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Happy 500th birthday, Havana!

Features | By Johnny Grimond

Downtown Havana

As Havana celebrates its 500th anniversary, Johnny Grimond pays a visit

‘We wanted to get here before the Americans overrun the place,’ is the refrain of the grey-haired European tourists who throng the streets of Old Havana. ‘We wanted to see the old cars and old buildings and the streets without chain stores before it’s all changed.’

There is certainly a wind of change blowing in Cuba. Barack Obama has fanned it, and then wafted in on it, the first president of the United States to visit the island for nearly ninety years. With him have come expectations of trade, investment and more tourists. Those who have got there already, bursting out of every hotel and casa particular (house for paying guests), are dubious. But Cuban nostrils are twitching. The whiff in the air is not of cigars; it’s of money.

American money hasn’t been plentiful in Cuba since the days of Fulgencio Batista, the odious dictator overthrown by Fidel Castro’s revolutionaries in 1959. The country went from being a decadent playground for pleasure-seeking Americans to being a dismal laboratory for repressive Caribbean communism. Droves of educated and professional Cubans left, many settling just across the Florida strait in Miami. The United States supported the anti-Castro rebels and the Soviet Union supported Castro. A botched invasion, a missile crisis involving the superpowers, umpteen assassination attempts and ever-intensifying trade sanctions ensued. The country, though meteorologically and musically warm, went into cold storage.

And there it has stayed for nearly sixty years. For most Cubans they have been tragic decades of political deprivation and economic failure. Some aspects of life have no doubt improved. The lot of women, of some black Cubans and of good socialists has become easier. Access to medical care has been transformed. But for most the revolution has been a gloomy disappointment.

Life did not even improve after European communism collapsed in 1989, followed by the Soviet Union two years later. In fact it got worse. Russia could no longer afford to pay a vastly inflated price for Cuba’s sugar, nor send cheap oil, nor give other support. The result was fifteen years of even greater economic hardship, known euphemistically as the Special Period. Some political and economic reforms have been made since, especially after 2006, when Fidel stepped aside (‘temporarily’ at first) in favour of his brother Raúl. But, at least for those untouched by either foreign remittances or the tourist economy, development has been on hold.

The Cubans’ misfortune has been those hurrying tourists’ good luck. The T-shirted, sensibly shod, camera-wielding visitors (yes, old people still take photographs with cameras) discover in Havana, and in other Cuban towns, some wonderful architecture, most of it dating from before 1950. The streets may be narrow, but friendly to pedestrians and bicycle rickshaws. The people are amiable, slow to hassle, quick to help. There is no menace in the air.

The buildings look old, even when they’re not. Many are dilapidated, but they are not abandoned – not, at least, unless they have collapsed, and even then there may be pigs among the ruins. People are crammed into every kind of structure – modest terraced houses, lofty tenements, balconied apartments, handsome stucco-fronted residences, family homes, villas, mansions. They may be decrepit and overcrowded within, but often they have been restored and repainted, particularly in the old town. The art of using a smart exterior to disguise a shoddy interior in Havana goes back at least to the 1760s, when a proposed visit by a royal Spaniard prompted a superficial makeover for the city. The official in charge, known as the Marqués de la Fachada (Marquess of Façade), anticipated Grigory Potemkin and his Russian villages by at least twenty years.

The Spaniards made Havana. They arrived in 1515, 23 years after Columbus had claimed the island for Spain on his first voyage to the New World. Most of the early settlers were from Andalusia and brought with them craftsmen skilled in the Mudéjar style of building, in which Christian and Moorish influences were blended. Later, in the last quarter of the 18th century, the Baroque style arrived, more exuberant and therefore more appropriate to the new prosperity that had followed eleven busy months of British rule in 1762–63, during which 10,000 slaves were introduced, sugar plantations were expanded and the trade monopoly with Spain was broken, allowing lucrative openings to the North American colonies.

