Like us, our longtime collaborator and friend Rosa Lowinger dwells on the past—professionally and personally. A conservator, author, curator, and expert on the golden age of Cuban tourism, Lowinger has dedicated her career to the care of historical objects and architecture. Her long list of storied projects includes restoration work in Havana, art preservation efforts after Haiti's 2010 earthquake, and repairing Helen Lundeberg's History of Transportation mural in Inglewood, California.
We have had the pleasure of partnering with Lowinger many times over the years, turning to her not only for occasional help conserving our collection and building facade, but also for a 2016 exhibition and companion publication entitled Promising Paradise: Cuban Allure, American Seduction, co-curated and -authored with Wolfsonian chief librarian Francis Xavier Luca. For Art Deco Weekend 2024, we are inviting Lowinger back to lead a special lecture inspired by her new book, Dwell Time: A Memoir of Art, Exile, and Repair (Row House Publishing), which threads the science of her practice with her own life history and that of her Cuban Jewish family.
Don't miss Lowinger's January 13 talk on modern tropical architecture, and enjoy this short excerpt from her memoir's chapter on concrete: a material near and dear to her father Leonardo "Lindy" Lowinger, an aspiring-architect-turned-businessman, and one at the heart of Lowinger's work on Miami Marine Stadium, which she later presented in a Coral Gables Museum exhibition, Concrete Paradise.
– The Wolfsonian
Meet Rosa on Art Deco Weekend
Join us on Saturday, January 13 for three lectures on Florida's architectural history and the importance of historic preservation.
By Rosa Lowinger, principal and chief conservator of RLA Conservation
In 1949, the year my father graduated from high school in Havana, the city was in the middle of an architectural revolution. Annual construction costs for registered projects had soared upward of forty-six million pesos, equivalent to approximately $300 million today. And what was being built was like nothing ever seen before in Cuba. Gone were the ponderous colonial buildings, austere art deco towers, and even fancifully decorated art nouveau, neo-baroque and eclectic houses, the latter a term that describes a mishmash early twentieth-century style. Cuban Modernism was spare, avant garde, and geometric. Liberally using thin shell vaults—a reinforced concrete technology that allowed for wide areas to be spanned without the use of internal supports—architects created sweeping, arched rooflines, some barely three inches thick. Designs were self-consciously exuberant and tropical. Some, like Max Borges Recio's Náutico Beach Club (1953) and his Arcos de Cristal nightclub for the Tropicana cabaret (1952), showcased the outdoors by using glass windows set between thin concrete arches. Other buildings were decorated with brick, terrazzo, hardwoods, metal, mosaics, colored glass, and, of course, concrete that was raked, pocked, perforated, and treated to expose its aggregate. The resulting architecture was both very modern and very Cuban, for it deliberately made use of the porticos, patios, and louvered windows that had been used for centuries to manage the torrid climate.
Modernism was not simply a way of building; for Cuban artists and intellectuals of the mid-twentieth century, it was the post-colonial, philosophical, and conceptual crux of what it meant to be Cubano. In painting and sculpture, the movement was called La Vanguardia, or "Vanguard." Started in the 1920s by painters who had traveled to Paris, rejecting the classical nineteenth-century training offered by the Cuban National Art School, it used the styles of Cubism, Surrealism, and Fauvism to produce artworks that were distinctly Cuban in subject matter, and searingly critical of the era's corrupt politics, especially when it came to the treatment of campesinos. In music, the movement began first with the mambo, a jaunty, syncopated dance style that in the 1930s modernized traditional Cuban dance styles with big band sounds and jazz riffs, and continued in the 1940s with the development of Afro-Cuban jazz and cha-cha-cha. These styles took the world by storm.
Cuba's two main architectural magazines published the works and writings of Frank Lloyd Wright, Walter Gropius and Le Corbusier in the 1920s. In 1938, both Gropius and Austrian-American architect Richard Neutra visited the University of Havana's school of architecture. Cuban would-be architects also studied abroad, most notably at Harvard and the Georgia Institute of Technology, where the world's greatest innovators with thin-shell concrete construction taught, among them Pier Luigi Nervi from Italy, Eduardo Torroja from Spain, and Félix Candela from Mexico. My father would have given anything to be among them. But my grandfather Alberto was an immigrant who had traveled across the world to build a business. Though his younger son, my uncle Enrique, was encouraged to become an optometrist, the eldest, my father, was expected to help run the family business.
"I'll tell you what," said my grandfather to my father. "How about if I buy a plot of land, and you design a building for us. As an architect, you'd only make a few thousand dollars working for someone else. This way, you can own the building too."
