In Silent Witnesses: Modernity, Colonialism, and Jean-Claude Nicolas Forestier's Unfinished Plans for Havana, Joseph R. Hartman examines Havana's urbanization under the dictatorship of Gerardo Machado (in power 1925–33), focusing on the largely unrealized plans of French urbanist Forestier and his Franco-Cuban team of architects and planners. Scholars until now have focused on cataloguing the regime's extant monuments, while giving far less attention to Forestier's unbuilt urban works. The Machado regime's building campaign spoke to modern aspirations of Cuban independence and nationhood, but also to enduring colonial paradigms of race, power, and urban space. Interpreting the history of Havana's urbanization requires taking a critical view of Cuba's colonial heritage and the survival into modern times of local and imported colonialist practices. Revisiting this history lends new insights into the cultural stakes of urban restoration efforts ongoing in Havana today.
On 24 February 2018, Cubans gathered to hear President Raúl Castro commemorate the reopening of the national capitol building in Havana: El Capitolio, built in 1929.1 The Office of the City Historian of Havana had just completed its restoration of the grandiose building's main hall, exterior, and gardens, and Castro's speech marked a new chapter in the history of Cuban architecture. His panegyric to a near replica of the U.S. Capitol would have been almost inconceivable fifty years before, during the early years of his brother Fidel's reign. The New York firm Purdy & Henderson created Havana's Capitolio during the U.S.-backed dictatorship of Gerardo Machado y Morales—el machadato, which ran from 1925 to 1933.2 The French urbanist Jean-Claude Nicolas Forestier (1861–1930), working with a team of French and Cuban architects, designed the building's Beaux-Arts tropical gardens (Figure 1).3 Thus, well before the Cuban Revolution of 1959, and even more so afterward, El Capitolio carried the taints of foreign imperialism and bourgeois excess.4 With the collapse of the Soviet Union and the loss of its financial support, however, the Cuban state became newly interested in restoring and promoting such problematic architectural icons. Amid Cuba's economic decline in the 1990s, the Castro regime began restoring colonial structures as part of an effort to attract tourist dollars. Today, as Havana reenters the itineraries of luxury cruise lines, the government is reinterpreting architectural sites funded during the machadato by U.S. banks and designed by French, American, and Cuban architects. These include the Presidential Palace and the Beaux-Arts Avenida de las Misiones; the city's iconic oceanfront drive, El Malecón; El Paseo de Martí, also known as El Paseo del Prado, or the Prado; the nationally symbolic Parque de la Fraternidad Americana; and El Capitolio.5
This essay reexamines some of the works created under the patronage of the Machado regime, unpacking their role in Cuba's interrelated histories of modernity and colonialism. It shows how colonialist and imperialist forms of design have long undergirded the physical growth of the modern city. Urban regeneration in Havana was ultimately dependent on the transatlantic inheritances of colonialism, which privileged European-derived forms over local alternatives.6 The urban works of 1920s and 1930s Havana spoke to modern aspirations of Cuban nationhood and cosmopolitanism, but they also recalled colonial-era social structures of race, power, and urban space.
The works of Jean-Claude Nicolas Forestier and his team of architects and engineers, dating from 1925 to 1930, drew on the colonial past while being attentive to local ecological conditions and urban traditions. They also borrowed from recent work by contemporary Cuban architects such as Pedro Martínez Inclán (1883–1957), Raúl Otero (d. 1961), and Enrique J. Montoulieu de la Torre (1879–1951). Largely unrealized and incomplete, these designs have received little attention before now. Scholars of twentieth-century Cuban architecture have focused more on cataloguing monuments, aiming to place the extant works attributed to Forestier and the machadato within one of two narratives. The extensive writings of Roberto Segre represent one of these, in which these monuments were emblematic of U.S. imperialism and autocracy. Jean-François Lejeune, meanwhile, has argued that Forestier's urban works revealed the aesthetic triumphs of French and American art and architecture abroad.7 This essay interrogates the limits of those narratives, offering new ways of looking at the broader urbanization efforts of 1920s and 1930s Havana. The completed urban works of Forestier's team, as well as those that remained unfinished, spoke to audiences both at home and abroad. Whether their sources were more Cuban, French, American, or Spanish, they should be understood as operating within overlapping frameworks of ecology, aesthetics, politics, and cultural history.
Considering Forestier's unrealized plans alongside recently restored urban landscapes of 1920s–30s Havana casts new light on the city of today. U.S. tourists now flock to see Havana “before it's too late,” but they often miss its many layers of history. Like any great city, Havana is a palimpsest, a gathering of layers, ellipses, and stains. Although time and economic necessity wear down old connotations, colonial and autocratic pasts cannot be entirely undone. The city is a living, evolving organism that responds to memory as much as it provides for future generations. Appreciating contemporary Havana means reconsidering the cultural and political histories that have attempted over the years to define and redefine its urban landscapes and its architectural character.
