columnist Neil Peirce's article released Sunday, December 30, 2001:
Habana: The Urban Gem We Should All Care About
HAVANA -- An international architectural
emergency should be declared. This citys 500 years of wondrously varied
architecture, including the globes largest collection of Spanish colonial
buildings, is in peril from the forces of heat, salt, humidity and hurricanes
-- and Cubas poverty.
The saving of a great urban space,
a few miles off our shores, hasnt registered with Americans. All the talks
been about Fidel Castros longevity, little Elian Gonzalez, or the clear
futility of our embargo policy.
Indeed, because its so tough
for American citizens to visit Cuba, few of us are aware that Havana is one
of the urban treasures of the planet. In all, it has some 1,700 architecturally
distinguished castles and forts, homes and churches and theaters and palaces,
ranging from the earliest Spanish colonial styles of the 1500s and 1600s to
some of the most adventuresome earlier 20th century designs.
New Urbanist architect Andres Duany,
himself a native Cuban, argues Havana offers such masses of intact, distinguished
structures that its urban quality exceeds any Latin American metropolis, and
also any U.S. city south of Washington.
Duanys enthusiasm was echoed
by a group of U.S. journalists and urbanists visiting Havana in mid-December.
And we were pleased to find that preservation and restoration work, dating to
the 1930s, has accelerated dramatically in recent years under the leadership
of Havanas official historian, Eusebio Leal Spengler.
Desperate for foreign exchange after
the loss of Soviet subsidies in the early 90s, the government let Leal
set up a corporation empowered to run restaurants, hotels and other properties
in restored buildings, then reinvest the profits in restoration projects. Duany
sees Leal as a quite unsocialistic Robert Moses of Cuba.
But despite the very high quality
and extent of the preservation work that Leal has overseen, its almost
impossible to keep pace -- there are so many old buildings, the elements are
so hostile, and all of Cuba seems to suffer from appalling lack of maintenance.
Visiting very poor residents, we
walked into buildings where balconies and ceilings seem in imminent danger of
collapse. In early December a five-story historic building collapsed, taking
six lives. Some 20 percent of Havanas population, the government acknowledges,
live in structures that are considered to be in precarious condition.
Yet there is real charm to the chaotic
but beautiful jumble of mansions, cigar factories, forts and small hotels in
Old Havana. Its probably the only place on earth, a writer for Preservation
magazine noted, where one can look through an austere neo-Classical portal
and see a rooster standing on top of a Soviet refrigerator.
The charm extends to the streets,
where most vehicles are American cars of the 40s and 50s, old Chevys
and Fords preserved by loving owners because few other vehicles (save some marginal
Soviet autos) ever got around the U.S. blockade.
A lot less charming are the masses
of drab, faceless, sometimes rotting five-story pre-fabricated buildings on
Havanas periphery, especially in Alamar, the model town that
Castro once declared would be the triumphant model city of his Cuban socialist
Havanas salvation was that
Castro wanted this Soviet-inspired, concrete-faced housing to be locaated outside
the city. Its socialist sprawl, says John Gilderbloom of the
University of Louisvilles Center for Sustainable Urban Neighborhoods,
and leader of the CubaNow.org tour organization. A visit to Alamar
quickly confirms most residents feel isolated and would far prefer to live in
the city, close to friends and jobs and diversion.
Cuban socialism gets credit on one
score -- it slowed down demolitions in historic Havana, including a modernization
plan born in the 1940s that would have caused destruction of no less than a
third of the citys most important structures.
And before Soviet-influenced ideology
got in the way, Castros government permitted the building of the fascinating
National Arts School on Havanas western flank. Architect Richard Porro
sought to celebrate both Cubas African roots and secondarily the socialist
revolution as an era of sexual liberation. Communist ideologues objected to
the rounded, suggestive brick structures; Nikita Khruschev even forced Cuba
to stop using bricks because they recalled the Spanish imperialist colonial
Today portions of the Arts School
are mouldering, eerily overwhelmed by the tropical jungle that surrounds them.
But students are now to returning to some of the buildings. The work of some
gifted modern Cuban architects is resulting in a handful of quality projects.
But the compelling issue, in which
the United States has legitimate, enduring interest, should be historic Havana.
Millions of Americans should one day visit there -- and Cubans be free to visit
our shores too. The distance, by air or water, is minimal. Andres Duany once
even challenged me to think of a binational Miami-Havana citistate.
For most of the 20th century, U.S.-Cuban relations, from American occupation to threatening Soviet weaponry to the embargo, were simply terrible. The emergency condition of todays historic Havana is an issue we both, finally, should care about.