WANT TO GO TO CUBA?

Featured ImageAmericans can now travel to Cuba legally. Take advantage of OFAC licensed "people-to-people" programs:

  • meet the people of Cuba and come home with a deeper understanding of the island and its heritage
  • stroll through the UNESCO World Heritage site of Old Havana and explore the diversity of its architectural history
  • visit art venues and cultural programs celebrating Afro-Cuban music and dance.

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COLONIAL ARCHITECTURE IN OLD HAVANA

by Lisa Reynolds Wolfe on May 29, 2013

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Old Havana was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1982. Since then, urban renewal has converted the outer ring of the former city center into a tourist sector.

The ambitious plans that accompanied Old Havana’s World Heritage designation came with an ambitious price tag. Consequently, restoration efforts were initially confined to a few streets, plazas, and buildings.

In the 1980s, the emphasis was on historic areas, and a series of ‘development axes’ guided restoration efforts. The focus during this timeframe centered on the streets of Oficios, Mercaderes, Obispo, and O’Reilly. Four main plazas also were in the spotlight:

  • Plaza de Armas, the site of the oldest Spanish fortress in the Americas and the seat of authority and power in Cuba for 400 years; a square has existed on this site since 1582

  • Plaza de San Francisco de Asis, home of the Iglesia y Monasterio de San Francisco Asis, which has the tallest church tower in Havana

  • Plaza Vieja, dating from the 16th century, served as an open-air marketplace until 1835

  •  Plaza de la Cathedral with its beautiful baroque cathedral, the Catedral de San Cristobal de La Habana, begun in 1748 and finished in 1787, the year the diocese of Havana was created

Debate was lively in the 1980s. State agencies represented the “traditional essentials approach,” arguing for a strict and faithful compliance with the formal and decorative features of the past. Agencies and individuals representing this approach included the Cultural Heritage Office, the City Historian (Eusebio Leal), and CENCREM, the Center for Conservation, Restoration, and Museum Studies led by Isabel Rigol and Luis Lapidus. (See more about CENCREM below.) Their strict adherence to past design required the reproduction of complex details which was often done with shabby ‘modern materials.’

In contrast, the young design professionals of  the ‘Generation of the 1980s’ promoted innovation and novel applications of formal codes of interior design as well as the filling of empty lots with structures that blended harmoniously with their settings.

According to Segre, Coyula, and Scarpaci in their book Havana: Two Faces of the Antillean Metropolis, Havana’s problems shifted radically from the bureaucratic paradigm of the Revolution to myths about colonial architecture.

Several factors accounted for this paradigmatic shift. One was the collapse of the socialist world which, in turn, created greater political isolation for Cuba. Another was the dire economic rut in which Cuba finds itself in the 1990s. And yet another stems from an insecurity about the future. Taken in their entirety, these factors help explain why officials have looked back in time for planning and design solutions. The heritage-site syndrome and narcissism of historic preservation move in tandem with the ‘mummification and fetishization of architecture.’

In other words, the acritical reproduction of historic landscapes meant reviving some buildings which . . . really should have been ‘helped to die.’ Brilliant forms and spaces derive from these restoration efforts, with their modern pastel colors that lack historic meanings.  Images from the mass media zoomed in immediately on the new ‘colonial’ restoration, especially the film industry. Nevertheless, the problem was not one of color, but concerned issues of historic veracity given that such banal and picturesque perfection never registered in the collective memory of habaneros.

At any rate, as restoration continues, more and more tourists staying in luxury hotels in the core area of Old Havana open their guidebooks and strike out on independent walking tours. Look for “formal” Havana Project walking tours in coming weeks. But, for now, here are a couple of places you might come across if you decide to wander around on your own.

Passers-by often express curiosity regarding the Afro Cuban connections associated with the Iglesia y Convento de Nuestra Senora de la Merced.

The Church of Nuestra Senora de Merced is at the corner of Calles Cuba and Merced. It’s sometimes compared with St. Peter’s in Rome because of its elaborate decoration, including trompe l’oeil frescoes. The sacred space contains an alcove lined with fake stalactites in honor of Nuestra Señora de Lourdes.

The church was completed by the monks of the San Vicente de Paul Mission in 1867, although work began much earlier in 1775. The interior nave and the altar are quite beautiful, and are unique among Cuba’s colonial churches.

La Merced was the colonial aristocracy’s favorite church for sumptuous weddings. Young people continue to choose its altar for their (albeit more modest) ceremonies today.

