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VOL. 5, NO. 3 -- SUMMER 2003

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 ago.

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 groups.

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.