Reexamining the Legacy of Forestier in Havana
Machado's urban reforms began with a letter to France. In 1925, Cuba's secretary of public works, Carlos Miguel de Céspedes, wrote to the French minister of culture seeking an architect, a visionary who, in collaboration with Cuban architects and engineers, could transform, embellish, and expand the city of Havana.8 The French minister allegedly offered only one name in return: that of landscape designer, urbanist, and then inspecteur général des jardins et promenades de Paris, Jean-Claude Nicolas Forestier. Forestier was hired to oversee El Plan de Embellecimiento y Ampliación de La Habana, or the Havana City Project, from 1925 until his death in 1930.9 His master plan applied local ecological considerations to forms drawn from the French Beaux-Arts and the American City Beautiful movement. His team planted ceiba trees, royal palms, and native flowers throughout a citywide network of axial boulevards, public gardens, and grand parks. Those promenades of Cuban flora were political capital for Gerardo Machado, whose dictatorial regime commissioned the work. Forestier's orderly landscapes complemented the reformist propaganda of the machadato.10 Machado even claimed as much during his second inauguration in 1929, one year after he rewrote the Cuban constitution to extend his own term in office. “The Fraternity Plaza, the Maine Park, the Avenue of the Missions, and the Prado,” he declared, “are silent witnesses to what efficiency can do.”11
Questions remain, however, about just what these spaces witnessed, and what they might have expressed. On the one hand, Forestier's plans served the political ends of the Machado regime while also appealing to the tastes and often-exploitative intentions of white Europeans and North Americans. On the other, his team's designs integrated Cuban natural and cultural ecologies in a way that resonated with local formations of civic life, providing real and recognizable amenities to the city. His plans for the machadato, both built and unrealized, went beyond a mere local adaptation of French Haussmannism. That the urban works of Forestier and the machadato articulated a nationalist sense of Cuban identity is no small thing. Yet those designs also reiterated a socioracial hierarchy based on collective and traumatic memories of Cuba's recent colonial past and the ongoing colonial enterprises of France—and other Western powers, including the United States—in Africa, the Americas, Southeast Asia, and the Caribbean.
Reconsidering the circumstances of Forestier's hiring lends insight on the colonial conditions that survived in Cuba into the 1920s. Before he wrote his letter, Machado's secretary of public works knew Forestier by reputation. At the end of the nineteenth century, Forestier had cut his teeth working with French engineer and landscape architect Adolphe Alphand, a collaborator in Georges-Eugène Haussmann's internationally influential renovation of Paris. By the early twentieth century, Forestier had gained an international reputation of his own. He spearheaded urban redesigns throughout Europe, including the gardens of Paris's Champ de Mars (1908), the hill of Montjuïc in Barcelona (1919), and the Parque de María Luisa in Seville (1911). He did further projects as far afield as Fez, Morocco (1914), and Buenos Aires, Argentina (1924).12 Forestier's unrealized plan for the Avenida Costanera in Buenos Aires took inspiration from Daniel Burnham's 1909 plan for a system of parks along Lake Michigan in Chicago. It augured the interconnected parks and parkways later built in Havana. Like the plan for Chicago, the Havana City Project envisioned a giant domed government center surrounded by radiating streets, parks, and parkways, all moving from Havana's bay front to the greater region beyond. That vision of a capital marked by neoclassical monuments and gardens likewise evoked Washington, D.C., as imagined in the McMillan Plan of 1901, which expanded on the earlier vision of Pierre Charles l'Enfant (1791).
Beyond French and American designs, however, Forestier based his plans on the specific cultural and environmental conditions of twentieth-century Havana. He stayed there three times: December 1925 to February 1926, August to December 1928, and January to March 1930. Yet even before he was hired by the machadato in 1925, Forestier had been involved with urbanization efforts in Havana. In 1918, Cuban president Mario García Menocal invited him to design the park around the Castillo San Salvador de la Punta at the northern edge of Old Havana (La Habana Vieja), the city's main colonial district.13 Forestier hoped to design a nearby port of entry, which would have featured a monument to Christopher Columbus. The plan also called for preserving the Royal Prison (Real Cárcel) along the Paseo del Prado, turning that colonial penitentiary into a museum. In consideration of the afterlife of colonialism in the modern period, those proposals and acts of preservation were significant. Spanish architect Manuel Pastor had designed the prison under the administration of General Miguel Tacón in 1834. Like Cuba's political elites in the 1910s and 1920s, Tacón conceived of the prison as part of a larger public works effort, aimed at sanitizing and regulating the diverse and heterogeneous urban environments of Havana.14 In a nineteenth-century wood engraving by Frédéric Mialhe and Ricardo Caballero, the austere neoclassical prison building stands in the background of an urban scene (Figure 2).15 In the foreground, a group of prisoners of African descent carry stone beside a monumental column while white guards monitor them. In this context, the column reads as a sort of picota, a whipping post of the kind often found on viceregal plantations and in city squares, once used for the punishment of criminals and unruly slaves.16 That Forestier's 1918 plans preserved Tacón's jail, a site imbued with echoes of plantation-era violence and institutional racism, suggests the survival of colonial attitudes in twentieth-century Cuba. By preserving the jail and the monument to Columbus, Forestier appeared to extoll the virtues of Havana's Spanish colonial legacy, a heritage dependent on the domination of indigenous populations and, later, African slaves.
