The young architect Maikel Menenioz Gonzalez was awakened by an unexpected telephone call at 1 a.m. and instructed to be ready in ten minutes for a project interview. Fidel Castro had just received word that his negotiations with the U.S. government for the return of Elian Gonzalez had been thwarted by the boy's relatives in Miami.
Castro's reaction: construct a monument to represent the determination of the Cuban people to fight for Elian's return. Castro gave Gonzalez two days to complete the design and two months for construction.
So goes the popular story of the new Elian Gonzalez Square, formerly a landscaped plaza near the American Embassy. The site is on the Avenue de Maceo Malecon, across from the sea wall surrounding the harbor edge of Havana.
The plaza's contemporary style contrasts sharply with the predominantly Spanish Colonial buildings facing Old Havana's waterfront. The design has stirred controversy among Cuban architects who find it inappropriate for its location.
However, it is an excellent example of political architecture. Some believe the true function of the square is to showcase small political gatherings. The large Revolutionary Square, where such gatherings are normally held, overwhelms smaller crowds, diminishing the importance of their protests.
Havana's 500-year history is written the facades of its preserved architecture. Medieval, Baroque, Art Nouveau, and Modern styles are jumbled together, reflecting the variety of political and intellectual influences. Excellent examples of each style remain intact, and major restoration is underway. Old Town Havana has been declared a world monument, a designation richly deserved.
On the road in Cuba,
Beverly Willis, FAIA
Director, Architecture Research Institute, Inc.