History of the Present: Havana

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History of the Present: Havana
Havana, viewed from an El Vedado high-rise. The Hotel Nacional, by McKim Mead and White, is in the foreground. In the distance is the mouth of the harbor, guarded by Castillo del Morro. La Habana del Este lies beyond / © Belmont Freeman

On a warm late summer afternoon a year ago, I sat with Mario Coyula Cowley on the jalousied terrace of the residence in Havana where he had lived for decades with his family. Mario had long been one of Cuba’s leading architects and urban planners, and he and I had had met professionally years earlier; family connections and shared interests led to a valued friendship. The elegant apartment, spacious and filled with art — much of it created by friends — occupies the top floor of a 1950s apartment building in the leafy, formerly old-money neighborhood of El Vedado. This domestic setting, inherited from an aunt, was a reminder that Mario Coyula was an exceptional member of the upper-middle-class intelligentsia who chose to remain in Cuba after the revolution and apply his talents to the grand socialist experiment.

From the years of turmoil that led up to the Cuban Revolution, Coyula emerged as a charter member of the idealistic generation of the 1960s. He was a student activist at the University of Havana and later served in the engineering corps of the rebel army; after the triumph of Fidel Castro and his comrades, in 1959, he devoted himself to the design of the new socialist Cuba. ….

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