A revolution interrupted this architect's rise, but he never looked back


Borges in the late 1940s

The photographs of Max Borges's work before and after the Cuban revolution are stunningly telling. The befores: a study in elegance and daring, from the soaring concrete shells of Havana's famous Tropicana nightclub to the massive vaulted double arches of the seaside Club Nautico.

The afters: a handsome collage of suburban American garden-style apartments -- attractive and sturdy and utterly unremarkable. In between was a revolution. And a new beginning.

Max E. Borges was born in 1918 in Havana and lived in the United States while he attended high school, the Georgia Institute of Technology and Harvard's Graduate School of Design. On his return to Cuba, he joined the firm of his father, a well-regarded architect and engineer. Bold and ambitious, the younger Borges was soon pushing his father toward high-profile projects.

Borges also broke, with dramatic results, from his father's more conservative style of design, and soon distinguished himself as a first-rate architect who could marry modernism with Cuban style. At 30, Borges won a national award for his design of a medical building. There would be other notable creations, including the home he built for himself, wife Mignon and their two sons, Max and Philip. But none would match the acclaim Borges achieved in 1952 with the boundary-breaking Arcos de Cristal salon of Havana's Tropicana, a chic cabaret and casino that drew Nat King Cole, Ernest Hemingway, Carmen Miranda and a stream of American tourists.

Designed to make cabaret-goers feel as if there was nothing between them and the lush tropical night, the Arcos hall employed thin concrete vaults interspersed with sheets of glass. The effect was dazzling, "so unbelievably sophisticated," says Rosa Lowinger, an architectural conservationist and author of "Tropicana Nights." And Borges backed it up with a meticulous work ethic, Lowinger says. During construction, Borges himself scrambled to the top of the concrete arches to measure vibrations from a nearby train.

In photos from opening night, Borges and Mignon make a striking couple -- he, dapper in a tux, with angular features and a half-smile playing on his lips; she, radiant in a white dress and pearls, smiling broadly.

The Arcos de Cristal salon in Havana's
Tropicana nightclub

The now-famous architect mingled with public officials and wealthy clients. He hosted casual parties in the showcase home he built -- a sleek and spare modernist rectangle chicly outfitted by Mignon, who did interior design work.

In the summer 1959, the Borgeses flew to New Hampshire for vacation. The family would never return to Cuba. By summer's end, it had become clear that under Fidel Castro's new regime, "anybody that had any success or money was an enemy of the country," says Arturo Olivera, Borges's cousin.

Borges returned to Havana a few months later. Within days, he was in jail. After he was released, he was bold enough to risk sneaking out some family valuables. But the family's house and other property would be abandoned. At 41, Borges would start over.

It took a few years -- first in Florida and then in Pennsylvania -- but by 1961, Borges and his family had settled in Northern Virginia, where he and his brother started a business developing apartments. He would never again exhibit the architectural brilliance of his early career, with the single exception, perhaps, of the Lake Barcroft home he designed and built for his family. Unassuming on the outside, inside it is a luscious blend of glass and wood and gleaming stone -- purely modernist, with a hint of Cuban soul.

Those who knew Borges describe him as exceedingly smart, hardworking and single-minded. He was, at work and at home, intense, "not the warm and fuzzy type," says son Philip.

But underneath the tough exterior was a deep devotion to family. When his sons needed support, "he was always there," Max says. When a distant family member was widowed, Borges quietly sent money, Olivera says. Later in life, Borges delighted in his grandchildren.

And if he ever ached for the majesty of his early creations, he never showed it. "He just went forward and fought his way up," says Olivera. Of the thriving apartment business he and his brother built here, son Max says, "I think he was just as proud."

In their later years, Borges and Mignon, until she died in 2007, lived part of the year in Florida. It was from there, in his last year of life, that Borges told his sons, "I need to go home."

He died there Jan. 18, 2009, at the age of 90.

Christina Breda Antoniades writes regularly for the Magazine. She can be reached at antoniadesc@washpost.com.

PHOTOS: Courtesy Max M. Borges

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