The hiring of Forestier also spoke to the ambitions of republican Cuba's white elites. Enrique Conill, a wealthy Havana-based businessman, sponsored Forestier's first visit to the city. Conill introduced the architect to several of his associates, likely including Céspedes.17 Thus, while the machadato supposedly hired Forestier based on the direct endorsement of the French Ministry of Culture, his appointment was also facilitated through crony relations within Cuba's political and entrepreneurial elite. Such a beginning set the stage for Forestier's works in Havana. His plans navigated the demands of local patrons, elite aesthetic vision, and academic training. They also engaged a history of nation building, one entwined with ongoing practices and histories of the colonialist enterprise.
Better Cities, Better Citizens: Urbanism in Cuba, France, and the United States
The Havana City Project was less a French import imposed on a Cuban city than a hybrid. Forestier brought with him a team of young architects from the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris, and they worked closely with Cuban architects and engineers. The French team included Eugène Élie Beaudouin, Jean Labatut, Louis Heitzler, Théodore Leveau, and Jeanne Surugue. The Cubans included Raúl (sometimes spelled Raoúl) Otero, Emilio Vasconcelos, Raúl Hermida, J. I. del Alamo, Manuel Vega, and Diego Guevara.18 All were young, beginning or midcareer professionals. Forestier, meanwhile, was in his mid-sixties. Through collaboration with Cuban talent, Forestier and his French compatriots engaged with the debates on architecture and urbanism then current in Cuban intellectual circles. Topics included the cultural geography lessons of urban historian Francisco Carrera y Jústiz (1857–1947), the works of civic engineer Enrique J. Montoulieu de la Torre, and the U.S. civic art movement–inspired theories of urbanist and pedagogue Pedro Martínez Inclán.
Forestier had met Martínez Inclán before. Martínez Inclán had gone to Paris to commission Forestier on behalf of the machadato, yet he was not invited to join Forestier's team. The snub wounded Martínez Inclán, who wrote a barbed article on the matter in 1946, pointing out the obvious similarities between his own earlier plans and those later drafted by Forestier and the Cuban architect Montoulieu.19 A look at Montoulieu's and Martínez Inclán's plans—respectively, 1923 and 1919—reveals important precedents for Forestier's work (Figures 3 and 4). Although he did not directly copy Martínez Inclán's ideas as the 1946 article implied, Forestier clearly owed a debt to his Cuban counterparts. The French and Cuban architects drew from similar visual sources in garden design, from Versailles to Washington, D.C. Yet Forestier modified many of the Cuban architects’ proposals, such as relocating Havana's new civic center to the Loma de los Catalanes, just slightly north of where Martínez Inclán and Montoulieu had each suggested.20 Not coincidentally, that valuable site was owned by Enrique Conill, who had introduced Forestier to Havana elites some years earlier.21
Beyond their primary architectural sources, the Cuban and French architects shared similar philosophies regarding green space, Greco-Roman classical design, and the health of citizens in the modern city. In his 1924 book on garden estates, Forestier spoke of the garden as a remedy for modern urban anxieties: “Only in the garden can we find relief from the growing activity and fever of cities.”22 Martínez Inclán expressed similar ideas a year later in his text La Habana actual (Havana today), in which he harvested liberally from the writings of the civic arts and parks movements in the United States, particularly the City Beautiful movement.23 Just as U.S. artists and architects had identified the revival of classical, European-oriented art and architecture in the United States as an “American Renaissance,” Martínez Inclán posited the existence of a “Cuban Renaissance” (Renacimiento cubano).24 The classicized urban spaces created by Forestier's team embodied that concept.
Cuba's new gardens served the needs of the machadato, too. Propaganda posters produced by the Cuban government indicated the regime's view of urban physical order as a source of health and morality (Figure 5). Housed today in Cuban archives, these posters are rarely mentioned in political or architectural histories. Yet they reveal much about the perceived cultural and political value of Havana's parks. The foreground of one poster shows a pile of trash juxtaposed against a clean rectilinear parkway, revamped with freshly planted trees. “Don't let garbage pile up! Protect your health and the health of your family!” According to the poster, the habits of the ordinary Cuban citizen should match the cleanliness of Havana's newly designed parks and parkways.
