Old Towns: Havana, Cuba
I live in Santa Fe, founded by the Spanish in 1609. That is new by comparison
to San Cristobal de Habana, founded by the Spanish in 1519 at what is
now the site of the Plaza de Armas. By the 17th century, Havana had become
one of the Caribbean's main centers for shipbuilding and Spain's main
trans-shipment center. Anchoring a metropolis of 2 million inhabitants,
Habana Vieja, or Old Havana, retains a fascinating mix of Baroque and
neoclassical monuments, graced with plaza-centered portales (porches),
wrought-iron balconies and plazuelas (courtyards).
In its early days, Havana was not considered an important city by the
Spanish court, so it developed in a somewhat informal fashion. By 1572,
when King Philip II issued a blueprint for the design of all cities, Havana
had already grown in a different direction. Under the Laws of the Indies,
Spain required all New World cities to be built around a main plaza, with
the streets forming an outlying grid. Instead, Havana had evolved as a
multi-plaza structure with four main plazas, all featuring a church, convent
and palace, though each specialized in a particular role.
Havana's trade center status made it coveted by nations and pirates alike.
To guard against armed attacks, the town erected an impressive system
of fortresses, located at the bay side, and it surrounded itself with
high stone walls on the land side. In the 17th century, Havana's westward
growth applied its homegrown architectural codes, but with a more expansive
road network. With more people living outside the city walls than within,
the walls were replaced by a system of parks and paths along the former
boundary. As Boston's Big Dig is manifested with a series of parks and
paths, it can learn how another North American city did it four centuries
The 1772 construction of the Palace of the Governors in the Plaza de Armas
began the transition from baroque to neoclassical influenced architecture.
Ushered in were the three P's: portales; patios, as influenced by the
Moors; and Persian-influenced louvers. These three patterns at the public-private
edge were in use during the entire time of Spanish rule of Cuba. Construction
of what is now known as Central Park and the Prado public walk also began
in 1772 and soon became a favorite gathering place for the citizens. The
Prado for the past eight decades has featured a wide marbled pedestrian
way that is raised 1-meter above the narrow traffic lanes on each side,
statues of ferocious lions and a greenway of lush vegetation. With such
an abundance of class and a clear priority given to the pedestrian, the
Prado is my favorite street anywhere in the world.
In 1863, demolition of the walls began and continued until the early 20th
century. During the republic era, this urban space became the main focal
point of the city. Larger buildings were erected, transforming the area
into one of homogeneous city blocks. Buildings were built simply, putting
creativity into the ornate facades. Then, came other developments: the
Inglaterra, Plaza and Telégrafo hotels, the modern tobacco factories,
magnificent examples of industrial architecture; the impressive headquarters
of the Centro Asturiano, a monument to the economic achievements of immigrant
To establish this area as the new city center, important new buildings
were constructed interspersed with green space. The Lovers Park replaced
the jail at the entryway to the Prado public walk. Also built were the
Presidential Palace, known today as the Revolution Museum; the Bacardí
office building, a magnificent example of Havana art-deco; the rationalist
style of the Palacio de Bellas Artes; and the neoclassical Capitol, built
very much in the look of the U.S. Capitol but whose dome is 3 feet taller.
Cuba founded its first School of Architecture in 1900, coinciding with
many Catalonian immigrants coming from Spain and becoming involved in
architecture. While they needed new buildings built fairly quickly, they
did so without relying on steel or concrete, instead applying the Catalonian
style of vaulted ceilings.
By the close of the 19th century (and well before 1959), the architecture
of Old Havana began its descent into decay. Wealthy inhabitants preferred
the modern housing construction in the Vedado and Carmelo districts, where
the trend was towards urban development with larger garden and green space.
The old mansions were split into flats, with spaces subdivided into rooms
for rent. Eventually, this was to become the most typical housing model
of Old Havana.
What is known today as the historical center of Havana includes the area
of the original quarter enclosed by the city walls. A master plan was
created, with guidance from Spain, to integrate revitalization of Havana's
historic center using a development strategy that balances social, cultural
and economic interests. Administration of the 242-block historical center
of Havana, with 900 of its 4,000 buildings of high heritage value, includes
the training and hiring of local manpower.
Realizing that they were in danger of losing their heritage, the Office
of the Historian of the City of Havana was instituted in 1938. At first,
it was a struggle to safeguard monuments and historic sites from destruction.
A turning point came in 1967 when the Office helped restore the Palacio
de los Capitanes Generales as the site of the City Museum. Then, in 1982,
UNESCO declared Old Havana a World Heritage Site. Major restoration work
began on the plazas, streets and forts. In 1995, special powers were granted
to the Office of the Historian for the administration, restoration and
development of the historic center.
The administrative responsibilities of the Office of the Historian go
beyond saving buildings and monuments to the training and hiring of apprentices
and artisans, architects, and planners. The Office also plows tourist-generated
revenues into operations of schools, hospitals and retirement homes in
Old Havana. The office also ensures that schools, hospitals and retirement
homes have the necessary resources to operate properly.
With so many responsibilities and an obligation of self-financing all
its activities, the Office of the Historian has established several companies
to generate the necessary funding to accomplish its goals. Habaguanex
S.A., named after a native chief, owns most of Old Havana's tourist facilities
-- hotels, restaurants, bars, markets and stores -- while San Cristobal
S.A. is responsible for promoting these facilities worldwide. All profits
from the companies owned by the Office of the Historian are reinvested
in important social projects and restoration work.
Many plazas, fortresses, castles, palaces, museums, galleries, fine hotels
and exquisite restaurants have already been rescued and restored to their
former glory. The remodeled buildings display an incredible sampling of
the many architectural styles, as well as the historic value of such an
extraordinary city. This ambitious project has given new life to a Caribbean
heritage jewel and to Cuba's unique identity and culture.
Ken Hughes, a 2001-02 Fellow with the Knight Program in Community Building,
put together a tour of Old Havana through the University of New Mexico's
Latin American Institute in March 2003.