Havana’s Architectural Artist, by Sandy Levinson

by Sandy Levinson, Director of the Center for Cuban Studies

MARIO COYULA, ¡Presente!

Mayito, as we all called him, died in his beloved city, Havana, on July 7 at the age of 79. With his death, Havana lost one of its greatest defenders – and loving critics. Havana for Mayito was a magnificent obsession, and at times he spoke in a lover’s language as his frustration grew with Havana’s many unsolved problems. We shared his love, and his frustration, and most of all, we wanted to share his passion.

Mayito came into my life the very first year I traveled to Cuba. Early career dreams had included wanting to be an architect, and to meet the refined and encyclopedic Mayito, who knew everything one wanted to know about Havana architecture – the built, the unbuilt, the destroyed, the when-will-we-build-it?, and so much more – was magical.

There wasn’t a question he couldn’t answer. He gave history, context, building materials. The city and its people came alive with Mayito’s anecdotes and commentary.

He saw the birth of the Center for Cuban Studies, and encouraged us to collect both Cuban and non-Cuban literature on architecture, the books, the magazines, photographs, even stamps. We watched as he saw the Model of the City of Havana through to completion, from early plans to sitting in sections in various sliding drawers to installation in its own building.

Mayito convinced us that art without architecture was impossible, that architecture is art, that architecture is history, that architecture embodies a society’s values, its aspiration, and also its failures. His modesty prevented him from showing immediately the elegant works he designed himself. They stand as a living testament to his talent, especially the glorious monument to the March 13 martyrs in the Colon Cemetery.

He enlivened almost every Center-sponsored trip to Cuba for years with his commentaries on the city: the wonders of Old Havana; the equally but unrecognized wonders of the Modern Havana; the depth of the Art Deco presence, all while explaining the social, economic and historical factors that surrounded each new neighborhood, each addition to the built environment.

Mayito lived a life of passion and dedication, and did so within the difficult and ever-changing context of a society in revolution. An expressive person, he enjoyed exploring all parts of himself. He gave lectures, he led tours, he engaged in heated but low-key discussions, he wrote professional articles. But he also wrote poetry. And finally he wrote the novel he’d always talked about. It is the story of his love for Catalina Lasa, whose story he often told to visitors as he talked about her Lalique tomb in the Colon Cemetery or the mansion she lived in on Paseo in Vedado, not so far from his own home.

Mayito’s home, which he shared with his equally passionate and intuitive wife, Marta, was welcoming and special. First, there was Marta’s magnificent meal. Then, there were all the architectural details to be noticed. And finally, there was the talk, the long and special conversations about personal joys and sadness, but most of all, Mayito’s magnificent obsession, Havana.

This is part of a series from the Center for Cuban Studies, see: http://www.cubaupdate.org/

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