Letras y Numeros Havana
From the archives, circa 2008: A Cuban designer honors his beloved city by documenting its architectural letterforms.
“Design and Culture,” the theme of the Icograda World Design Congress 2007 held in Havana, is of great importance to Cuban designers. As vice president of Prográfica (the independent nonprofit organization devoted to promoting the cultural values of graphic design in Cuba), I was witness to the vision of our friend Héctor Villaverde who, from the moment Havana was being considered as the Icograda venue, proposed putting culture at the center of the debates. In so doing, Villaverde was communicating the priority that the Cuban state grants to the protection and development of culture in our country. Graphic design has been, and must continue to be, a valuable exponent of that culture, not only because it contributes to its dissemination, but because design is essentially culture.
Havana has some icons that have been shown over and over again. The most repeated cliché in recent years is the photo of old U.S. cars. Another very frequent photo is that of the coast of the Havana Malecón, with children bathing in it.
My “tour of the city I live in” is a personal defense of design and its place in culture; it is the option that I, a Cuban designer, have chosen to show you that cannot be found in tourist guides. It is my public love declaration to Havana.
I live in El Vedado, a neighborhood in the center of the city, built mainly in the first half of the 20th century. It is a neighborhood facing the sea, with an extensive and famous waterfront (“malecón”). El Vedado’s octagonal street pattern was considered modern in its day, and was created following very functional urban guidelines.
The cultural center where I work is also in El Vedado, at a distance from my home that I can walk on days when the heat is not so suffocating. While walking from my house to my office I observed and enjoyed for years the city’s architecture, a mix of neo-classicism, Modernism, Art Deco, and other styles. Large or small, more or less old, repaired or in ruins, many of these houses are still full of charm. If one observes them carefully, with the enjoyment with which one listens to a symphony or dances a bolero, or reads a poem or tastes a drink of rum, the observation reveals hidden details.
During my walks through El Vedado’s streets, I began to pay more attention to the presence of letters on the façades and in the floors and gratings of old mansions and shops, movie theaters, and office buildings. These letters were incorporated into the architecture with much intention and skill, and have survived the passing of decades and the indifference or vandalism of the inhabitants or users of these houses. There is an enormous variety of formal solutions and it is in that mixture where a great part of Havana’s architectonic charm lies.
I began to take these pictures five years ago. What fascinates me is to find these letters and rescue them with the help of the photographic image, so that they will not disappear if the houses are one day destroyed. I search among those carved in stone or wood, molded in metal, encrusted, or illuminated. Many different finishes, all acting as witnesses to the passing of time.
--Photos and essay by Pepe Menéndez, segdDESIGN No. 19, 2008
Editor’s note: Pepe Menéndez is design director for Casas de las Americas, one of Cuba’s most active cultural centers. A 1989 graduate of del Instituto Superior de Diseño Industrial (ISDI), Cuba’s only design school, he lectures on Cuban graphic design in Europe and North and South America. His work has been published in several international design publications.