Guiding himself with Brazilian architectural magazines that included photographs of buildings he referred to as "futuristic," my father got down to work. He sketched a fourteen-unit structure with a grand, sweeping exterior, a thin-shell concrete entryway, and kidney-shaped balconies. The interior hallway had a curved staircase with bronze banisters, marble-paneled hallways, and two-bedroom apartments featuring geometric, wooden-screen dividers between the living and dining rooms. My grandfather bought a plot of land in the swanky seaside neighborhood called Vedado, and hired a licensed architect to turn his son's drawing into plans and manage the construction and engineering. According to my father, the architect/contractor said of his design, "Let me simplify some details, and I'll give you the cost of both designs so you decide which one makes more sense."
Though this smacks of collusion between Alberto and the architect, my father had no choice but to agree. "At least they left the interior the way I wanted it."
* * *
Most concrete is utilitarian, austere, and ugly. It causes heat build-up in cities and prevents water absorption into soils. Production of Portland cement is an environmental disaster, responsible for a whopping 8 percent of global greenhouse gases. Concrete sculpture calls to mind austere, Soviet-era monoliths of proletariat war heroes and workers. Brutalist buildings (a term that itself erroneously infers contempt) seem to be all about soulless, cost-saving government megastructures—courthouses, city halls, and low-income housing. But in the hands of a true artist, concrete, like marble, can be the essence of sublimity. Artists like Donald Judd and Nancy Holt have used concrete to create sculptures that are velvety in texture, subtly varied: the essence of modernism. Postwar architects throughout the world have used unpainted, reinforced concrete to display wooden formwork, variegated aggregate, and pocked fissures known as "bug holes" that result in aesthetic masterpieces. Just fly into Dulles International Airport, designed by Finnish architect Eero Saarinen, or thumb through a book on Brutalism, and you will be astonished.
Though concrete repair is a vast modern industry (it has its own gargantuan trade show, World of Concrete, held annually at the Las Vegas Convention Center), repairing "aesthetically significant" concrete—especially when it is unpainted and on the scale of a building—is more difficult than doing the same with a traditional material, like marble. To restore it you are forced to go nose to nose with its essence; you cannot scumble your repairs with varnishes and coatings. You have to reverse engineer the process, understand the mix, the aggregate, how it was poured, what type of wood was used for the mold, and whether retardants or release agents were introduced to alter the drying. It takes repeated testing, patience, craftsmanship, and the belief that it is possible to reach the goal, for owners and contractors frequently like to say it is not doable. Even then, you're working blind until the mix cures, which can be up to a year. Achieving this aesthetic, and making sure that the concrete is of the right strength, is a tricky high-wire act. Then again, who really thinks of concrete as a thing of beauty?
My father did. I know because he told me so, about ten years ago, when I was explaining the care that needed to be taken when removing graffiti from the concrete formwork of the Miami Marine Stadium. Built in 1963, when thousands of Cubans began pouring into Miami, fleeing Castroism, the Marine Stadium is a striking, sculptural grandstand that sits partially in an aquatic basin and boasts a folded concrete plate roof that was the longest expanse of cantilevered concrete at the time of its construction. It was designed by a newly arrived Cuban architect named Hilario Candela for the purpose of watching speedboat racing and concerts and left to molder by the city in 1994, after Hurricane Andrew. Before its closing, the stadium was a much beloved and well-known site for concerts and performances by Cab Calloway, Duke Ellington, the Who, and Bonnie Raitt. Jimmy Buffet's most famous concert ever ended with him jumping into the aqua water of the basin.
In the late 1940s, when my father was coming to terms with the fact that his destiny was commerce, not architecture, Hilario Candela was studying at Georgia Tech, where he found himself "surrounded by the masters of using concrete as expression, not just a tool of construction." In summers, while my father trekked across the island to check on the family's Camagüey store and sell wholesale eyeglass frames, Hilario came home to Havana to intern at the architectural firm of fellow Georgia Tech graduate, Max Borges Recio, the designer of Arcos de Cristal, a much-lauded cabaret for Havana's Tropicana Nightclub. The Tropicana was the island's most popular nightclub. Tourists and Cubans alike flocked to see extravagant shows featuring the likes of Celia Cruz and Nat King Cole. Young people who couldn't afford a table were allowed to watch the show from the kidney-shaped bar for the price of a drink.
Among them was my father. With its sensuously lit tropical gardens, the Tropicana was one of his favorite spots for courting a beautiful girl he met by chance at a dance party. They would arrive separately at the nightclub. Secrecy was vital to their relationship, for if there was anything that Alberto tolerated less than his eldest son working anywhere but in the family business, it was his romance with the woman who would one day be my mother. Though Hilda Peresechensky was quiet and polite around the Lowingers, Alberto objected to her the moment he noticed her and Lindy holding hands at a beach club. "It's because I was poor," my mother insists. "He only wanted rich girls for his son, and he also hated that my father was an alcoholic, even though those things were not my fault."
Continue reading Rosa Lowinger's book, Dwell Time: A Memoir of Art, Exile, and Repair.