Issue 13: The Split Wall

Iván L. Munuera

Reading time: 10 minutes



Helados revolucionarios: Coppelia y la arquitectura líquida de La Habana

Iván L. Munuera writes about the urbanistic ecosystem of Havana, stopping at the Coppelia ice cream shop as an allegory of the relationship between architecture and geopolitics.

Revolutionary Ice Cream: Coppelia and Liquid Architecture in Havana
The architecture of Cuba’s capital Havana has been analyzed through different lenses, and frequently based on assumptions of its insularity—an insularity that is not only recognized from a geographical perspective (the island), but also a conceptual perspective (the city’s isolation due to sociopolitical conditions). The city’s trajectory can be traced from such varied angles as colonialism—be it Spanish colonialism, which endured until 1898; the ensuing American imperialist practices that continued until the 1959 revolution; post and decolonial ideas put forth by Castro’s regime and its dissenters; the blockade politics produced by the Cold War and Cuba’s alignment with the Soviet Union; the international embargo; or economies of contemporary tourism. What is certain is that the practice of contemporary architecture in Havana, particularly from the nineteenth century to today, has been far from isolated. In fact, it is based on continuous exchange, generating a liquid ecosystem based on transaction, dialogue, and ongoing debates.
Liquid La Habana: Ice Cream, Rum, Waves, Sweat and Spouts, on view at the Princeton School of Architecture from April 9–May 11, 2018, proposed an exploration of these fluid transactions[1]. The concept of fluidity used in the exhibition in no sense refers to acceptance without friction; rather, it speaks of constant communication, at times gentle, at times violent. The show features a series of exchanges examined through five architectural projects that redefined (and continue to shape) Havana’s urban ecosystem and the discipline of architecture at large, in terms of the social contracts these projects laid out, the ideas about modernity that they radically confronted, their impact on the economy as well as gender and sexuality, in addition to diverse notions of privacy, diplomacy, aesthetics, geopolitics, race, and development. Coppelia, the Bacardi Building, the Malecón, the Tropicana Club, and the National Art Schools comprise the architectural projects examined in the show.

The ice cream parlor Coppelia was built in 1966 by Mario Girona, Rita María Grau, and Candelario Ajuria, with engineering assistance from Maximiliano Isoba and Gonzalo Paz. From the perspective of the exhibition where it is seen as a symbol of the new revolutionary society, Coppelia constituted a techno-social laboratory where the creation of a new species—particularly “Ubre Blanca,” a supercow capable of producing more milk than any other—was accompanied by international agreements and economic decisions.
Meanwhile, Mies van der Rohe’s project for the offices of Bacardi, an important producer of Cuban rum, challenged the notion of the decontextualized building designed by a renowned international architect, instead offering a project closely tied to existing Cuban architecture. The project required three years of planning (1957–1960) and was built in collaboration with Gene Summers and the engineers Saenz-Cancio-Martín, Álvarez y Gutiérrez, and Santiago Herrero. Its design marked Mies’s later trajectory as made evident in his subsequent projects, among them the Nationalgalerie in Berlin.

The Malecón, Havana’s five-mile waterfront promenade, was started in 1901 by McKim, Mead & White with the help of Purdy & Henderson Co. It was an engineering project that questioned notions of public space (it is referred to as the “world’s longest sofa”) through its different materialities (from its concrete and jaimanita stone to free Wi-Fi internet access). Meanwhile, waves—both oceanic and digital—slam into its surface and engulf unrealized projects (like Josep Lluís Sert’s 1953 plan for an artificial island) and completed buildings (like Antonio Quintana and Antonio Rodríguez’s apartment complex, built in 1967), starting with the bourgeois Paseo del Prado (designed by Forestier and Raul Otero in 1929).
The Tropicana Club (1952) designed by Max Borjes Jr. is interpreted in the exhibition as more than a simple tourist attraction; rather, it is a place where the sweat of bodies in motion redefines the concept of political architecture through a proposal that combines capitalist spectacle with socialist engineering experiments (the famous parabolic arches of reinforced concrete, for example).

