Book signing Friday night

Architect Hermes Mallea rediscovers his roots through the Great Houses of Havana

Architect Hermes Mallea rediscovers his roots through the Great Houses of Havana

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A portrait of Che Guevara hangs at the base of the staircase in a rationalist/art deco-style home. Courtesy of Great Houses of Havana
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Great Houses of Havana, published in November 2011 Courtesy of Great Houses of Havana
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Author Hermes Mallea Photo via Great Houses of Cabana
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Beaux-Arts abound. Courtesy of Great Houses of Havana
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A pool house in the Casa de Pablo González de Mendoza fuses classical and Caribbean. Courtesy of Great Houses of Havana
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Palacio de la Condesa de Revilla de Camargo Courtesy of Great Houses of Havana
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New York architect Hermes Mallea left Cuba at the age of five. Decades later, he returned to his homeland for a lecture and found himself moved by and enamored with the architecture there.

Mallea came back to the United States with more photographs of buildings than of people, and with connections to historians eager to talk about the rich history and personalities of their country. From that launching point, Great Houses of Havana came to be.

"I have a family connection to photography," Mallea explained to CultureMap during a Houston visit to tout the book. "Photo albums are all that most people left with when they fled from the Revolution."

That connection manifests itself in an extensive collection of antique photographs. One in particular — an 1860 portrait of two young women in the home of a count, taken by American photographer George Barnard — served as an inspiration and a catalyst for the project. It also forms a chronological starting point for the book, which follows the style, the grandeur and the idiosyncrasies of Havana architecture and society from 1860 through 1960.

 "If you think about the Cuban personality, it's romantic, extroverted, informal, family-oriented," said Mallea. "Their houses are really a reflection of that style."

 Though communist Cuba, so isolated from much of the world for so many years, has reverted to a third-world state, and many of the formerly grand buildings and residences have met decay and misuse over time, Mallea and Carey Maloney, his partner in business (at M(Group) and as stylist for the book) and in life, insist that this isn't what the book is all about.

Sometimes the reader can see two-by-fours holding the ceiling above a sweeping marble staircase, or cracking glass doors and stucco facades, or chain link fences surrounding mansions, but the book invariably focuses on the architectural marvels that still exist in present day Havana, and the the vibrant people that accompany them.

"If you think about the Cuban personality, it's romantic, extroverted, informal, family-oriented," said Mallea. "Their houses are really a reflection of that style."

Mallea and Maloney spent two years taking week-long trips to Havana, forging relationships with Cuban historians and homeowners, working with young local photographers to capture the architectural gems, reconstructing life in Havana throughout the century.

There were plenty of obstacles, but the team was unrelenting and determined to gain access to certain places, like a palace-like home, once inhabited by an amateur primatologist, now used as a type of Boy Scout lodge. For the most part, locals received them warmly, but Mallea and Maloney were often not allowed to alter anything about a space (styling is minimal, so tables, chairs, flowers and decorations are portrayed as they were found) and expected to leave quickly.

The resulting images are striking, and the stories of how they came to be are priceless — like a ride in the back seat of a Volkswagen with Fidel Castro's former lover, and an unexpected but long-awaited invitation to the home of the French ambassador just hours before a flight back to the United States.

Some buildings featured within the pages are opulent and some are just unusual, but each comes with its own history. All portray a style uniquely Havana, built to withstand the heat and decorated in a confluence of styles from Spanish Colonial to Beaux-Arts, art deco to modern.

"The houses are all great, but that doesn't necessarily mean that they're all grand," explained Maloney.

Whatever the distinction, Great Houses of Havana is a treasure and a masterpiece. I look forward to a hopefully-forthcoming second volume.

Hermes Mallea will give a talk and a book-signing for Great Houses of Havana at 7 p.m. Friday at Brazos Bookstore.