This will be one of my last two blog posts on Cuba. I begin with a selection of Havana architecture to highlight the variety of styles that one might encounter. Following this section are two that capture revealing architectural details. The final section, Picturesque Dereliction, illustrates examples of the deterioration of Havana’s architecture caused by complex factors, one of which is the lack of funds and materials to maintain and repair the buildings.
The Paseo del Prado (aka: Paseo de Martí) was the first large street built outside of the old city walls between 1770 and the mid-1830s. Beginning in 1884, however, it saw improvements in lighting, paving and benches, an activity that coincided with the erection of dwellings by Havana’s wealthier families. All this brought to the Prado a new splendor that still characterizes this street.
The two photographs above offer a small glimpse of the variety of what I would call neo-Renaissance and neo-Baroque architecture. They show a creative range of classicizing elements from broken pediments, columns in-antis, segmental arches, banded piers, decorated pilasters, friezes, spandrels, brackets and crests. This diversity of formal detail in each structure may well signal a certain level of individualism at work; however, the fact that every building façade extends out to the street edge to create a continuous, covered portico for pedestrians, also signals a balancing social imperative.
Located just east of the Prado, between the streets of Zulueta and Avenida de las Misiones (Monserrate) is the one-time Presidential Palace–located where the old city wall used to be. Conceived in 1909 and designed by the Belgian architect Paul Belau and the Cuban, Rodolfo Maruri, it was meant to house the Provincial Government. But in 1918, President Menocal (encouraged by his wife) took it over and, in 1920, the finished building was inaugurated as the Presidential Palace instead. For fifteen years in the wake of the Revolution, it housed the Government, the Council of Ministers, and the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Cuba. Then, in 1974, it officially became a museum dedicated to the Cuban Revolution.
Even in this distant view, taken from the other end of the Plaza, the High Baroque qualities of this cathedral are apparent, with its columns in the round, some doubled, some single; with its concave façade curving sharply inwards towards its central portal; and with its undulating pediment consisting of at least six separate, curving segments.
The date shown in my caption refers to the original church, which served as a sanctuary for freed slaves. However, most of the structure we see today dates from the next century: 1707-1760. Regardless of date, its cubic simplicity is quite appealing and offers a strong antidote to the complexity of the Cathedral of Saint Christopher, or even of its near neighbor, Our Lady of Mercy (directly below).
This is Havana’s oldest, extant fortification. In this view, we can see the sharp, angled walls of a typical Renaissance bastion fort, a moat, and the lookout tower known locally as La Giraldilla because the figure of its weathervane (which my photograph cuts off). That weathervane was modelled after that of the Giralda bell tower of the Cathedral in Seville. The unseen figure holds a cross in one hand and the trunk of a palm tree in the other; she has sometimes been called the symbol of Havana and, more specifically, the “symbol of endless love.”
Diplomatic ties with the Soviet Union began with the Cuban Revolution of 1959 and lasted until the dissolution of the U.S.S.R. in 1991. However, Cuba and Russia maintain diplomatic relations and strong economic ties, with Russia remaining Cuba’s major creditor. In 2002, Fidel Castro offered to build this Cathedral of the Russian Orthodox Church as a statement of Russian-Cuban friendship. Its designing architect was Alexey Vorontsov.
Porticoed palaces define the Plaza de Armas in the manner of European Renaissance and Baroque plazas. Here we look towards the Palacio de los Capitanes Generales from within the portico of the Palacio del Segundo Cabo (1770-1772). The latter began as the Royal Post Office, only becoming the residence of the army vice-captain general in the following century. The former was the home for the Spanish Colonial Governors. It later served as Havana’s City Hall until, in 1967, it became the City Museum.
This Doric temple-fronted structure is more Roman than Greek, so let’s call it a bit of Greco-Roman Revival architecture. It commemorates the first mass and town council held in the city of Havana. These events are captured in a history painting that hangs inside made by Jean Baptiste Vermay, a disciple of Jacques Louis David.
Although a curious structure, partly due to its siting, Santo Ángel Custodio can be identified as a Gothic Revival church by the many pinnacles with their crockets and, of course, by that tall pointed arched portal.
From what I can gather, the stonework that seems unfinished to either side of the columned façade, as well as much of the fabric that extends back towards the dome, dates from the earlier church of 1668 which was destroyed in 1730 by a hurricane. What particularly intrigued me about this church is how some of its buttresses were used. In this general photo above, we can see one clunky “flying buttress” extending out to our left beyond the church walls. As we walk around to the rear of the church, we encounter more of these buttresses. The middle photograph of the three above reveals a stone bench nestled between two walls with arched openings. Those walls are two more “flying buttresses.”