Lastly, the National Art Schools (1961–65) designed by Ricardo Porro, Roberto Gottardi, and Vittorio Garatti are explored in the exhibition in terms of their sensual interpretations (often “exoticized” by the foreign press), epitomized in the “vulva fountain,” as well as in terms of their feats of construction (the use of brick and the Catalan vault) that made them a controversial symbol of the revolution. In all of these examples, the frequent collaboration between foreign architects (Mies, Girona, McKim, Mead & White, and Garatti) and locals (Porro, Grau, Quintana, and Borges, among others) is evident, problematizing such concepts as colonialism, decoloniality, indigenous architecture, and foreign influence, both before and after the revolution.
To understand the scope of these fluid transactions and their architectural-political approaches, the case of Coppelia is revealing, as it is intimately tied to Cuba’s contemporary history. One of the most famous images of Fidel Castro taken during his 1959 visit to New York is of him enjoying ice cream at the Bronx Zoo. Castro had traveled to the city in April, four months after the success of the revolution overthrowing Fulgencio Batista’s dictatorship. Briefly lodged at the Statler Hilton in Midtown Manhattan, Castro’s retinue quickly decided to change locations, moving to the Hotel Theresa in Harlem after an invitation from Malcolm X. They also decided to change their itinerary and visit more working-class areas of interest in New York—Central Park, Harlem, the Bronx Zoo—in support of the civil rights and other social movements in the United States, a decision that infuriated Eisenhower’s government, which would go on to propose the embargo in 1960 and cut diplomatic ties with Cuba in 1961. After this, the photograph of Castro eating an ice cream cone became more than just anecdotal.

For Castro, ice cream became part of his revolutionary project of social reconfiguration.

Immediately after the revolution, Castro ordered his Canadian ambassador to send him twenty-eight containers of ice cream from Howard Johnson’s, a US restaurant and hotel chain. After trying all the flavors, he decided that Cuba needed to respond on a revolutionary level by creating something bigger and better, yet still affordable enough that everyone could enjoy it, subsidizing its production and the final product.

Fidel Castro comiendo un helado en el zoo del Bronx en Nueva York, 1959. Imagen cortesía de Iván L. Munuera

The bet on subsidized ice cream had three facets: First, it was an obvious challenge to one of the quintessential capitalist brands, combining political activism with light-hearted enjoyment. Second, it was a means of introducing dairy products into the Cuba diet, which would help to combat the rampant malnutrition and infant mortality that had prevailed during the years of Batista’s dictatorship. The hypercaloric consumption of ice cream served as a festive counterpoint to these challenges. Third, the production of ice cream required sugar, which made sugar cane cultivation respectable again (it was tied to the pre-revolutionary regime) and transformed the productive and agricultural landscape of the island, as well as its economy and trade relations. In this way, Cuba became one of the primary exporters of sugar in the Soviet Bloc.
Today, both Cubans and foreign visitors can enjoy ice cream at different prices in the Coppelia ice cream parlor (it’s cheaper for Cubans). Located in the Vedado neighborhood on a site that was previously occupied by a children’s hospital, its location showed the new face of Castro’s government. Just a few meters away from the former Havana Hilton (now the Hotel Habana Libre, designed by Walton Beckett, Arroyo, and Menédez), the Edificio Radiocentro CMQ (responsible for the regime’s radio communication), the Cines Yara, the university, and the Rampa, a street rising up from the Malecón and which is the site of most governmental and institutional offices, Coppelia became the intersection of Cuba’s possible futures. With its open concrete structure surrounded by a lush tropical garden, its construction signaled a change in Havana’s architectural conception: opposite the soaring vertical towers that had marked the previous regime (such as the US Embassy designed by Harrison and Abramowitz with Mira and Rosich in 1952 or the 1957 Hotel Riviera designed by Johnson, Polevitsky, and Carrera), Coppelia proposed an expansive horizontal structure in the form of a spider, a response to the embargo which had led to a steel shortage and the subsequent abandonment of the construction of tall buildings (something also clearly visible in the National Art Schools).

