Cuba Day 5

Sunday 27 May 2012

Havana, Cuba, an Architectural Guide

After breakfast, in the hotel an architectural overview of Havana by architect and professor Maria Elena Martin Zequeira.  She lectures around the world, and wrote La Habana:Guia De Arquitectura, Havana, Cuba, an Architectural Guide.  I should have taken photos of her slides.

  • Colonial Period 1492 – 1898
    • Pre-Baroque 16th and 17th C
      Primitive colonial – row houses with central patio for light and air, galleries around these patios, wood balconies, no ornamentation, tile roofs.  The Gulf Stream made movement between Havana and Spain easier.  They had forts (see Fort Morro and Fort Punta on the map, and the small neck to the harbor between them where a chain could be stretched to protect it), and used the harbor for their fleets of ships, which they needed to protect against pirates.  16th C aqueducts and cisterns for rainwater.
    • Baroque 18th C
      Showing emotion – Catedral de San Cristobal best example.  Limestone used, not strong.  Nervousness of line, spirals, rotated pilaster.
      Houses – decoration around entry, maybe corner, broken pediment, curves on balcony railings.  First floor for business, short intermediate floor for slaves, second floor for family, with marble floors, high ceilings, light-hued paint, rose, yellow, blue, green.  Latrines in service patios.
    • Neoclassicism 19th C
      Regular, calm, quiet.  Calzadas – roads to the countryside outside the wall.  The governor started parks, commercial centers, hotels, fountains, monuments.  Arms Square from when the city was founded.  An 1828 monument and painting of mass at the founding.  El Cerro neighborhood, with palace, (now for aged nuns), El Barrio Chino, with “many jewels”.  Cuban intellectual Alejo Carpentier nicknamed Habana the “city of columns”.  Furniture woven rattan for ventilation.
      The wall around the city (seen on map above) started to come down in 1863 and the area became a neighborhood, nicknamed The Walls, with parks, Paseo de Prado, wide roads, massive buildings.  El Vedado neighborhood – buildings not connected, houses isolated, have private gardens in front with private portico, and streets with trees.
    • Republic Period 1902 -1958
      • Art Noveau 1905 – 1920
        Catalonian modernism (Gaudi), free line, close to nature, decoration – flower, leaf in ironwork, tiles, column capitals.
      • Eclecticism 1900-1940
        Combination of styles.  Cemetery – Christopher Columbus Drive (see Cuba Day 4).  Centro Gallego, 1915 by Belgium architect Paul Belau, originally the house of flamenco ballet.
        Museo de la Revolucion, the former Presidential Palace, designed by the Cuban architect Carlos Maruri and Paul Belau, 1920 (This photo from the Web).
        Santa Maria wedding palace with concert hall on the second floor, capitol building (lamps, furniture, ornamentation under restoration).  Houses with classical façade, modern interior, walls, ceilings important.
      • Art Deco 1925 – 1945
        Bacardi building (pictured) covered with terra cotta, tile, marble. Apartments with lamps, staircases (in dreadful condition – yes, that’s a fluorescent light installed over an ArtDeco ceiling fixture).
      • Modern  Movement 1931 – 1958
        Column in Revolution Square.  Vedado high rises.  Private houses throughout country.  Cubanacán neighborhood near ISA.  (See quote in Cuba Day 2 re Havana Country Club).The idea to build [ISA] here, on the former site of the Havana Country Club in the tony Cubanacán neighbourhood, supposedly came about in 1960 as Fidel Castro and Che Guevara were enjoying a quiet game of post-Revolution golf.  Houses in traditional style + Cuban (naturally ventilated).  The Richard Neutra House is now owned by Switzerland for their ambassador.  Garden by Brazilian landscape architect, Roberto Burle Marx.

        I didn’t get a picture, but beautiful photos of the house on this website:
  • Architecture of the Revolution 1959 – today
    No more private clients.  City abandoned (flight of well-to-do to US).  1965 technical university campus, public library, scientific center, botanical gardens.  Today there is a new tourism project for new hotels (owned 51% by the Cuban government).

    A Canadian tourism company (Standard Feather International, SFI) has announced that the Castro regime will allow it to hold a perpetual lease on a beach property in the Holguin province, in order to build a luxurious golf community and country club. 
    Before 2012, Paladares were limited to 12 seats, and only the family living in the house could be employed.  They are now recognized, as of this year. The Times They Are AChangin‘.

After the lecture we had a bus tour to community art projects, homes in Vedado, Miramar, Playa.


