Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
September 1, 2017
Timothy Hyde Constitutional Modernism: Architecture and Civil Society in Cuba, 1933–1959 Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2013. 384 pp.; 11 color ills.; 69 b/w ills. Paper $35.00 (9780816678112)

The political efficacy of architecture and urban planning is brought to the fore in Timothy Hyde’s cogent analysis of architecture and constitutionalism in Republican-era Cuba (1933–59). Focused primarily on Havana, Hyde brilliantly accounts for the relationship between legal discourse and architectural production. Divided into three parts, the book claims a tripartite of trajectories: the textual, the graphic, and the physical. The first part of the book explores the creation of the 1940 Constitution of Cuba, a key political document in the founding of the modern Cuban state. Cuba’s 1933 revolution led to the immediate dissolution of the 1901 Platt Amendment, a document that defined the terms of Cuban-US relations to essentially be an unequal one, characterized by the United States’ domination over Cuba, and imbricated the United States’ political and economic imperatives with Cuban governance. The literary and theoretical frameworks of the 1940 constitution provide a foundation for the second and third parts of the book, which explicate the role of urban planning and monumental architecture in modern Cuba. Hyde’s rich analysis of legal doctrine weaves intricately into his reading of urban plans, architectural fantasies, and built projects. His book provides a unique model for rethinking the relationship of law, nation building, and architecture in a postcolonial context.

Central to Hyde’s writing on both law and architecture is cubanidad, or Cuban-ness, explored early in Constitutional Modernism through the legacy of a Cuban national hero, the poet and intellectual José Martí who lived in the second half of the nineteenth century. Martí’s writing directly influenced the political construction of Cuban identity and the role of the nation state. The first part of Hyde’s book maps Martí’s impact on the development of, and debates regarding, the newly formed constitution, an influence that reverberated in the architectural and urban projects of the state examined in the subsequent sections. For example, Hyde emphasizes the role of Martí’s essay “Our America” in reflecting a mestizo or hybrid consciousness that resists North American and European hegemony (281). This is affirmed in modern Cuban architecture’s attempt to reflect the tropical setting and history of its locale. In his analysis of the never built Presidential Palace, the analogy of the royal palm tree as a column becomes one symbolic apparition drawn from Martí’s writing. The adoption of columns with capitals that dramatically fan outward represents an attempt to express cubanidad within the universalist tenets of architectural modernism. Such figurations are apparent in other examples throughout the text, which show the symbolic potency of concrete architecture to reflect the ambiguous ideals of the state. Hyde successfully complicates the meaning of such gestures, complementing the scholar Luis Duno Gottberg’s critique of cubanidad in his 2003 book Solventando las diferencias: La ideología del mestizaje en Cuba (Solving the Differences: The Ideology of Mestizaje in Cuba) (Madrid: Iberoamericana). Duno Gottberg asserts that the treatment of Cuba’s racial heterogeneity by artists and writers attempts to create a notion of a unified culture, presenting a redemptive impulse within an elitist ideological framing. This framing is highlighted by Hyde’s dexterous reading of material produced by the elite.

The protagonists of Constitutional Modernism constitute a diverse array of professionals, whom Ángel Rama famously referred to as letrados, or the lettered class, in his influential text of 1996, The Lettered City (Durham: Duke University Press). Hyde’s first chapter, “The Idealized Republic,” discusses the role of varied bodies, from hygienists and politicians to vanguard artists, in reforming the newly figured state. The following chapter expands on this topic, exploring the planning campaigns of the Patronato Pro-Urbanismo (Pro-Urban Association), a civic organization formed in 1942 to promote the role of urban planning at the national level. In many ways, the first part of the book threads the lineage of official planning organizations in the Cuban state’s reformist politics. The textual sources, ranging from official state documents such as the 1940 constitution to various political and architectural essays, articles, and books, provide the blueprint for the second part of the book.

Titled “City,” the second section of Constitutional Modernism more directly analyzes graphic urban plans and their varied textual sources, charting the development of Havana into an emblem of civil society. The rationalizing impulse of urban planning becomes deafening in chapter 5, “Master Plans: The Retrospective Order of the Plan Piloto de la Habana,” which focuses on the Plan Piloto de la Habana (1955–58) produced by Town Planning Associates, a firm headed by the Catalan architect Josep Lluís Sert and the American architect Paul Lester Wiener. Codifying city maps by land use became a means to create radically reformist plans for the city, and to incorporate new neighborhood units. The implementation of cuadras, square blocks with a large, open patio space in the center, implies a directly Hispanic influence. These modules or subdivisions present a neat divide between public and private space, with the patios serving Sert’s “two distinct purposes—at the scale of the house, exclusion; at the scale of the core, inclusion” (160). Overall, Hyde’s analysis of visual documents by Sert, Town Planning Associates, and other entities is impressively exhaustive. He provides a thoughtful analysis of the influences and imperatives of the Plan Piloto de la Habana and its corollary research, a fascinating archive that was previously largely unexplored.

