A lesson with Mario Coyula

Renowned architect Mario Coyula reviews moments of his professional life, opines on housing and also speaks of the production of architecture and monuments, Cuban identity and urban planning.

The intellectual exercise that an interview entails was able to encourage him, just a few days after having undergone surgery. It is Cuban architect Mario Coyula, a man who asks questions par excellence, with acute opinions and frequently heterodox, poured out in a language distant from all that is academicism.

At his home, while reviewing his career, Coyula highlights the commemorative monuments, a subject to which he has dedicated texts in publications like the magazine Arte Cubano; but he also confesses that, with time, urban planning seduced him more than the isolated buildings. “Nice teeth do not make it a single piece,” he explains and argues: “the city moulds the people and the people mould the city,” which is why he warns of the importance of urban culture.

Fascinated for some time by the work of Le Corbusier,  whom he classifies today as a formidable architect, a good painter and a dangerous urban planner, he affirms that one has to part with obsessions.

Mario Coyula’s career in teaching in and outside the country, and his work from leadership posts, considerably enriches his curriculum vitae, in which several books also appear, of which the last one, recently published with the name of Catalina, is a love novel associated to Havana.  

The concepts of “good taste” and its opposite have a strong classist component; racism is even frequently hidden in them. The baroque, the tango and all the manifestations of African culture were branded in your time as carriers of bad taste. In the Cuba of today, what do you consider is of bad taste and why?

(You left out art nouveau, which here in Cuba is associated to Catalonian operators and not to architects.)

For starters, I don’t like to use the term of bad taste because one immediately says: “and what is good taste, which is it, who has it and why?” It is a very movable, uneasy territory. One can be more objective when criticising certain manifestations without using the term “bad taste”. What we can say is that there is a marginality that has climbed and become dominating; therefore, it no longer is marginal. It is expressed in the way of dressing, of listening to music, of talking…in everything and it rules. It is a public that demands consumption and to which it is offered. There were long discussions about those superficial manifestations at the recent Congress of the Union of Writers and Artists of Cuba (UNEAC). Taste is associated to fashion, to arbitrariness, to frivolity, it is like a shield when it is said “I did it because I like it that way.” That is bad, there has to exist a thought, a conceptualisation behind every creative event.

Can we associate it with lack of culture, ignorance, ostentation?

To all that. Those horrible interventions in architecture, with ducklings and shapely women…all that comes out of the same base: a hybridisation of urban marginality, closely related to precarious dwellings and the immigrants coming from other provinces, with improper behaviours in the new context. The other factors that were added were the rapid disappearance of the former dominating class, the bourgeoisie, and the imitation of the worst made in Miami. We have good aiming to copy the worst made abroad. That sometimes is joined by need, but at a considerable level those persons have money and more possibilities of doing harm.

It is curious, because when the bourgeoisie emerged it was looked down on by the aristocracy, which reproached it its bad taste. They were the nouveau riches.

Yes, they were looked down on because they didn’t know how to behave. They didn’t know how to use the cutlery; they placed terms in the wrong context. They had pretensions of seeming aristocrats, but they couldn’t and they made fools of themselves.

What do you believe would be viable to achieve in Cuba a medium-term architectural production, comparable or superior to the one we had in the 1960s?

Architects again have to have the authority. It has been taken away from them and many already don’t even know that we have that right. The young architects have known nothing else. It would be necessary to combine that authority with the creation of a public that values that quality. It is necessary to make demonstrative projects and to extol them in the press. Frequently, from the media, people become confused because badly done things are celebrated. There is no specialised critique or there is very little. I have published critiques in magazines like Revolución y Cultura, but they have a limited print run.

I have also proposed the organisation of contests so that the different possible solutions for one same project can be seen. Some time ago I was grading here some academic works (the bad student generally uses many colours to mask the lack of ideas). I was grading one of these works and my wife passed behind me and praised it. I said to her: “I am going to fail that student,” and I explained to her. All of a sudden I showed her a work of five points and placed it side by side to the other. I convinced her with that.