Thousands gather at the church on September 24 for the feast day of the Virgen of Merced. On this day, pilgrims are allowed to go to the altar to pay tribute to the virgin, who is dressed in a rich white robe, an odd syncretization of Catholic religious culture with African beliefs. (You might remember this blending of Catholicism with African religions from our post on the Virgin of Cobre). Some worship Mary in the Virgen de la Merced while others pay homage to Obatala, the Orisha goddess of the earth and purity in the Yoruba religion.

Tourists walking by are almost always seduced by a desire to peek into Havana’s oldest surviving church, the Iglesia Parroquial del Espiritu Santo (the Church of Spiritu Santo). The Church of Spiritu Santo (1638) lies at the corner of Calles Cuba and Acosta. It began as a chapel built by slaves and freed blacks. Declared a parish church in 1674, the hermitage granted asylum to those hunted by authorities during colonial times.

The sacristy boasts a wooden lattice work gate and a large painting by the artist Aristides Fernandez. In the baptistry, there is a font by sculptor Alfredo Lozano, and a gilded, carved pelican. There is elaborate carpentry on the ceilings of the main nave, and catacombs to each side of the nave are held up by subterranean tree trunks. Other items of interest include the funerary crypt, the sepulcher, and the great altar with its recumbent statue of bishop Fray Geronimo Valdes, also by Alonso. The spaces between the niches in the vault running beneath the chapel house a series of paintings of skeletons crowned with tiaras and holding miters. They represent the dance of death, but they’ve been almost erased by time and damp.

There is also a  large warehouse full of alcohol and other hospitality needs close to the Iglesia y Convento de Santa Clara. The church, founded in 1644, was the first nunnery in Havana, run by a group of nuns from Cartagena de Indias (Columbia). The building is extremely large, a huge rectangle covering four blocks. It was once a slaughterhouse and later housed hundreds of nuns and slaves. It also served as a refuge for girls who didn’t have a large enough dowry to attract suitors.

The beamed ceilings in the church as well as the nuns’ cells are worthy of note. The large patio of the Main Cloister, with abundant greenery and surrounded by wide galleries with arches and columns, is an invitation to meditate and rest. There is a good view of the belltower from here.

Located in the second cloister is a structure known as The Sailor’s House (Casa del Marino). Constructed by a rich shipowner and pirate captain whose only daughter refused to forsake the religious life, it’s a typical Moorish house with wooden balconies. The ‘House” is now known as the “Academic Residence.” It’s a moderately priced hostel for history and culture aficionados.

This location now houses the National Center for Preservation, Restoration, and Museology — CENCREM — the technical team in charge of the restoration of colonial Havana. I can’t think of a better place for them to be situated.

As walkers move closer to the waterfront, the truly observant will peer behind a facade hiding the old neighborhood boxing ring; sports minded or resourceful travelers will go inside to view a match. Most, however, will miss two new gymnasiums — one where school children practice tai chi and a second where women take aerobics.

If you’d like to learn more about architecture and neighborhood restoration in Cuba, I have two recommendations. If you’re an arm chair traveler, The Havana Project’s e-mail series on urbanization in Old Havana will start shortly. Access will be by e-mail sign-up only. I also highly recommend a licensed people-to-people tour. Take a look at this itinerary and e-mail lisa@havanaproject.com for more information.

Photograph by Lisa Reynolds Wolfe.

 

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CUARTILLA INFORMATIVA:JANUARY – MARCH 2013

by Lisa Reynolds Wolfe on March 8, 2013

Cuartilla Informativa: January – March 2013

Havana Project is happy to announce that the most recent issue of Cuartilla Informativa is now online. As many of you know, Cuartilla is edited by Manuel (Manolo) J. Sanchez Victores, and produced in collaboration with colleagues in the United States and Cuba. The newsletter is all about architectural and planning issues in Havana and Cuba. You can download the PDF here.

As always, you can read Cuartilla in either English or Spanish. The newsletter is sprinkled with color pictures as well as maps and explanatory tables.

Cuatro Caminos (4 Roads) Site

This new issue of Cuartilla begins with an in-depth discussion of the Cuatro Caminos (4 Roads) site and its role in creating an understanding of the city of Havana.  To get a real flavor of the area, you can watch the video on the Cuatro Caminos Mercado (Market) above.

To paraphrase Cuartilla:  For many, Havana is a city frozen in time given the absence of significant physical changes over the course of more than half a century. But the current reality is that further urban development can no longer be postponed. A good example is the Cuatro Caminos site where current needs have been evaluated. Findings indicate that the existing social and environmental deterioration demands immediate solutions. Proposed work would take place in 4 stages:

  • Stage 1 (short run): Concrete Actions on Elements that Constitute the Space
  • Stage 2 (medium run): Actions on Land Use and Building Stock
  • Stage 3 (long run): Actions on the Urban Connections of the Area and its Citywide Character
  • Stage 4 (the future)

The idea is to create a connection between this location and the interior of the city.

