Friday, September 19, 2008

....and welcome you to wonderland

Partly inspired by Owen Hatherley's recent post on Googie architecture (linked to previously), here's a short tribute to an exquisite piece of proto-Googie.

Club Tropicana is Havana's most famous nightclub. Its heyday was in the pre revolution Battista years when it was a popular venue for the more "discerning gangster". When the mob bosses upped sticks and returned to the US at the end of the '50's it became an inspiration for the spectacular architecture of Las Vegas, which, after all, had to learn from somewhere too.

Club Tropicana was designed in the early 1950's by Max Borges Jr. although it had exsited as a club since 1939. It lies in the outer suburbs of Havana at the end of a long palm fringed road. Arriving at night the road is lit up by neon outlines of dancers hanging in the trees and glowing archways. Cars swing up to a classic car port entrance with a brightly lit fountain in the centre. From here you step into a disorientating mirrored entrance hall leading you out to a natural open-air ampitheatre formed by a circle of palm trees. Spectacular neon signs float within this space. There are two stages with a hidden connection between the two running through the trees so that the dancers flit invisibly from one to the other.

The club hosts a fabulously old school salsa cabaret here every night. Guests sit on long tables in large groups, reminiscent of the spectacular scene in Goodfellas where Scorceser spins the camera around the wise guys and their wives at a nightclub. Except here the tables contain European tour parties bussed in from Havana's resort hotels. Armies of waiters bring individual bottles of rum and cans of coke from which you mix your own drinks.

What's particularly beautiful though is that there isn't any architecture, at least in the traditional sense. There are no walls, no roof, no supporting columns. The space is defined by the dark crescent of tress, the almost invisible stage infrastructure and the dancers themselves. It is like a fabulous cross between Morris Lapidus and Yves Klein's Air Architecture, a building in the most abstract sense, made of signs and lights and action.

Club Tropicana is also a timewarp, a place where tuxedoed gentlemen in rather obvious wigs shimmy sedately across the stage and make cartoonishishly lustful faces at the dancers in their sequinned feathers. The outfits themselves are extraordinary architectural creations with vast cantilevered wings and flamboyantly engineered head dresses.

Club Tropicana is a perfect example of what Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown saw in Las Vegas: an architecture not of traditional spatial articulation or materiality, but one of (literal) free floating signifiers in space. As the Venturi's noted, the darkness of the typical casino floor makes the outer edges of the space indiscernible. The architecture appears to evaporate leaving just the flashing lights and the suspense of the gaming tables. At Club Tropicana though the walls have literally disappeared and the space of the club is defined only by the spectacular events taking place within it.

Here we come to an odd merging of two radically different strands of architecture; the avant garde with its dream of a demateralised architecture, and the effects and illusions of entertainment complexes. It's a Small World meets Superstudio.


neon signage said...

There's something about these old signs, architecture and costumes that I just love. I wasn't even alive in 50's or 60's, so I don't know what it is. Maybe I've just seen too many TCM movies ha ha.

Like you mention Goodfellas. I hate the ethics of mobs and gansters, but I've watched that movie often just for the interior scenes and the atmosphere. Anyway great photos and a great post.

Charles Holland said...

Thanks. Yes it's amazingly redolent of that nightclub scene. I think Casino is fabulously visually rich too although much less successful as a film...