What do the northern state of Maine and the small Caribbean island of Cuba, located 90 miles off the coast of Florida, have in common? According to Michael Connors, author of 10 books about Caribbean design, the two places share an important similarity: the people.
“The people in Maine are, at least they way I find them, very hospitable. They’re industrious, and they’re resourceful. And the people in Cuba are exactly the same way,” said Connors, a summer resident of Deer Isle for the last 50 years.
Connors, whose book “Havana Modern: Twentieth Century Architecture and Interiors” was released Sept. 30, has long harbored an infatuation with the Caribbean island that largely has been isolated from the U.S. during the last half century because of a harsh political climate.
“Once you get to know [the people of Cuba,] though, and they get to know you, they’re unbelievably generous. They’ll give you the shirt off their back,” Connors said. “I [gravitate] toward that. If people in Maine weren’t like that, I wouldn’t be here.”
A New York City native, Connors admits he is not always accepted wherever he goes. From his experiences throughout the Caribbean Islands, he has found Cuba’s generosity and hospitality is unique. He cites the islands of Martinique and Guadeloupe as being “very standoffish,” almost unwilling to accept outsiders. His travels throughout the U.S. have led him to believe Mainers share the same regional uniqueness as Cubans.
“There are places in America I would not be accepted as an outsider. I’m accepted, as an outsider, on Deer Isle,” Connors said. “Those kinds of relationships are more than just genuine: They’re heartfelt. And that’s the kind of feeling you get down in Cuba, and that’s the kind of feeling I get in Maine also.”
However, Americans have not been able to soak up this particular piece of paradise because of a U.S. travel embargo placed on Cuba after the country’s socialist revolution in 1959. The embargo bars traveling to the island for purposes other than humanitarian, cultural or educational. Individuals must apply to obtain a special travel visa from the U.S. government, depending on which travel criteria they meet.
Connors’ architectural research and position as a member on the board of trustees for Fundacion Amistad, a nonprofit organization focused on fostering Cuban-American relations, allows him to travel to Cuba for all three of these reasons.
Cuba was colonized by Spain until 1898, then was occupied by the U.S until 1902, when it officially gained its independence. The island has a rich architectural history, which, according to Connors, is unparalleled throughout the entire Western Hemisphere.
“I don’t care whether you go, to New York, Mexico City, Boston … you don’t find every style of architecture in this hemisphere. In Europe, there is plenty of it. But [in North America, it’s found] only in Havana. Now that alone is something,” Connors said.
It was common for colonized island nations to mirror the architectural and design trends popular in Europe at the time. Particularly in Cuba, the beginning of the 20th century was marked with the Beaux Arts style of architecture that was coming from Paris. This style of architecture focused on elegant, straight lines and grandeur.
As Connors points out, “every style is an embellishment on the preceding style or a reaction against it.”
That is why the 50 years leading up to Cuba’s revolution were filled with a conglomeration of styles, ranging from the free-flowing lines of art nouveau to the straight, geometric designs of art deco.
In “Havana Modern,” Connors focuses on the modern architecture movement that shaped the landscape of Cuba, specifically the capital city of Havana, until 1965. This particular movement is one of the most under-documented and under-appreciated styles of architecture in Cuba, Connors said.
In two years and many trips to Cuba, Connors and his team of photographers documented a cornucopia of modern Cuban architecture. The images, from elaborate nightclubs that are remnants of the tourism industry that flourished in the 1940s to modest homes in suburban outskirts to monumental hotels, whose lifespans were cut short because of the revolution, serve as eerily untouched examples of a once-thriving Cuba.
Connors said none of the images in the book have been edited to enhance the featured architecture. The only photo editing done to the images was to crop out telephone wires. The preservation of the modern architecture and design is attributed to the minimal development in Cuba during the last half-century.
“[The architecture] has been untouched for the last 70 years,” Connors said. “That’s why I keep going — preservation by neglect.”
This is strikingly different from architecture trends found throughout the U.S. and is a reason why Connors believes more Americans need to travel to Cuba.
Connors is returning to Cuba in November to formally launch “Havana Modern” and to start research on his next book, “UNESCO’s Caribbean World Heritage Sites.” UNESCO sets aside specific places worldwide that have particular cultural or physical significance as World Heritage sites. In the book, Connors will explore the 26 World Heritage sites located around the Caribbean Basin, from the coast of Central America to southern Florida. Nine of these 26 sites are located in Cuba.