Havana in the 1950s was a scene of extraordinary architectural creativity, as a postwar surge in the sugar and tourism industries, along with ambitious civic leaders and a cosmopolitan elite, transformed the city into a showcase of progressive architecture. The generation of architects who advanced the modern movement in Cuba with exuberant, avant-garde designs lost one of its finest on January 18, when Max Borges Recio died at age 90 at his home in Falls Church, Virginia. Borges built a remarkable body of work in Cuba during the late 1940s and 1950s, but he will undoubtedly be remembered for the Cabaret Tropicana, the legendary nightclub that came to symbolize the glamour of pre-Revolutionary Havana.
Max Enrique Borges Recio was born into an affluent Havana family in 1918. He studied architecture as an undergraduate at Georgia Tech and earned a master’s degree at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design. He then returned to Havana and joined the architectural firm of his father, Max Borges del Junco. The senior Borges was a prominent architect, producing important civic, commercial, and residential buildings. (The firm of Max Borges and Sons, incidentally, designed my great aunt’s house in the Vedado section of Havana. Max Sr. and Jr. were friends of my mother’s family in Cuba and, after the Revolution, in northern Virginia.) As a consequence of his social connections, Max Jr., or “Maxito,” as he was known, got an early start with prestigious commissions. His design for the Center for Medicine and Surgery in El Vedado won the Cuban National Architecture Award in 1948, when Borges was only 30.
Major fame arrived in 1951, with the construction of the Tropicana in Havana’s leafy Marianao suburb. Borges had worked with the Spanish-Mexican engineer Félix Candela, whose investigations into thin-shell concrete structures and, in particular, his signature hyperbolic paraboloids were influential throughout Latin America. Borges’ composition of overlapping slices of concrete vaults joined by delicate glass diaphragms in the Tropicana’s “Arcos de Cristal” creates a seemingly weightless enclosure over the 1,700-seat main theater, a sophisticated adult fantasyland without equal.
Borges continued his exploration of thin-shell concrete in the 1953 design for the Club Náutico, a beach club in the Playa district west of Havana. Here the staggered vaults provide shelter from the sun and are heavy enough to withstand hurricanes that routinely batter the shore. Working during the 1950s with his brother Enrique Borges Recio, also an architect, Borges created several celebrated buildings that still stand in Havana, including the Banco Nuñez (1957), a minimalist glass box roofed by a series of inverted pyramidal vaults, also designed with Candela. Borges’ own house of 1948 is a refined Corbusian box perched on piloti in Miramar.
After the triumph of Fidel Castro’s revolution in 1959, Borges—by then married with two sons—left the island and settled in Virginia, producing a respectable portfolio of buildings around Washington, D.C. Yet nothing he built in America approaches the genius of his work in Havana. In this sense, Borges’ career is sadly typical of most of the great modernists who exiled themselves from Cuba. Nicolas Quintana, Frank Martinez, Manuel Gutierrez, and the great Mario Romañach all had Havana careers equal to that of Borges, but could never fully transplant their talents. (The exception is perhaps Ricardo Porro, who has had a thriving practice in Paris since 1964.)
Borges is survived by his sons Max Borges Olmo, an architect, and Philip Borges Olmo, both of Fairfax County, Virginia, and by his brother Enrique, of Key Biscayne, Florida. Borges also leaves behind the beautiful house that he built for himself and his family in the Lake Barcroft section of Falls Church in 1962. Meticulously detailed in stone, wood, and glass, and filled with plants,it would not be out of place in Marianao or Playa. It is the only work of true Cuban architecture that he built in the United States.