The Scrappy Design Movement That’s Making Over Havana

How a group of forward–thinking architects are remaking the Cuban capital with some salvaged wood, a little found metal and a lot of creativity.

Luis Mario Gell hadn’t planned on returning to Havana. In Rome, where the commercial photographer had lived for a decade, his career had been booming; he shot images for brands like Hermès and Dior. But in 2012, after his brother left Cuba to study as a concert pianist, Gell came home to look after their mother. To make ends meet, the then–34–year–old shot portraits for quinceañeras, 15–year–old–girls’ lavish birthday parties. The work didn’t fulfill him, though, and he dreamed of building an art space instead. “I hoped to capture the youthful energy,” he says. “Coming from Rome, with its Colosseum and forts, I understood that if you want to impress, you must go big.”

The city he’d returned to resembled the one he had left, at least superficially: The streets were grandiose and dilapidated, with the cobblestoned gracefulness of Barcelona, the deco flashiness of Miami and the deterioration of Detroit. Everywhere, the paint – breezy turquoise, yellow and pink – was salt–stained and peeling. It frequently gave way to raw concrete and stone.

But if the buildings seemed tired, there was a new energy in town. The president, Raúl Castro, had reformed the communist system to lift the country’s dreary economic prospects. A robust private sector had taken shape – people were working their own land and eating in family–owned restaurants. There’d been a change of power in Washington, too. Once the Obama administration made it easier for Americans to travel to the island, an influx of visitors appeared – not just people spilling off cruise ships, but also curators, gallerists and design lovers.

March 1, 2019
Photography by May Reguera hangs on a brick wall.
Work by May Reguera, a photographer and actor, hangs in Havana’s Estudio 50.

Shortly after his return, Gell walked past a mirror factory in Vedado, the neighbourhood where he’d grown up, and saw it was mostly empty. As a child, he and his friends would often visit the building. They’d chase each other through the rafters, and workers would give them little mirrors to take home. Now the staff, which once numbered in the hundreds, had dwindled to fewer than 30, a result of the country’s 1990s recession. The factory, surrounded by apartment blocks and crumbling, colonnaded buildings, was in appalling condition. The roof leaked in multiple places, and trees grew indoors.

Gell negotiated an agreement in 2015 with the Cuban government: They’d rent him the factory and, in return, he’d make structural repairs and allow a small group of workers to continue producing mirrors. He has since transformed the rest of the building into Estudio 50, a multipurpose art space, creative studio, concert venue and beloved hangout for Havana’s under–30 set. The space is open for business, though the architecture is very much a work in progress: Inside, heavy trusses, made of painted wood and weathered steel, support a massive saw–tooth roof. Overhead windows bring in sifted light, illuminating the galleries, and many odd pieces – like a cluster of palm trees growing from bathtubs – are used as surreal backdrops for concerts or music videos.

“Normally, you get your materials, then execute your project. Here, we have an inverse creative process. First, we acquire some iron, some wood or a few shipping containers. Then we ask, ‘What can we do?’”

With Estudio 50, Gell has joined a rising group of young inter–ior designers who are reimagining social and artistic life in Havana. This generation faces formidable odds in a country where capital is scarce and resources even scarcer. The government still tightly controls retail and restricts imports; basic materials like wood, drywall and structural steel are difficult to source. In the market for chic Scandinavian furniture? Don’t get your hopes up. “It’s an everyday struggle,” he says. “To get what we want, we must work with what we have.” For Gell and his fellow Havana designers, though, these constraints are a spur to innovation.

The Fábrica de Arte Cubano is an arts complex that sits just east of the Almendares, the biggest river in the city; nearby is Miramar, an upscale residential district with embassies and diplomats’ houses. Within the concrete shell of what was once a cooking–oil factory, designer Ernesto Jiménez García has created a metal–and–drywood hive. After entering, you’re drawn through a series of passageways that are also art galleries, displaying everything from nude portraits to fashion plates to minimalist paintings. You eventually emerge into a cavernous performance space. When I visited, onstage dancers, decked out in shorts and T–shirts, moved in spasms and twitches to a slow, heavy bass line. That space then leads to an outdoor terrace and, behind it, a cluster of interconnected shipping containers that house cafés, galleries and offices.

Owner Luis Mario Gell leans against a steel beam in the gallery.
Owner Luis Mario Gell has overhauled the former mirror factory into a multipurpose art space.

The entire structure is a mess of angles and catwalks, and Jiménez García built it, quite literally, from the ground up: The bottom floor was open for business in 2015, long before the second and third floors had even been planned. “Normally, in a design studio, you get your materials, then execute the project,” he says. “Here, we have an inverse creative process. First, we acquire some iron, some wood or a few shipping containers. Then we ask, ‘What can we do?’”

At the Fábrica, you might see a classical concert in the late afternoon, then a contemporary dance show in the evening. At night, the vibe turns clubby, as the crowd gets younger and decidedly less sober. People huddle in groups, some leaning in to see artworks, others leaning in to each other, their hands holding cocktail glasses, cigarettes or iPhones. In a city with an insufficient number of informal haunts, communal spaces have to be many things at once. “There are many cultural centres around the world that, after five or ten years, become fossilized,” says Jiménez García. “The Fábrica is always changing.”