The designs from Forestier and his team articulated discourses on health, sanitation, and beauty already widespread in early twentieth-century Cuba, France, and the United States.25 These designs also spoke to the contradictory conditions of colonial heritage and modernization in Havana. For instance, several of the team's unrealized plans called for widening Calle Teniente Rey, a narrow colonial avenue directly in front of the site for the proposed Capitolio. That street served—and still functions—as a central axis running through old colonial Havana. A model view from 1928 represents the grandeur of the proposal for a widened and enhanced boulevard (Figure 6). Teniente Rey would be converted into a major thoroughfare linking Havana's port and El Capitolio's imposing three-tiered staircase (escalinata). Perhaps because it was never realized, scant attention has been paid to the disruptions this new boulevard would have caused. A photograph marked with overlaid lines documents the anticipated destruction of the colonial-era buildings in front of El Capitolio, razed to make room for the widened street and a new plaza (Figure 7).26 Conveniently for Machado's government, the offices of the Diario de la Marina newspaper—which had been outspokenly critical of the regime—were among the buildings slated for destruction. More alarmingly, Forestier also called for the destruction of several patrimonial monuments. Old Havana would have lost its Basilica de San Francisco de Asís, while the Plaza de Armas, with its Doric El Templete, would have been completely reconfigured.27
The Havana City Project threatened colonial sites but also drew from colonial designs and ideologies. Even as Forestier proposed demolishing colonial monuments, he sought to preserve and expand the old city's underlying colonial-era layout. His unrealized plan distilled Havana into the form of an axial cross centered on two grand boulevards. One would have run west to east, from a new civic center near the nineteenth-century Colón cemetery to a new rail terminus near the bay. The other extended from the same civic center through a proposed Bosque Nacional (National Forest) south of the city.28 Architectural historian Timothy Hyde has noted that Forestier's axial configuration harked back to colonial urban practices articulated in the Laws of the Indies (Leyes de las Indias), legal mandates that regulated the Spanish colonies in the Americas and Philippines.29 Book IV of the 1680 edition of the laws, for instance, outlined the master plan of a colonial town.30 The plaza mayor (main square) marked the center of a model Spanish settlement. The ideal plaza housed the cathedral and administrative offices of the Spanish government. From there, a grid of twelve straight streets would extend north to south and west to east. Forestier's plans to improve Havana through a strong axial design, one that would benefit and uplift modern Cubans, echoed the Spanish Empire's efforts to control the indigenous, African, and white criollo (native-born) populations that occupied its colonies.
The history of colonial urbanism in the Americas affected Forestier's axial design. So too did Martínez Inclán's contemporary work, along with other examples drawn from French, Spanish, and American planning history. Forestier generated his plan as a privileged outsider—a member of the European elite not unlike the Spanish governors and architects of Cuba's recent past. His Havana designs paralleled themes from those old colonial relationships: the flight of capital, top-down infrastructural investments, and Eurocentric orientations of power expressed in architectural terms. In short, Forestier's plan was influenced by its Cuban context, but it was also a French plan by French designers—however ably assisted by Cuban ones—based on a longer entwined history of French imperialism and aestheticism.
French Designs and Colonial Resonances in Latin America
Forestier was not the only French urbanist working in Latin America at the time. City planners associated with the Société Française des Urbanistes (SFU)—Forestier and Donat Alfred Agache (1875–1959) chief among them—used the cities of erstwhile colonies like Morocco, Brazil, and Cuba as laboratories for broader urban experiments.31 In much the same spirit as the Spanish governors of colonial Cuba and the U.S.-backed dictators that followed them, SFU designers attempted through urban reforms to impose order on the people occupying those cities. Image making was central to that endeavor, and effective images of controllable and desirable cities required suitable canvases. The waterfront of a still-modernizing coastal city in the Americas provided the perfect site for that paradoxically modernist/colonialist vision of social control.
Forestier's unexecuted 1929 plan for the embarcadero, drafted by Alejandro Palacios under the supervision of Théodore Leveau, featured a grand quay and platform intended to appeal to the people aboard mercantile and tourist ships entering Havana's bay. The plan was remarkably similar to Agache's unrealized 1930 plan for the Porta do Brasil (Gateway to Brazil) at the shore of the Guanabara Bay in Rio de Janeiro.32 Both plans featured two large rostral columns at the port's mouth, similar to the twelfth-century columns of San Marco and San Todaro that crown the Piazza San Marco in Venice. The columns of the French plans marked the entrances to new civic centers in the respective cities. Neither Agache's Porta nor Forestier's embarcadero was completed, but both plans spoke to the propagandistic and theatrical proclivities of their Latin American state sponsors, and to the aesthetics and social aims of their French designers. Images of Forestier's bay, in particular, demonstrate a wide range of political and cultural ideas, from French imperial aesthetics to Spanish colonial traditions to the creation of a sacropolitical space in the modern nation-state.
The most notable visual elements of Forestier's embarcadero were its two large columns, or obelisks (Figure 8). These framed the Avenida de las Misiones in front of Havana's Presidential Palace—an eclectic structure designed by Cuban architect Carlos Maruri and the Belgian Paul Belau, decorated by New York's Tiffany & Co., and completed under Mario G. Menocal's administration in 1920. Forestier's plan envisioned several never-built municipal buildings as well, including a coliseum and Palace of Justice, clustered near the pier along the Malecón. The coliseum was one of the most ambitious of the unrealized buildings (Figure 9). It would have been an austere orthogonal structure reminiscent of a Venetian palazzo. Its interior would have featured a movable stage propelled by hydraulics and a ceiling adorned with multicolor translucent fabrics. Its lighting systems were designed to change the interior atmosphere from “cold and mechanical” to “dignified and earnest” and from “happy and full of color” to “dark and theatrical.”33 Unbuilt and largely forgotten, the coliseum design deserves recognition as an artifact of the visual and performative stakes confronting Forestier, his team, and their patrons.
