Havana Always

Preserving the Soul of a City

by | Apr 23, 2000

Plaza Vieja, Before and after

The Group for the Integral Development of Havana, which I direct, seeks to put people back into planning, to give a voice to the soul of these city streets. The Group, created in 1987, is an interdisciplinary team of experts advising the city government on urban policies. The Group tries to create awareness in authorities, state agencies, and the general population about the threats and challenges to the city’s architecture, as well as to identify the strengths and opportunities that it may offer for its own preservation and development.

We are trying to look at architecture in a different way, to make the environment we build more decentralized and participatory, ecologically sound and economically feasible-in short, holistically sustainable.

Havana has much to work with. More than 200 years ago, Havana was already the most important and attractive city in the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean Basin. The tropical city opens onto some 20 miles of coastline. The Bay, stretching for more than two miles, has a narrow neck and then opens wide like a bag, protected from hurricanes and pirates over the centuries. The port became the final meeting point of Spanish ships already filled with riches from the Americas., and supplied food, ropes, sails, wood, hides, honey, rum, and first-rate ship repair. The city developed an impressive defensive system that could seem oversized for the city alone, but needed to protect the goods and ships inside.

The old core grew over the years and now combines many different architectural styles ranging from colonial architecture to fine Art Noveau buildings. In 1982, the old walled precinct was designated as a World Heritage site by UNESCO. Before the 1959 Revolution, much of the upper class was moving out of the inner city, allowing housing stock to deteriorate, but at the same time building some high-rise condominiums along the waterfront. After 1959, Cuba’s national development priority shifted from Havana to rural areas and medium-sized cities. That policy stopped a flow of internal migration to the capital city-a recurrent curse in most Latin American countries. The inner city was spared from traumatic urban renewal programs, as well as from a gentrification process.

One of the proposed renewal programs involved a 1956-1958 master plan by a Harvard team led by José Luís Sert. The plan would have lined the waterfront promenade with a continuous wall of high rises, blocking the views and the sea breeze that cools and cleans the air. The plan involved an artificially rectangular island in front of the waterfront promenade known as the Malecón, to be built up with casinos and hotels, while much of the compact city center was slated to be converted into parking space. Havana was spared from Sert’s plan, but also from ourselves. In the early 60s, most Cuban architects and the few self-taught planners would have done just the same thing, creating new housing tracts of endless walk-up blocks stretching into a shapeless landscape.

Deterioration of the inner city, a process begun in the late 1800s, now needs to be faced head on in a thoughtful, systematic, and participatory way. Recent investments by Cuban-foreign joint ventures pose a new problem, with some banal, disruptive new buildings that neither fit the city’s valuable urban context nor incorporate good contemporary architecture. Even if these “bad examples” are still quite limited, there are undoubtedly more to come of the same sort, threatening Havana’s uniqueness. The worst part is that some Cubans seem to view this type of architecture as a sign of economic recovery.

The eyesore colors of our own tropical version of McDonald’s mock the venerable Neo-Classical or Eclectic architecture among the main streets of the city. We must be aware of the danger of losing national and local cultural identity by importing banal international architecture. Havana runs the danger of becoming a fake stage for a theme park if development is not combined with comprehensive social development and ecological viability. Top decision-makers now realize that architecture must return to the realm of Cuban contemporary culture.

We are experimenting with several types of involvement. First of all, we’ve created Neighborhood Transformation Workshops for the improvement of living conditions in historically dilapidated districts. Big metropolitan problems will be broken down into smaller ones that would be easier to identify and manage. Three initial workshops in 1988 escalated to 19 by mid-1999. These workshops deal with the rehabilitation of substandard housing, health and environmental campaigns, cultural expressions, assessments of needs, and leadership training. The workshops have proved to be an invaluable tool for the Neighborhood Popular Councils created in 1990 in Havana.

In turn, these Popular Councils, along with mass organizations and municipalities, have become involved in a flexible and participatory process accompanying the 1994 Master Plan for Havana. The creation of a technical center and coordinating office for the Economic and Social Development Strategy of Havana has involved more than 240 groups to set strategic goals and scenarios for the city. The city government uses the Strategic Plan as a practical tool to coordinate actions among different city agencies.

A large scale model of the city has been constructed on a scale of 1 to 1000, marking the different dates of construction of Havana buildings through the use of color. The model provides Cubans and foreign visitors with a sense of the city’s architectural rich architectural history, and admission fee helps enable the Group to cover part of its expenses. We use the model to test the impact of relevant projects, creating in effect case studies that promote good architecture, match development with preservation, and encourage participation by the local population.

Havana scenes: The sign says, “Long Live the Revolutionary Defense Committees”

International Meeting

The Group for the Integral Development of Havana City, the National Housing Institute and the Cuban Union of Architects & Engineers are organizing an international meeting: “Toward a Sustainable Habitat: Challenges of the New Millennium” May 22-24, 2000, in Havana City. They invite professionals who work in urban fields to talk about international experiences in habitat issues, sharing and learning from successes and failures. The meeting also intends to find possible alternatives to face the future. There will also be round tables which will aimed at debates on concepts, methods, and exchange of practical experience on: the environment, building heritage, community development and local economy. Spanish is the official language but English may be included according to group demands. Papers on the topics of the event are encouraged. The most outstanding papers will be selected to make up panels for the round tables that will serve as a motivation for debates. Deadline for papers: April 15. Registration fee is US$150. Contact: Grupo para el Desarrollo Integral de la Capital Calle 28 No. 113 e/lra y 3ra, Miramar, Playa, Ciudad de La Habana, phone: (537)227303 or (537)227322, fax: (537)242661, e-mail: gdic@ceniai.inf.cu


Winter 2000


Mario Coyula is the director of the Group for the Integrated Development of Havana. He is the former director of the School of Architecture of Havana and the first president of Havanas Landmarks Commission. He is a frequent speaker at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design and the Kennedy School of Government, as well as the Lincoln Institute of Land Policies at MIT. He spoke on “Havana by the Water: Revitalization of Ports, Coastlines, and Riverfronts” at the October 7-9, 1999, Harvard Graduate School of Design conference on Waterfronts in Post-Industrial Cities, and delivered a paper on Cuba-U.S. architectural influences at a conference co-sponsored by the Centro Juan Marienello and the David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies last January in Havana.

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