The history and mystery of the city just appealed to me, you know? I had decided it was time to brush off my dusty Spanish, and booked flights to Cuba. Through urban exploration and soaking up the architecture in Havana, I got to see snippets of its history. From the 17th century fort walls and Columbus-era courtyards, to the ornate wrought iron railings and colorful pastel-painted walls, Havana really has a way of drawing you in. It’s no wonder people have been charmed by it for so many centuries.
Take a look at some of the shapes, sights and sounds that greet you in Old Havana.
Safety from Pirates
With such a rich history — and most of us focusing on its revolution in the 21st century — it can be easy to forget about Cuba’s colonial roots. Havana began as an outpost for Spanish trade, shipping sugar and tobacco back from the Americas to Europe. It was important to keep the bay safe from pirate attacks — including foreign armies looking to have Cuba for their own. So architecture in Havana includes a fort, they had a heavily guarded wall to protect the so-called Gateway to the New World. At 9pm every night, to signal the closing of the gates, they sounded a canon. The daily canon is still fired as a reminder of this ritual.
Outside the former governor’s residence in the Plaza de Armas is an unusual sight; a street paved in wood. Legend has it, the wood was placed so that the governor’s wife could enjoy her afternoon siesta without the rattle of carriages and clip clopping horses against noisy stone cobbles.
Baroque architecture brought about balconies, not only for architecture in Havana, but plenty of buildings around the island. Many of these balconies feature intricately designed wrought iron balustrades, and juliet balconies — an ornately guarded door. A lot of these are featured in homes around Old Havana. I especially liked the way, in the green doors above, the panels open up to let in a breeze.
Courtyards and Palm Trees
Grand palace buildings in Havana feature big courtyards, offering calming greenery, ornate architectural details, and rocking chairs in the shade. The perfect place to sip your mojito. The balustrades and window details have much to admire.
Venturing out to other neighborhoods, you’ll even find that courtyards were a favorite for 19th century mercantile families. Old mansions now fallen into disrepair have been subdivided to accommodate a number of families. The sanctum of these courtyards remain, as a place neighbors gather, grow plants, or keep bird cages.
You’ll find lots of columns featured in Havana’s architecture. The sheltered walkways underneath provide the perfect escape from sun and rain. So the story goes, a governor granted licenses to homeowners looking to extend the second level of their home on the condition that they create a passage underneath so people could walk in the shade.
I like the way the columns cast their shadows.
A colorful architectural feature of Cuba that you might not have expected is a striking abundance of stained-glass details that top many of the windows and door frames around the island. Known as vidrieras, some of them are geometric and other may even bear the insignia or crest of the family who built the building. The colors create a warm ambience to the rooms into which the sunlight streams, working as sun breakers.
One of the most notable symbols of Havana is the time warp-like nature of its streets. Back in 1955, Cuba was being exploited by the mafia, day trips to and from Miami were commonplace, and the country was the top importer of American automobiles!
Since the US-Cuba embargo, cars are just about one of the remaining symbols of that era. Cuban ingenuity and plenty of fix-up know-how have kept these gas-guzzling metal machines on the road even now.
We Are the Neighborhood
You don’t have to go far to see that housing stock in the older parts of the city is dilapidated. In the 1960s, Castro’s post-revolutionary Urban Reform housing initiative was effective in reducing rents and turning many tenants into home owners. But during the Special Period of the 1990s, people seeking a better life migrated to Havana and they all needed a place to live.
You can see that old homes have been sub-divided over the years, these crumbling buildings receive new additions and painted in different colors to show that each piece is inhabited by somebody else. Even if someone had to money to repair the infrastructure, often it’s hard to track down the right materials. Important to the Cuban Spirit of the Revolution is community rallying together — somos el barrio — we are the neighborhood. Often people form microbrigadas, construction teams, that work together to build safe housing.
Wrought Iron Detailing
Around Cuba you’ll find ornate and rusting wrought iron, functioning as balustrades, window grates, grilles or decoration. They’re featured on residential as well as commercial properties around the country.
One local described that they allow you to keep the ventilation flowing, without worrying about someone breaking in or children running out.
Colonial and neo-classical buildings are seeing their paint fade and plaster crumble. While the buildings may have seen better days, Cubans take really good care of the way they dress. In the photo above, you can see laundry hanging to dry, bright and clean, against the balcony. A Che Guevara t-shirt hangs in the middle.
As a tourist coming to visit Havana, it’s easy to get swept up in the romantic run-down charm of the buildings. But living there is something entirely different. With up to 20 families crammed into a villa designed for one, many of the houses are fit to burst. With hurricane damage, flooding, sea erosion and a lack of maintenance, these buildings are crumbling.
Havana’s housing challenge is a question of balancing urban renewal with maintaining history and heritage, which can be a tricky feat. As the world watches on, can Cuba continue to defend itself from pirates looking for some of Cuba’s charm?