Looking for Roma–ach

On September 3, 1959, Mario Roma–ach, considered by many to be the best Cuban architect of the postwar generation, awoke early in anticipation of a journey. He finished packing and locked up his house, a Modernist residence in Havana’s Miramar neighborhood that he had designed some ten years earlier. Then he and his wife and their two young daughters boarded a plane for the United States, where Roma–ach was to spend a semester as a design critic at the Harvard Graduate School of Design.

The Roma–achs hadn’t brought much—clothing for a season, $2,500 (the maximum Cubans could take out of the country), and return tickets on a Cubana de Aviación flight from New York to Havana. For despite the anxieties generated by the new rule of Fidel Castro, Roma–ach had many reasons to wish to return to Cuba, where he had established a thriving practice and become a vital presence in the country’s vigorous architectural culture. But Roma–ach would never return to his comfortable house or to his crowded office with its numerous projects in progress; like many who left in the wake of the revolution, he would never again return to Cuba.

Roma–ach’s contribution to Cuban architecture, almost four dozen projects built in little more than a dozen years, constitutes a remarkable legacy that merits a place in the annals of not just regional but also international Modernism. But it is a legacy that was for years neglected. In his homeland his work was denounced by revolutionary authorities as the architecture of the socially decadent and politically corrupt Batista years. In the United States, which became his second home, the buildings were not much known, even by some who knew the man. As an architecture student at the University of Pennsylvania in the early 1980s, I knew Mario Roma–ach, as many there knew him, as a superb design teacher; but of his brilliant career in Havana—in a Cuba then inaccessible—we were mostly ignorant.

In recent years Roma–ach’s architecture has begun to receive long-delayed recognition. It is being written back into the record largely due to the efforts of Cuban architect and historian Eduardo Luis Rodríguez, editorial director of the journal Arquitectura Cuba and author of several books, including La Habana: Arquitectura del Siglo XX and The Havana Guide: Modern Architecture, 1925-1965. Rodríguez is now working on a comprehensive monograph of Roma–ach’s work. And he is working as well on an arguably more urgent project: ensuring the survival of the buildings themselves. Unlike that of colonial Havana, the architecture of modern Havana has not yet benefited from a program of renovation—and it will have to happen soon if it is to happen at all.

An intense and energetic man in his midforties, Rodríguez lives and works in El Vedado—one of Havana’s liveliest districts—in a compact apartment so packed with books and photographs that it has become, in essence, a research center of twentieth-century Cuban architecture. In his choice of subject he was a maverick. Born in Havana not long after Castro’s triumphant march into the city, Rodríguez came of age in a period when the official architectural culture was conscripted mostly into the service of the revolution. At the University of Havana in the 1970s “the curriculum was oriented toward technical and economic issues, and very influenced by politics and ideology,” Rodríguez recalls. “The architecture of the Modern movement was usually ignored, except when it was declared to be bad because it catered to the bourgeoisie.”

Dissatisfied with the program of study, with its intriguing omissions and dispiriting proscriptions, Rodríguez found the richest education was to be gained not at the city’s university but in its streets. “I began to wander all around Havana—which is not a colonial city but a modern and eclectic city that happens to have a beautiful historic center,” he says, “and I made astonishing discoveries.” Roaming from Centro Habana west to Miramar and Vedado, south to Cerro, east to Santa Maria del Mar and Celimar, and all the districts in between, Rodríguez found buildings he had never been shown in class, a style of architecture very different from the prefabricated Soviet-funded construction being produced by the country’s state-run design bureaucracies. What he was seeing and evaluating for himself was the discredited work of a brilliant postwar generation, one that included—besides Roma–ach—such estimable designers as Eugenio Batista, Max Borges Recio, Nicolás Quintana, Manuel Gutiérrez, Frank Martínez, Ricardo Porro, Joaquin Cristófol, and Emilio del Junco. The discovery was especially potent because it was personal. “Back then, when I was in school, I had no idea who the architects of these marvelous buildings were,” Rodríguez says. “So I began to go to the National Archives and other libraries, looking for information.” His research revealed that the midcentury decades had been a heady time for architecture in Cuba. From the mid-1940s to the late 1950s an energetic group of young designers—propelled by the postwar boom and inspired by Le Corbusier and Mies, Gropius and the Bauhaus—had collectively produced an extraordinary body of work.

