Will Building Boom Again in Havana, Cuba?

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What will normalizing relations between Cuba and the U.S. mean for buildings in Havana?

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President Obama delivered a stunning end of year surprise Wednesday: the normalizing of relations with Cuba. Its many impacts could include a building boom. What does this mean for the dilapidated but lovely city of Havana?

While Congress has to lift the Embargo that has been in place since 1961 (and, once gone, would allow full-scale tourism to the island) the White House can “normalize relations.” It says it will expand travel visas (to include government officials, journalists, researchers, educators, religious officials, performers and importers/exporters); permit the use of credit or debit cards on the island; expand commercial sales and exports of goods and services, particularly building materials for entrepreneurs and private residences; allow in American telecom equipment; permit American tourists to bring home $100 worth of alcohol and tobacco; and plant an American Embassy in Havana.

Vittorio Garatti, School of Ballet, Escuelas Nacional de Arte (1961-65)

Of note to DnA is the provision for “building materials for entrepreneurs and private residences.”

One of the singular features of Cuba — along with its 1950s American cars held together with spit and baling wire — is its tattered but largely unreconstructed capital city of Havana.

While the West was busy demolishing large chunks of its antique cities in the name of urban renewal in the post-war years, Havana was left mostly to age, albeit the Soviets built utilitarian housing, schools and hospitals as well as their striking constructivist Russian Embassy; and Fidel Castro authorized the construction of the marvelous, curvaceous brick and terra-cotta arts schools (above, left), designed, but never finished, in the first flush of post-revolution optimism by architects Ricardo Porro, Vittorio Garatti and Roberto Gottardi.

Embassy of Russia in Havana, Cuba; courtesy Wikipedia

Private Residences “Typify the Architecture of Capitalism.”

As it happens, DnA’s Frances Anderton and Caroline Chamberlain have both visited Cuba — Frances in the late 1990s following the bleak “Período especial” (special period), when the restoration of Havana’s historic center was getting underway and there were faint hopes among architects that design opportunities might be opening up (as reported in this article she wrote then for the New York Times). Caroline went last year on a visit to family members of her Cuban-American boyfriend.

When Frances visited Cuba she met architects and builders who lacked income, building materials and design opportunities. “Designing private residences is kind of rare in Cuba,” one architect told her then, ”because they typify the architecture of capitalism.” They also felt isolated from cultural dialogue. Shut off from the international conversation about building trends, they welcomed the gift of a pile of overseas architecture magazines.

Despite all this, several also expressed a reluctance to see Havana overwhelmed in future by US-style commercial development.

Hotel Ambos Mundos
The restored Hotel Ambos Mundos, Calle Obispo, where Ernest Hemingway stayed when he lived in Havana.

As US-Cuban relations flower, hopefully Havana and its urban fabric — a jostling hybrid of influences: Spanish, French and British colonial, early regional Modernist and Art Deco — can benefit from the influx of building materials, without losing its essential character.

Get a taster of how Havana looks now, as captured by Caroline Chamberlain last year, below and in this post.

6 Takeaways from My Visit to Cuba

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El Capitolio, Central Havana

1. Restoration work is taking place in some parts of Havana. Some of the results are stunning, but the city has a long way to go.

Havana’s Capitolio, designed by architects Raúl Otero and Eugenio Rayneri and completed in 1929, is currently undergoing intensive restoration work and is closed to the public. Strange how familiar it looks? It was modeled after the U.S. Capitol building.

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Intersection of Lamparilla and Villegas

Pictured above is a park, where youths are oftentimes seen playing soccer or using the red and yellow exercise machines shown in the background. In the left of the photo is another residential building in need of repairs.

2. Malibu Should Embrace the Spirit of the Revolution

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Often dubbed the “living room of Havana,” the Malecón is a four-mile long seawall that runs along Havana’s coast that draws in habaneros (locals) and tourists alike to chat, romance, fish and most importantly- enjoy the incredible view. At the risk of sounding too idealistic, its worth noting that there are serious and widespread structural problems in Havana that make daily life very difficult for the average Cuban. But still, there is something remarkable about an undeveloped, inclusive coastline in a city as stunning as Havana.

It was astounding to see a public structure like the Malecón after reading about the efforts of some Malibu residents to keep beach-goers off of the public beaches that lie quite literally in some locals’ backyards, this year. This issue came to a head after environmental activist Jenny Price created an iPhone app, “Our Malibu Beaches,” to assist the public in determining where access points and parking was available. Some in Malibu had gone to the effort of creating fradulent “No Parking” signs and obscuring an already scant number of access points.  According to the New York Times, 20 of the 27 miles of the Malibu coastline lack access to the public.

3. Speaking of public space, they also have TONS of parks

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Promenade of Paseo del Prado

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You think people feel passionately about the Dodgers! Just go to the “Hot Corner” of Parque Central where locals gather to engage in heated discussions about baseball.

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Park next to Plaza de Armas, Old Havana

Parks in Havana seem to stick to a very basic formula: a statue of an important, usually Cuban, historic figure (Jose Martí, Carlos Manuel de Céspedes, and Simón Bolívar are some of the favorites) paired with lush caribbean greenery.

4. Havana has an incredible collection of Art Deco Gems

The style intended to celebrate modernity with its use of machine production, flashy colors, and geometric shapes, is bound up with the period when Americans, including mobsters like Meyer Lansky, used Cuba as their playground. Now it is part of the odd mix of architectural styles that make present-day Cuba. Many art deco buildings in Havana are beautifully preserved and serve as tangible reminders of North American influence on the island, but they noticeably lack the vibrant urban backdrop they were originally part of.

If you pay the security officer in the lobby of the Bacardi Building $1 CUC ( $1 US), he or she will let you use the elevator to get to the top. The view is incredible (pictured above).

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The legendary Hotel Nacional has been the choice location for celebrities past and present including Frank Sinatra, Ernest Hemingway, Anthony Bourdain, and most recently Beyonce and Jay-Z. The building, which enjoys a stunning view of the bay, is composed of a mixture of architecture styles, including Art Deco.

5. The Russian Embassy is one of the most amazingly weird buildings I’ve ever seen

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Built in the Soviet Era by architect Aleksandr Rochegov, the Embassy of Russia in Havana is an example of constructivist architecture, a style that combines use of advanced technology with communist ideals. The embassy is located in Havana’s affluent Miramar neighborhood and sticks out like a sore thumb among its quiet surroundings. The building serves as a reminder of the Soviet Union’s strong influence in the country during the Cold War.

6. Yes, they still drive the classic cars, but some modern luxury cars are becoming available for a privileged few

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“Cubans are magicians,” is the common explanation for why these old cars run after all of these years.  Pictured from left to right: 1950 Chevy, 1951 Chevy, 1955 Buick.

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From left to right 1956 Chevy, 1951 Chevy, 1951 Chevy

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Early 1950’s Chevy, 1957 Ford