A coterie of adventurous Design Leadership Network members recently toured Cuba as part of a DLN program in partnership with Sir John Soane's Museum Foundation. A few of the many highlights: a countryside drive culminating at the Ernest Hemingway house; in-depth neighborhood architectural tours; mojitos in the mezzanine bar of the Saratoga; visits to the Hotel Riviera, which remains largely preserved since its 1957 completion, and to the Casa de Jose Miguel Gomez mansion, which served as home to the island's second president and will soon house an Alliance Francaise school.
Led by architect and designer Hermes Mallea, the tour, from May 30 to June 4, introduced some DLN members and their family members, as well as Jiun Ho, Tamara Honey, Linda Ruderman, Barbara Fuller, Michael Imber, Eric Cohler, John Edelman, Bill Harrison, Barbara Sallick, Beth Webb, Todd Klein, Janice Parker, Rebecca Birdwell and Patti Friedler of DLN, to historic areas and as well as the country's architects, artists, craftspeople, museum officials and urban planners.
Scenes from Cuba, courtesy Michael Imber
“Havana is truly the Paris of the Caribbean for architecture, design, art and music,” said Chas A. Miller III, executive director of the Sir John Soane’s Museum Foundation, which is a licensed travel provider to Cuba. “It had an incredibly sophisticated society, and the public and commercial buildings are familiar yet totally unique. This all exists with a time stamp ending in 1959. Fortunately, for the last 20 years or so, the government and the people have respected this unique character and have been working on restoring and looking after properties as best they can in a hurting economic situation. For American designers and architects, it is a chance to step into a world that is recognizable, and yet not overly glitzed—there is a purity in what one sees.”
The Great Theatre of Havana
Salon doors at Museum of Decorative Arts; the lobby of Hotel Riviera Habana
Some of the top spots on the tour included: Catalina Lasa House (1927), with interiors by Rene Lalique; Finca La Vigía (Lookout Farm), where Hemingway lived for 20 years; Gomez-Mena family home (1927), which is now home to the Museum of Decorative Arts, as well as a Swiss Ambassador residence, which was completed in 1958, as designed by Richard Neutra with gardens by Roberto Burle Marx. As the tour took place over the 12th annual Havana Biennial, attendees also had the chance to view artists’ biennale exhibitions, to visit Pabexpo, a biennale venue that exhibits renowned Cuban artists’ work, and to attend a Ludwig Foundation for the Arts presentation and dinner.
The Old Square (Plaza Vieja), courtesy Janice Parker
“This was our first trip providing a small, member-based travel experience and it was a great success. We were fortunate for the Soane Foundation’s management as our trip was seamless, and we had access to breathtaking architecture, venues that are rarely open to the public, speakers, artists and experiences we all know would have been impossible otherwise,” said Birdwell, managing director of DLN and Sir John Soane Museum foundation board member. “The timing of our trip to Havana was fortuitous considering the changes rapidly taking place between the Cuban and American governments, and also as we began planning a year ago, many months prior to the December 17 announcement by both presidents. For me, it was the perfect combination of special insight to a country that’s been largely hidden coupled with quality time for DLN members to deepen their work and personal relationships."
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