Rodríguez admired much of what he was discovering in the streets and at the archives, but it was Roma–ach’s work that most impressed him. “I could see,” he says, “that this was the work of someone for whom architecture was not just a profession but a passion.” And indeed Roma–ach’s daughter, Maria Cristína, who followed her father into architecture and now practices in Philadelphia, describes his career choice as inevitable. “My father spent his youth piecing together an education—Cuban schools were often shut down because of political rebellion—and he had all sorts of jobs, from selling coffee to drafting plans for offshore rigs for Shell Oil. But for him architecture was always it. There was no other work that he found so compelling.”

By 1945 the 28-year-old Roma–ach had opened an office in partnership with Silverio Bosch, and in a decade of intense conceptual and formal exploration, he designed the buildings that years later would so excite Rodríguez. Like many young architects, Roma–ach made his mark in residential work. The house that the fledgling firm designed for Julia Cueto de Noval in 1948—a spacious, well-planned villa organized around a patio—received the Gold Medal of the National College of Architects. A year later the firm completed an even more prepossessing house for a member of the same family. Like the best Cuban Modernism, the José Noval Cueto house was a daring synthesis of International Style and island tradition. With its pilotis, planar walls, and strip windows, and its dramatic central cutout, and open-air corridors, it was a Caribbean reworking of the Purist villa. And it attracted praise from weighty authorities. “When Walter Gropius returned from Cuba recently, the house he talked about most enthusiastically was [this] extraordinary structure,” is how the August 1952 House and Home began its review of the building. Rodríguez considers the second Noval residence a masterpiece of Cuban architecture. “I can still remember the first time I saw it,” he says. “I was looking for the house, but it’s located on a curve in the road, and I didn’t see it until it was in front of me. Its presence was so powerful, even monumental—it was a perfect architectural experience.”

Roma–ach followed these early projects with a series of excellent houses that display growing formal mastery and environmental sensitivity. And they indicate as well an ongoing commitment to design research. Years later, to students in the United States, Roma–ach would describe an architectural career as “a permanent search.” The house he designed for Luis Humberto and Evangelina Vida–a, in 1952-53, is evidence of the stamina of his search. Here we find no pilotis, no smooth concrete walls. L-shaped in plan and complex in section, the Vida–a residence clings tenaciously to the ground, its three interpenetrating levels taking deft advantage of the sloping site. Richard Neutra, whose 1956 house for Alfred de Schulthess is nearby, called this “the best house in Havana,” and it was admired by Mies as well.

Certainly Mies would have appreciated the artful mix of materials: cedar cabinetry, beige brick walls, stairs of sabicú (a Cuban wood), and floors of wood, terrazzo, and antique clay tiles. The Vida–a house marked Roma–ach’s deepening engagement with the physicality of buildings. His interest in materials characterizes his projects of the period, as does his growing interest in Japanese architecture. Especially notable are the 1955 houses for Félix Carvajal and Beatriz Baguer; the 1956 house for Ana Carolina Font, with its butterfly roofs and wooden screens; two apartment buildings, one commissioned by the Vida–as, the other by the Goods and Bonds Investment Company; the 1957 houses for Guillermina de Soto Bonavía and Rufino Alvarez; and the 1959 house for Ernesto Suárez, with its lovely coffered-ceilinged spaces.

The Suárez house was still under construction when Roma–ach left for the United States for what he hoped would be an academic interlude in his professional career. But the semester-long visit would protract into lifelong exile. (Roma–ach’s expatriation was not unusual: about two-thirds of the island’s architects left Castro’s Cuba.) He remained in the United States and enjoyed a successful teaching career, first at Harvard, then at Cornell, and finally at Penn, where he taught from 1962 until his death, from heart failure, in 1984. A tenured professor at a major East Coast university, Roma–ach had landed well. Viewed today, his career in American higher education seems almost charmed; many architects now choose to center their work in academia. But for Roma–ach, as for many of his generation, teaching was ideally a complement to practice. “Mario loved teaching, and as a design critic he was demanding and inspiring, and students loved him,” recalls Philadelphia architect John A. Bower Jr., a Penn colleague. “Yet it was clear he wanted to build, and that he didn’t want to build houses for the rich but big-scale projects that dealt with complex urban issues.”

