Cuban Modernism

Cuban Modernism: Mid-Century Architecture 1940–1970
by Victor Deupi and Jean-François Lejeune
Birkhäuser, April 2021

Hardcover | 8-3/4 x 11-1/4 inches | 344 pages | 195 illustrations | English | ISBN: 9783035616415 | 52


In the 20th century, modern architecture thrived in Cuba and a wealth of buildings was realized prior to the revolution 1959 and in its wake. The designs comprise luxurious nightclubs and stylish hotels, sports facilities, elegant private homes and apartment complexes. Drawing on the vernacular, their architects defined a way to be modern and Cuban at the same time – creating an architecture oscillating between tradition and avant-garde.

Audacious concrete shells, curving ramps, elegant brise-soleils and a fluidity of interior and exterior spaces are characteristic of an airy, often colorful architecture well-suited to life in the tropics. New photographs and drawings were specially prepared for this publication. A biographical survey portraits the 40 most important Cuban architects of the era.

Victor Deupi, Ph.D., is a lecturer at the University of Miami School of Architecture. His research focuses on the art and architecture of the Early Modern Spanish and Ibero-American world, and mid-twentieth-century Cuba. Jean-François Lejeune, Ph.D., is a professor of architecture, urban design, and history at the University of Miami School of Architecture. His research ranges from Latin American architecture and urbanism to twentieth-century vernacular modernism in Spain and Italy.


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Modern architecture in Cuba is overlooked, especially when it comes to coverage in books. I have just over twenty books in my library that I categorize under "Latin America," but only one of them — Eduardo Luis Rodríguez's Havana Guide: Modern Architecture, 1925-1965 — is focused on Cuba, with the majority of the other books about Brazil and its architects and landscape architects. Likewise, of the 100 buildings in World Architecture 1900-2000 - A Critical Mosaic Volume 2: Latin America (one of ten books in a series edited by Kenneth Frampton), only two of them are found in Cuba: the Bacardi Building (Esteban Rodriguez Castells, Rafael Hernández Ruenes and Josè Menèndez, 1930) and the Institute "José Antonio Echeverria" (Fernando Salinas, 1968). Moving toward the present day, it's hardly surprising to find not a single Cuban buildings in Luis Fernández-Galiano's Atlas: America, part of the excellent "Architectures of the 21st Century" series.

With the dearth of coverage of Cuba's modern architecture evidenced by the above examples, Victor Deupi and Jean-François Lejeune's Cuban Modernism: Mid-Century Architecture 1940–1970 is a very welcome addition to my library (Cuba book number 2!) and is similarly described by Belmont Freeman in his lengthy review on Places Journal as "a welcome addition to the sparse bookshelf on Cuban architectural history." Freeman, a Cuban American who has written extensively on architecture in Cuba, even admits in his review that he knew nothing about Cuban architecture when he started architecture school at the University of Pennsylvania in the 1970s. That deficit changed though, given that he happened to study at a school chaired by Mario Romañach, who left Cuba in 1959 following the Cuban Revolution. By 1970, the end date of Deupi and Lejeune's scholarly history of Cuban architecture in the middle of the last century, most architects like Romañach had left the island and its "conspicuously anti-urban and anti-architectural bias," as the authors write in their introduction, that was in place until the fall of the Soviet Union in 1989.

Although the subtitle of Cuban Modernism clearly indicates the three-decade history it tells, the book's six chapters are thematic rather than chronological. The chapters are prefaced by the introduction, titled "Modernity and Cubanidad," and followed by helpful biographies on nearly forty Cuban architects, from Humberto Alonso to Osvaldo de Tapia-Ruano. (The latter includes dates and places of birth and, if applicable, death; not surprisingly, most of the architects were born in Cuba but died in the USA and other countries.) The first chapter, which I'm guessing will be of interest to many architects, is titled "The Modern Cuban House" and is the most illustrative of the book's chapters. It is followed by "The City as Landscape: Forestier, Sert, and the Planning of Havana" and then "The Modern City: Housing, Civic Infrastructure, and Representation." The latter includes Manuel Copado's Solimar apartment building (Havana, 1944), which was in my year-by-year survey 100 Years, 100 Buildings and was the reason I bought Eduardo Luis Rodríguez's Havana Guide

If Deupi and Lejeune's book were in existence six years ago, things might have been different; based on their extensive discussions of numerous buildings unbeknownst to me, I might have selected something else, such as Max Borges Recio's Club Náutico (Playa, 1953; on the cover), which is more regionally inflected and less International Style than the Solimar building. Club Náutico is found in the fourth chapter, "Tropicality, Tourism, and Leisure," which is followed by "The Synthesis of the Arts." The last chapter, "Exile and Heritage," is also last in a chronological sense, as it covers projects done by Cuban architects in Puerto Rico, Florida, and other places they emigrated to in the 1960s and 70s. This final chapter fits with the authors' belief, expressed in the preface, that "historians need to [... situate] Cuban architecture in a broader context by examining its interaction with other centers of modern culture such as the wider Caribbean, Latin America, North America, and Europe." For those interested in that interaction, this book is a must.