and aesthetic purposes.”
With the decline of communism in Europe, he points out that the Cuban construction industry collapsed leaving, “Hundreds of unfinished, disregarded, or momentously forgotten buildings” adding “The encounter with these places evokes a rare sensation; they are not the ruins of a luminous past, but of a present of inability. We face an architecture that has never been completed, poor in its incompletion, proclaimed ‘Ruin’ before its existence. It is a true image of a ruin by abandonment; I will call it ruin of (the) future,” the artist wrote at the time.
Working with an architect and a team of model makers, Garaicoa’s Continuity of Somebody’s Architecture provided a model of what the finished buildings could have looked like, contrasting them with the corresponding black-and-white photographs of the current reality.
In his more recent works, Garaicoa continues to highlight the deterioration of his beloved city by rendering missing buildings in crystal or transforming detailed photographs of sidewalks (some with chewing-gum stains) in front of the formerly grand department stores into jacquard-loom tapestries that visitors can walk across. “There is an intention, a story as you say, behind the materials that I use. There is a search for materials whenever they try to answer certain questions. In my work the story comes first and the material comes second. For example, I have chosen different materials such as papers, thread, wax, glass, when trying to speak of fragility, of the idea of crisis,” he explains.
Garaicoa has also extended his investigation of social and political developments beyond Havana and he now splits his time between the Cuban capital and the Spanish capital as he also has a studio in Madrid. But it is clear his heart is very much in the urban fabric of Havana and the societal challenges.
“In term of new architecture, not much is happening in Havana today beyond new hotels. On the other hand stopping old buildings from crumbling, that’s a titanic work,” he remarks adding that these building tell both “a story of crumbling and resistance (and) a story of decrepitude and stubbornness to stand no matter what… Architecture’s decay sheds light on the breaks of society and reality; as well as about the needs of the city to rebuild itself as a new space.”
First published on KEYYES.com (October 2018)
First published on KEYYES.com (October 2018)