We have all heard the sad news of Mario Coyula passing recently. Mario had a lot of friends in Canada from the ICOMOS tour of Havana in 2006 and his visit and lectures in 2007.
He charmed everyone with the depth of his knowledge of Cuba’s history, urbanism, and architecture, his passion for beauty and character and not the least his wonderful storytelling.
For me and my wife there are many moments to remember him – from the tour of Havana, to the days when we were privileged to host him in Toronto. Two moments will stay in our minds for the rest of our lives: the magic tour Mario led through the amazing Colon Cemetery and the emotional moments at the monument for the 1957 student uprising he designed himself.
It was after a few days of visiting Havana when we headed towards the Colon Cemetery. I was always fascinated by the great old cemeteries and Colon proved to be one of the most astounding. Mario led our group through a history of Havana and Cuba as reflected in the wonderful monuments and beautiful art decorating lavish tombs. He was showed us the differences between the graves of the pro-Spanish and nationalist families from the 19th century, pointing out well-known families and the way the art they commissioned reflected their life and beliefs. When we ended up around the imposing art deco, white marble monument that dominated the central section of the cemetery, Mario, the architect and urbanist, became the storyteller. He amazed us with the story of Catalina Lasa and her struggles in early 20th century conservative Havana and detailed the exquisite work of Lalique on the monument and other commissions. When we went later on to see her house in Vedado we had the chance to also admire other work by Lalique and find out more details about the story that made headlines and the talk of town some hundred years before. He mentioned the book he was writing about this story and later he told us about his perspective – the impossible love between a contemporary architect and the memory of Catalina Lasa…. With our very poor Spanish we are still waiting for the English translation of his book, published a few years ago…
Back to the visit in Havana, the next moment was at the monument for the 1957 student uprising he designed himself with local artists. He talked about the troubled years of the Batista dictatorship and the struggle of the young students (including himself) to fight the regime. When he mentioned his colleagues who lost their lives his eyes were in tears… We were all so touched – this was not politics but a deeply human story of someone who witnessed all these moments of his country’s history… Coming from an old Cuban family Mario talked about these main moments of their history – the old, conservative society of Havana and Cuba, Batista’s dictatorship, the enthusiasm of the first years of the Revolution as well as the challenges and disappointments of the later years. He was also the best guide through the fascinating Arts School complex, talking about the dream of an authentic Cuban “tropical” modernism in architecture.
When we returned back to Toronto we got together to share photos, stories and … our take on the Cuban mojito. Each time that Mario’s image would come up during the discussions of our group, the choir of our colleagues would sigh: “Oh, Mario…!” He charmed us all with his knowledge, passion for architecture and urbanism, for his country and its history, his exquisite storytelling, his honesty – a true gentleman as many have pointed out.
When next year the chance came for him to come to Toronto we were so happy to have him among us and to host him and his lovely wife Marta. His two lectures were well attended and enthusiastically received highlighting the strong connections our countries, so different at first sight, have and how international are the passions for heritage preservation, good architecture and urbanism inspired by the spirit of place….
The moments spent with him and Marta in our home were true blessings and we had a chance to hear more of his stories and exchange opinions about the current state of affairs – in architecture, urbanism, art, life. Unfortunately, we have found out that he also had health problems…that would eventually take him from among us….
Like many others we were blessed to have been in touch with such a great and charming man.
Mario, your memory will be always with us!
Alex and Carmen Taranu
Alex Taranu is a Toronto-area architect, urban designer and city planner. He is active in the Urban Design Working Group, Council for Canadian Urbanism and the Canadian Institute of Planners.