With The Association of Preservation Technology International in Cuba, by Kent Diebolt

Recently published in the APTI Communique, here is Kent’s report on the APTI Study Group trip to Cuba, in February:

(APTI Members will find this on-line, along with Mary Jablonski’s trip report and all sorts of other current APTI news)

On the morning of February 4th, 29 APTI members met at Miami International Airport and soon departed for Havana, Cuba, for a 10-day professional study trip. We represented a cross-section of the APTI membership; architects, engineers, decorative arts specialists, and conservators, both young and old, from across the United States. All were accounted for except Stanley.

This was my second trip to Havana, the first taking place in 2001, with the New York Landmarks Conservancy, and I was looking forward to seeing what progress had been made in the last decade.

I think I speak for our group in reporting that we were all completely welcomed by the Cuban people we met, both professionals and the public. I am also sure that none of us had any notion of how closely we would all bond during our ten days together.

The program was conceived and designed by conservator Rosa Lowinger, who is herself Cuban, and whose family left Cuba during the post-revolution exodus in the early 1960’s. Rosa was ably assisted by tour guide Nelson Ramos, from Havana Tours, whose organizational skills, silver tongue and wicked sense of humor were all constantly in play and fully appreciated by all of us.

Arriving in Havana on that Friday afternoon, we reached our hotel as the sun set over the city, illuminating the restored and the decaying with equal charm. The next few days were spent in and around Old Havana, and as this APTI Communique piece does not allow for a full, day-by-day travelogue, I will touch on a few highlights, which include a substantial side-trip to Cienfuegos and Trinidad de Cuba, both World Heritage City sites on the Caribbean coast.

Certainly, for me, there are so many memorable, poignant and joyous memories, that it is difficult to decide which to report on. An evening with Cristina Vives-Figueroa and her husband, Jose Figueroa at their home and contemporary art gallery was a high point for everyone. Figueroa was an assistant to Korda, the former fashion photographer that took the iconic photo of Che Gueverra that now graces t-shirts and banners seen all over the world. Figueroa has gone on to produce his own body of work, some of which was recently shown at the International Photography Center in New York along with the work of Korda and others.

Early in the trip,we were also greeted by Eusebio Leal, the head of the Office of the Historian of Havana, who is responsible for all aspects of the historic district; from finances to training of architects and craftsmen to determining which buildings get renovated and when, as well as implementation of social policies such as creating day-use centers for the elderly.

On several occasions, some of the group took part in local musical events, particularly through the knowledge of Carol Stone, of our tour company, Cuba Tours, who joined our group just prior to our bus trip to Cienfuegos and Trinidad. Carol is a professional percussionist who has participated in the Cuban music scene for about twenty years, whose local knowledge created many opportunities to partake in the uniquely local music and dance scene. Many of the group also spent an evening at the famous Tropicana, taking in the floor show and a few lucky members were able to land tickets for the Cuban Ballet’s performance of Giselle. Certainly, these experiences enriched and broadened our Cuban experience, by providing cultural context for the rest of our trip.

Another highlight, for the group and particularly for this aficionado of Catalan vaulting was the National Schools of Art, on the grounds of the former Havana Country Club. The school, comprised of five building complexes, were designed and constructed using Catalan or timbrel vaulting techniques similar to those employed by the Spanish immigrant builders and entrerpeneurs, Rafael Guastavino, father and son. Never fully completed, these building complexes were designed by three architects, Ricardo Porro, Vittorio Garatti and Roberto Gottardi. Though they were in use during the years since their construction, their slow decay and deterioration due to neglect was inevitable. Now, however, their renovation is ongoing in the capable hands of architect Universo Garcia, our host for the day. The dance and visual arts complex restorations are essentially complete, and now support a vital training and education community.

We also visited many historic fortifications, churches and “palaces”, as well as more humble casas, in various states of disrepair and renovation throughout the trip. We met a number of very hard-working and dedicated preservation professionals, including Nancy Benitez Vasquez in Cienfuegos and Victor Marin and Isabelle Rosello in Havana. All gave generously of their time and impressed us greatly with what they have accomplished with very limited resources.

There was also a significant emphasis, during various parts of the tour, on modernist architecture in La Habana, including a trip to the house designed by Richard Neutra for the Swiss banker, Alfred de Schulthess just before the revolution, now occupied by our gracious host, the Swiss ambassador to Cuba.

Since a day-by day telling of this story is beyond the scope of this brief article, there are a few things to say, in closing. Any opportunity to travel to Cuba should not be missed, if at all possible. Second, be accepting of departures from the itinerary or script, for there is much to be learned through serendipity and surprise. Third, should your bags fail to arrive, as happened to Ilene Tyler, maintain your equanimity and poise, because Cuba and your friends from APT will take care of you. Ilene’s attitude truly set the tone for this trip, earning her the Equanimity Award by acclaim. Many of us left with a commitment to future trips to Cuba, to continue to peel back the layers of history and culture.

And with respect to progress made over the last ten years, while there is much that has been accomplished, the sheer volume of work that remains is daunting. Tourism is both a blessing and a curse, but is the primary economic engine in Havana. I do hope to make more trips, on a more frequent basis, hopefully with Stanley, next time.

Kent Diebolt

APTI Group at Hotel Telegrafo, Havana, Cuba