The many faces of an extraordinary city – La Habana

Few cities in the world have such a varied and extraordinary architectural legacy–also unknown to most tourists. From the 17th to the 20th centuries, from the Calzada del Cerro to the El Vedado district, the city of Havana holds true gems that now face the challenge of restoration.

One of the great attractions of Havana is that there is not only one, but many Havanas. The most well-known and less run-down is colonial Havana, the city of five plazas–Plaza de Armas, Plaza de San Francisco, Plaza Vieja, Plaza de la Catedral and Plaza del Cristo; the city of La Fuerza and La Cabaña fortresses; the city of Obispo Street. But beyond the historical centre lies a fabulously eclectic Havana; and an Art Deco Havana; and a modern 1950s Havana.

You also have the Havana of Carpentier with its columns and arcades. The Havana of wide avenues–Calzada del Cerro, Monte, Infanta–winding in all directions and lined with covered walks that protect passers-by from the rain and sun. And the stately Havana of El Vedado, divided and subdivided into a regular grid pattern; or the exclusive Havana of Quinta Avenida and the Country Club; or the Havana of the coastal villages of Regla and Casablanca.

Few visitors, however, really get to appreciate and take joy in these “other” Havanas.

Havana is perhaps the only city in the Americas–and one of the few in the world–that enjoys two rare privileges: having an immense and valuable architectural heritage of different periods and styles, and having survived real estate speculation and unbridled development. Owing to historical and political circumstances, the Cuban capital all but froze at the end of the 1950s.

Atop the Loma de Chaple, a group of houses, which are superimposed in a labyrinthine plan, have the best views of Havana. Built between the 1920s and 1950s on an elevation of 60 metres, the small neighbourhood is as much a hidden treasure for the tourist as the Calzada del Cerro, the former primitive road which connected the capital with the tobacco vegas in the Vuelta Abajo region in Pinar del Río.

This long, arcaded road, which is today in a deplorable state yet still beautiful in its decadence, still flaunts a great many of the large estates built there in the 19th century by the Havana patriarchy, who fled from the congested walled city. “El Cerro was the first escape option for the rich to new territories. There, they built independent houses, surrounded by gardens and preceded by ample columned porches–true mansions in the neoclassical style. Richly ornamental materials, including precious woods, polychrome marbles, bronze, stained glass and wrought-iron railings that still today dazzle thanks to their originality, were used in their construction,” claims María Elena Martín, co-author of the best documented architecture guide of Havana.

The Calzada del Cerro was completed during the first half of the 20th century with the construction of homes and services for the middle and working classes, who observed the planning standards with regard to ceilings, continuous facades and front porches. Today, walking down this majestic zigzagging road, you stumble upon the past that has been incorporated into present-day life: old women seated in rocking chairs made of majagua under shaded porches; people playing dominoes in front of partly destroyed mansions; trucks and bicycles going up and down the bustling street; self-employed workers filling lighters or repairing watches next to cracked pilasters, laurel and grape ornaments, and a jumble of washed-out Doric, Ionic, Corinthian and eclectic columns, in every form you can imagine.

Owing to its patrimonial value, a large part of El Cerro was declared protected area in 1987. But this has not been of much use–deterioration progresses and outstanding examples of a significant architectural period in the city’s history are lost every day. Other Havana neighbourhoods concentrate a great many important buildings, which have been equally forgotten, although not only by the usual tourist route, but by the municipal authorities and the Government as well.

Richness and architecture
On one corner of El Vedado disctrict, across the John Lennon Park, stands a palatial house in eclectic style with an exceptional two-storey tower that no one ever notices. Today, this 1920s mansion is home to 15 families, who have subdivided the original spaces according to their possibilities and needs. The former kitchen is today a tiny apartment. The dining room, library, remaining rooms and halls have all suffered a similar fate. The terraces are plain and simple delirium: one family has built a tiny apartment, which is the exact opposite of the majestic original high ceilings. High up, the tower accommodates two different families.

Unfortunately, this is a pretty common sight in El Vedado, a district which began to be built during the colonial days and introduced a modern urban-structure model in Havana. “Unlike the old city, El Vedado included wide tree-lined avenues, entire blocks for parks, and spaces reserved for schools, churches, markets and other services. Built on separate lots, the houses all boasted their own private gardens and porches, and many of them were designed by the best architects of the time,” explains Martín.

Such is the case of the former mansion of Catalina Lasa, for years the Cuban-Soviet Friendship House; or the former mansion owned by José Gómez Mena, today the Museum of Decorative Arts. Two French firms participated in both projects: the former was decorated by French designer René Lalique, and the latter was designed by French architects Viard and Destugue.

“In Havana, the rich were very rich, and there were also many…And wealth always helps to hand down good architecture,” observed Mario Coyula, who directed the group for the Integral Development of the Capital. In the opinion of this architect, “Havana’s principal patrimonial value lies in the extensive body of buildings constructed for an omnipresent middle class.” And this patrimony–deteriorated but still standing and serviceable–covers a range of architectural styles from almost five centuries of constructive activity: pre-Baroque, Baroque, neo-Classicism, eclecticism, art nouveau, art deco and the important contribution of the modern movement.”