In time Old Havana started expanding to the west, and in the 1860s the city walls were taken down and people began to build in what is now Centro and then the suburb of Vedado. Centro is mostly 19th century, a district of narrow streets and decaying houses, many undistinguished but many others handsome, even grand. It encompasses Chinatown, where the Restaurante Pacífico once boasted a Chinese orchestra on the first floor, a brothel on the second and an opium den on the third. To the east is the Partagas cigar factory and next to that the Capitolio Nacional, no longer a legislature but, behind its classical exterior (remarkably like that of the Capitol Building in Washington), a rich architectural confection of styles ranging from Rococo to ‘Vatican Library’.

To the north of Centro runs the Malécon, an esplanade that serves as a wall to keep the sea at bay, a perch for anglers and a promenade on which Habaneros stroll and court and strum guitars, while the famous old Packards and Chevrolets rattle past. The Malécon also links Old Havana to Vedado, the cultural heart of Havana, with art galleries, concerts and plays. Here too is La Fábrica del Arte Cubano, a former peanut-oil factory where you wander from room to room, upstairs and downstairs, looking at paintings or architectural drawings or photographs or sculpture, or listen to a singer or an orchestra or folk group.

Vedado is of the 20th century. Partly inspired by Miami – or, in the case of the celebrity-frequented Hotel Nacional, by the Breakers in Palm Beach – it boasts one of the ugliest buildings in Havana, the Edificio FOCSA, a 1956 shocker that was the second-tallest concrete building in the world when it was built. Yet Vedado also has its charm, as Claudia Lightfoot points out in her wonderful book Havana: ‘Every street and corner has a different atmosphere and the area is full of secrets and hidden delights: an architectural detail, a surrealistically sculpted banyan tree, or a concealed overgrown garden.’

Delightful surprises are everywhere in Havana. In the heart of the Old Town is the 1929 Bacardi building, an exuberant piece of Art Deco design. Not far away, in Calle Obispo, is the Droguería Johnson, a drug store that would not look out of place in Chicago, and no wonder, because that is where its architects started in the 1890s. Almost every street has its surprises: a handsome column, a French-influenced balcony, a stained-glass panel or window, a colonial mansion full of Arab objects, or just a patio or courtyard set at an angle to the street to stop passers-by looking in, even a garden dedicated to the memory of Princess Diana.

Havana’s churches alone could keep a tourist happy for days. So could its public buildings and many museums. So could its hotels, not just the Nacional, but the neo-Baroque Inglaterra, with its pavement café, elegant lobby and inner bar decorated with Moorish tiles; the Sevilla, done up in 1923 by the American firm that designed the Waldorf-Astoria in New York; the Ambos Mundos, where Hemingway stayed; or the Santa Isabel, in the Plaza des Armas, the oldest of the four squares that form the heart of the old town. Originally an 18th-century palacio, this was rebuilt in the 19th century, which scarcely counts as old in Havana. The city still boasts 150 buildings dating from the 16th and 17th centuries, as well as 200 from the 18th and more than twice as many from the 19th.

Not all of these are remarkable. But all Havana’s buildings are valued in a way that those in most other cities are not. Proof of this can be found in an unpretentious building in Miramar, a relatively posh suburb to the west, home to diplomats and senior officials, green and fairly free of decrepitude. Here you will find – if it’s open – the Maqueta de La Habana, a vast scale model of the city that includes every street, every building, every tree. Built on a scale of 1:1,000 (partly out of cigar boxes), it is so big that telescopes are provided to allow those in the gallery to see the tiny replicas in the middle. It was constructed over ten years as an aid to planning, and is used by a group of architects and historians who insert a model of any proposed new building into its suggested position before passing judgement on it.

Their recommendations are not final, but the exercise shows that poverty and investment embargoes are not the sole cause of Havana’s happily arrested development; planning too has played its part, and for that the Castro regime can take credit. One man in particular has played a crucial role. Eusebio Leal Spengler has since 1967 had the title of city historian, a post that had little power until Leal persuaded Fidel Castro to hand over to it the ownership of all state-owned buildings in Old Havana and, in 1994, to give it $1 million to use on restoration and other social uses. This, along with other local sources of money and grants from abroad – UNESCO granted the old town ‘world heritage’ status in 1982 – has paid for the transformation of Old Havana and now also other parts of city.

