The Quintana Plan

Exile architect Nicolas Quintana hopes to save Havana, the city of his birth, from the perils of overdevelopment

Beneath a full moon, Nicolas Quintana gazes up at the spires of Barcelona's Gothic cathedral. The year is 1953, and the 28-year-old Cuban architect has just concluded a remarkable chapter in his professional life. He has come to Spain from the south of France, where for ten days he took part in the world's most prestigious annual conference on the design of modern cities. In that estimable company, he shone with his articulate debate; he was a young iconoclast arguing against one of the Twentieth Century's most renowned architects and city planners: Le Corbusier. The conference itself ended in disarray, but Quintana caught the attention of giants.

Now he has come to Spain as the guest of another architectural titan, Jose Luis Sert, and he has spent the day touring ancient palaces and monuments with Sert's friend, the artist Joan Miró. As the moon recedes behind cathedral spires, the young man contemplates how this trip will improve his position back home. Already he belongs to a group of young "modernist" Cuban architects, and he has political connections. Quintana's participation at the Congres Internationale d'Architecture Moderne, at Aix-en-Provence, will certainly boost his career. The moon's glow and the gleaming cathedral lights create a dazzling corona around the towers. The architect takes a photograph of the facade.

Nearly 45 years later a slide of that image is projected against the wall of a Florida International University classroom. Nicolas Quintana, wearing dress trousers and a plain white shirt, leans over a table, working the projector's remote control. He is now 72 years old, and the thick brown hair has dwindled to a few thin strands. His four children -- two from each of his two marriages -- have grown and flourished in their own careers. His first marriage ended in divorce in 1965; his current wife Isabel works as an HMO administrator and is the family's chief breadwinner. A cane helps him bear the back injuries he suffered long ago as a worldly young man racing exotic cars for fun.

At FIU's School of Architecture, Quintana teaches "The History of the Built Environment," which chronicles trends in urban layouts. He punctuates his lectures with personal anecdotes, transporting the students to Europe, the Caribbean, and South America, where he once planned subdivisions, shopping malls, and condominium towers.

Forced to flee Cuba in 1961 after the revolution, Quintana has spent most of the past 36 years working in other financially and politically volatile environments. Yet he sees his work in Cuba as his most substantial. There he acquired a reputation as one of the top architects of the new "regional movement," in which modern architecture was made distinctly Cuban through the addition of patios, stained-glass lintels, and louvered doors and windows. For a time he supervised the planning of Varadero, one of Cuba's premier tourist areas, and of Trinidad, a historic city on the island's south-central coast.

"That was the highest moment in my life," he says of his time in Cuba. "I did more jobs outside Cuba, but the highest achievement was in Cuba itself. That's precisely my sorrow. Where would I be if I had been able to work there? What would be the limit I would have achieved? I think it would have been incredible."

Quintana is not alone in that assessment. "I somehow thought he was a lot more talented than his work in Puerto Rico required him to be," says Thomas Marvel, a San Juan-based architect familiar with Quintana's projects over a sixteen-year career in Puerto Rico. "He was brilliant."

Fortified by an uncanny ability to win friends in high places -- including presidents, civic leaders, and internationally acclaimed artists -- Quintana has made some notable statements in architecture and art. He helped design a city carved into the mountains of Venezuela, made the preliminary drawings for a stadium in Puerto Rico, and won a national award in the United States for his prefabricated-construction designs.

Despite these successes, many of the buildings he drafted were never built. Financial backing would collapse, economies would falter. Still, Quintana's optimism remains unquenchable, even quixotic. "To me, an existing building is the same thing as one I only conceived," he says. "The reason I talk about buildings I have done and finished and buildings I haven't done in the same context is that, inside my mind, inside my head, the [unfinished structures] exist."

Now the architect has embarked on one of his most ambitious projects ever. He wants to draft emergency regulations to protect Havana's outlying neighborhoods from rapid, unplanned growth. It is his hope that residents in the densely populated urban center will move to new subdivisions designed to reflect the grandeur of old historic districts in both the city core and the surrounding neighborhoods. Quintana also dreams of shaping seaside towns like Varadero -- the famed beach resort on a seventeen-mile-long peninsula about eighty miles east of Havana -- where hotels break the pastoral rhythm of pine trees and where more expansion is planned.

He refuses, however, to negotiate with the current Cuban government or even to visit Cuba. "We don't want to get involved in the government situation there," he says, "not only from an ethical point of view but also from a practical one."

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