Other articles include:

Technical Work for the Restoration Project for Loredo Chapel:

The Loredo Chapel, a burial funerary chapel,  is a small sized reproduction of one of the great eclectic residences from the early years of the 20th century. it was designed by Victor de Llona, who conceived it as a purely decorative structure to be insstalled in the Cristobal Colon cemetary.

About the Town of Bejucal:

This article is focused on the parish church of Los Santos Apostoles Felipe y Santiago.

The Town of Remedios in the Province of Villa Clara

Cuartilla has published several updates on Remedios recently. The current issue addresses the first actions intended for the restoration of the Ermita de Nuestra Senora del Buenviaje Catholic Church.

Thanks as always to Manolo and his colleagues and collaborators. You’ll want to be sure to download Cuartilla and peruse the full PDF newsletter from cover to cover. Happy Reading!

Just a quick update:  For now, Cuartilla is not printable. Save yourself some frustration and don’t try to print the PDF.

 

 

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CUARTILLA INFORMATIVA: JULY-DECEMBER 2012

January 10, 2013

Cuartilla Informativa: July-December 2012 Havana Project is happy to announce that the most recent issue of Cuartilla Informativa is now online. As many of you know, Cuartilla is edited by Manuel (Manolo) J. Sanchez Victores, and produced in collaboration with colleagues in the United States and Cuba. The newsletter is all about architectural and planning […]

Read the full article →

CUARTILLA INFORMATIVA: APRIL-JUNE 2012

September 28, 2012

Cuartilla Informativa: April – June 2012 A new issue of Cuartilla Informativa is now online  for your reading convenience. Edited by Manuel (Manolo) J. Sanchez Victores, and produced in collaboration with colleagues in the United States and Cuba, the newsletter is all about restoration efforts in Old Havana and Cuba. You can download it here. […]

Read the full article →

RESTORATION AND PLANNING IN OLD HAVANA AND CUBA

April 9, 2012

Havana Project is proud to post the latest issue of CUARTILLA INFORMATIVA, edited by Manuel (Manolo) J. Sanchez Victores. The newsletter is produced in collaboration with colleagues in the United States and Cuba, and is all about restoration efforts in Old Havana and Cuba. The newsletter is divided into two sections. You can download Part […]

Read the full article →

“HEMINGWAY ON STAGE” IN SANTIAGO DE CUBA

February 7, 2012

This is a guest post by Brian Gordon Sinclair. Many thanks to Brian and “Hemingway on Stage” for sharing the following with Havana Project. Ernest Hemingway’s Nobel Prize Medal was stolen from the El Cobre Sanctuary, located just outside Santiago de Cuba, in the 1980’s. One version of the theft suggests that the thieves were not […]

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WHAT’S UP WITH RELIGION IN CUBA TODAY?

September 28, 2011
Thumbnail image for WHAT’S UP WITH RELIGION IN CUBA TODAY?

This is the last post in our series on Religion in Cuba Today.  For most of Cuba’s history, Roman Catholicism was the country’s only legal religion. Consequently, the Catholic Church had a great deal of power. The Cuban Church was a historic product of Spain, and it remained closely tied to the mother country until […]

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MULTIPLE BELIEF SYSTEMS MAKE UP RELIGION IN CUBA TODAY

September 23, 2011

This is the fifth post in a week long series on Religion in Cuba Today. Our last post in this series will provide information on current events relating to Cuba’s religious life. You won’t want to miss it. Sign up for our e-mail list to have it delivered to your mailbox automatically. After Protestantism was […]

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DIVERSE INFLUENCES SHAPE RELIGION IN CUBA TODAY

September 22, 2011

This is the fourth post in a week long series on Religion in Cuba Today. Our next post in this series will provide information on the multiple belief systems at play in Cuba’s religious life. You won’t want to miss it. Sign up for our e-mail list to have it delivered to your mailbox automatically. […]

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THE HISTORICAL BACKGROUND OF RELIGION IN CUBA TODAY

September 21, 2011

This is the third post in a week long series on Religion in Cuba Today. Our next post in this series will provide information on the diverse nature of  Cuba’s religious life. You won’t want to miss it. Sign up for our e-mail list to have it delivered to your mailbox automatically. The revitalization of […]

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