I remember now that a few years ago a contest was convened for students with projects for the monument to José Antonio Echeverría in Cárdenas, his birthplace. Emilio Escobar was the tutor of the project that won the contest and I collaborated. In the plaza facing the house where the martyr was born, the monument was a large block of marble with his portrait, but the face could only be seen from a specific angle, standing in line with the house and the layout of a path on the floor. Unfortunately it was never built. What’s contradictory is that many monuments were made outside the contests and even against the recommendation of the Monumental Sculptures Commission (CODEMA), but several projects that legitimately won prizes in contests were cut short.

Why does the idea of the contest as a mechanism of validation no longer prosper?

Because the leaders like to decide.

Is it a matter of power….

It’s ridiculous because they get into a field that is not theirs and many times they make mistakes.

The housing situation in Cuba, how do you see it in light of the recent changes?

Housing has become merchandise; it no longer just has the value of use but also the value of exchange. That is good for the buildings because people are going to take care of them, but a redistribution of the population is already taking place. Persons with money go to the best barrios (El Vedado, Miramar, etc.) and the former owners of those dwellings go to live in a small cave-like place anywhere else. Before, with the house swapping as the only way of exchanging, there was an appraisal in which crowding and other factors were taken into account.

Do you welcome or regret the open marketing of dwellings?

It is inevitable. It has to be accepted, beyond the fact that it comes accompanied by other problems, like a more overt and violent social differentiation. We cannot use the description of elegant, because unfortunately they are not. However, I remember the weight, the authority, which the Association of Owners and Neighbours of El Vedado had.

A curious thing is taking place now. I, for example, have a building in front which is being repaired, but just half of it. The neighbours from one side are the only ones that can afford to pay for the works.

If it happens like in other countries, the person who cannot pay for the maintenance in the long term has to move to a cheaper place according to a regulation of the condominium…. All these are questions of the new panorama in Cuba.

Does this mean that our cities will stop being democratic?

I think so.

What is the state of the mini-brigades in Cuba?

I believe they exist nominally. The mini-brigades were spoiled because they started using that force for works that were not housing, their raison d’être, and the people were annoyed when the process of handing over the housing was prolonged, though it was always agreed in contributing a quota of apartments for persons who could not join the programme.

It should also be kept in mind that it is a mechanism of construction with apprentices. When they acquire the knowhow they get their apartment and leave.

There was a time in Cuba when the labour force was lost and the housing problem is violent. I remember having heard once someone refer to how well built the Camilo Cienfuegos neighbourhood, in Habana del East (it was created in the 1960s) was and saying that it’s because “the people had still not learned to work badly.”

On the other hand, there’s a solution that I like and that has been used in many countries: the seed-dwelling. They start with a minimal, elemental space, and a plot of land. The owners continue later on their own, expanding and improving their living conditions, according to their possibilities, of course, always with professional advice. The problem now is that that accompaniment is not used and the results are generally a disaster. In that case, it would be a dwelling that, with time, is described as contrary to the conventional constructions. This alternative has been applied a great deal in South America.

I remember having seen in Quito dwellings that had been very well designed and built, and they were classified as economic, made by the workers, but they are not given away, they have to make a down payment and then continue paying every month.

In terms of the seed-dwelling, it must be taken into account that its owners would be persons with very low incomes, who possibly cannot hire a professional.

Alternatives would be sought. The State could facilitate the payment in instalments, for example.

Moreover, one has to think about building housing for rent and for sale. Others could be built with that financing.

At present, rents are in the hands of private home owners.

Yes, it’s more or else the same. That is what generally happens to us, we have an economy of recirculation that does not generate new wealth.

What zones in Havana do you believe merit a timely intervention?

Almost all of them. The northern zone of Centro Habana, for example, but, where does the financing come from?

You had projects for ultramarine barrios….

Yes, and right here in the Almendares River, around which there are barrios like El Fanguito and El Romerillo, which were unhealthy and have been improving, which is why they are no longer classified as such. The main point is that they not continue growing because the anarchy and disorganisation later prevent benefitting them with a street, for example.

