Hotel Habana Riviera, El Vedado, Cuba
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Visiting Cuba

Hotel Habana Riviera, El Vedado, Cuba

While sitting in the cavernous lobby of the former Habana Hilton Hotel (c.1958), now the Habana Libre, surrounded by French and American tourists on their way to Varadero, I enjoyed watching the colorful old model taxis drive through the driveway. It was a bit surreal to see 60-plus-year-old cars drive by while downloading emails from the hotel’s Wi-Fi on my iPhone 6 plus.  

A few blocks away, closer to the malecón (oceanfront), is the Meyer Lansky Riviera Hotel modeled after the Riviera Casino in Las Vegas. Its original 1957 appearance has been obscured by utilitarian additions and years of neglect but it is still recognizable and one could easily imagine Frank Sinatra and Ava Gardner strolling around the pool or leaning out one of the balconies facing the ocean holding a mojito and smoking Cuban cigars.

Next to it is the Meliá Cohiba Hotel, a five-star example of un-green design completed in 1998. The rooms have air conditioning and the bathrooms are equipped with hydro-massage, but this faceted bulk sliced by ribbons of black windows does not inspire me. Examples like this and other unfortunate interventions, large and small, worry local and international preservationists concerned about what will happen to El Vedado—currently on the 2016 World Monuments Watch—and other areas of the city when the pressure of development cannot be controlled by the existing zoning and landmark regulations.

At the opposite end of the island, the heroic city of Santiago de Cuba, cradle of the Cuban independence wars and host to Teddy Roosevelt and his cavalry, has been hit hard by earthquakes and hurricanes for centuries. When I visited it for the first time a few years ago, I worried that many of the overburdened and unmaintained historic structures would not resist another natural disaster, but the city proved its resiliency during hurricane Sandy’s attack in 2012. This time, I was pleasantly surprised to see that several buildings in the historic center had been restored or at least had received a fresh coat of paint to commemorate the 500th anniversary of the founding of the city in 2015.

The Cathedral of Santiago had been fully restored and was getting ready to inaugurate an international exhibit with a spectacular light show, but many of the other Colonial Churches of Santiago de Cuba and nearby towns are still in poor condition and in dire need of resources for their rehabilitation. This is why the Colonial Churches of Santiago de Cuba are currently on the 2016 World Monuments Watch. I visited several of them and noticed cracks and structural instability, but despite their precarious condition, they were full of children listening to catechism, young women singing, or old ladies making crafts.

Santiago—a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 2000—is starting to see an increase in tourism, which hopefully can be properly managed to bring desperately needed resources to maintain and restore the historic city. Its remoteness and the pride of its citizens in their city's history may help slow down the inevitable process of new development and gentrification. Santiago has no beaches nearby and its cultural offerings are many such as its historic sites, music, and coffee plantations, making it a natural magnet for cultural and ecological tourism.

Back in Havana, also listed on the current Watch, are the National Art Schools. I have visited them on several occasions since 1996, and each time, I discover something new and wonderful about this example of expressionist architecture – a symbol of the idealistic fervor of the initial years of the Cuban Revolution. On this occasion, I visited the unfinished School of Ballet with Vittorio Garatti, its 89 year-old designer, and Carlos Acosta, the renowned Cuban dancer who is trying to restore it as an international dance center. It was heartwarming to see the aging designer and the younger dancer exchange hopes and ideas about the future of this crumbling yet inspiring work of art. We also strolled by the gusano, or worm, the nickname for the School of Music, also by Garatti, and unfortunately the mood here was not as optimistic. Without a sponsor in sight and on the losing side of a battle against invasive vegetation, each year the site becomes a bit less architecture and a bit more romantic ruin, until at some point there will be nothing to preserve.