Since the bridge to Cuba is a potential new highway, Thames & Hudson reissued a beautiful book called, The Houses of Old Cuba. For people not privy to the island, Cuba has hidden areas of gorgeous architecture that even visitors won’t see. Llilian Llanes, founding director of Cuba’s principal art museum, explores Cuba’s architectural history from the sixteenth to the nineteenth century. She’s based a lot of her research on local archives, museum records, diaries and other native sources. Since she is so well-versed, readers find out about the evolution of Cuban architecture and how it was shaped by these factors: climate, social conditions, political, cultural and economic history. Interesting to note, the houses and their decoration is also reflected during periods of greater or lesser prosperity as well as social inequalities.
There are a large variety of styles represented in this book: indigenous simple huts known as bohios, elegant neoclassical villas, grand palaces of the Spanish occupation and luxurious quintas or country mansions of the rich. As Havana became the most populous and important city on the island, life in the capital was quite different from that in the isolated outlying districts. Several houses still standing in Trinidad, Camagüey and Santiago are influenced by the Creole oligarchy, a culture who knew how to enjoy life in keeping with their status.
There are bits of little known fact in here such as: wickets or small door openings were cut into front doors to help ventilate the house and maintain contact with neighbors; the topography of the land and two climates—wet and dry, and how it affected growth; and because the island was the inherent stop between the Old World and New, it made Cuba the staging post for ships, and was vital for control over the entire West Indies. We also learn about the Spanish history there, the composite of the races—slaves brought in by the French and English from Africa; and a contingent of Europeans, Spaniards, Haitians and Chinese among others—plus, how the indigenous Indians were annihilated.
We visit the key cities in this book: Trinidad, an agricultural town (with mansions left from the sugar cane owners) in the middle of the island bordered by mountains and a World Heritage Site since 1988. Santiago, San Cristobal, Camagüey, they are all here.
The text is charming, unpretentious and easy to follow.
If you are a fan of patios and balconies, you will see how the evolution of the houses (built like small fortresses) explain the popularity of these outdoor and indoor court spaces that became a lifestyle in order to deal with extreme weather, and intense heat alternating with torrential downpours. I especially enjoyed the woodwork ceiling structures and elaborate architecture of the colonial period. There are also influences of decoration from Moorish, Baroque, Gothic, Venetian and Spanish artists.
I think you will enjoy this book for its architectural heritage as it follows the history of Cuba Creoles in the 18th century, Spanish in the 19th c., the provincial colonial house; Havana in the 19th c., and so on. This is decidedly an “outdoor” book, that is to say an examination of the facades, patios, balconies, entrances, gates, arcades and doorways, and the materials of those structures. It is not much about interior design.
The photography of Jean-Luc de Laguarigue is taken with beautiful light, mat and, in some cases, double page.
THE HOUSES OF OLD CUBA by Llilian Llanes, Photography by Jean-Luc de Laguarigue. Thames & Hudson, 2015. ISBN: 978-0-500-28272-4. 200 pages, retail: $34.95