John Kerry watched a soldier hoist the American flag over the United States Embassy in Havana on Friday morning. He’s the first secretary of state to visit the land of Castro, communism, and cigars in 70 years. The embassy itself, an acclaimed example of midcentury modern architecture, has been rotting for just as long.
In a sense, it’s a beautifully tragic metaphor for the arc of post-war American history. The U.S. enlisted contemporary starchitects Wallace K. Harrison and Max Abramovitz to design the building just a few years after World War II ended. Harrison and Abramovitz are perhaps best known for their work on Lincoln Center and the United Nations headquarters in New York City, but their design for the embassy in Cuba carried a particularly and even unpredictably heavy connotation. Completed in 1953, the subtly imposing structure implied a sense of American superiority as the Space Race took off and the Cold War heated up.
The U.S. Embassy in Havana, designed by Harrison and Abramovitz, after its completion in 1953.
With its imported Italian travertine façade, the architecture said what the diplomats wouldn’t: The American way was the way of a prosperous future. After President Obama announced plans to restore diplomatic relations with Cuba last year, former foreign correspondent Michael Z. Wise explained the historical connotation and importance of the embassy in Architect magazine:
Having weathered vicissitudes of U.S.-Cuban relations, the Havana embassy building endures as a still functioning relic of Washington’s post-war bid to use modern architecture to project its image as a triumphant, dynamic superpower. As Ron Robin noted in Enclaves of America (Princeton University Press, 1996), Architectural Forum wrote in 1953 that with the Havana design, the State Department was “displaying to the rest of the world a colorful picture of a young, progressive and modern-minded America,” and the article noted its dramatic contrast with the Soviet Union’s outpost in Havana, which was housed in a Spanish colonial-style structure.
Perhaps it’s appropriate, then, that President Eisenhower closed the embassy after the Castro regime accused the U.S. of using it as a spy base in 1961, the same year that the original CIA headquarters opened in Langley, Virginia. Can you guess who the architects were for that building? Harrison and Abramowitz, of course.
There’s an even darker side to the embassy metaphor, though. Despite widespread praise for the design, the building itself was fundamentally flawed. The excess of fully exposed glass in a tropical climate led to all kinds of trouble keeping the building cool. The windows later started leaking and have since been replaced. Inside, the furnishings, which included reproductions of Mies van der Rohe’s iconic Barcelona chair, hardly saw any use since the U.S. abandoned the embassy just eight years after its opening. For nearly two decades, Switzerland protected the structure until the Carter administration established a U.S. Interests Section in 1977.
With limited diplomatic function, the embassy building received little attention in the last part of the 20th century. Things took a twisted turn during the Bush regime, however, when the U.S. turned the building’s façade into a billboard that broadcast pro-democracy messages in Spanish. “How sad that all the people who would know how to run this country are driving taxis or cutting hair,” it read at one point. There were more provocative messages: “In a free country you don’t need permission to leave the country. Is Cuba a free country?”
Young Cuban soldiers gather at Anti-Imperialist Park in front of the U.S. Embassy building in 2007.
Fidel Castro didn’t appreciate George W. Bush’s cheeky jab at his ideals. In 2006, the former Cuban president hoisted 148 black banners on a newly constructed field of flagpoles in order to obscure the embassy and its pro-America propaganda. Castro also renamed the plaza “Anti-Imperialism Park.” Castro, it seems, was not one for subtle metaphors.
It’s hard to believe that less than 10 years later, Bush’s erstwhile opponent John Kerry would be standing in the same plaza, in the shadow of the same embassy, watching an American flag fly up another flagpole. “The president has taken steps to ease restrictions on remittances, on exports and imports to help Cuban private entrepreneurs, on telecommunications, on family travel, but we want to go further,” Kerry said. “Just as we are doing our part, we urge the Cuban government to make it less difficult for their citizens to start businesses, to engage in trade, access information online.”
Workers carry the Great Seal of the United States to be hung on the front of the embassy on the day of the flag-raising.
Kerry sounds like a diplomat, the kind that works with foreign governments instead of overthrowing them. This is welcome progress after a decade of senseless wars with questionable motives in the Middle East. It’s also a tacit reminder that American foreign policy has often made little sense—kind of like building a grand monument to progress only to abandon it a few years later.
But the bright side of history is that it keeps moving forward and, with any luck, world leaders bear the burden of their predecessors’ failures bravely. Thanks to a recent renovation, the U.S. embassy in Havana has a new limestone façade, one that’s a little more humble and hopefully more durable than the travertine before it. Let’s hope the American people get the chance to visit this time around.
A young girl looks out an embassy window at the flags of the United States and Cuba.
Images via AP / Getty