Shaping Skyline

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A city is a live quivering space, almost comparable to an organism, where each place contains tiny events, personal and at the same time they tell about the historical evolution of the country or region where it is located. That’s why a city is always much more than the sum of its buildings, streets and parks; it is the relationship between the physical frameworks of a particular social group and the processes through which this group develops and defines itself. Havana is that kind of city, one of the most high-spirited, a center of cultural, social and political bustling in the Island. The process of shaping one nation and even a continent is outlined in this city, where the past evidently exists side by side with the daily reality. A city that started to take shape from a colonial and dependent thought and that, gradually, has evolved up to find its own identity on that determining cultural mixture. The present metropolitan area spreads out from its colonial heart, which was given the status of World Heritage Site since 1982 by U.N.E.S.C.O and now it re-emerges thanks to the restoration and keeping process that appraises it. Havana is also privileged by its location, a city by the ocean, extended all along the shore, in a constant dialogue and struggle with its condition of limit and border line.

The definitive foundation[1] of the village of San Cristóbal of Havana took place on November 16th, 1519, and it was the last of seven villages in the foundation process in the Cuban Island.[2] Nowadays, the event of Templete[3] is still remembered —a homage building— and a silk-cotton tree that reminds the one that, according to what it is said, witnessed the first mass and town council. During the first centuries, the metropolitan architecture emerged and improved, and it was gradually adapted to the new site, to the Caribbean sun and to humidity of the environment. Thenceforth, the city began to shape around the first plazas and the entrance to the port named Carenas.[4] It was evolving from village (1519) to city (1592), and then to capital (1607), following all indications from the Laws of the Indies, which also determined the dimensions on the architectural and urban proceedings. Subsequently, religious buildings achieved a superior artistic magnitude, civil and domestic structures acquired more comfort and height and the defensive fortresses became stronger.

The last ones stood out and enlarged as Havana was becoming a jewel among colonies: it was “The key to the New World”. The first fortress was the castle of the Royal Force[5], next, it was built The Three Kings of Morro and San Salvador de la Punta.[6] The last great structure that completed this impregnable defensive system were the ramparts of Havana (1674-1740), which guaranteed a definitive shutting down and defence of the village by land and sea. Nevertheless, these walls were never tested or represented an obstacle for the development of city-states, beginning its defeat on 1863. Its existence it is still evoked by cannon shots that is a tradition coming from the warning shot made from the other side of the narrow access to the bay to inform inhabitants about the shutting down of the city gates.

The city expanded quickly towards the interior areas as well as to the immediate edges around the ramparts. It extended west and south, reaching creeks, forests, hills and the rocky coast along the shore. The new inhabitants of Havana, encouraged by the need of expansion and variety of services, moved forward the construction of hospitals, markets, accommodations, religious and educational services.[7] New peripheral neighbourhoods were also built (Guanabacoa and Santa María del Rosario) and other small settlements linked by a labyrinth of streets and roads. At the beginning, the development of the city was unplanned, subjected to the impulses of private initiative and power interests. On the 19th century, some plans of enlarging took place and the urban center of Paseo del Prado was strengthened, which updated and gave prestige to the metropolis. Las Murallas[8] neighbourhood was thought as a designed project within a group of wide streets and uniform blocks that pushed forward the construction of new theatres, markets, homes and hotels usually with great elegance and style. It abounded portals and colonnades, arcades and columns, these last highlighted particularly the expression of Havana. Alejo Carpentier described it like this: “[…] the amazing profusion of columns, in a city that is an empire of columns, jungle of columns, infinite colonnade, last metropolis that has such excess of columns; columns that, in all other respects, having come from original patios, have outlined a history of decadence on the column through ages”.[9]

Since middle of 19th century, El Cerro, linked to the very center of the city through the wide road with the same name, meant an escaping paradise for the upper classes, so it crowded with splendid houses with European styles. The new bourgeoisie, anxious to show up its recent status, also expanded towards the new Gulf Avenue, which was renewed from the project of the avenue and the Malecón (breakwater wall),[10] which is today an unquestionable symbol of the city. On the early 20th century, the western area with the Carmelo/Vedado[11] urbanized; wide avenues and large natural spaces, where the tradition of suburban villas on the periphery of the city is retaken. This century prepared the environment for the modern and cosmopolitan neighbourhoods of the ‘50, which became the new center of the city, where the majority of the most important centers of society in Havana was located.

Other new spaces emerged with great surreal mansions surrounded by gardens that showed a remarkable architectural and conceptual eclecticism. Santos Suárez, La Víbora, and Kholy neighbourhoods were areas where these luxurious houses mingled with modest homes of middle class families that were settling on the interior of the city. Among the signs of the underlying and less evident but constant development of the common people’s neighbourhoods that grew noteworthy due to their urban layout, we can find: Santiago de las Vegas, Marianao, La Lisa, Alturas de Almendares. These are some of the more populated areas where were built some buildings for social use, some of them were magnificent constructions. All this progress was taking place with an uneven rate according to ups and downs of an unstable economic, social and political system, which was in a constant imbalance.

Among many others, that is one of the reasons why in the aesthetic language of Havana the prevailing eclecticism is mixed with a trend of art noveau, modernism influenced by the work of Catalan master builders, by art deco in a wide range of adaptations that go from the full assimilation of all its stylistic and conceptual elements to the use of superficial aesthetic features on facades and details. During the 40’s and 50’s the neo-colonial style came up, which dialogued with the tradition of the Island, together with the modern and a more stylized rationalism. The city splashed with extraordinary architectonic landmarks, islands, monuments that enriched even more this repertoire, some of them were supported by the government as the project of the Civic Plaza[12] in the Catalans’ hill or Lutgardita neighbourhood. Rancho Boyeros[13] is an evidence of the ups and downs and caprices of the Republic. Its deco cinema[14] stood out with some features from pre-Hispanic culture. Others buildings by private initiatives were made as the Bacardí[15], which possess a fine art deco or Cabaret Tropicana[16] with its concrete arches and a perfect integration to its natural environment.

