Architecture of Power: A Story About Cuban Marble

Cuban marble has a rich and eclectic heritage that mirrors the country’s social and political past. Cities such as Havana were built following the 1573 Ordinance of Spanish King Philip II that required a Spanish style cathedral, administrative buildings, and a governor’s palace to line the central plaza. The Cuban builders and craftsman infused the classical Spanish architecture with regional designs and used local marble from the renowned quarries formed by Cuba’s unique geological structure.

There were two Cuban-Spanish wars, the Ten Years’ War (1868–78) and the Cuban War of Independence (1895–98).

During the 19th century, Cuban architecture followed earlier colonial styles and although Cuban marble was used, Italian Carrera marble was also imported. The presence of the Spanish design and European marble was becoming an outward symbol of repression. Toward the end of the 19th century the combination of Spanish tyranny, Creole rivalry, taxation, and the growth of Cuban nationalism resulted in the Ten Years’ War (1868–78). This war failed to win Cuba’s independence but a second war (1895–98) and the increasingly strained relations between Spain and the United States prompted Americans to enter the conflict in 1898. America was concerned about its economic interests in Cuba and in 1898 the U.S. emerged triumphant in the Spanish-American War, thereby ensuring the expulsion of Spain, but in return the U.S. demanded control of Cuban affairs.

U.S. intervention in Cuban affairs, the collapse of Haiti as a sugar-producing colony, the ingenuity of Cuba’s Creole business class, and the accelerated importation of African slaves created a sugar revolution that transformed Cuba into the largest and richest global sugar producer. A new elite emerged and large estates squeezed out smaller ones. Cuba’s marble was mined at unprecedented rates to build the latest Neo-Baroque and Art Deco mansions, immense sculptures, decorative facades, lavish social clubs, and elaborate hotels. By the mid 20th century Cuba was famous worldwide for its marble and architects featured Cuban marble on newly styled buildings that blended modernist, neo-gothic, and art nouveau architectural styles.

Glexis Novoa, Timba, 2017
Graphite on Carrara marble (marble recovered from Havana), 14 x 16 inches
Courtesy of the artist and David Castillo Gallery, Miami Beach, FL

In 1959, following the triumph of the Revolution, relations between America and Cuba declined. The Castro regime seized U.S. properties and investments and the Soviets provided a new protective umbrella. Cuba’s post revolution architecture followed a more utilitarian path, with new buildings designed to be practical and economical. In opposition to colonial styles, the architecture after 1959 created a distinctive landmark, resembling Soviet designs featuring rectangular buildings constructed with concrete blocks and Cuban marble used for flooring. Eventually, the collapse of communism in the late 1980s had a profound effect on Cuba and its marble. Soviet financial aid ended and without the support, Cuba was submerged into an economic crisis in what became known as the “The Special Period in Time of Peace”. Like other sectors of the Cuban economy, the island’s marble industry was badly hit by the collapse of Soviet support and the sudden loss of clients. Today marble and mining production is only 2% of what it was in the late 1980s and some quarries have been totally abandoned or are barely functioning.

Much of Havana’s eclectic architectural history is currently tumbling down, forever lost. Experts say a combination of age, decay, climate conditions, lack of finances, and changes to political priorities endanger the neoclassical villas, colonial mansions, Art Deco palaces, and modernist structures. Yet, on the other hand, perhaps the half-century of communist rule saved the capital’s eclectic marble heritage from malevolent developers and represents the legacy of Cuba’s social and political complexity.

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