In 2016, in the hopes of making Estudio 50 similarly dynamic, Gell brought on Orlando Inclán, one of the country’s best–known architects. By day, Inclán works for the government on downtown restoration. By night, he runs a design practice, h(r)g_arquitectura, that is responsible for some of the city’s most beloved spots, including La Guarida, a rooftop restaurant where the bathroom sinks are made of found marble, and Malecón 663, a boutique hotel with bicycle seats for bar stools and a salvaged spiral staircase that’s a little too high, extending a couple feet past the top floor.

An ocean view from the terrace.
No shady business in this corner of Malecón 663’s rooftop terrace, with uninterrupted ocean views.

In Havana, Inclán explains, you must recycle everything you can. When he first toured Gell’s mirror factory, the building was on the brink of collapse. The trusses – century–old pine beams from Canada – were splintered and cracked. If the warehouse was to survive, he decided, it would need to cannibalize itself. Over the past two years, Inclán and Gell have demolished various interior structures and workstations, saving, and later reusing, whatever materials they can find.

When I visited the site, Gell showed me three found, heavy steel trusses fused together – the welders’ marks were visible, like surgical scars. The gallery walls were made not of Sheetrock but of painted plywood mounted on old pieces of ductwork. And there were several industrial fans that Gell had discovered on site; when turned on and placed before a light source, they create a strobe effect ideal for concerts. The concerts, in turn, are ideal for generating revenue that then gets funnelled back into the architecture.

It’s a common resourcefulness in Cuba, says Inclán – he refers to the practice as “accidental sustainability.” “The world came to sustainable design philosophically,” he says. “We came to it practically, without even using the term. While everybody else was talking about it, Cubans were doing it. We didn’t have a choice.”

You enter el Cocinero, a restaurant atop the same factory that houses the Fábrica, through a narrow industrial chimney. The space is claustrophobic, with a stairwell that spirals in tight circles. It leads, however, to a sunny, partially walled–in terrace that looks out onto terracotta roofs.

Looking down a spiral staircase.
Working the door at the bottom of El Cocinero’s dizzying spiral staircase.

After acquiring the property in 2011, owner Rafael Muñoz Moya and general manager Laura Fernández Córdoba painted the floors in muddy red and grey, the only colours on the market at the time. They also installed a ribbon canopy that billows in the wind, hardy plants that spruce up the weathered concrete walls and copies of Danish designer Verner Panton’s classic namesake chair, a single S–shaped swoop. As the granddaughter of Gonzalo Córdoba, a leading interior and industrial designer who worked for the state, Fernández Córdoba knew the one factory in town where these reproductions could be made.

Her biggest challenge was lighting. Cuban stores typically carry compact fluorescent bulbs, an oppressive, low–wattage variety favoured by the government for its energy efficiency. When Cubans travel abroad, however, they’re allowed to bring back a limited number of materials in their luggage. Gradually, and at considerable expense, Muñoz Moya and Fernández Córdoba imported five varieties of bulbs, including the strings of yellow pendants that brighten the terrace and the stronger uplights that illuminate the nearby chimney. “At night,” Fernández Córdoba says, “the presence of the space is defined by light.” And people are drawn to it – visitors and locals, the old and the young, although everybody looks youthful beneath the indulgent lights.

Crowds out on the street during an evening art festival.
Come on, locals, now let’s get in formation: It seems the entire city is out for a night at the Fábrica de Arte Cubano.

This sense of novelty helps explain why Havana design is suddenly attracting crowds. Every April, tens of thousands of visitors descend on the city for the Havana Biennial, an event that’s grown exponentially since it started in 1984. Across Havana, visitors can discover immersive installations that are every bit as architectural as they are sculptural, as well as pop–up galleries scattered throughout the old city and behind the seawall.

For contemporary–design lovers, Havana offers neither opulence nor polish, but instead a chance to see things you can’t see elsewhere. As the post–Cold War world has gotten smaller, design culture has globalized with it. A white cube gallery looks like a white cube gallery, whether it’s in New York, Shanghai or Doha. Too often, that’s also true of open–concept co–working spaces, faux–rustic coffee shops and cocktail bars modelled on Jazz Age speakeasies. Yet from the tangled interiors of the Fábrica de Arte to Malecón 663’s surreal furnishings to the atmospherics of El Cocinero, Havana stands apart.

“With Estudio 50, I wanted to make a point,” says Gell, “that projects like this one can be done independently, within Cuba.” He has hopes of achieving energy self–sufficiency for the space, maybe by building wind turbines in the nearby alleys. Inclán, for his part, dreams of moving the administrative offices into an exterior pod suspended on a ledge above the factory. No one else at his firm expects that idea to pan out. Then again, a decade ago, nearly everything Inclán and his peers have done would’ve seemed improbable too.