 The mixture of influences characterizes this city, individualized her; this has been brilliantly expressed by Carpentier: [] the juxtapositions of styles, the innovation of styles, good and bad, more bad than good, were shaping that no-style style on Havana, which, in the long run, due to a symbiosis and amalgamation process stands out in a peculiar baroques that work as a style set in the history of urban behaviors. Because, little by little, from an assorted style, from the intermingling, from what was fit on different realities, there have been emerging the constants of a general pomposity that differentiates Havana from other cities in the continent.[17]

This phenomenon kept going after the triumph of the social and political of the revolution ‘60 that pushed forward the development of new construction and urban projects subject to the social changes that were taking place. One the most significant were the Art Schools of Cubanacan,[18] with an avant-garde design and a controversial history. After the ’70, the rationalist language is revived and it became a marathon and a necessity. It appears the working-class neighbourhoods of Alamar, Murgoba, Bahía, built with prefabricated technology, together with many groups of this kind of buildings scattered all over the country. The revolutionary project also transformed the appearance of the city, made adjustments in some places, changed and built others, according to the social development policies that strengthened it. The isolation of the economy and the crisis of the ‘90s marked an impoverishment of the city, where the original glory of its center is recovered while the elegance of some of its suburban spaces are vanished and faded.

The end of the century also brought important changes on the national system. In Havana all this resulted in new constructions, especially in the tourist development areas, introducing new materials, conceptions and aesthetical notions. At the beginning of the 21st century, the Cuban capital goes on with its transformation process in all areas. Recently, its center was turned into a province; thus, the so called country Havana has divided into two different provinces: Artemisa and Mayabeque, resulting in a higher autonomy of management. At the present time, Havana is also scenery of social and economical changes that are moving forward new interventions on the urban framework, which come from the government as well as from private interests.

Havana Streetview intends to translate the experience of the city to the virtual space in the most direct and nicest possible way. Through its history, its places and its culture; and also on how it has inspired and still inspires its inhabitants, visitors and admirers. In Concrete we will gather a great amount of information about architecture of Havana city. We will talk about multiple architectural styles that make up the city presenting its history, origin and evolution of its landmarks. We will also include tours around towns and neighbourhoods of Havana, through subject matters and different functions. We will approach to its image from a wider perspective that includes all cultural ways as a part of a history, which enriches it and diversifies it. Another purpose of this space is to gather and make reference to the main bibliographical sources and updated researches about the image and the architecture of the city, which are abundant in and out of this capital. We hope many people join us.

Gretel Medina

[1] The first foundation took place on 1515 to the south of Mayabeque River.

[2] The first villages are on 1512: Our Lady of Assumption of Baracoa; 1513: St. Savior of Bayamo; 1514: Virgin of the Holy Trinity (Trinidad); 1514: Our Lady of Port of Prince, Camagüey; 1515: Santiago de Cuba.

[3] On the commemorative column in front of the building it is read: “Stop your steps, traveler, adorn this place with a tree, a leafy silk-cotton tree, I’d rather say it would be a memorable sign of prudence and old religion of the young city, because under its shadow it was solemnly executed the author of health. For the first time, the meeting of prudent councilmen was stopped more than two centuries ago: it was kept by an everlasting tradition: however, it gave away to time. You will see an image made on stone, that is, the last November on 1754”.

[4] It was named so by Sebastián Ocampo because it was at this port where the exploring ships careened.

[5] It was designed by the engineer Bartolomé Sánchez on 1558 and it was finished on 1577.

[6] Juan Bautista Antonelli (1589-1610).

[7] The seminars San Carlos and San Ambrosio, (1725 and 1767 respectively) are example of that.

[8] The first blueprints were approved on 1856.

[9] The city of columns. Letras Cubanas publishing house. Havana. 1982.

[10] This project began on 1902.

[11] “The Vedado I lived... was a different thing. The Vedado was an essence, a spirit, a being melted with our being... how one could forget that reflection of marbles and gardens, of shady trees and decorated iron railings! And then that smell of basil and rosemary and that was its smell. And I never after felt it again. Dulce María Loynaz. Fe de Vida, Edit. Letras Cubanas, 2000.

[12] The Civic Plaza, after 1959, was called Plaza of the Revolution; it is formed by the memorial Jose Marti, by Juan José Sicre. 1956-60.

[13] It was built thanks to the President Gerardo Machado’s idea; the neighbourhood was designed as a mini industrial city, mixing all languages of the prevailing eclecticism in the city.

[14]Architects: Govantes and Cabarroca, Co. 1932.

[15]Architect: Rodríguez Castells, 1930.

[16] It is an emblematic center of Havana nights. 1953, Max Borges.

[17] The city of columns. Letras Cubanas publishing house. Havana. 1982

[18] Ricardo Porro, Vittorio Garatti and Roberto Gottardi. 1961-63






Shaping Skyline | Havana Streetview

agnes's picture

Hi there friends, its fantastic paragraph on the topic of cultureand entirely defined, keep
it up all the time.

Hi! will do, thanks!!! :-)

HSV's picture

Hi! will do, thanks!!! :-)

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