I had been thinking about going to Cuba for awhile, but did not act on my impulse until a chance meeting at our Waterworks Kitchen showroom with designer Todd Klein, who mentioned a trip he was taking to Cuba. That short visit catapulted me into action to sign up the with the Sir John Soane’s Museum Foundation/Design Leadership Network tour to Cuba that took place in early June for six days. What a great decision.
The trip far exceeded my expectations from the moment we met at sunrise at the Miami airport for our final destination, Havana. Kudos to Chas Miller of the Soane’s Foundation and Christine Pagnani of Academic Arrangements Abroad who seamlessly orchestrated flights and meals, sightseeing venues and lectures, guides and an afternoon at the Havana Biennial. There were unexpected pleasures, such as a morning at the Teatro Nacional de Cuba where we watched energetic young dance students and professionals rehearse a contemporary piece. What a jaw-dropping experience.
Of course, we were most interested in the nearly unchanged architecture, from Belle Epoque mansions and Spanish Colonial palaces to Corbusian-style apartment blocks and even a Richard Neutra-designed house that’s now the home of the Swiss ambassador. The damp environment and lack of financial resources has not been particularly kind to many of the structures, especially those on or near the sea and in the city. Yet there is something hopeful for the future of preservation in Cuba.
Of course, as you might expect, many of the painted building are in the bright colors of the Caribbean; peacock blue, pink, minty green and whatever paint is around. The streets are in various states of disrepair and there is an abundance of old-fashioned cars from the ’50s, many barely running. But they simply add to the texture of the place and made for some great photo ops.
While the food was mostly edible, to put it succinctly, it was not reasonable to expect much more from a culture where basic rice, beans, and a little chicken are the main staples. But it really did not matter what we ate; the real experience was in the houses that had been turned into paladares (private restaurants) and our wonderful companionable group of mostly architects and designers. Oh, and I can’t forget the endless stream of mojitos, especially those at the historic Hotel Nacional, a McKim, Mead & White building in the tradition of The Breakers Palm Beach. They must be the national drink of Cuba!
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