Roma–ach never stopped working, and he designed a few good buildings during his American years. Yet he never established here the sort of high-velocity practice he’d had in Havana, where in addition to running a firm he had directed the city’s master-planning efforts. Part of the problem was practical: a satisfying teaching career crowded the hours that might have been spent in practice. But the real dilemma was more profound. It was the dilemma of exile, of the life uprooted, the career cut in two, made discontinuous. As Maria Cristína Roma–ach says, “What was missing for my father in the States was not just the big opportunity, the right project. What was missing was Havana—its social and cultural frameworks, the close-knit network of personal and professional relationships that made life in Cuba very rich.” Ultimately the architect paid a hard price for his break with the past. Roma–ach never used that return ticket to Havana. “He kept it for the rest of his life,” his daughter says. “He could never throw it away.”

Had Roma–ach returned to his homeland, he would surely have been saddened by the appearance of many of his buildings. All have been altered in one way or another, suffering to different degrees the unintended indignities of poverty and expediency. Some of the changes are cosmetic: none of the original paint colors have remained, nor have any original furnishings survived. All the buildings are now surrounded by fences, usually chain-link, sometimes block or brick. Some of the changes are more invasive and severe. In the second Noval house, for example, part of the glass wall of the north facade has been replaced with concrete block; in the Carvajal house the delicate pattern of a solid-and-void screen wall has been altered by the filling in of the voids. Some of the houses, including the Suárez house and Roma–ach’s own residence, look dreary and forlorn, showing too plainly the toll taken by years of tropical sun and humidity. Worst of all is the Font house, which has been transformed from a private to a collective residence, a change that has resulted, Rodríguez says, in “totally insensitive and unsympathetic additions, and in a general state of disrepair.”

“A general state of disrepair” is unfortunately an apt description of many Modernist buildings in Cuba. In the past 20 years the colonial buildings of Old Havana have been the focus of an extensive and well-documented restoration program, funded at first by UNESCO and then by foreign investment. But the island’s Modernist heritage has received no comparable support. In Cuba as elsewhere, Modern architecture has never attracted the broad popular constituency enjoyed by older styles: it has always been identified with the taste preferences of the reviled (and exiled) Batista bourgeoisie. And now, when so many of the buildings are in rough shape, their value is even less readily apparent. Perhaps this is why Modern architecture does not seem to fit smoothly into what has become one of the defining clichés of Cuban tourism: the cult of romantic ruins, of weathered baroque ornament, peeling neoclassical plasterwork, rusted wrought iron. Modern buildings, with their smooth surfaces and glass walls, their flat roofs and rectilinear profiles, do not crumble and rot in such grand and photogenic style.

Rodríguez estimates that more than half the buildings documented in The Havana Guide have been deformed by ill-advised renovations and damaged by inadequate upkeep. “Walls have been removed or added,” he says, “porches have been enclosed, windows closed up. And most changes have been piecemeal and haphazard, made with no architectural involvement or even advice.” And so the historian has become not only the chronicler of Cuban Modernism but also an advocate for its preservation. He is heartened by some recent developments. There is increasing appreciation of the island’s Modern works, he notes, “especially among architects, who now recognize and praise the buildings.” There is now a Cuban section of the international group DOCOMOMO (Documentation and Conservation of the Modern Movement), with which Rodríguez is establishing a register of significant Modern buildings.

And yet Cuba’s Modernist heritage—the vulnerable, aging, and deteriorating artifacts—remains in jeopardy. The architecture will survive nowhere but in the pages of books like Rodríguez’s without significant and sustained investment, and this does not seem to be forthcoming. Developers and investors in the United States have occasionally expressed interest, but for this interest to lead to anything substantial the economic embargo must be lifted. As a Habanero, a passionate lover of the 500-year-old city and its marvelous built legacy, Rodríguez believes that the preservation achievements of the past 20 years must be viewed as only the beginning of the much grander project of restoring Havana—a long-range national project in which the legacy of modern Cuba, and of Mario Roma–ach, will have a valued place. “What I would like to see,” he says, “is the first-rate restoration of one of Roma–ach’s buildings, back to its original shape, inside and out, top to bottom. That might be the spark that would ignite the fire of Modern movement preservation in Cuba.”

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