The analysis of urban plans and architectural proposals is expanded in chapter 6, “Historic Districts: The Regulation of the Past in Habana Vieja,” which analyzes the regulation of Habana Vieja. While members of the literary and artistic vanguard idolized the city’s Baroque impulse, planners and city officials were primarily concerned with modernizing the dense urban core of the colonial city. The language of standardization, or the creation of “norms,” is predominant in this context. The role of the Fulgencio Batista government in this era is particularly noteworthy, as the military leader and former president led a coup in 1952 to claim leadership over the island nation. As succinctly discussed by Hyde, Batista had authority with regards to the city’s renovations and placed particular concern in centralized areas in a state of dilapidation. This is especially poignant in a contemporary context, given recent endeavors by the Office of the City Historian to renovate Habana Vieja alongside the rise of tourism since the 1990s.

The final part of the book, “Monument,” is the section that most emphatically explores the role of cubanidad in relation to civic and monumental architecture. It comprises two chapters discussing the development of the Monumento José Martí and the Plaza Civica, as well as the planning of the Presidential Palace. Though the announcement for a competition for the Monumento José Martí came in 1938, disagreement among the selection committee led to a fascinating though protracted debate regarding aesthetics, symbology, and the modern nation. Hyde’s account illustrates the complexity of formalizing a constitutional modernity within an architectural and sculptural realm. Plans for the José Martí monument were not finalized until Batista seized power in the coup of 1952 and displayed a compromise between a classicizing aesthetic and the high modernist architecture of the mid-twentieth-century era. Consequently, the actualized plans for the Plaza Civica express the legacy of a Beaux Arts scale of grandeur alongside new, modernist architecture of the state. Many new government buildings framed the very large plaza in which the massive, heroic Monumento José Martí was located. The rise of the authoritarian state and the scale of this grand plaza and its central monument demand a further explication of the role of authoritarianism alongside the ethos of constitutionalism. Fascinating parallels could facilitate a discussion of these projects beyond cubanidad, placing them in dialogue with other prominent examples in Latin America and the Caribbean. For example, the transformation of Santo Domingo, the capital of the Dominican Republic (renamed Ciudad Trujillo during the thirty-year reign of the dictator Rafael Trujillo) seems to bear fascinating similarities with 1950s Havana.

While Hyde convincingly argues for the role of constitutionalism and the influence of civil discourse in the formation of Havana’s architectural modernity, his account seems to preclude other significant and prevalent factors throughout the Republican era. The concurrent speculative hyperdevelopment of Havana was of essential importance from the 1940s to the 1950s. The presence of the US mafia and the growth of tourism are only mentioned in passing, despite their impact on municipal and national legislation. For example, the Ley Hotelera 2074, passed in 1955, created tax exemptions, incentives, and a banking infrastructure that expanded foreign investment in Havana’s hotels and casinos. An investigation of Havana prior to 1933 may likewise reveal a tension between the desires for civic reform and authoritarianism. Further, the new socialist government following the 1959 Revolution set its own legal framework that lead to a disinvestment in the city of Havana, with a greater focus on agrarian reform. Nonetheless, the influence of plans, such as those for the new Presidential Palace, is visible in architecture following the 1959 Revolution, most notably the 1963 Pabellón Cuba. One could argue that multiple modernities overlapped throughout the Republican era, beyond the influence of political ideology and legal doctrine. One may question whether the architectural and civic impositions of the lettered class are itself a vestige of coloniality in the Cuban context.

In the opening chapter of the book, “The Idealized Republic: The Constitution of 1940,” Hyde analogizes the 1940 Constitution to a mirror—a representation that cannot be reduced to what it represents. He also elaborates on this analogy in the epilogue, “Futures of Constitutional Modernism,” wherein architecture is reliant on constitutions that are described as both real and theoretical. Hyde argues that architectural design can absorb the prerogative of state ideology, while maintaining the communicative value intended by its original civic patrons. He goes as far to suggest that the Monumento José Martí was not appropriated by the post-1959 revolutionary government, but rather the new revolution was appropriated by the existing monument. This idea is particularly compelling, as it shows that the symbolic and communicative prowess of the built environment does not conform to the mirror of legal discourse, despite emerging from the imperatives of such a discourse. Caught between its locality and universality, the symbolic and communicative value of monument and architecture persist beyond mere politics or ideology. Nonetheless, it is only through such a thoughtful reading of the Republican era and the surmounting discourse of nationalism that we can truly gain an understanding of the meaning of Cuban architecture, urban planning, and monumental sculpture across time. Though focused almost entirely on legal, urban, and architectural discourse within the Republican era, Hyde’s book effectively highlights the importance of this period’s architecture to today. It provides an ingenuous blueprint for rethinking the relationship of the city and architecture to civil society and nation building.

Fredo Rivera
Assistant Professor of Art History, Grinnell College