Congratulations to Professor Paul Niell on the publication of Urban Space as Heritage in Late Colonial Cuba: Classicism and Dissonance on the Plaza de Armas of Havana, 1754-1828. Professor Niell’s innovative study of Havana’s foundational site was published in May 2015 by the University of Texas Press. According to national legend, Havana, Cuba, was founded under the shade of a ceiba tree whose branches sheltered the island’s first Catholic mass and meeting of the town council in 1519. The founding site was first memorialized in 1754 by the erection of a baroque monument in Havana’s central Plaza de Armas, which was reconfigured in 1828 by the addition of a neoclassical work, El Templete. Viewing the transformation of the Plaza de Armas from new perspectives in heritage studies, Professor Niell investigates how late colonial Cuban society narrated Havana’s founding to valorize Spanish imperial power and used the monuments to underpin a local sense of place and cultural authenticity, civic achievement, and social order.
Reviewers describe Niell’s book as “immensely important” for the field of colonial art history. Magali Carrera, Chancellor Professor of Art History at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth, writes, “This is an important book that successfully demonstrates the potential of heritage studies as a critical strategy to understand visual culture in the context of the production of identity, power, and authority in a society.”
In the spring of 2015 Professor Niell also received a Franklin Grant from the American Philosophical Society and a Committee on Faculty Research Support (COFRS) grant from the Council on Research and Creativity at FSU to support research on his next book project, Landscapes of Reform in Nineteenth-Century Puerto Rico. The project examines the ways in which a discourse about rational reform in the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Spanish world was manifested in the cultural landscape of Puerto Rico in a series of slave-owning societies in the aftermath of the Haitian Revolution (1791-1804). The study focuses on various Puerto Rican urban centers like San Juan, Ponce, and Mayagüez as well as the large agricultural district of Ponce’s broader municipality. Historians, like Francisco Scarano, have examined economic shifts in nineteenth-century Puerto Rico as they pertain to rise of an export-intensive plantation economy. In art and architectural history, Jorge Rigau has studied the imposition of beaux-arts “classicism” in urban centers, the standardization of street facades, and the incorporation of gridiron planning in urban extensions. Scholars have yet to examine, however, these transformations as matters of landscape or subjective constructions that suggest material culture as operative in the construction of capitalist identities. The project considers the perception of multiple temporalities in the landscape, for example, architecture considered traditional vs. modern. It also queries how multiple groups of Spanish, African, or Creole descent and of disparate socio-economic levels worked out their own spatial norms amidst these rapid shifts, sometimes in the same settings. The book will question how capitalist thinking was produced by architecture and embodied in space on the Caribbean island and the significance of Puerto Rico’s insular geography to these changes.