Similar gestures of theatricality and state power appear in the design for the embarcadero. Forestier imagined the column-flanked quay as a boulevard accessed by sea, which created a stage set for Havana's Presidential Palace. While eye-catching, the platform would have been highly impractical, as it would have invited the unceasing waves of the Atlantic into Havana's streets. In 1935, with the embarcadero abandoned following Machado's exile, the Cuban government instead erected an equestrian statue of revolutionary hero General Maximo Gómez at the edge of the Malecón, in front of the Presidential Palace. This was precisely where Forestier had advised the government not to place the monument.34 The statue would have competed with the visual statement Forestier hoped to make: the two columns providing a framework for viewing Havana's palace and municipal buildings.
The unrealized columns in both the Rio and Havana plans articulated a range of meanings that moved well beyond the architects’ and patrons’ stated intentions. The columns recalled a long history of design in Europe, from Venice to the French Enlightenment, but they also resonated with local histories of colonialism in the Americas. The two obelisks for Havana's port would have featured relief vignettes drawn from Cuba's Spanish colonial and early national history (Figure 10). These images of Spanish galleons and domination over the indigenous populations converted Cuba's brutal past into a narrative of triumph over barbarism and, later, of independence over colonialism. They also articulated a legacy of silencing and exclusion particular to the history and experience of colonialism in modern Cuba. Notably, the obelisks lacked any significant representation of Cuba's diverse and sizable black populations. African slaves were effectively absent—hinted at only in a relief depicting Cuba's first sugar harvest—as were the Afro-Cuban citizens who fought in the nation's Wars of Independence in 1868 and 1895. The iconography of Forestier's obelisks, in keeping with the political self-stylings of the machadato, minimized the island's blackness and history of slavery even as it represented Cuba's Spanish colonial heritage.35
Nevertheless, the obelisks communicated several subtle references to that otherwise invisible history. Most cities and plantations throughout the Spanish colonies featured large columns used as pillories and known as picotas. These were signs of order and discipline in the colonial plaza, the civic and religious center of the city. They denoted the physical control of masters over slaves and the public disciplining and humiliation of those who ran afoul of the law—typically, disobedient black slaves. The picota was a symbol of imperial sovereignty, law, and order in the colonial city, “serv[ing] as pillory and, in some cases, gallows.”36 The monumental obelisks of Forestier's designs resonated within that history of colonial civic order, offering architectural expressions of race and power.
Forestier's unrealized plans for Havana, like Agache's plans for Rio, also expressed the anxieties of France's Third Republic. Between World War I and World War II, the French state worked to rebuild its domestic infrastructure while reasserting control over its colonial holdings.37 The two French designers’ proposals for major Latin American cities alluded, however indirectly, to France's ongoing colonial projects and the politics of race, globalization, and capitalism in the Americas. Tourism, too, played a major role in that history.
The White Man's Scene of Dreams: Colonial Simulations and Oceanfront Drives
Havana and Rio were, and still are, cultural and commercial hubs for their respective nations. Forestier and Agache aimed to capitalize on that fact in their urban plans. These French-born designers sought to enrich the citizenry of those cities, morally and financially, while also shoring up the authority of their autocratic patrons. Echoing the writings of French sociologist Émile Durkheim, both men believed that urbanism and architectural design effectively fostered a modern sense of cultural identity and social consciousness.38 Yet their plans ignored or excluded poor and nonwhite citizens, especially those of African descent. Forestier and Agache directed their urbanization efforts toward white elites and tourists from Europe and the United States. Agache wrote that Rio would become a “scene of dreams” for the “white man” in search of the “best winter vacation spot.”39
Forestier's designs sometimes spoke to a similar vision. A detail of a drawing for the 1929 embarcadero, for example, shows a fashionably dressed (and presumably white) woman gazing out toward the ocean while standing beside a grand, Parisian-style lamppost (Figure 11). The image puts the viewer into the role of an unseen but perhaps romantically inclined voyeur.40 Such attention to desire was a frequent undercurrent in Forestier's work, evident already in his 1914 plans for the sultan's palace in Fez, Morocco. Those plans included images of modern European tourists visiting North Africa. One drawing shows two men driving an automobile beside palm trees and a camel—signifiers of exoticism (Figure 12). A squat figure in a turban and a long robe looks toward them, wonderingly, perhaps, or enviously, effectively validating the dreams and desires accompanying the French imperial adventure.
Forestier's plans for the Plaza de la Catedral de San Cristobal in Old Havana convey a similarly colonialist tone. A modern photograph of Havana's iconic two-towered baroque cathedral was modified to include a painted-on grouping of colonial-era white women, Spaniards or maybe criollas (Cuban-born elites of European descent) in long, billowing gowns (Figure 13). One cools herself with an abanico, a decorative handheld fan perhaps imported from Asia, or brought from France and imitating then-popular Asian styles. In the background two painted-on horse carriages recall the volantas and quitrins of the colonial period, which were typically driven by black slaves. The women and carriages are romantic, retrograde, colonialist props for the modern architect's historicizing stage set. The square's elliptical central area—recalling Michelangelo's Piazza del Campidoglio in Rome—regularizes the otherwise oddly shaped space, bringing visual focus to the cathedral (source of the city's original name, San Cristobal de la Habana).41 In 1934–35, Cuban architect Luis Bay Sevilla carried out most of Forestier's proposal but abandoned his plan to move a colonial fountain from the Alameda de Paula—one of the oldest promenades in Havana—to the square's center.42 With painted-on women, antique carriages, and a grand fountain and column, Forestier's original and unrealized proposal was a simulacral version of a typical colonial plaza. It was in some ways more colonial than the original, a place for modern white elites to imagine themselves as colonial masters in the modern city.
