One of the great things about being on a cultural tour of Cuba was all the interesting stuff we learned about the arts, culture, history and people of this fascinating place. Our first morning in Havana started bright and early with a lecture by highly esteemed Cuban architect Isabel Rigol, PhD. Isabel came well prepared with a slide show and five hundred years of Cuban architectural history to enlighten our group over the next hour and a half presentation.
Much of Havana’s architecture is influenced by her four hundred years of Spanish colonial rule. Havana was settled by Spanish conquistadors in 1511 who basically wiped out the entire indigenous population and established seven villas or towns across the island. Havana was the most important place to build a grand city due to her strategic location overlooking the narrow channel entering into the Bay of Havana. An impressive fortress was built on each side of the channel offering protection from invading ships.
During the 16th and 17th centuries, religious constructions were very important as the Spaniards grew Catholicism. Impressive cathedrals were built throughout the city following the popular Baroque architecture of the times. Homes were built simply with steeped roofs made of clay shingles, however, the inside of these homes had incredible moorish ceilings made from precious timber and reflected Cuban’s Andalusian roots.
By the 18th century, Cuba was a prosperous colony sadly due to the importation of slavery and the growing sugar and tobacco trade. Homes built during these times were more luxurious, larger and all had beautiful courtyards inside. Havana itself was beginning to grow and the urban layout of the city was already established. The city was built following a grid system but over time as Havana expanded, the grid slightly shifted to take advantage of the sea breeze.
The heart of Havana is Habana Vieja or Old Havana which was founded in 1519 by the Spanish crown and is architecturally unlike any other Caribbean city. The predominant architecture in Old Havana is an eclectic mix of Cuban Baroque, Neoclassical and Moorish influences reminiscent of Cuba’s Spanish heritage. Old Havana was built around four main plazas, each with its unique character and charm: Plaza de la Catedral, Plaza de Armas, Plaza Vieja, and Plaza de San Francisco de Asis. Two main streets, Calle Obispo and Calle Mercaderes, are the main thoroughfares in Old Havana.
Popular architectural traits found in Old Havana include the gorgeous colorful windows, elaborate balconies and beautifully adored colonial mansions and villas. Shutters are also important at this time as they offered both privacy and ventilation. Buildings are brightly colored in various hues of pastels adding to the charm and allure of Old Havana. However over two-thirds of OId Havana is in desperate need of renovation. Sadly, Cuba is lacking the funds to do the rest but hopefully funding will come in before it is too late to save Old Havana’s architectural past.
The 19th century represented a period of enlightenment in Cuba. New architecture came to Havana as it expanded and grew even more beautiful than before. The famous colorful windows are actually not stained glass but made out of different materials. Wood was used instead of lead and shutters were added for decoration, ventilation and privacy. Railings during this time period were made out of timber and then slowly iron railings were introduced.
Balconies are also quite common in Old Havana and offer a place to watch the world go by and further beautify the homes.
There is no shortage of beautiful iron lampposts throughout Old Havana as well which are beautifully at night.
Perhaps one of the reasons why Havana is so spectacular is that she is essentially frozen in time back to 1959. Most of the Cubans who fled the country had to leave everything – their homes, their money and all their possessions. Once Communism took over in Cuba, the only new architecture in the city was either in the form of dumpy, unattractive apartment complexes and hotels for the tourists. The rest of Havana remains as it was in the 1950s yet is slowly decaying and deteriorating due to lack of funds. What a crime.
Here are a few more examples of some of the beautiful architecture seen in Old Havana. My next post will discuss the renovation that is occurring to restore and renew Havana. Let’s hope that this once glorious city can be saved. It would be a tragedy to let it all fall apart.