It was a kind offer -a ride from the artist's sleek, new studio on Avenida 31 featured in The Wall Street Journal in his new Volkswagen to the Richard Neutra house in Havana, currently the home of Anne-Pascale Krauer Muller, the Swiss Ambassador to Cuba.
The artist, Adrian Fernandez of 331 Art Space, where a trio of talented contemporary artists were now showing their work, had been there before and he was happy to give us a lift. "It's my favorite house in Havana," he said, as we headed southwest, arriving in a neighborhood of mansions housing foreign diplomats, as the only address we had was for the Swiss Embassy, not the residence, and as the guards at residences we stopped at did not know where it was. We turned in one direction and then another, but could not find the house. Then, after a phone call to a colleague, Fernandez got the right instructions and after driving around in a few more circles we arrived there 15 minutes late.
We had seen photos of the house, of course, California-based modernist architect Richard Neutra's only tropical casa and knew that it was not on any tourist itinerary. Chris Grimley, a Boston-based architect at Over, Under who had done work for the Swiss Embassy in the United States, told us, that if we wrote we might get permission for a tour. I wrote, asking permission for myself, my husband, Shael Shapiro, an architect, and my sister, Lily Hoffman, an urban sociologist. I was quite surprised to get a reply from the Ambassador herself saying that she would be happy to welcome us to see the public spaces and the grounds. "There are lots of requests to see the house," she explained when she welcomed us. "I had to streamline it, to reserve it to architects."
A handsome man in a white Guayabera was there to greet us and to usher us into the house where Ambassador Muller was awaiting. Shortly after we arrived, he returned with a silver tray, balancing cold drinks, water or mango juice.
Before we began our tour, Ambassador Muller spoke about the current boom in tourism in Havana, where there were more airlines and direct flights, two a week from Switzerland. A cruise ship owned by the Swiss company MSC arrived weekly with 2,000 on board. "It's very sudden for the infrastructure," she explained. "Cuba is one of the favorite destinations for Germans. Eight planes now arrive daily from the States. We need better transportation and more hotels."
Muller, who has been in Havana for four years, is returning home to Bern in the summer of 2016. For the past 12 years, she has served in England, Peru and Cuba, learning Spanish in Peru. Muller relates the history of the house, explaining that Richard Neutra was assisted by local associates Raul Alvarez and Enrique Gutierrez, with gardens designed by the Brazilian landscape architect, Burle Marx.
It was built from 1954-1956, for the family of Alfred de Schulthess, a Swiss Banker, who had three daughters and lived in the house for four years from 1956-1960. The land sloped downward and, in the early years, before the trees and foliage grew in, Muller said, "You could see the sea." There was a geometric garden with little walks and a reflecting pool.
Neutra's original concept was to link the exterior with the interior, a design which can be seen by the marble shelf that runs from inside the house to the outside and by the floors, whose travertine stone tile is the same both inside and out. Beams supporting the floor above, project through the glass wall, cantilevering out to carry the balcony. A similar detail on the second floor supports the roof and canopy over the balcony.
The Swiss have maintained the building in perfect condition, a difficult feat given the Havana climate. Over the years, double glass paned windows were added so that the house could be air conditioned and the thin wood paneling throughout the house, subject to the high humidity, was replaced with thick wood to combat warping.
Although the tour did not include the second level, Muller said that the house originally had five bedrooms, with baths serving adjoining bedrooms and with most rooms having built-in furniture.
Evidently, the Schulthess family consulted with Neutra about these built-ins as a letter dated December 16, 1954 from Schulthess's daughter Britta which is included in the book, Modernidad Tropical Neutra, Burle Marx Y Cuba: La Casa De Schulthess by Edwardo Luis Rodriguez (2007) reveals.
Britta asked Neutra for two beds in her room to accommodate a friend sleeping over, and a desk with drawers, because she had lots of home work and she liked to draw. Since her hobby was collecting books, and she already had 90, she asked for many book shelves, and a table for her beloved doll's house.
We did not see the built-ins but can only guess that they remain in this modernist gem.
All photos: Shael Shapiro