IRÁN AND THE PEARL – Irán Millán Cuétara

STORY AND PHOTOS BY Julio A. Larramendi Joa

First of all, the Curator has to believe in what he does. He has to be honorable. He has to dedicate himself heart and soul to its prime material, which is the city and its Historic Center

Irán Millán Cuétara grew up in a modest, happy family environment, moving from one place to another (23 times in all from Mariel to San Cristóbal, Artemisa and Cienfuegos), going to new public schools and admiring his father, a hardworking bricklayer who, with no training at all, would one day become the foreman of the work crew for which he created blueprints that he was so fond of. When the head of the household was sent to build the Cienfuegos thermoelectric power plant, the entire family naturally tagged along.

“The lights of Cienfuegos dazzled me. On my first Saturday evening, I took a walk down Prado avenue and upon seeing so many people, I thought it must be a procession…”

His father was given the keys to a house in a residential complex where several renowned architects from the capital lived. When they discovered Irán’s interest in architecture, they guided and helped him—from them he inherited books, drafting tables and lamps.

“I was finally going to college as an architecture major at the University of Havana, the only place in Cuba where you could study that discipline at the time. Out of 13 students from Cienfuegos, only I made it to second year. I was strongly stimulated by my professors, renowned architectures who were building the most important buildings in the nation: Sergio Ferro, Mario Girona, Nicolás Quintana, Everardo Mendoza, and others. I obtained my degree in 1973 and my undergraduate thesis was tutored by architects Isabel Rigol and Mario Coyula.”

After graduation, he spent three years doing community service as a teacher in the newly created School of Architecture of the Marta Abreu Central University, in the city of Santa Clara. Despite the enormous work pressure, it was a romantic time, carrying out projects, participating in competitions, working long nights… And in 1977, he returned to Cienfuegos wanting to take on the world.

“I was one of the first people to work at the Municipal Department for Urban Planning. My job there was to grant building permits and plots of land. This enabled me to get acquainted with the city from end to end. I was also one of the founders of the Provincial Commission for Monuments. Four years later, I was appointed its President, a position that I still hold today. Although my love for conservation and restoration was sparked by my walks through Old Havana with Professor Roberto Segre during my university days, it was only in 1981 that I was able to devote myself completely to this, when I started working at the Provincial Cultural Heritage Center. At the same time, I was taking courses, conducting studies and research, which marked a new, definitive phase in my life.”

He started to carry out the restoration of buildings, develop projects and lead the creation of Cienfuegos’ first 13 museums. His job also included protecting historical and cultural heritage and its inventories, and training new collaborators as well as himself.

“The 1980s marked the beginning of the recovery of a number of buildings, while others were proposed as national and local monuments. This created a spirit and awareness of the fact that Cienfuegos had considerable heritage values. In the 1990s, during the Special Period, I asked to be given a city block, two masons, two painters and some assistants. I also asked them not to visit the site until I sent word to them. We completed three bracings, restored the facades and painted the walls after taking samples to determine original paint colors. We made sure that all the ledges were painted white, and the backgrounds in pastel colors. The white reinforces the overall value of the city thanks to its unique urban layout, high degree of uniformity in its construction and artistic richness, all of which make it a paradigm of 19th-century town planning in our country. Upon seeing the results, they provided me with a work crew, and we began to restore the Historic Center.”

The restoration of the city and the significance of its classical architecture drew attention to the values of the city, giving way to the proposal of the Historic Center of Cienfuegos as a National Monument.

“In the year 2000 I took part in the ICOMOS Symposium, in Indianapolis, Indiana, where I gave a conference on the city of Cienfuegos. This is where the proposal of the city as a Cultural Heritage of Humanity was born. My team and I, and Isabel Rigol who contributed significantly to our work, began preparing the file, which was eventually approved in its entirety. Finally, after a lengthy procedure, during which we had the unreserved support of the highest authorities of the province, at 5:00 pm on July 15, 2005, a phone call brought us the news: Cienfuegos had been declared a Cultural Heritage of Humanity. It was the first 19th-century city in the Caribbean region to be included in the World Heritage List.”

The dissemination, the information, the living word, as Eusebio Leal says, and the fact that no one in Cienfuegos was in charge of this area, led to his being appointed Director of the Office of the Curator of the city of Cienfuegos (OCCC for its acronym in Spanish), which was created in 2007.

“First of all, the Curator has to believe in what he does. He has to be honorable. He has to dedicate himself heart and soul to its prime material, which is the city and its Historic Center. By being true and keeping your word, you earn the respect, the approval and the recognition of the people. A city is the reflection of the people who inhabit it, expressed physically in its architecture. Family conflicts somehow project themselves into the city, so it is important for the people to understand that heritage dignifies them.”

His love for Cienfuegos, his people and its architecture surface through his words and actions. He is a dreamer with his feet firmly planted on the ground and he believes that curators are therapists of sorts. His designation as Illustrious Son of the Cienfuegos, although he was not born there, is one of the greatest distinctions he has received. He has also been honored for his life’s work with the National Cultural Heritage Award (2017) and the National Architecture Award (2018). However, not everything in the garden is rosy. The recent loss of the emblematic building La Catalana, aka Goytisolo Palace, was a warning call.

“We have lost one of our dearest children. Today we take stock of this defeat of heritage due to indolence, vandalism and neglect by those who should have been sensitized to its values and should have recovered them. We have failed the city by not giving this local monument the importance it deserved.”

Cienfuegos will be celebrating its 200th anniversary in 2019, and this implies an enormous responsibility for the OCCC.

“The Office does not have a budget of its own to carry out works. We develop projects and then call upon other organizations and convince them to invest in the conservation or restoration of some important building that belongs to them. Our team carries out the heritage project, which is executed out by work brigades—appointed by the State or made up of hired workers—using each sector’s budget. Five years ago we started preparing for the city’s bicentennial, starting with pending tasks. We democratically organized the actions and tasks to be carried out, and their chronological order. Gradually and in an orderly manner, the works are being executed. This includes the pedestrian corridor on 29th Street; the Cruise Terminal; the extension to Paseo del Prado avenue; the restoration in extension of the main surroundings of avenues, promenades, streets and squares; urban reforestation; sanitation of the city; lighting of promenades, porches and iconic buildings; and work on buildings of social impact: schools, family doctor offices, nursing homes, cultural institutions…

Clearly, the Pearl of Cuba—name suggested by the Curator in place of the former Pearl of the South—and its people will celebrate their 200th anniversary in style, but for Irán Millán, it will be just another leg in his journey. The city requires systematic care and maintenance and there are other important buildings to recover. There’s no stopping Cienfuegos. ▪

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