THE DESIGN MACHINERY OF THE 1960s


Some curators and critics, including artists, have started to pay attention to the decade of the 1960s in Cuba (in one way or another) as a relevant moment in the Island’s history and as part of a reassessment of a fundamental decade of the twentieth century in the culture in Cuba as well as other parts of the world.

Some of the essential ideas and artistic practices that sustain a large part of contemporary art materialized the 1960s. They pretend to be new but, in fact, had already been outlined by theorists and critics of those years. Happenings, performances, action art, public interventions, multimedia, video art, installations, photographic manipulation, sculpting of objects, objectifying painting, dematerialization of art, conceptual art, and other expressions entered into the universe of art in the decade of the 1960s; without the fuss and media paraphernalia enjoyed today by any aesthetic “novelty” or “idea”. In addition, specifically in Cuba, political and film posters in the urban context became the best known image of the new times on the local level. On the other hand, it was the first globalized visual expression of our culture.

Something similar occurred in architecture and industrial design, though to a lesser extent and without the simultaneity of circulation and presence available in art and graphic design. However, to be aware of the importance of the projects generated in those initial years that earned recognition for Cuban architecture inside and beyond the country, it is sufficient to mention the recognized art schools of Cubanacán as an expression of new architectural and poetic spaces for human beings, along with the José A. Echeverría University campus, the Cuba Pavilion, D’Acosta and Álvarez’ experimental asbestos cement house, the University’s Martyrs Park in Havana, and the André Voisin Technological Institute in Güines. We add to these the housing complex of Manicaragua, province of Las Villas, the Cuba Pavilion presented at the EXPO’67 in Montreal and, particularly, the work of architect Walter Betancourt in several cities of the former Oriente province (a paradigm of unusual creativity, rarely validated as it deserves to be appraised as one of the greatest contributions to national and regional architecture).

Architects trained in Cuba years ago and others, immigrants of Italian origin, together with industrial and graphic designers, attempted to transform the formal repertoire existing prior to the 1960s (which, by the way, had produced notable results). They were driven by an extraordinary creative atmosphere seldom experienced within the limits of our geography and history. It seemed as though we were entering the realm of overflowing imagination; the usefulness of beauty, the beauty of the useful; in the era of a new collaboration between authors and works, foretelling some ideas and behavior that would gain almost universal force during the social and political events of May 1968 in Europe and part of the United States.

In fact, many environments and spaces changed, whether interior or exterior, since the projection of “… a perfectly geared machine of economic and social progress…deprived of everything superfluous and ornamental…” which resulted in the architecture influenced by modernity in the twentieth century. When a building was not designed in its entirety (for example, if it was to be renovated), the result was observed in architectural or facade details, in furniture, lighting, and outdoor areas. The influence of the new ideas equally compromised both major and minor works, without hierarchies or discrimination in favor of one model or the other. Whether a gas station or a theater lobby, a pizzeria or a bus stop, a school or daycare center, everything pointed to the new; well designed and produced.

In fact, many environments and spaces changed, whether interior or exterior, since the projection of “… a perfectly geared machine of economic and social progress…deprived of everything superfluous and ornamental…” which resulted in the architecture influenced by modernity in the twentieth century. When a building was not designed in its entirety (for example, if it was to be renovated), the result was observed in architectural or facade details, in furniture, lighting, and outdoor areas. The influence of the new ideas equally compromised both major and minor works, without hierarchies or discrimination in favor of one model or the other. Whether a gas station or a theater lobby, a pizzeria or a bus stop, a school or daycare center, everything pointed to the new; well designed and produced.

That spirit of transformations, discoveries, and ideas of a possible utopia in such noticeable spheres of material culture was predominant in the exhibition El museo de las máquinas. Arquitectura de espacios cerrados en las décadas del 60 y del 70 de la Revolución Cubana (The Museum of Machinery: Architecture of Closed Spaces in the 1960s and 1970s of the Cuban Revolution) presented in the open studio of the group Los Carpinteros, in Havana, in March and April 2017. Curated by Abel González Fernández with the assistance of Susana Mohammad, the concept of the showcase was expressed by exhibiting some of the furniture and interiors of those decades (restored originals or reproduced for the occasion) plus drawings, photographs, and documents.