Mary Elena told us that she makes 20 CUC’s (= $20) a month!  (CUC stands for Cuban Convertible Peso.  Euros and Canadian dollars trade straight across, but Americans are charged 13% to have our dollars changed.)   All government employees are paid the same, whether they are a doctor, a cleaning person, a professor such as Maria Elena.  And currently, 85% of Cubans are employed by the state.  No incentive to work harder except for tourist tips.  (We each gave Elizabeth, our guide, and Alberto, our driver, 40 CUC for the week – 900 CUC each!)

Oh, but they get food rations too.  Per person per month:

  • rice – 6 lb (imported from Vietnam and China)
  • beans – 20 oz
  • white sugar – 3 lb
  • dark sugar – 3 lb (6 pounds of sugar a month!)
  • milk (children under 7 years, the elderly, the ill, pregnant women) – 1 qt of milk per day
  • eggs – 12
  • potatoes/bananas – 15 lb
  • beef – ½ lb each 15 days
  • chicken – 1 lb each 15 days

El Aljibe Restaurant

Next to El Aljibe Restaurant, a thatched roof, open air, government restaurant for lunch.  (We’ve been rating restaurants and paladares by whether they have toilet paper and toilet seats – true, only half have toilet seats!  At ISA the faucets in the rest room only sputtered with air.  Here only half of the stalls had toilet seats.)

Habana Vieja

Then to Old Havana to see galleries, but they were all closed on Sunday.  On the way saw a young girl being photographed for her quinceanera.  Street performers in Habana Vieja.  (Click on photo below to see the face painted.)  Ancient magazines, comics at the open air book vendors.


After a short afternoon break (I slept for an hour, exhausted from our 9 am to 10 pm days) we took cocotaxis along the Malecon to dinner – a swarm of yellow bees (2 persons + driver in each open-air 3-wheeled cab).  N had so much fun she left the driver a 5 CUC tip.  These extravagant Americans!

Juan Delgado

Dinner at the home/private gallery of Juan Delgado – Biennal curator of Detras Del Muro (Behind the Wall), a series of site-specific installations along the Malecón, Havana’s oceanside promenade.  Also crowded into this tiny but high-ceilinged second-floor walk-up, the walls covered with artwork, overlooking the Malecon and its street widening construction were all of the artists who had done the Detras Del Muro creations.

J and M purchased the watercolor sketch for Rachel Valdes’ mirror.  (Some of us walked home along the Malecon the next day, photographing the giant mirror and the plane silhouette in chainlink fence, Arlés del Río’s Fly away.)

Photo of the artist, Arlés, and his wife/English-speaking agent in a snazzy red dress, from behind because of the dress back.  Artist also did baseball mitts atop bronze castings of arm bones, filling a room at the Morro Castle installation.  Go figure.  I neglected to take that photo.

Esperando que caigan las cosas del cielo o Deporte (Waiting for the things that fall from the sky, or Sport), by Arlés del Río, may be described as a sort of monument to irony. With this impressive installation, which is based on detailed reproductions in bronze of the bones in the arm, attached to a concrete base and ending in old baseball gloves, the author confesses he has wished to make reference to “something that is happening in the country and the world. We just stay standing there, motionless, waiting for luck to play with us without fighting for what we want.”

Some of our group had brought the catalog for the show and went around getting signatures.  Mojitos, of course (but with old mint) and a delicious buffet dinner prepared by the curator’s mother.  Only one tiny fan on the floor, however, no breeze from the ocean, and hot and humid.

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2 Responses to “Cuba Day 5”

  1. Jim Says:

    I am very much enjoying your photos of the magnificient Neo-Colonial architecture. It reminds me what we see in Lima, Peru.
    That food ration is much too rich for optimum health. To get this ration, do they need to be employed?
    It would not be surprising if a hurricane demolished that mirror.
    Are the Cubans bilingual?
    Are the nights cool?
    Are the Cubans as friendly to tourists as the Peruvians in Iquitos?
    Are Americans allowed to freely travel everywhere?

    • notesfromthewest Says:

      Don’t know answers to a lot of that. No, Cubans are not bilingual. Our guide translated all of the talks that we were given. I took along a friend who used to be a Spanish teacher, so if I wanted to ask someone a question, she translated for me. The nights were ok, but not really cool (better than the Amazon!) All of the Cubans we were in contact with were very friendly, although some tried to hit you up for money to take their photograph, as I had experienced in Tanzania. I think that Americans are allowed to freely travel everywhere, but if you rented a car, I think that there may be a problem to find gas stations on the interior of the island. And you would have to speak Spanish!

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