Do you agree with the experiences that have linked visual artists to specific communities, like, for example, Fuster to Jaimanitas?

They are interesting, but one has to know when to stop. Fuster has made free works for his neighbours and has become a figure in his barrio. I believe what has been done here in the Callejón de Hamel is also a positive experience. And by the way, during the works they discovered a fantastic sign that says: “Don’t stick your nose into what you don’t know.”

If, for example, you were given the Cuatro Caminos Market, what would you do with it?

There was a time when the Cuatro Caminos Market made me generate many ideas. I would conserve the structure, but I would open it more to the exterior. It’s good that there is a roofed market in Havana. On the other hand, we are bringing the good earth from Alquizar and Güira de Melena to dirty up the capital.

Another point is that in the markets throughout the world there are cheap food offers, with establishment that are open until late. I remember that the famous Les Halles Market in Paris was known for serving the best onion soup in the city.

The experience of Havana’s Historic Centre has been duplicated, with its adaptations, in other heritage cities in the country. Do you believe it can also be applied to other Havana barrios, even when they are not under the unique tutelage of Eusebio Leal, and even if they lack the same density as heritage sites?

At least El Vedado has tremendous values and a formidable urban distribution. Self-financing formulas have to be sought and that the city pays for itself. This would put an end to those waves, campaigns for repairs, which in addition are cosmetic, superficial. El Vedado has museums, art galleries, hotels, places like the Colón Cemetery and others with a great deal of history.

At some time during your life you questioned the Riviera Hotel project, why?

I initially questioned it because it seemed ridiculous to me, it is the typical Miami architecture of the 1950s. I no longer think the same way and I have become aware that opinions must not be alarmist. Money has to be invested in the Riviera and what is sold there to the tourists, which is not always the most appropriate, must be looked into.

Our museums and hotels lack a specialised selling, according to the institution’s profile. The same thing is sold everywhere, as well as how wise of its conception and quality in terms of its make….

The same thing happens with music on television, in all the channels you find the same thing.

At very levelled times, when very few people questioned high-level decisions, you did so. It’s a very honest position.

Well, where does the drive for change come from? As one of my professors, Menéndez, the one in charge of the Havana tunnel on the Cuban side, said, “At my age I can afford to be impertinent.”

Could you speak a bit about your work?

A student once asked me if I wouldn’t have liked to do more architecture, and I have to recognise that yes, but I also enjoyed teaching and making it possible, from leadership posts, for young people to assume interesting projects. What I also should have done is work with the young architects because I like to take on team projects, so in the end one doesn’t know whose idea it was because we all contributed and that is the nice part.

Before the triumph of the Revolution I had worked for several years with an architect and friend, Oscar Fernández Tauler, who shared his studio with painter and sculptor Rolando López Dirube. I did not get paid much, but they allowed me to experiment. At that time the integration of visual arts with architecture was very strong. The majority of the works were houses; I remember Pepe Fernández’ in Boca Ciega and that of Tauler, one of Oscar’s uncles, in Celimar. They almost always took one of Dirube’s murals or sculptures. We also collaborated in the project for a 17-floor building on 23 Street between D and E, in El Vedado. In 1959, when it was finished, the building was given the name of Hermanas Giralt. There Emilio designed an enormous textured concrete tympanum that blocked the sun’s action.

After the triumph of the Revolution I concentrated a great deal on farmer dwellings grouped into small rural towns. In 1966, with the participation of Joaquín Rallo and Roberto Gottardi, I drew up a project for the remodelling of the former Caballero Funeral Parlour, on La Rampa, to turn it into a Culture House. We voluntarily worked in situ, outside the usual schedule. A few weeks after the promoted inauguration of the Culture House, it was decided to close the installation based on an incident that took place in its interior, with the narrow mentality of the deceived husband who throws the baby out with the bath water (a popular oral story about the vengeance of the victim of adultery). The undesired public that went there simply crossed the street and took over the other site.

