Home > Iván García, Translator: GH > The Havana That the Castros are Going to Leave Us / Ivan Garcia

The Havana That the Castros are Going to Leave Us / Ivan Garcia

Sixty percent of the buildings cry out for basic repairs

Sixty percent of the buildings cry out for basic repairs

Autocrats always want to transcend their own times. The Roman emperors, Hitler, Mussolini and the communist dictators Stalin, Honecker or Ceaucescu, bequeathed their own styles of architecture.

In Rome they still retain coliseums and palaces. Mussolini left hundreds of works, constructed under the label of fascist rationalist architecture, rolled out in Italy at the end of the 1920s in the last century.

Hitler also put up buildings and spaces in the Nazi cult, with the patronage of Albert Speer, in an original architectural style inspired by neo-classicism and art deco.

Sixty-nine years after the psychopathic Führer shot himself in his Berlin underground bunker, just before the defeat of the Third Reich, the Germans are still driving along the magnificent autobahns built in the Hitler period.

A serial criminal like Stalin left us socialist realism – horrible, certainly – which encompassed all the arts. Nicholas Ceaucescu, another dictator doing it by the book, demolished a fifth of Bucharest and put up new buildings.

His greatest project was the Palace of the People, the second biggest building in the world, after the Pentagon in Washington.

Fidel Castro won’t leave any timeless architectural works. He put up thousands of schools and hospitals, but, apart from the Instituto Superior de Arte, in the Playa Council area of Havana, the rest of his designs disfigure the landscape.

And forget about quality of construction. Most of the buildings put up after the bearded people came to power look older than many built at the beginning of the 20th century.

In Havana, capital of the first communist country in America, the architectural legacy will be irrelevant. You’d have to search with a magnifying glass to spot any high calibre work.

Among them would be the Coppelia ice cream shop, designed by Mario Girona in the centre of Vedado, or Antonio Quintana’s Palacio de Convenciones in the suburb of Cubanacán. You could also make an exception of Camilo Cienfuegos city, in East Havana, and Lenin Park, a green lung provided on the outskirts of the city.

But architectural design from 1959 onwards is, to say the least, odd. If you could demolish the dormitory suburbs of Alamar, Mulgoba, San Agustín, Bahía, or the twenty or so horrible apartment blocks built with Yugoslavian technology in Nuevo Vedado, you would partly put right some clumsy construction mistakes.

Havana, a city which is pretty and conceited with its several kilometers of gateways and columns, and a splendid esplanade among its architectural offerings, maintains the greatest variety of styles.

It was designed for 600,000 inhabitants. Today 2.5 million people live there. The regime has neither modernised nor widened its streets or avenues or a site as important as the Albear aqueduct.

They have only patched and asphalted the principal arteries. They have not improved the roads of Las calzadas de Monte, Diez de Octubre, Luyanó, Cerro, Infanta, Avenida 51 or Puentes Grandes to deal with the increase in vehicular traffic.

Some 70% of the side streets are full of potholes and water leaks. 60% of the buildings are crying out for fundamental repairs.

Let me give you a fact. According to an official of Physical Planning in Havana, 83% of works carried out are done privately. The urgent need for homes to be built has resulted in constructions all over the length and breadth of Havana without benefit of professional advice.

Thousands of home-made cast-iron windows with hideous grills make the capital look even uglier. The impression you get is of a large prison. Without any order or harmony, desperate families refurbish buildings and houses of great architectural value, trying to improve their lives a little.

The once cosmopolitan Havana, at the forefront of new technologies like the telephone, radio, or long distance TV transmissions, has now turned its back on globalisation.

The internet is a science fiction dream for many of its citizens. And what was once a beautiful colonnaded city, which would inspire Alejo Carpentier, is, in the 21st century, a heap of ruined buildings and ancient automobiles.

The Castro brothers haven’t even been able to leave any legacy in the city where they have been governing for years.

Iván García

Photo:  Taken from Juan Valdés César’s blog where you can see more images showing the current state of Havana.

Translate by GH
23 March 2014

  1. omar fundora
    March 23, 2014 at 7:48 pm

    Havana._ A series of tourist and social projects that are being restored or have been completed are making the Cuban capital’s historic district, Habana Vieja, an essential place to visit.

