The Quintana Plan

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."

In the period that began with the revolution and ended in 1991 with the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Cuba's city planners didn't contend with much commercial development. Fidel Castro's determination to promote a rural rather than an urban economy, and his reluctance to accept most Western capital, resulted in the de facto preservation of central Havana's historic districts. But the government also lacked surplus cash to plow into restoration and has only recently tried to repair and rehabilitate the area known as Habana Vieja, an extensive group of colonial buildings, some of which date to the Sixteenth Century.

Quintana talks about the legacy of neglect. "My critique of the present situation in Cuba, in terms of the development of different cities, is based not on what they are doing, because whatever you do to preserve the city is a positive sign," he says. "There are individuals who are highly capable and very well trained and who are doing a good job. My critique is based on something else -- 70 percent of the city of Havana, especially 38 percent, is in very, very bad shape. It's even worse than we imagine. Why? That didn't happen in four to five years."

Without financial support from the Soviet Union, Cuba has had to seek other sources of revenue; in 1990 officials opened the country to foreign investment and began actively promoting tourism. Spanish, Canadian, Mexican, and Italian resort companies have since built thousands of new hotel rooms; thousands more are planned before 2000.

Though the building boom hasn't yet spelled disaster for the country's preservation efforts, Quintana worries about the ongoing construction. He is also thinking about the day Castro dies or falls, when developers such as the Latin Builders Association -- which has helped shape Florida's residential and commercial areas -- may have free rein. "In Havana, as in every city," he says, "there's a danger of entrepreneurs coming in and developing without any regard for tradition."

But because Quintana and his colleagues at FIU spurn discussions with the Cuban government, their hopes of designing the island's cities mirror the status of many of his blueprints: beautiful ideas, but ideas only.

Helping to control Cuba's aesthetics is just one of Quintana's projects. Four years ago, with a group of professionals and intellectuals from Central and South Florida, he helped found Cuban National Heritage, Inc., a nonprofit organization devoted to protecting the country's paintings, sculptures, and historical artifacts. Alberto Bustamante, an Orlando lawyer and rare-book collector, created the group because he found too many valuable Cuban books sold at auction in the United States. Important artifacts of Cuban history and art could be lost to investors who might have no stake in their preservation or their eventual return to the island. Members of the organization try to purchase Cuban artwork and historical objects sold abroad.

Bustamante invited Quintana to head the group's committee on architecture and urbanism, and Quintana in turn recruited Manolo Gutierrez, another exiled modernist architect of the Fifties. Quintana also invited architect/planner Andres Duany, whose Miami firm Duany Plater-Zyberk is a leader in the "new urbanism" movement. (New urbanism promotes city planning that, among other things, combines residential and commercial uses to reduce vehicular traffic.) Cuban-American architects have toured the island and initiated dialogues with their Cuban colleagues, though not usually with the government itself.

Quintana dreams of assisting the preservation efforts by amassing an archive of Havana's urban plans, blueprints, population statistics, and other documents at FIU's School of Architecture. He and his colleagues there -- Rene Gonzalez and Gisela Lopez Mata -- have already begun to collect materials. Last spring at the Sony Building on Lincoln Road they curated the exhibition "Patios, Portales, y Persianas" ("Patios, Entrances, and Louvres"), named after the teachings of Quintana's University of Havana professors. The show highlighted the work of modernist Cuban designers; photographs of their buildings and historical records of their design work have become part of a Cuba archive project known as Essential Elements in Cuban Architecture.

Quintana has also collected detailed schematics of Havana structures and infrastructures from sympathetic builders and architects who have traveled to the island. So far the documents are stacked on desks and shelves and file cabinets. But they are vital to Quintana's and his colleagues' vision of defending Havana from unbridled construction. Their aim, he says, is not simply to protect the grand old architectural landmarks of Habana Vieja, named by the United Nations a World Heritage Site in 1982 (the designation is intended to help governments preserve historic sites and attract international investment for restoration). They also want to work with residents to design livable neighborhoods. "The people in Cuba now will be anxious to get up to speed, so to speak, and gain all the things they haven't gotten, and that includes a lot of [immense] businesses and mega-super stores that require huge parking lots," says Rene Gonzalez. "It's not that these things shouldn't occur -- they are a reality -- but they need to be dealt with in the appropriate manner. We're not interested in telling certain developers how they go in and how they affect the urban structure, but how we can help the people."

Quintana wants to resume some of the projects aborted by his flight from Cuba. For example, in 1954 Pres. Fulgencio Batista, a friend of Quintana's late father, appointed the young architect to the national planning board, the Junta Nacional Planificacion de Cuba (JNP). For the next five years Quintana worked as Varadero's chief government planner, along with Jose Luis Sert -- then the dean of Harvard University's School of Design -- to chart the expansion of the beach resort.