In the 1970s I dedicated myself a lot to the reanimation of urban planning. We would take a corner like 23 and 12 or Cuatro Caminos and transformed it with few resources. For example, if we were going to plant 12 trees, that formed part of the plan the municipality had for that year. It worked very well like that, but Oscar Fernández Mel was at the head of People’s Power in Havana and he had great comprehension, but he also had a great deal of authority.

You are the author, together with other creators, of the first abstract monument in Cuba, and you were also the first president of the Monuments Provincial Commission in Havana, what characteristic do you appreciate in this line of work?

I have felt very happy with the two commemorative monument projects in which I participated and which were able to materialise. That creative line is a rare opportunity of integrating architecture with landscaping, urban design, sculpture and – if the result is good – with poetry.

Emilio Escobar, Sonia Domínguez, Armando Hernández and I greatly enjoyed drawing up the projects at night in 1965 and then building the Monument Park of the University Martyrs, very close to the hill where we had studied in the 1950s. We followed a revolutionary concept: instead of placing the traditional sculpture in the centre of the plaza, we formed the plaza with the monument, which is a concrete irregular wall according to the history it refers to.

The bas-relief of the wall is made with jute bags and paper sacks of cement, wooden planks and ropes, nailed from inside the shuttering. They are very open representations that do not try to impose on the observer a concrete meaning. They increasingly become less figurative to the extent that the struggle became more collective and, in the end, become textures that merge with the concrete.

For us it was very important to win that national contest: we were young people of around 30 years, friends and study comrades, participants in the struggle against the still recent dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista, and we had won in the contest in which many known architects had competed. The monument in itself has aged well, despite the lack of maintenance and that it was never finished. It is there, with its own life that is already independent from us.

I understand that it would have been completed with green areas….

The vegetation is the most vulnerable element. It is easy to mistreat it, change it, that’s why you have to take photos of your work when it is inaugurated, before it falls into the hand of the vandals, but there is also a psychological problem in Cuba with respect to this. In other places, for example, three trees describe a plot of land. People here are in the habit of pruning, pulling out and knocking down trees. It was previewed that the monument would include a space with vegetation, which is like the symbol of life that is born, but someone, believing to be doing good, decided to deprive us of it.

I also enjoyed the project of the 13 de Marzo Mausoleum in Colón Cemetery. It was also again a joint work with Emilio Escobar and with it we won a contest in late 1981. It’s simple: it consists of a long line of stainless steel flags that works like a sundial, giving shadow every March 13 along a strip of floor where the hours are marked. When it reaches 3:15, the time of the Attack on the Presidential Palace, one can light a flame in that point as the start of the ceremony. The floor of the small plaza is covered in cobblestones to recall the struggle in the streets, and has some convex areas that force people to walk looking at the floor. When bowing their heads to see where they are stepping, they are paying tribute to the tombs of the fallen. José Villa, a great Cuban sculptor, at the time very young, collaborated in the execution of the flags.

There were also projects that did not materialise….

Yes, several, among them a monument to Ernesto Che Guevara in Santa Clara because I felt poisoned with the project that was going to be carried out and which finally materialised. My idea, instead of a sculpture, was to build a path because what Che left was a path. First there was a natural forest from where came a path also lined by trees and that reaches the point of the Loma del Capiro. In this place there would be a disassembled star, with pieces on the floor and another as a roof. We were leaving a space and through it you would see the sky, land, people, life. It seemed like a good idea to me because I say that monuments have to shake people. It’s not necessary to add one more monument because of the sole fact of having them, they have to shake people, make them think, make them vibrate.

I also worked, in 1963 to 1965, with Polish specialists on a project that did not materialise in the end, for Playa Girón. I learned a great deal from them, despite their youth, because the Poles have a tremendous construction tradition. They were two architects, a sculptor, an interior designer and an engineer.

How can architects achieve a seal of Cuban identity in their work?

Being authentic and going by the climate. Cuban identity comes to us on its own in any artistic expression; one doesn’t have to impose on the work a straw hat or a guayabera shirt. (2014)

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