The result is a design in which the apse buttresses of this church function not only to channel thrusts safely to the ground, but also create an intimate, enclosed space for contemplative sitting. I advise visiting this “hidden space” in the early morning, sit on the bench and watch the city wake up as the sun rises.
One of a system of colonial fortresses meant to protect Havana Bay, this castle was designed by Giovanni Baptista Antonelli. It and the other two main forts find their place of honor on Havana’s coat of arms.
In the district of Miramar, some 6 or 7 miles west of Habana Vieja, one may encounter some unexpected forms of architecture. In the example above, the state-owned, open-air restaurant, El Aljibe, offers a traditional form of architecture: a simple, trabeated structure of wood posts, beams and rafters covered with a thatched roof of palm fronds. Thatched roofs are international, of course, and part of the traditional architecture of many countries, but the open structure of El Aljibe implies a tropical location.
In the example below, also in Miramar, we encounter a very different form of international architecture, the curtain wall structure. Such a structure, with its main façades sheathed in glass, is better adapted to more temperate zones. Even though designed by a Cuban architect, Roberto Caballero, the Panorama Hotel is anomalous, as are the other buildings around it. They serve wealthy tourists who expect the familiar amenities of home. The Cuban architect and historian, Mario Coyula [1935-2014], called this a “Failed Architecture.” It creates a “suburban, car-depending, American-style center in the Havana outskirts, with the sole functions of providing lodging of foreigners and office and rental spaces.” There is nothing to do here (except possibly find a beach). As Coyula states, “this is an artificial enclave…without relation to the city and to the majority of Havana’s population.”
Had Cuba not had a Revolution in 1959 and turned its back on the United States of America, downtown Havana may well have looked just like this.
This looming, Constructivist tower in concrete is another example of what could have been (worse) in Havana architecture after the Revolution, had the (Soviet) Russians chosen to inject more of their heavy-handed, functionalist building style into Havana’s older fabric. The Soviet Embassy (now Russian Embassy) was designed by Aleksandr Rochegov, who would be honored as “The People’s Architect of the USSR” four years after the completion of this building. Locals nicknamed it La Jeringuilla, “the syringe,” for reasons that require no explanation.
For better or for worse, it would appear that Russian influence on Cuba is growing once more. As American journalist, Joe Conason, wrote quite recently, Donald Trump’s “presidency…is teaching millions of Cubans–along with people around the world–to see the United States as a symbol of disappointment rather than hope.” Conason notes that Trump’s hostility toward Cuba is helping the Kremlin: “Russian agencies and companies have negotiated technology, defense, and commercial agreements with the Cubans, including an ambitious scheme to rebuild the island’s decrepit railroad system.”
May the Russians rebuild Cuba’s railway, while also, I hope, refrain from any large architectural projects that may destroy the special urban infrastructure that still defines so much of Havana.
This elegantly-proportioned loggia of five semicircular arches on Doric columns, four free-standing and two engaged, defines the southwest edge of what is now known as the Plaza Vieja. Originally a family mansion, the building now functions as an art exhibition space. The square was planned as Havana’s third open space when it was first constructed in 1559, and was then known as the Plaza Nueva. In contrast to the norm for plazas in the western world, it has solely served residential and commercial purposes and avoided any association with religious or military functions.
This beautiful mansion, with its stately, deeply-projecting cornice, was designed by the team of Evelio Govantes and Félix Cabarrocas (Ayala). It was designed for Juan Pedro Baró and his wife, Catalina Laza. Their story is touching and sad, as you may read in this brief “history of love.” Today the building is run by the government as part of ICAP (Instituto Cubano de Amistad con los Pueblos), the purpose of which is to cultivate friendship and understanding with people/visitors from around the world.
The Hotel Nacional was declared a national monument twenty years ago, in part for its long celebrity guest list and–of course–for the architectural team who designed it: McKim, Mead and White. It sits proudly atop a promontory known as La Loma de Taganana. Deep in the hill below it lie several caves, one of which gives its name to the hill and brings to this grand setting the likelihood that it once served as a staging area for pirate ships.
The district known as El Vedado mainly developed in the early twentieth century and is characterized by larger, wider streets with sidewalks. Thus the houses–really villas–are set back and usually boast of driveways if not garages. These villas are also detached from one another, as can clearly be seen. This feature, as well as the fact that the Vedado included trees in its street pattern–a first for Havana–gives it the feel of an up-scale suburb.