Sert wanted to impose a grid system, which would have required significant demolition and reconstruction, Quintana says. He made changes to Sert's schematic but retained the central concept of building two separate city centers, on opposite sides of the peninsula. He also added regulations to ensure that new structures would remain compatible with the old. "No building could be higher than the pine trees in the area, which were very beautiful," he recalls. "You could do four or five stories."

A framed copy of the Varadero plan, only a dream on paper, adorns the wall of Quintana's Kendall home. Today Varadero has become the center of Cuba's seaside resort industry. By the end of 1997 government and corporations had built 30,000 hotel rooms on the island, the vast majority in Varadero, according to a spokesman from the Cuban Interests Section in Washington, D.C. The Ministry of Tourism expects a total of 49,556 rooms to be built by the year 2000.

"Varadero is being systematically destroyed," says Quintana. "The buildings are out of scale with the [narrow] peninsula. They've put huge hotels next to the DuPont house," a well-known 1926 Spanish-revival home built for the heiress Eleuthere Irenee DuPont.

In Cuba some planners are also concerned about the expansion. "Right now one of the problems we have is dealing with investors, and we are not prepared," acknowledges Mario Coyula Cowley, co-director of Havana's Group for the Integral Development of the Capital, which he helped found in 1988 to promote responsible planning. "We need investors. We need the money. But there's always a tension. It's like what happened with Native Americans when the Europeans arrived. We need to learn how to deal with these people. Of course, we need to find a way for these people to make profits. On the other hand, [we should not] be too dependent on them."

Coyula has spoken with Quintana and Duany about the need to create a formal body of regulations. As early as 1861 the Spanish colonial government instituted a sophisticated code of regulations to ensure consistency and compatibility of architectural designs in Havana. And Cuba's revised 1976 constitution includes provisions to protect the country's architectural and cultural legacies. But Coyula and Quintana agree that no one could have anticipated the high-paced growth Cuba is experiencing today. "What Duany Plater-Zyberk has done is make us realize the importance of building codes in the shaping of cities," Coyula says. "We're just realizing that codes are important."

Still, the Cuban architect says, Quintana's staunch anti-Castro position paints too dismal a picture of Cuba's problems. "Nicolas has the wrong idea about how disturbing our new investments are," Coyula asserts. "It's always a tension in the future -- when someone needs cash desperately, you can be [accommodating] to anyone. But up to the present, there's no such thing as 'a problem.' There's an ugly new hotel built on the Malecon [Havana's seafront promenade], but it's the only one."

Quintana says he regrets his own inaction during the political turmoil that enveloped Havana in the late Fifties. "We didn't get involved in politics, which was a big mistake, because we left the positions open for people who actually didn't have any morals at all," he says. "I was more concerned about the opinion of a French architect [Le Corbusier] than in dealing with the politics of the situation."

The grandson of a Basque ebanista, or master furniture designer, and the son of a renowned national architect, Quintana learned early to appreciate architectural theories and structure. At the University of Havana he joined other designers eager to embrace modernism -- already an established movement in the United States and Europe. Eugenio Batista, a professor at the University of Havana (and no relation to Fulgencio), encouraged his students to add traditional Cuban motifs to the austere geometric facades that characterized modern architecture.

"Eugenio Batista used to talk about the three P's -- patios, portales, and persianas," recalls Manolo Gutierrez, a professor at the university during Quintana's time there. "The three P's were so important in Cuban architecture -- at the beginning we didn't have air conditioning, so we had to provide cross-ventilation, and we had to soften the light because the Cuban sun was so intense."

Quintana and his fellow students would often visit Batista at home for moonlit debates about art and architecture. They called their group the Lyceum, after the school in ancient Athens where Aristotle taught. Quintana was not a star student; he had a rough time with draftsmanship but excelled in theory, and his ideas excited his professor. When Batista was unable to attend the Congres Internationale d'Architecture Moderne in 1953, he sent Quintana, who by then was the younger partner in his late father's prestigious firm, Moenck & Quintana.

The French congress -- 200 or so of the world's leading architects -- was experiencing a revolution of its own: A faction of young designers had begun to challenge Le Corbusier's views on urban planning, and the conference erupted in dissension and debate. "Corbu," as the architects had nicknamed him, believed cities should be divided into "islands," with residential sectors separated from commercial zones and buffered from industrial developments and roadways. Quintana, who had so far designed only a few houses, took the side of the dissidents and argued for cities to be laid out much as Havana had been, with residential and commercial areas sharing blocks along a grid system broken by green spaces or plazas. That year, for the first time in its history, the congress could not agree on a manifesto -- its statement of principles to guide city planners throughout the world. But Quintana gained a reputation as an articulate and fearless debater. After the conference Sert invited him to Barcelona, showed him the ancient cathedral by moonlight, and introduced him to Miro and Picasso.