For those arriving in Havana during the 1920s by plane (a still-novel means of transport), the first view of the city was one of an ordered and axial Beaux-Arts metropolis.43 Most visitors, however, first saw the city from sea level. Forestier's focus on the embarcadero demonstrated his sensitivity to that experience, as did his plans for Havana's iconic oceanfront drive: El Malecón. Here again, Forestier echoed Pedro Martínez Inclán, who began his 1925 Habana actual with a description of the city as seen through the eyes of a seafaring tourist: “When the steam clears, the first impression that the traveler has of Havana cannot be more agreeable. The brilliant and clear colors of the houses contrast in a picturesque way with the blue of the sea and the sky.”44 Seen from a boat at sea, natural elements blended with the built environment to create a picturesque scene. As the boat approached the shore, however, according to Martínez Inclán, the Malecón's shabby condition became readily apparent.45 Today the Malecón is an icon of the city, lovingly known to locals as the largest armrest in the world; it is marked by patriotic monuments, parks, and plazas. But for Martínez Inclán, writing in the early 1920s, it was a barren and neglected place, a crude remnant of U.S. occupation left by General Leonard Wood and the Army Corp of Engineers following the U.S. takeover of Cuba (1898–1901).46
Machado's government hoped to change that impression. On 27 January 1926, the Public Works Department ordered the reclamation of 1,200 meters of Havana's waterfront.47 Envisioned was a great thoroughfare for cars and pedestrians, starting at the Castillo de la Punta in Old Havana, where Forestier began his urbanization efforts a decade earlier, and heading west into the modern neighborhood of El Vedado. This was not the first expansion of the Malecón in the city's history. Starting with the U.S. occupation in 1901, political powers in Cuba had slowly extended the Malecón westward, building monuments along the way. The occupation government erected a neoclassical glorieta, or bandstand, at the corner of the Prado and the newly constructed Malecón in 1902. Municipal bands performed there until Machado's government called for its demolition in 1927. In 1916, Mario G. Menocal's government built a memorial shrine for the Cuban mixed-race revolutionary Antonio Maceo, known locally as the “Bronze Titan.” The machadato plan to renovate and expand the Malecón was the boldest to date, almost tripling the length of the original seawall built by U.S. occupation forces. As Machado boasted, this bigger and better Malecón would address both aesthetic and practical ends. It would beautify the capital at “the part most visible to visitors,” while also relieving the frustrating congestion of Old Havana.48
Forestier's Havana City Project proposed the creation of three monumental park spaces along the city's oceanfront drive.49 The first and most ambitious encompassed the embarcadero and the Avenida de las Misiones in front of the Presidential Palace. The second, in Havana's Vedado district, was an expansion of the Monument to Victims of the USS Maine and its grounds, one that put the monument in dialogue with the nearby Hotel Nacional de Cuba, then under construction. Finally, toward the western edge of El Vedado, there would be a green space with a modern aquarium, and across from it, at the foot of the Avenida de los Presidentes, a grand oceanfront square to be rechristened the Machado Plaza. This last would feature an imposing monument dedicated to the dictator, funded largely by donations from provincial governors (Figure 14).50 The Machado Monument in the Machado Plaza at the end of a newly built Machado Street met the same fate as the embarcadero. The whole scheme went unbuilt. Only a large stone pedestal was created for the monument, and it was ultimately destroyed after the regime's downfall.
The regime and Forestier's team did manage to build a grand plaza around the Maine Monument, but its most ambitious elements, two partially enclosed outdoor parks, were never completed. The monument was an icon of U.S.–Cuban relations, designed by Cuban architect Félix Cabarrocas in 1924 and erected in 1925, just prior to Machado's ascension to power.51 It featured twin Ionic columns representing the historic and rhetorically (if not actually) equitable relationship between Cuba and the United States (Figure 15). Its bronze statuary included a seated woman holding two dead soldiers in Pietà-like fashion—representing U.S. and Cuban casualties from the War of 1898. A hurricane toppled the monument in 1926. During its reconstruction, the Machado regime commissioned a bronze bald eagle to crown the two columns. The eagle was eventually removed by Fidel Castro's forces following the revolution in 1959.
The monument was a major attraction for U.S. tourists. Forestier and his team wanted to make it an appealing site for both motorists and pedestrians. They proposed planting palm trees and erecting ornate lampposts. A sketch for an unexecuted portion of the Maine Plaza shows how the space around the lamps would have been transformed to enhance the touristic experience (Figure 16). Well-dressed figures move through a grand, marble-floored space flanked by elaborate lamps and sculptures. The sculptures portray U.S. presidents William McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt and General Leonard Wood—all presumably executed by the Danish American sculptor Gutzon Borglum (best known for his work at Mount Rushmore).52 The sketch, again, shows Havana as a “scene of dreams,” particularly for white, foreign visitors who would come from afar to view the sights and settings of empire.