On San Lázaro Street, which connects the historical centre with the modern city, you find an assortment of facades, most of which are of the eclectic style, shamelessly combining columns, pilasters, balconies, cornices, balustrades and other architectural elements. On this main road of Centro Habana, there is no spectacular building that stands out for its intrinsic values. Like an orchestra, it is the harmonious sound of the ensemble that attracts and prevails. And this is characteristic of every neighbourhood in Centro Habana, a fact that fascinates visitors without exactly knowing why.

The 14 blocks from Paseo del Prado to the Antonio Maceo Park, along Havana’s Malecón, are an exceptional testimony of this unique architectural heritage…and a heartbreaking manifestation of what is happening. Almost the entire two kilometres of this great window to the city are seriously damaged and some buildings have already collapsed. Surely millions of Euros would be needed to restore these blocks, which constitute one of the most wonderful environments in the city.

Walking down the Malecón on the Vedado side of town, it isn’t difficult to realize that if a normal urban development had continued in the 1960s, many of Havana’s incredible neighbourhoods would have disappeared. “Luckily, Havana was freed of this menace, but not of others,” says Martín, who defends architecture, and especially the patrimony of the 20th century, as one of the most precious virtues of the city, disregarded today due to its deterioration.

Havana’s principal enemy today is negligence and the lack of resources for its restoration. But also, paradoxically, in some areas of the city, the “excess” of money is becoming a problem, according to several architects.

The Historical Centre serves as example

The work of restoration and preservation of Old Havana is a good example of how things should be done to save the city. In the 214 hectares that comprise the historical centre, there are 3,370 buildings. Of these, 551 are architectural monuments and 22,663 are dwellings that accommodate approximately 70,000 people. Over 45 percent of the houses counted during the last census lack adequate living conditions and half of these are situated in tenements where several families share common areas, including lavatories.

In 1981, the authorities approved the Restoration Plan for the Historical Centre, which, one year later, was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO. Since then, the City Historian’s Office, headed by Eusebio Leal, has been in charge of restoring palaces, plazas, buildings, streets and houses in Old Havana, combining the restoration of the buildings for commercial purposes with the creation of social institutions, such as old people’s homes, schools, day-care centres, and maternal and child homes, for its dwellers.

From 1994 to 2004, in the midst of one of the worst economic crisis in Cuba, over 80 construction works within the cultural heritage were restored and completed, including 14 hotels with a total of 413 guestrooms, and 100 tourist facilities, such as cafes, and shops, and 11 apartment buildings. Also, 171 social works and 3,092 dwellings were benefited. During this period, 10 times more properties were recovered than in the previous 15 years, and more than 11,000 direct jobs and around 2,000 indirect jobs were created.

The figures speak for themselves but do not really reflect the real impact of what has been done. Taking a stroll down any of the restored streets or plazas, such as Mercaderes, Oficios or the Plaza de San Francisco, filled with horse-drawn carriages, terraces and pigeons, or Plaza de Armas, taken by second-hand booksellers and newspaper vendors, is a real delight. At present, the ongoing work for the completion of the Colegio Universitario de San Jerónimo aims at reincorporating the academy to the Historical Centre, its place of origin.

Cuban and international experts agree that the model that has been implemented in Old Havana has worked efficiently. But many wonder if it is also applicable to other places in Havana with architectural merits and at risk of disappearing. No doubt, for a while now the Government and the people have become more sensitive and responsive to preserving Old Havana, but, according to the architect Juan García, this is not the case with other areas, despite the fact that some of them are protected by law.

Lack of sensitivity
Like many of his colleagues, he believes–and has expressed it officially–that the state of abandonment of many neighbourhoods and buildings today is due, among other reasons, to a general lack of sensitivity and awareness. In Cuba, when the topic of culture comes up, everybody thinks music, dance, theatre, literature, filmmaking or art, but, complains García, architecture does not have the adequate official recognition, despite being one of the greatest cultural legacies in the island.

The El Vedado district was declared architectural and urban heritage protected zone in 1999, yet it is continuously being transformed under the unpunished actions of its inhabitants and also of state entities. Mario Coyula and other Cuban professionals have denounced a worrying phenomenon that tends to become worse: “If the lack of resources to rehabilitate the city is a problem, so is the excess of money.”

He is referring to the way that some people who have advanced financially or who receive money from their relatives abroad are doing atrocities in their homes, which range from transforming architecturally valuable facades to constructing improvised garages in gardens and porches, substituting cemented floors for the necessary greenery, among many other transgressions. And all of this is done without the authorities taking any action at all or at least seeming to be interested in the solution to this increasing problem.

This is perhaps just a prelude. What will happen when the money really starts rolling in and real estate speculation becomes the city’s worst enemy? This is a question that many architects from Cuba and other parts of the world, who have seen the disasters in other cities, are asking themselves. Martín, Coyula, Leal and others agree that the essential thing is to be aware of what we have and to appreciate it as it deserves, and, of course, to protect the city fiercely. Havana is many Havanas at the same time, and yet unique. To discover it and save it is an adventure and there are many people who believe that it’s not too late. Let’s hope it can be done.


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