The architect returned to Cuba eager to press forward with new designs. He won contracts to build beach houses for wealthy sugar growers and other businessmen. At the same time, he worked on the Varadero plan. Manolo Gutierrez, meanwhile, built a modernist apartment building in Havana that is still considered a monument of design. "We didn't sleep in nine years [from 1950 to 1959] -- we didn't have time for it," Quintana says. "A complete structure of culture was actually being created at that moment, inside the most surrealistic political situation. Bombs were exploding around us, but we were concentrated on this movement."

In July 1953 -- the same year Quintana attended the congress -- Fidel Castro and some 150 of his followers attacked the Moncada garrison in Santiago de Cuba, in an improbable and failed attempt to incite a general uprising. In 1957, when Quintana was in his third year of the Varadero resort development plan, Castro and his guerrillas staged a successful attack in the Sierra Maestra mountains. "The Batista regime was virtually out, especially from 1955 on," Quintana says. "The system was collapsing. There was a lot of corruption, and in a way we were actually waiting for the changes to occur to create a strong [architectural] movement. But all those illusions were totally destroyed."

Quintana's independence eventually alienated leaders on both sides of the conflict. Those leaders sometimes sought political expression in architecture, he explains. Batista had a fondness for public art and had commissioned Sert to design great plazas for Varadero, Havana, and Trinidad. He also encouraged private investment. At the completion of such projects -- whether public or private -- Batista would stage elaborate openings. But Quintana, by then on the national planning board, refused to attend. In 1957, two years before he resigned and fled the country, Batista demanded an explanation for Quintana's absences.

"He said, 'I have known you for many, many years, but you have never been at any opening of work in Varadero,'" recalls Quintana. "I said, 'I'm not a batistiano. My father was a batistiano. I'm a master planner.'

"What I was trying to tell him in reality was 'I'm not on your side of the fence,'" Quintana explains. "But nothing happened to me. I kept doing my work."

Batista was still in power when the president of the National Bank of Cuba commissioned the firm of Moenck & Quintana, where Quintana still worked, to design a new headquarters on the Malecon. The architect drew up plans for an imposing 29-story steel-and-glass tower. "I was only 34 when I did that," he says proudly. "The whole area was going to be arcaded with porticos. The rest is monumental modern statement, and I wanted it to be that way. A vertical building is not a colonial building, it's modern."

But Batista fell before the plans were completed, and in 1959 Quintana met the bank's new president: Ernesto "Che" Guevara. When Quintana proposed importing stainless steel for window frames, Guevara refused, saying only materials produced in Cuba could be used. When the architect insisted on using tempered glass from the United States for the windows, Guevara suggested omitting glass altogether. At other meetings their discussions centered on politics, says Quintana. "He asked me if I was a petit bourgeoisie. I told him no, I'm not a petit bourgeoisie. I'm a great bourgeoisie."

By now he and some friends had begun to meet weekly to discuss the political crisis; they formed the Organizacion de Trabajadores Voluntarios (Organization of Voluntary Workers) and offered to repaint some of the public buildings in Havana. But in fact, he says, their goal was the overthrow of the government. Guevara found out. "He said, 'You are in real deep trouble. [But] let me tell you something. I respect you. You have three ways out: One way is to leave the country, and I don't have any problems with that. The second is 30 years in jail. The third is the wall [and firing squad].'"

Quintana left with the assistance of Venezuelan businessmen who helped him ship out his personal belongings, including an extensive art collection. Later the Cuban government constructed the bank building -- with glass and steel. But the plans for a building that was to have been a symbol of both modernism and capitalism died with the revolution. Eventually the structure became a hospital.

About ten miles southwest of Caracas, the town of Caricuao has been carved into the sides of mountains. Apartment complexes, houses, and shops stand on terraces that encroach on the summits. But in 1961, when 36-year-old Nicolas Quintana flew over these mountains in a helicopter with a team of Venezuelan architects, the rocks were bare, the valleys uninhabited. The team's mission: Build a city among the peaks. Quintana helped design the preliminary sketches for the Venezuelan firm Bermudez & Lluberes.

He saw the work as a way to retain some autonomy -- a goal his discussions with Che Guevara led him to believe would be frustrated under Castro. He believed Castro would fall before he completed Caricuao and that he himself would return to Cuba within a year. But Caricuao would not be fully built for many years, and his role soon diminished. He left the country to look for work and wound up, with his wife Hilda and their two sons, in Puerto Rico.

Fortunately a Cuban friend had recommended him for a major undertaking -- the design of the Roberto Clemente sports coliseum. Working for Pedro Miranda, one of San Juan's most successful engineers, Quintana and his colleagues drew inspiration from the fortresses in Old San Juan. But the style was distinctively modern: The stadium boasts structural ornamentation, yet its entrances and window arrangements are designed to echo the uniform, almost military lines of a fortress wall. "The coliseum represented the new 'brutalist' architecture -- constructed of exposed concrete," says Thomas Marvel, the San Juan architect. "You wouldn't do it that way today, but it was certainly the style of those days. It was a good building. It has proven to be good."