Early sketches for the Maine Plaza indicate that the gardens behind the monument were reserved for the proposed Hotel Nacional. This, as Erica Morawski has recently suggested, demonstrated the close relationship between the Machado regime's planning for the Havana City Project and concerns around the larger touristic experience of the city's visitors.53 U.S. firm Purdy & Henderson, with financing from the National City Bank of New York and Cuban government support, spearheaded the hotel's development. New York-based McKim, Mead & White designed the hotel, drawing on art deco, Moorish, Roman, and Spanish architectural themes then popular throughout the United States. Machado's government backed the project, on the condition that his cabinet retain space to hold meetings there.
The Hotel Nacional was a symbol of tourism triumphant in Havana. Completed in 1930, the same year the Bacardí rum company completed its art deco headquarters in Old Havana, the Hotel Nacional signaled a new era of U.S.-led, high-end luxury tourism. Sketches for the proposed hotel appeared in a 1929 issue of the government journal Boletín de Obras Públicas.54 One image showed it standing beside the newly extended Maine Plaza, flanked by cartoon bellboys (Figure 17). The building's Spanish colonial revival towers rise over the Malecón, the newly designed park, and the high-speed motorways surrounding them. Collectively, these sites—hotel, Malecón, and plaza—were a vacationer's dreamscape, prepared by Cuba's Public Works Department and U.S. finance and design talent, awash in European style and Havana's own colonial heritage.
Cities, Gardens, and Trees in Cuban Civic Life
With good reason, scholars like Roberto Segre and Stephanie Schwartz have charged Forestier and his Cuban patrons with endeavoring to Haussmannize Havana.55 Machado's government hired Forestier and his team to create a sanitized bourgeois landscape of grand boulevards and ostentatious monuments. As in nineteenth-century Paris, neither the designers nor their patrons were concerned with historic preservation or with the effects of any changes on the city's underclass. Still, the 1926 plan's attention to local built and natural environments counters such criticism, at least in part. Architectural historian Hériberto Duverger has suggested that Forestier was a master of Cuban creole urbanism.56 Forestier proposed to alter Havana dramatically, shifting the city's civic center westward and gutting the colonial district. Yet the grand parks and parkways that he and his team completed before his death in 1930 preserved much of the island's geographic and architectural fabric and retained the basic structure of the old colonial city.
The plan was particularly effective in its use of Caribbean flora. Forestier tried always to use the right tree for the right garden, be it a Mediterranean cypress in Spain or a French oak in Paris.57 In keeping with that philosophy, the Havana City Project was attentive to the use of local plant matter. Colonial governor Miguel Tacón's former military field, for example, was transformed into the Parque de la Fraternidad Americana, with local grasses, flowers, palms, and ceiba trees. One particular ceiba, called the Árbol de la Fraternidad, marked the park's circular center. Surrounded by a bronze fence featuring the crests of the twenty-one free nations of the Americas, the tree acted as a symbol of democracy and Pan-Americanism (Figure 18).58 With geometric gardens and royal palms (Cuba's national tree), the 1920s plan naturalized and, to some degree, nationalized Havana's foreign-looking Capitolio. Cuban architect Raúl Otero, with similar intent, repaved the city's Paseo del Prado and bordered it with native trees and benches made from locally harvested coral stone. Jean-François Lejeune has applauded Forestier for preserving “the geological origins of the island itself.”59
In 1935, two years after Machado's deposal, Otero called for the revival of Forestier's Havana City Project.60 Otero claimed that Forestier's incomplete Bosque Nacional, with its artificial lake and well-designed gardens, would join Paris's Bois de Boulogne, Vienna's Belvedere, Berlin's Königsplatz, and New York's Central Park on any list of the world's great city parks. In Otero's words, Forestier had shown Cuba's architects how to think about the city as landscape (paisaje)—a mode of civic planning never much considered by the earlier Spaniards. The mahoganies and hibiscuses planted by Forestier's team, Otero wrote, “will not just last ages, but thousands of ages, as we all hope, for the children of today, the youth of tomorrow, and generations to come, and so that lovely Havana might become a twin to the great cities of the Old and New World.”61
The Havana City Project both drew on the colonial past and looked forward to a new era of modern gardens, plazas, streets, and buildings.62 The notion that trees held the power to modernize Havana while also preserving its past was not unique to Forestier's plan, however. In his 1904 essay Los árboles y la cultura cívica (Trees and civic culture), urban theorist Francisco Carrera y Jústiz described the “social, aesthetic, and sanitary” power of trees in relation to Havana's first Día del Árbol (Arbor Day), celebrated on 10 October 1904. Here, Carrera made an impassioned plea for urban horticulture. “The gospel of the modern city,” he wrote, “is to infuse urban and rural.”63 Trees, as Carrera argued and Forestier, Martínez Inclán, and Otero later echoed, provided a sanitary and moral benefit to Cuba's citizenry. For Carrera, they also spoke to the triumph of democracy over colonial rule.64 He mentioned several symbolic trees around the world associated with free societies: the U.S. “Tree of Liberty,” the elm in Boston where American colonists staged their first acts of defiance against the British in 1765; French sapling oak trees planted after the Revolution of 1789; and the Japanese cypress associated with the sun and freedom, called hinoki. Alongside “liberty trees,” Carrera described still others from history and legend: the ahuehuete tree of Mexico, under which Hernán Cortés wept; the apple tree bearing the fruit of knowledge in the Garden of Eden; the Indian Bodhi tree where Buddha received enlightenment; and the shady olive grove where Jesus prayed before his crucifixion.65
