At its 1958 completion, the Habana Hilton was the largest hotel in Latin America and the most prominent among La Ciudad de la Habana’s skyline. A collaboration between the U.S. architecture firm Welton Becket and Associates and the Cuban married couple Lin Arroyo y Gabriela Menéndez, the Habana Hilton illustrates the hybridity of 1950s modern architecture in Cuba, albeit its reliance on U.S. economic influence. Towering 25 stories, the Havana Hilton dominates its environs. Five short blocks from Havana’s acclaimed waterfront, El Malecón, the Hilton still serves as a symbolic and indexical urban marker, overlooking the Universidad, older Havana, and modernist Vedado. Standing at the Northeast corner of Calle 23 and L, the Havana Hilton stood on elevated ground, remaining the tallest anchor of what is today referred to as “la Esquina da la Modernidad”. Here, at this corner of modernity, stands a monument that best illustrates the contradictions in Cuban modernism both prior to and after the Revolution. It is a space that itself became the crossroads of the Cuban Revolution, where Castro ousted capitalism by laying claim to its most grandiose urban gesture. My final project proposes to reconstruct the Hilton Hotel and, if time permits, the development of the corner of Calle 23 and Avenida L in Google SketchUp, paying close attention to the hotel’s original features as well as its urban context.
While several scholars have briefly mentioned the unique forms of the Habana Hilton hotel, no exhaustive research has been on the building’s architecture and the relationship of its architecture to its political and economic contexts. Cathleen Huck and Michael Lefever provide an account of the hotel’s expropriation, which is heavily biased given their sole archival resource – University of Houston’s Hilton archive – and their political slant as Masters students in Hotel Management. Various books on modern architecture in Cuba highlight the Hilton as perhaps the most significant high rise among Havana’s skyline, but fail to engage the building in depth. By creating a three dimensional model and animation focused on the Havana Hilton’s spatial innovation, I hope to display the hotel’s unique historical position within the politics of the Revolution as well as its significance among modern architecture. The model will include a multitude of layers that will exhibit how space is divided within the structure.
In her book Building the Cold War, art historian Annabel Wharton writes extensively on the Caribe Hilton in San Juan, Puerto Rico. As Conrad Hilton’s first venture abroad, the Caribe Hilton was revolutionary in its design and served as a prototype for future Hilton ventures abroad. This is particularly true for the Havana Hilton, the second hotel in the Spanish Caribbean by the Hilton’s and like Puerto Rico, largely a U.S.-possessed island from the Spanish American war. Wharton discusses the way interior space is visualized through an exterior grid which serves an "external sign of the repetitive luxury of the hotel's interior space" (188). The clarity with which commoditized space spoke to relations of economic and political power became heightened with the Havana Libre, both literally and figuratively. My SketchUp model and animation will attempt to display such a commoditized, modernist organization of space, something that has yet to be done for any of the Hilton Hotels. Drawing from Prof. Wharton’s discussion of commoditized space in the Caribe Hilton Hotel, my model will investigate how the concept of commoditized space speaks to the architecture of the Havana Hilton. How can one display the repetition of space, the visual impact of the façade’s grid, and their relationship to invocations of Cuban plastic art? Will the representation show the dominance of the grid and notions of rationalized and commoditized space, or will it show its interdependence with its local context?
A model of the urban context – a project likely to be approached after the close of the semester – may provide a better answer regarding the latter question. A model of the hotel's space will, however, allow me to reconsider the relationship of commoditized space to the function of the hotel as well as its more “Cuban” or hybrid forms. I infer that the Havana Hilton is a particularly great hotel to show how such an organization of space dominates its environs, as the building’s formal hybridity (that is, its non-rectilinear forms and its invocation of Cuban plastic arts) conforms to the spatial concept dominant in the politics of Hilton Hotels. The model will attempt to display this in stages. First, there will be the central skeletal pillar, then the exterior glass grid, and lastly, the identical interior compartments that comprise the rooms. My model will allow me to create an animation where scenes unmask layers and make explicit the glass grid façade in order to show how the interior space is divided and consumed. Another potential animation could look at the development of the Hilton’s urban context well into the 1960s, when the cattycorner modernist ice creamery Coppelia was built.
The Habana Hilton is one of four case studies for my dissertation project, and I plan to use this project as a springboard for thinking about modern spatial form in a Cuban context. The other case studies – the Pabellon, or Pavillion, of Cuba and the National Arts Schools – are far more complex and sophisticated, and this project will better train me to pursue more complicated computer models while working on one which is feasible within the constraints of one semester. I plan to embed my work into a web-interface whose design is inspired by the Cuban architectural journals of the early 1960s era (particularly Arquitectura Cuba). I also hope to present the Hilton, particularly its lobby, in the DiVE. One could recreate both the casino as well as the takeover of the hotel by Cuban revolutionaries. Further, given that this project would be part of my digital dissertation, all files will be saved and updated after being exhibited for the Wired! course, and will be reformatted as part of my general dissertation. I hope to have a finished product to be displayed at the end of the semester – at the same time, I see this as a project that will extend into the following school year, and am looking forward to critique from my peers.
Primary research will be conducted during a trip to Cuba this April for the Havana Biennale. I am scheduling the completion of my project around this trip, and hope to have a full model completed prior to my April 17th arrival in Havana. I plan to check out a lap top and work on extensively updating my model while in Havana (using the Hilton’s very own lobby as an inspirational workspace), and also hope to share my model with hotel management to gain better access to the hotel’s archives. I also plan to create a photo album on the website, using photos taken during my summer 2008 research trip as well as photos I will take in April. One waiter at the hotel has 1958 photographs of the hotel opening that I am hoping to copy and/or scan, and the hotel itself features an exhibition of photos of the hotel during the Revolution. By creating an animation and model of the Habana Libre the viewer will be able to better conceptualize the means by which space is constructed, as this is best represented visually and spatially rather than textually. Hence I see this project as integral to understanding the way space flows and functions in the Havana Hilton hotel.
The major aim of my project is to vividly represent notions of modernity and space through the form of the Havana Hilton. I will pace my work in stages – first, the creation of the skeleton and the grid as exterior structures, then the compartmentalizing of interior space. Lastly I will work on recreating the interior lobby and 2nd floor. Afterwords, I will begin to work on creating rough models of the neighboring Cinema Yara and Coppelia, further exploring changes in Havana’s urban landscape. I will aim to show how these landmarks developed over time, and exhibit the name changing of the buildings as well.