    In an exclusive interview with The Havana Reporter, Havana City Historian Eusebio Leal explained that thousands of people have benefited in recent years from the work that has been done along the Malecón seaside highway and the historic district, taking into account both the individual and social impact of these projects.

    Innumerable projects have been carried out to serve the people, including schools, orphanages, guidance centers, and other facilities to provide services for at-risk groups such as the elderly and disabled, said Leal, who heads the project to rebuild Habana Vieja, a UNESCO World Heritage site. Two hotels are now being built on the Malecón. One is the former Hotel Packard, on the Paseo del Prado promenade: only its façade still stands, and it is being preserved and incorporated into the new facility, Leal added.

    Facing it, on the corner of Malecón and San Lázaro streets, another hotel is being built and together, “like the columns of Hercules, the two will preside over the beginning of a Prado that is being rapidly restored: the Capitolio building, the Teatro Martí, the Gran Teatro, the Manzana de Gómez (shopping center), the Palacio of the Alianza Francesa, and the Centro del Libro,” he said.

    The Capitolio building restoration is a major project, “colossal, divided into segments of different arts—bronzes, plasters, gilding, carpentry, and work on its cupola,” Leal noted. The Capitolio, an almost exact replica of the U.S. Capitol building, was the seat of government before the 1959 Revolution, and now houses the Academy of Sciences; it is a national monument.

    “Moreover, dozens and dozens of homes have been restored, because it is overwhelmingly forbidden, at least by us, to carry out any project for (the city’s) image that does not first involve its interior,” Leal stated. Restoration work brings about three benefits: habitat, image— “because it is also very important for people to live decently”—and third, “the necessity of reconstituting the area’s way of life, which is why housing has been mixed with the real estate and cultural functions, in an effort to respect what the Cuban people have as Havana’s smile: the Malecón.”

    A number of projects are also underway on the Avenida del Puerto, which runs along the Port of Havana. The main goal is for “Havana Bay to be environmentally healthy once again, and to eliminate a whole series of facilities and functions that it had at one time as a port that was open to the world,” he said.

    This is a project of the State that is closely related to the development of the Port of Mariel, he said. “Therefore we first must make progress on planning everything related to the bay’s perimeter, and secondly, we must reconcile that with the workers, entities and agencies involved in the work in that area; that has been done,” he added.

    The third major project is the Havana City Historian Office’s monumental works, which extend from the Castillo de la Punta to the Castillo de Atarés, two of the colonial-era Spanish forts built to defend Havana Bay.

    “In this area today, we have projects such as the Cubo de Cristal, right at the entryway of the Plaza de Armas, and the Cámara de Rejas of the sanitation tunnel for the old part of the city. Meanwhile, another national project is the introduction of new distribution networks, and one of the most important is precisely the water and sewage network,” he added. “We are also working to revive the port’s great historic docks: the San Francisco, Santa Clara, and La Machina, in the new Regla terminal, which should be a reality by the end of next year. As a consequence of that, we have the clean-up of all of the port’s banks in the area of the Alameda de Paula,” he said.

    Two other large docks that are being restored are the Tabaco and the Madera. The Madera (which means “wood”) was named that way because lumber products were shipped from there. Now, it will be a large brewery, with a dining room with a rooftop lookout over the bay, Leal explained.

    The historian referred to certain forms of behavior that have unfortunately become common and are unacceptable. “As the (recently-deceased outstanding intellectual) Alfredo Guevara used to say, ‘Beauty is very important for man, like bread; beauty is his relationship with the ideal, with what he wants and feels as an aspiration for living better, in a life that by nature is always brief.”

    “There is political will on the part of our nation,” Leal stated. “The country does not want to lose its cultural heritage, but there are always those who serve as procurers for losing it, and there are always those who serve as guides, for saving it.”

    “I struggle because, first of all, anything can be rectified. If I believe in architecture, I believe in the human order. I believe that we have to educate. There is a road to the restitution of the founding role of schools; there is a road of values created in the family as the appropriate balance to that of school.”

  1. March 24, 2014 at 3:29 pm

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