Two young women in muslin dresses sit in a relaxed yet formal pose, surrounded by aristocratic markers of 19th century Cuban life: rococo gilt tables, chandeliers, birds mounted inside shiny glass domes, and, at the far end of the tiled parlor, a giant mirror that captures the entire scene—including the photographer, George Bernard—in reverse. For architect Hermes Mallea, who included it as part of his book, Great Houses of Havana, the photograph is astonishing both for its rarity and completeness of detail. In 1860 Bernard, later to become known for his images documenting the American Civil War, was given unprecedented access to the private areas of the Palacio de Los Condes de Santovenia, in Havana’s Plaza de Armas. The scenes he captured provide an intimate view into a way of life closed to most outsiders.
“The interpretation of historical interior photographs is what I’m all about,” explains Mallea over lunch near the New York architecture and design firm, M (Group), he owns with his business and life partner, Carey Maloney.
Mallea observes how the photograph reveals a number of traditional Cuban elements, including louvered windows that controlled the intensity of sunlight and wicker chairs that could be picked up and carried throughout the room.
Great Houses of Havana, subtitled A Century of Cuban Style, juxtaposes vintage and contemporary scenes of the city’s architectural treasures; a “then and now” approach that builds upon an understanding of the living past as experienced through a rich, multilayered present. It was published by Monacelli Press in 2011, the same year Mallea organized an exhibition of his family’s photographs for a museum on the Plaza de Armas.
“The book is a celebration of the sophistication of architecture and design in Havana,” Mallea explains, “of how it wasn’t provincial, how it was very directly influenced by what was going on in the rest of the world, architecturally. You know, for a Caribbean island, the fact that we were producing architecture at that level is something to be very proud of. One thing that’s been really gratifying to me since the book came out is that people in Havana recognize that, and people in the Miami exile community recognize it. To me, the celebration and the pride of our design accomplishments unite us.”