 

The result was a showcase permeated with an intense creative atmosphere in which the most important thing was not merely showing those achievements (objects and projects of the decade); but also its rebellious, restless, transforming, novel, and happily contemporary spirit in relation to other geographic and cultural contexts. Young Cuban artists who identified immediately with those intellectual activities contributed as well.

From Antonio Quintana, Rodolfo Fernández, Hugo D’acosta and Mercedes Álvarez, Iván Espín, Roberto Gottardi, Sergio Baroni, Vittorio Garatti, Walter Betancourt, Joaquín Galván, Eva Bjorlund, María Teresa Muñiz, Gonzalo Córdoba and Raúl Martínez (some already deceased) to Heriberto Duverger and Reinaldo Togores, and the younger Hamlet Lavastida, Leandro Feal, Reñiré Quer and Rigoberto Díaz; they all contributed to highlight those ideas that were the foundation of a new architecture and a new design in the 1960s.

On the first floor of the gallery-building of Los Carpinteros was exhibited the largest group of furniture, especially chairs and armchairs of wood, plastic, steel, and nylon; complemented by lamps hanging from the ceiling, alluding to the formal, ingenious diversity of designs that are still astonishing and exciting. For example, there were functional chairs that are assembled without nails or screws.

Plans, sketches, drawings, and photos were placed on the walls with sober and efficient museology, and architectural spaces that are today almost extinct were partially reproduced. The resource of repeating the logos of enterprises and ministries committed in those years with construction in the country was used in the stairs leading to the gallery. They were fixed with paint to indicate that that was only the role they fulfilled. Today, mere bureaucratic documentation of them remains, despite the huge weight and responsibility they had.

A living space representing the interior of a hotel, house or apartment of those years was organized on another level upstairs, including a worktable, a coffee table for magazines and books, office chairs, and armchairs. The bed showed an interesting storage solution for blankets and sheets in its lower part, with nightstands on both sides.

Designs in plywood, light woods, fabrics, or leather were created taking into consideration the freshness required by our climate as well as transportation and conservation of unquestionably important materials today, despite the development of other materials (such as products from IKEA, the most popular, global, and effective transnational enterprise in the international market for several years.

The most exceptional elements in the showcase were the objects designed and built by Walter Betancourt, who did not restrict himself to create spaces and buildings in several cities of Oriente Province. He was probably the only architect that conceived each project as an organic whole, from the doorknobs to the design of the exterior spaces. He believed he had to intervene as designer without leaving space for other specialists or colleagues, just as Frank Lloyd Wright and Alvar Aalto did in their day.

Visitors could use and manipulate every object on exhibit to test its operation; adding to the plausibility and proven materialization of the ideas they contained. Oddly, the exhibition became warm and familiar at times, different from the conventional form of exhibiting art works and objects thanks to that interaction with the public.

This “rescue” of a recent past stimulates a set of ideas regarding the creative processes in the fields of industrial design and architecture. It also shows the efficiency of its curatorship, since the procedure differed from the one frequently used in a traditional museum or in documentary showcases to inform us of a past that no longer belongs to us. It proves the importance of searching into our origins, of apprehending intelligently the historical experience, of calling ourselves in order, as colloquially expressed, to avoid making the same mistake twice or more.

The curatorship appealed to the collective memory, to the cultural imagery that today remains lethargic and inactive in so many spheres of life; to bring it back with the necessary critical view (although that was not the central purpose of the exhibition) of these times, so much in need of imagination and efficiency.

The curatorial work included rigorous research about those years from beginning to end. Without it, it would have been almost impossible to show how important the convulsive, polemic, transgressing years the 1960s turned out to be. And, of everything available, it was necessary to pick out and exhibit the most valuable.

Design was part of an innovative machine in the life of Cubans that gradually declined, in spite of the efforts of so many valuable creators who worked to establish and fill the utopias in this thin Caribbean island. The machine is still there, somewhat rusty and lacking maintenance, awaiting the necessary changes proclaimed on more than one occasion.

No Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Previous Ediciones Vigía y el libro - arte en Cuba
Next Ideas de habitaciones para los pequeños