To that Mario Coyula that accompanies me

The renowned architect and intellectual passes away in Havana.

I would not like this article to be read as an obituary. Obituaries speak of the outstanding professional career of the deceased person, of his fundamental achievements or his greatest successes, and at times forget the man who dreamed, worked and even suffered over those achievements. Tributes are generally contaminated by that cold formality of the official ceremonies and I wouldn’t like this article to be read only as a tribute. Now that we still feel him so close, I would simply like to remember Mario Coyula Cowley as the intellectual who has left an undeniable mark in the Cuban cultural environment, the professional of renowned talent who we admired so much and the man of true human value who we respect even more.

Just a few months ago Mario Coyula was awarded the National Prize for Cultural Heritage for the Work of a Lifetime in its second edition. Before that he had received the National Prize for Architecture of the National Union of Architects and Construction Engineers of Cuba (UNAICC) and the National Habitat Award, both of them also for the Work of a Lifetime. He held the title of Doctor in Technical Sciences and Honorary Doctor, and was an Academician Emeritus of the Cuban Academy of Sciences and Professor Emeritus of the José Antonio Echeverría Higher Polytechnic Institute (CUJAE), where he stood out in the field of teaching. He was a Visiting Professor in the David Rockefeller Centre of Harvard University and Guest Professor in the postgraduate course Urban Strategies of Vienna’s Angewandtw. He was designated Fellow of the SIGUS of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in 1990, and belonged since 2001 to the International Research Group on Architecture and Infrastructure, currently the Research Laboratory on Infrastructure, Architecture and Territory based in Paris.

But all these recognitions in and outside the island only meant more effort, more time devoted to research and a greater desire to “continue fighting,” especially in Cuba, where perhaps he at times felt like an hallucinating Quixote in his struggle against giants and windmills.

Today it is almost impossible to speak of Havana without recognising Coyula’s work in favour of the city. Ever since those days in which he won a prize as co-author for the design of the University Martyrs Park of Infanta and San Lázaro, or for the March 13 Heroes Pantheon in Colón Cemetery one could already see in him the interest of the architect to intervene in the urban outline based on a creative conception, but respecting the environment.

From 1979 to 1989 he headed the Group for the Integral Development of the Capital. He was also the director of Architecture and Urban Planning of Havana and presided over the Monuments Commission of Havana. Perhaps it was during the years of incessant contact with the historic and current problems of the city that the architect was able to perceive in all its greatness the value of that architectural conglomerate and the complexity of the solutions required for its adequate conservation and future development.

At the same time he started channelling his capacity for theoretical analysis and research through different publications: he was the editor of the magazine Arquitectura-Cuba, and member of the editorial boards of the magazines Arquitectura y Urbanismo, Temas and Revista Bimestre Cubana. He published more than 200 articles and essays about patrimonial work, architecture and urban planning, subjects in which he is considered an authority. Part of his bibliographical contribution is collected in books like Diseño Urbano and Havana. Two Faces of the Antillean Metropolis, of which he is the author, and other titles in which he collaborated, like Fundamentos de la arquitectura, Introducción a la historia de la arquitectura y el urbanismo contemporáneos, Teoría del urbanismo, La política cultural del período revolucionario: memoria y reflexión, ¿Quiénes hacen ciudad? and Participación ciudadana para el urbanismo del siglo XXI.

From those tribunes and knowing what he was talking about, he launched an attack against urban absurdities, institutional and individual botches, and generalised bad taste, even copied and allowed by the institutions that had to control works and outline sustainable and harmonic strategies for the development of the city. Though unluckily for us his voice was at times lost in the lack of resources and laxity, ignorance or incompetence, which have put paid to the deterioration and even the loss of patrimonial values which we should have conserved.

Coyula also headed the School of Architecture in the CUJAE. Those of us who have had good teachers recognise this privilege and its importance in the integral formation – not just academic – of young people. Perhaps this is why when I think of Coyula as a professor I cannot imagine him filling out useless forms like a common executive or a boring academician who makes do with giving a good lesson. I usually imagine him with his serene verb and heated face, trying to pass on to his young students his passion for learning, his non-conformity with what is badly done or his love of art in any of its manifestations.

When I read Catalina, the first and only incursion by Coyula into the genre of the novel, more than a love story of the beautiful and dodgy Catalina Laza, I enjoyed the profound knowledge of Havana the author presents. And not just of its architecture but also of its history, in an intimate inventory for apprentices or the initiated. I was able to imagine him even with a walking stick and a bowler hat, with that simple elegance that was natural to him – gentleman of fine appearance, as his beloved comrade Marta used to call him -, discovering the secret nooks of the city, dazzled with the magnificent mansions of El Vedado, but also with the fashions and customs of its inhabitants, the Havanans, island and cosmopolitan people, the fruit of a magic mixture that still survives in the midst of the ruins and filth that suffocate the city.

I remember him as the determined promoter of that beautiful project, “The Havana that accompanies me,” to which innumerable personalities of Cuban culture were invited to share their memories in the different series of lectures held in the venue of the Maquette of Havana. A selection of these lectures was compiled by Coyula and published later by Letras Cubanas publishers. In the introduction to the book, also titled La Habana que va conmigo, Coyula insisted on the need to preserve those memories because the “understanding of a city is not only achieved through logical reasoning and specialised studies, but also the decantation and repeated passing on of personal experiences, which in turn nurture the collective conscience and are filed in the historic memory.”

I insist once again on the modest intention of this article that does not aim to be an obituary, not even a tribute. I’m satisfied with setting in my memory that image of serene appearance behind which one could see his clear intelligence but also his readiness to enjoy the most simple pleasures of life: the reading of a good book, the beauty of a woman, the mysteries of a city. He was Cuban through and through but remained far from the outdated provincialisms. One could always learn from him and he was always ready to teach. He set his mind on a crusade in favour of the future that was not always appreciated in all its worth, but he never lost his characteristic and refined Cuban humour. In essence he never disappointed his loved ones and remained faithful to his essences. I prefer to remember him this way, as a great man in love with life. The man with whom, in familiar environments, I shared wines, afternoons at the beach, and whose wisdom and humour I enjoyed so much…. Without cold tributes and sad obituaries. Not for Mario Coyula Cowley. Not for Mayito. (2014)

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