Yet Carrera underplayed Havana's own arboreal lore, well known to Cuban architects and likely to Forestier himself. His essay contained no direct reference to the ceiba tree under which Spanish colonists, led by Diego Velázquez de Cuéllar, founded Havana around 1519. This was the same tree, in Old Havana's Plaza de Armas, beside which colonial elites later erected the Doric El Templete in 1828 (Figure 19).66 Paintings within El Templete illustrated the tree's significance. There, Jean-Baptiste Vermay—a student of Jacques-Louis David and the first director of Cuba's Art Academy of San Alejandro—included the tree in two monumental oil paintings made in the period 1826–28, depicting Havana's white elites standing over kneeling, half-nude indigenous and black slaves. Even today, citizens of Havana circle the tree in the Plaza de Armas on 16 November as part of a popular civic ritual mixing elements from Spanish Catholic, indigenous, and African diasporic religious practices.67
Old Havana's symbolic tree may not be named in Carrera's essay, but it lurks there in the background. Carrera described how the Vedado Neighborhood Association planted a ceiba tree for Cuba's first Arbor Day. The planting ceremony, symbolic of Cuba's budding democracy, evoked memories of Havana's foundation by Spaniards under the shade of an indigenous ceiba. It recalled a darker history, too. Historically, ceibas often served as picotas—the whipping posts used to punish slaves, as alluded to in Forestier's unrealized embarcadero design. The foundational tree of Havana in the Plaza de Armas, according to one historian, was itself used as a picota during the colonial period.68 Carrera's exclusion of that famous ceiba from his essay is telling. Perhaps he felt that the tree's symbolic link to the Spanish colonial plantation economy undermined his discourse on trees and democracy. Certainly, Havana's symbolic ceiba trees spoke to the complicated politics of modernity and the ongoing colonial conditions of civic art and architecture in twentieth-century Cuba. Those same politics haunted the Havana City Project.
Unrealized Plans and Unfinished Histories
The ceiba played a central role in both the finished and the unfinished works of Forestier and his team in Havana, and in the rhetoric of the Cuban government for years to come. Forestier's unrealized urban plans called for work that would have threatened the city's foundational ceiba and El Templete. But his plans also aimed at reinstating in the present colonial-era urban themes and images associated with the tree. On 24 February 1928—the anniversary of Cuba's War of Independence, exactly one hundred years after the dedication of El Templete and ninety years before Raúl Castro announced the reopening of El Capitolio—Machado and twenty delegates from around the Americas planted another ceiba tree, the Árbol de la Fraternidad, in a recently completed Havana park. As already noted, this tree symbolized Pan-American fraternity and a new era of prosperity for Cuba and all free nations of the Americas.69
For those Cubans of African descent, however, the tree-planting ceremony might well have recalled rituals associated with Santería, Palo Monte/Mayombe, and Abakuá—religions of the African diaspora in Cuba.70 Just as likely, the ceiba evoked for them the whipping trees and posts of Spanish colonial plantations and plazas. Ironically, Cuban architect César E. Guerra y Massaguer designed the ornate bronze fence and marble plinth that later surrounded the tree. Guerra was the architect of the Machado regime's notorious Model Prison (Presidio Modelo)—a massive panopticon complex set beneath mountains on Isla de Pinos (called Isla de la Juventud since 1978), just south of the Cuban mainland (Figure 20). Inmates from this prison quarried the marble that encircled Havana's Árbol de la Fraternidad.71 A U.S. company, Darden-Beller Bronziers, cast the bronze fence, while Forestier and his team designed the surrounding space.72 Thus did foreign industrialists, a Cuban prison architect, and captive labor produce a landscape that bound together uplifting visions of Cuban nationalism and U.S.-led Pan-Americanism with a darker subtext of colonial-era punishments and contemporary incarceration (Figure 21).
The extant parks and gardens resulting from the plans of Forestier's team and the Machado regime stand as “silent witnesses” to the city's long, complex history for contemporary citizens and tourists alike. Remnants of the city's colonial era, unmentioned by political actors like Raúl Castro and largely unnoticed by most modern tourists, flourish in Havana's parks and boulevards, as do optimistic, outmoded, and largely unrealized visions for the city's future. Those plans carry specters of colonialism and modernity that still haunt Cuba, visions that resonate throughout Havana's urban space and architecture even today.