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Once a major global sugar cane producer, Cuba’s economy hit record highs in the early 1900s, with the years immediately following World War I known as the “Dance of the Millions”. After gaining independence from the Spanish in 1902, the country opened to US influence and huge architectural projects were hatched, funded by the glut of sugar money. Spanish architects from Catalonia armed with the curvaceous ideas of modernisme rubbed shoulders with influential new US transplants enamoured by the City Beautiful Movement, a classical revival movement born in North America that emphasised monumental classical buildings interspersed with salubrious parks and gardens. Cuba’s greatest building of this era was Havana’s towering neoclassical Capitolio Nacional, completed in 1929, a close copy of Washington, DC’s Capitol building. The Capitolio Nacional  housed Cuba’s congress until 1959.

Art Deco infiltrated Cuba from the US starting in the late 1920s. The handsome polychrome Edificio Bacardi, the former Havana headquarters of Cuba’s famous rum dynasty, is considered one of the finest examples of the genre in Latin America. Subsequent Art Deco constructions, such as Moncada Barracks (formerly an army barracks, now a school and museum) in Santiago de Cuba, scene of Fidel Castro’s failed 1953 putsch, conformed to a more austere and streamlined style redolent of the Tropical Deco buildings found in Miami. And although often pigeonholed as Art Deco, Havana’s emblematic Hotel Nacional remains for many a genre-bending hybrid that grafts Art Deco-style towers onto a neoclassical shell with a resplendently tiled Moorish interior.

Daring eclectic architecture continued to break the rules in Cuba in the 1920s and ‘30s as rich sugar barons competed to build ever more ostentatious mansions in the country’s flowering suburbs. Havana is dotted with fairytale palaces and mock-castles, some of them aesthetically stunning like the Fábrica El Laguito (2302 Avenue 146; 07-208-4654), a cigar factory in the swanky Cubanacán district; others verging on kitschy, like the Casa Española (cnr Calle 25 and Avenue 7; 07-206-9644], a restaurant in the neighbourhood of Miramar.

Other cities around the country competed to emulate the growing capital. Cienfuegos’ Punta Gorda peninsula is a riot of eclecticism crowned by the Palacio de Valle, formerly the home of a local sugar plant owner but now a restaurant, a curious blend of crenellated turrets and Islamic arches that could have been lifted from Spain’s Alhambra. To the west, in the otherwise nondescript city of Pinar del Río, the Palacio de Guasch (202 Calle Martí Este; 048-77-94-8300), built by a globe-trotting Cuban doctor named Francisco Guasch in 1914, melds Gothic, Arabic, Byzantium and Hindu features in what is possibly Cuba’s most whimsical building. Conforming to no known architectural guidelines, many observers refer to it as “Guaschian”. Others have described it as an architectural manifestation of magic realism, the writing style popularised by Carpentier and Colombian novelist, Gabriel García Márquez.

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