Pedro Miranda, a long-time friend of San Juan's mayor, helped Quintana obtain commissions for government contracts. In sixteen years he designed more than 100 projects, including housing projects, markets, and subdivisions. Marvel believes Quintana's most significant building is a 35-story San Juan condominium whose cantilevered base was built from prefabricated units. His work in preassembled materials earned him a U.S. design award in 1971, and until the mid-Seventies he traveled in the States as an expert on prefabricated construction systems for the American Institute of Architects.

But in 1976 Quintana decided to become a developer himself on an ambitious three-tower condominium project he designed and helped finance. That same year a glut in oil production sent Puerto Rico's economy into a tailspin. He never completed the project. During subsequent legal disputes, he couldn't find enough work to support his family.

The architect who had once sought refuge in Venezuela from political persecution returned there in 1976 to try to restore his family's financial stability. Again his knack for befriending people with political influence was a boon. Working with a Caracas architect (he couldn't work under his foreign license), he cultivated a relationship with the arts editor of the country's leading newspaper, El Universal, and earned additional income writing art reviews.

Quintana had also befriended numerous artists, such as the well-known Puerto Rican portraitist Francisco Rodon, who led him to Venezuela's most prominent figure, former president Romulo Betancourt. Rodon, commissioned to paint the president's portrait, would invite Quintana and other artists to entertain the politician while he posed for long hours. Quintana continued to dine with Betancourt until 1978, according to Renee Harmann Betancourt, the president's widow, in her 1984 autobiography, Romulo y Yo.

The architect soon garnered commissions in Latin America for planned communities, hotels, office structures, and housing projects. His art reviews boosted his national reputation, and his friendship with Betancourt brought additional cachet. From 1977 to 1984 he designed nearly 40 new projects. He experimented with yet another prefab construction system. New York investors asked him to design a resort to be wedged into solid rock towering over a stretch of beach in Rio de Janeiro. Once again Quintana had climbed up from seeming failure to a new career high.

But the Rio hotel project fell through after Quintana and an engineer questioned the investors' ability to raise funds. Fewer than a third of the architect's Venezuelan designs came to fruition. When Venezuela devalued its currency in the mid-Eighties, Quintana's own finances faltered. He still had debts in Puerto Rico, and he eventually sold the most valuable pieces in his art collection.

At age 60 Quintana was starting over. He and his second wife Isabel moved to Miami -- two of his four children were attending college in the United States. His Havana colleague Manolo Gutierrez, who had also worked for a time in Puerto Rico after the revolution, recalls the difficulties of his own early career in Florida. "The architect has to know people and to speak English correctly," he says. "In Spanish I'm fluent and convincing. If I ask for a job in English, that is different."

For a time Quintana advised a Puerto Rican investment group on possible real estate purchases in Florida. He designed a few projects in Naples and in Broward County, including a Coral Springs shopping center. But he has never fulfilled the promise of his early successes. The import of his work has also waned. University of Miami architect Jean-Francois Lejeune sums up his Puerto Rican work: "It's a kind of architectural style popular in the Seventies and is rather dated, in the sense that it reflects the ideas of those years." Caricuao has become just another overcrowded Latin American neighborhood. The subdivisions Quintana designed in Puerto Rico have few startling features. "They just blend into the city nowadays," Marvel says.

Quintana has lost possessions, position, and financial stability. But he has not lost his oratorical skills, which Marvel remembers even fifteen years after they last spoke at length. "He was always an eloquent spokesman for large-scale projects that deal with more than buildings," Marvel says, "that deal with groups of buildings and neighborhoods -- new master plans."

Cuban exile colleagues familiar with Quintana's work as a Havana architect helped him win teaching positions, first at the University of Miami, and later at FIU. Having revitalized his career so often, Quintana longs to do the same for his homeland. But his adamant opposition to the current Cuban leadership has entered him in a grim race: He hopes Castro will fall before he himself dies. "I'm going to live forever," he insists with characteristic zeal.

In Quintana's darkened classroom, the slide presentation progresses. Two of the students rest their heads on their desks. Two more write diligently in the darkness; others appear rapt. In the front of the room, the professor seems to have lost his concentration for a moment. He stares at the screen, at the glow cast by the moon above the stained-glass panels of the Catedral de Barcelona. When he finally speaks, it's about that glorious visit in 1953.


All-access pass to the top stories, events and offers around town.

  • Top Stories


All-access pass to top stories, events and offers around town.

Sign Up >

No Thanks!

Remind Me Later >