No wonder that, despite the general dilapidation, the claim is made that Havana is the best-preserved colonial city in the Americas. Yet what makes it so special is not the mere antiquity and survival of so many old buildings but their variety, the way people live among them as well as within them, and the apparent appreciation that Habaneros, as well as tourists, have of their home town. It is a city with street life, where children play unthreatened by cars, apartment-dwellers lean out of windows to haul their shopping up on ropes, dogs amble, people chat and music issues forth from every corner.

It might not have been like this. At the time of the revolution plans had been drawn up by a group of Harvard architects led by a Catalan, José Luís Sert, to remake Havana on modernist lines influenced by Le Corbusier. Parts of the old town were to be demolished for car parks, skyscrapers were to be arrayed along the Malécon and an island would be created in the bay for casinos. It was to be paid for by the Mob. This was the time, after all, when Batista had put Meyer Lansky, a New York Mafia boss, in charge of gambling in Havana and Vito Genovese, Lucky Luciano and other gangsters operated freely. They were merely acting in the tradition of the Depression-era mobsters who turned Cuba into an offshore Las Vegas where American tourists escaping the deprivations of Prohibition could find sex, gambling and booze galore.

Those days seem unlikely to return, but not all the fears about the future are groundless. American investors, many of them Cuban exiles or their offspring, are queuing up to make money in the old country. Tourism is the obvious place to start, with one million Canadian ‘snowbirds’ flying in every year – not so much to look at the architecture in Old Havana as to lie in the sun in Varadero, a characterless resort ninety miles to the east. Cancún, a Mexican resort that is about 300 miles in the other direction, suggests a model that could be followed in Cuba. It receives about five million visitors a year, many of them American college kids on spring break and a diet of beer.

Cuban planners, some of them city officials, other architects and cultural figures, are aware of this possibility. They have been encouraged by a small partnership of interested foreigners led by Jasper Goldman, a British urban planner and film-maker, who has helped to bring together a variety of people with ideas about the future of cities, especially cities that have been bypassed by the development seen in most capitalist countries. One such is Yangon (Rangoon), where a conference was held last year to bring together Cubans and Burmese to discuss their common problems of transport, housing, tourism and preservation.

Many developing countries have torn down their old buildings, in the name of either economic progress or exorcism of the ghosts of colonisation. Nondescript, tawdry modern architecture is the norm. Richer countries employ designer architects to put up more expensive look-at-me buildings that pay no homage to their surroundings or even the country they are built in. The making of modern Beijing, about which Goldman has made a film, is a cautionary tale for Havana. Its old buildings, notably the hutongs – rows of courtyard residences – have been indiscriminately razed to make way for highways and high-rises.

Cuba desperately needs economic growth, not least to pay for better water, transport, drainage and housing in Havana. Some officials think the way forward is a dash for tourist hotels and resorts, and they are no longer restrained by Eusebio Leal; the responsibility for hotels was taken out of his hands in 2012. The growth of tourism in Cuba looks inevitable.

But that need not mean mass tourism, particularly if Cubans exploit the architectural inheritance they have been given. Tourists, especially richer tourists, like old buildings. They also like the music and other arts that are already plentiful in Havana. They do not necessarily want to see an over-restored, excessively-good-taste theme park. That is a possible fate for Old Havana, which the planners might adopt in exchange for the wholesale destruction of the rest of the city. It would be a terrible pity, because a large part of Havana’s uniqueness lies in the mix of architectural styles found in abundance throughout the city. Just as Cubans are a mestizo people – about seventy per cent are of mixed race – and their music is a cocktail of African, Spanish and Caribbean influences, so Havana is a jumble of old and new, whether European, North American or Latin American, all fused together into something peculiar to this unusual island. See it, if you can, while you can.

This story was from June 2016 issue. Subscribe Now