Try as I might, I have failed to find anything in my on-line research about this. Who made it or had it made? When was it done? It could well date to 1830, but I don’t even know this. Did it have a name other than Jardines del 1830? This one photograph captures only a part of this fantastical construct of paths, benches and buildings encrusted with sea shells. Entry to it is through another elegant villa, which is now a restaurant as well as a nightclub known for salsa dancing.
What we have here is a folly, or architectural folly. In other words, fanciful garden decoration so demanding as to require (usually) professional architectural design. Follies are evocative spaces which transport participants into another place and time. They are a product of Romanticism and first became popular on the large estates of British aristocrats and French royalty. From there they spread quickly and globally.
The second-level doorway which opens on to a stair landing that we see here in the right mid-ground is part of what Cubans call a barbacoa. At one time, that entire space behind the wall to our right was most likely one high-ceilinged room. In order to get more rooms (and maybe privacy), the resident built a platform to create a new floor and room. Few barbacoas are done with building permits, and a population census of 1995 reveals that just over half of the buildings in Havana’s historic center have been transformed by barbacoas (the word means barbecue).
Blocky, reinforced concrete apartments in the form of simple rectangular prisms, elaborated merely by projecting balconies and two forms of fenestration–oblongs and circles–this is Russian Constructivism at its most primitive and uninspired. These repetitive, prefabricated, purely functionalist designs bear only the vaguest connection to the pioneering work of such Constructivist masters of the 1920s as Tatlin, El Lissitzky and Melnikov. Their chief virtue is the neutral background they offer for the collage of drying laundry.
This modernist building is clearly a bit of International Style design. Yet, hanging from a third floor balcony is a rope with an attached bag. It awaits the return from market of a neighbor who will fill the bag, which then will be hauled back up.
We encounter versions of this narrative everywhere in Havana. Also, later in the day, we will see entire families on their balconies, communicating with others across the street or with pedestrians below. The balcony is a major venue for social contact.
An arch springs inward. Its resolution is the keystone, but it also requires its springing companion on the other side. In this case, the latter two are no more: thus my caption, Unresolved Springing.
The first word of my title for this section of photographs alludes to the aesthetics of 18th century Romanticism, which gave us the word, picturesque while also taking delight in ruins, those intriguing results of nature modifying the “beautiful” constructs of man.
The second word, dereliction, is all too evident. Yet, its causes are not merely the result of natural forces, such as hurricanes and salt water, even if Havana residents sometimes refer to a building as “one hurricane away from total collapse.”
In an article of 2009 titled, “Havana’s historic architecture at risk of crumbling into dust,” journalist Ray Sanchez cites local architectural experts and states that “every three days, there are two partial or total building collapses in Central Havana alone.”
The causes for this are several. A major cause was the commercial, economic and financial embargo imposed on Cuba by the United States of America in October, 1960. A secondary cause was that, with the Revolution, Castro and the new Cuban government ignored Havana in order to raise living standards and support the countryside and other urban centers. Without money, materials and means, Havana’s infrastructure was left to deteriorate.
As the New York architect Belmont Freeman recently wrote, “lack of resources prevents the Cuban government from halting the physical collapse of the city.” However, because Castro turned his attention away from the capitol at the same time as American development was excluded entirely from Cuba, Havana was saved from any and all urban renewal schemes. So, if it lost some buildings to the forces of nature, it avoided the even more destructive forces of untethered capitalism. Most of Habana Vieja, Centro Habana and El Vedado retained its pre-1959 architectural form. Freeman’s clause, preserved by poverty, perfectly encapsulates this phenomenon.
Finally, there are forces at work to preserve Havana’s remaining architectural heritage. Whether they work fast enough and effectively enough remains to be seen.
The “one” to which I refer in my caption is that single, lonely cast iron colonnette, left over from a building that is no more.
My caption for this lost apartment building is a play on Joni Mitchell’s 1970 composition, Big Yellow Taxi: “They paved paradise And put up a parking lot…”
In this case, however, somebody opportunistically transformed the collapsed residences of several Cuban families into a parking lot–clear out the rubble, enlarge the entry portal a bit, and let the cars in!
My caption for the photographs of this collapsed house is borrowed from Avril Lavigne’s 2004 composition, Nobody’s Home: “She wants to go home But nobody’s home That’s where she lies Broken inside…..Broken Inside.”