Escuela Nacional de Ballet, Vittorio Garatti. Imagen cortesía de Iván L. Munuera

Coppelia’s name and logo (the legs of a dancer in red slippers) were inspired by Léo Delibe’s ballet, one of the most important pieces performed by Cuba’s National Ballet under the direction of Alicia Alonso. Under the new regime, the bodily discipline produced through dance was regenerated through one’s diet. Coppelia was also the favorite ballet of Celia Sánchez Manduley, a Sierra Maestra revolutionary, who was particularly worried about nutrition-related issues and who became a proponent of the ice cream parlor. The circular structure opened to the public on June 4, 1966, and it quickly became famous for its long lines. The Coppelia menu offers twenty-six flavors, in honor of the failed revolutionary coup in Moncada on July 26, 1953, an event that inspired the Cuban Revolution.
In a famous scene from the film Strawberry and Chocolate (Tomás Gutiérrez Alea and Juan Carlos Tabío, 1993), the two protagonists meet at Coppelia. At a time when the Cuban state persecuted members of the LGBTQIA+ community and dissidents, the ice cream parlor became a meeting place through the use of secret codes. The character played by Jorge Perugorría explains that chocolate and strawberry are flavors that can signify the sexual orientation of other customers, with strawberry signifying queerness. Today, Coppelia’s role as a space for urban interaction has been redefined through its free Wi-Fi access, expanding public space beyond the physical realm to the digital sphere. Moreover, it is one of the places where one can obtain the “Weekly Package” (Paquete Semanal), a terabyte collection of contraband material from abroad, replete with television series, from Game of Thrones to The Wire; music, from Rihanna to Maluma; newspapers, from The New York Times to Le Monde; software; and other media, from Vogue to Cosmopolitan.

The constellation of bodies and politics embodied in Coppelia’s architecture and ice cream is closely linked to the reconfiguration of Cuba’s productive landscape and international relations. The genetically modified cow Ubre Blanca (which translates to “white udder”), who lived from 1972 to 1985, became a symbol of agricultural modernization and a prodigious biodesign project (she was able to produce 109.5 liters of milk in a single day). Castro was obsessed with the project, publishing photos and news about the cow daily in Granma, the Communist party’s newspaper. When Ubre Blanca died, Castro decided to dedicate a stamp and a marble statue to her, placing it in his hometown. At the same time, he ordered geneticists to cryopreserve samples of her tissues in order to attempt to clone her at Cuba’s Center for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology. Ubre Blanca was then dissected and placed on permanent exhibition at the National Veterinary Center.
Crisis hit Cuba again in 1990, during the so-called Special Period following the collapse of the Soviet Union. When the German Democratic Republic (Cuba’s second most powerful ally in terms of commercial exchange) was reunified with the Federal Republic of Germany, millions of dollars in aid dedicated to powdered milk and other basic food products were cut. Almost simultaneously, the Soviet Union, on the verge of collapse, stopped sending butter. Faced with a lack of foreign currency to buy these products abroad and insufficient cows to provide milk domestically, Cuban authorities had to make a choice: butter or ice cream. They chose ice cream.

* Liquid La Habana: Ice Cream, Rum, Waves, Sweat and Spouts was made possible thanks to research that began during a multidisciplinary seminar in the spring of 2017 at the Princeton School of Architecture, offered by Beatriz Colomina, Rubén Gallo, Bart-Jan Polman, and myself, Ivan L. Munuera, with contributions from our students Andy Alfonso, Ingrid Brioso Rieumont, Shujie Chen, Ivan-Nicholas Cisneros, Darja Filippova, Akira Ishikura, Isidoro Michan, Mercedes Peralta, Javier Rivero Ramos, Gillian Shaffer, Enzo Vasquez, Eda Yetim, and Weiwei Zhang. The production of the architectural models (made by Adam Ainslie, Sharif Anous, Ece Emanetoglu, Sean Rucewicz, and Ece Yetim) was coordinated by Grey A. Wartinger. We would also like to thank manufacturer Stewart Losee, coordinator Kira McDonald, and Angel Firmalino, Ryan Gagnebin, Rami Kanafani, Andrea Ng, Anna Renken, and Sean Rucewicz for their support. The exhibition was designed by KniKnot; plexiglass pieces were designed by Fru*Fru.


  1. The exhibition was commissioned by Beatriz Colomina, Bart-Jan Polman and myself, Iván L. Munuera, with scientific advising from Ingrid Brioso Rieumont, Latin America specialist in Princeton’s Department of Spanish and Portuguese whose research centers on Cuba and the Caribbean. We carried out field work, interviews, project reconstruction, and newspaper and archival work, which led to the production of two simultaneous publications designed by Fru*Fru: one with texts, credits, and maps of the exhibition and the projects it examines, and another that functions as a reader, edited and translated by Ingrid Brioso Rieumont, which contained selected texts on Cuban architecture and urbanism in Havana, taken from various sources.


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