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26/06/18

American icon in the socialist island

In the heart of modern Havana, in the Vedado, is the La Rampa, a part of Avenida 23 where cultural splendor lived before the revolution with the Turquino cabarets or the Cañitas of the Hotel Hilton Habana (now Habana Libre) and after that, in the years when the revolutionary project was sexier.

During the nineteen sixties this location was the International Congress of Architecture (1963) for which the brutalist Cuba Pavilion was built. Every Saturday night in the Vidriera mágica the designer Fernando Ayuso showed his new designs with the models parading to the rhythm of the Grupo de Experimentación Sonora of the ICAIC (Cuban Institute of Cinematographic Art and Industry) or the painter Raúl Martínez flooded the walls of a cafeteria with his Pop murals that disappeared, a few years ago, under a coat of paint.

On this bustling axis is the Coppelia ice cream parlor, known as the "cathedral of ice cream" thanks to the film Fresa y Chocolate. This establishment is an excellent example of concrete architecture adapted to the Caribbean climate, the work of the architect Mario Girona, where the spaces merge into interiors and exteriors partially open and partially covered.

 

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The hundreds of chairs that provide seating in the multiple spaces of the establishment are the Bertoia model (Wire Chair) designed by Harry Bertoia for Knoll in 1952. Specifically (I sense) his 1955 outdoor version with a special treatment for exterior.

That Havana’s Coppelia was built in 1966 makes one doubt, perhaps, the greatest concentration of this chair model, whether or not it is Harry’s original model.

Inquiring in archives of the Cuban capital, I find in an architectural magazine from 1955 the announcement of this design, from when Knoll had distribution in at least one Havana establishment. It is possible to think that as a North American company it had to cut off its supplies on the island shortly after the start of the revolution.

The wear and tear suffered by these seats for more than fifty years is unimaginable. The lines in the popular ice cream shop are mythical in the Havana landscape. In these Bertoia, millions of customers have eaten ice cream. In this sense, if it is the original Knoll model, this is the irrefutable proof of a remarkable quality of its production. In the same sense, if it is an island copy, we must consider the same achievement.

The amazing thing is that when these fail, exhausted by decades of use, exposure to the weather, layers of paint and some rework of welds, the Cuban inventiveness tuned by the need, gives them new dimensions in another design exercise with a charge of remarkable intuition, which can be seen around the emblematic enclave.

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