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The Three Havanas

It is no secret that each city hides within itself many cities, each with its own voices, biases, and stories. Here, we will talk about how Havana is divided into three cities, clearly different, yet coinciding in one.

  • Historic Havana
  • Everyday Havana
  • Hidden Havana

Background

The founding of the Villa de San Cristóbal de la Habana, as we all know, took place on November 16th, 1519. According to official history, on that day the small city government (called cabildo) met under a ceiba tree and the first mass was celebrated, where the cabildo was given the charters and other required documents that coined, so to speak, the birth of the new town.

However, according to recent research carried out by the American writer Dick Cluster, author with Rafael Hernández of the book “La Historia de la Habana”, this has a lot of myth and consensus, since the reality appears under a curious statement, that our city already existed for around 5 years and occupied a different place, in the vicinity of Playa La Mora, current municipality of Güines, Mayabeque province. Although it is not possible to specify exactly the year, many historians agree that it took place on July 25, a day dedicated to San Cristóbal, since as was customary at the time, the towns were named according to the saint that coincided in date.

Throughout the Havana geography, various ways of living and relating to the city are stratified. Invariably marked, like all populations in history, by their architecture, their urban layout, but above all, by how the built environment relates to the lives of each of its capital protagonists.

So, there is no other option for Havana residents than to know and recognize themselves in each of the three Havanas by the relationship they have had with them, as a very intimate dialogue, between them and their city.

Historic Havana

Historic Havana is often viewed through the lens of Old Havana’s colonial architecture, characterized by its narrow, irregular streets, plazas, and colonnades. This distinct spatial language reflects the city’s rich history and cultural heritage.

However, Historic Havana also encompasses the remarkable examples of Modernist architecture that emerged in the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s. These buildings, seamlessly blending Modernist influences with Cuban heritage, represent a significant chapter in the city’s architectural evolution.

Historic Havana, both its colonial and modern aspects, has left an indelible mark on the city’s built environment and the identity of Havana residents. The Vedado neighborhood, with its grid-like layout, symbolizes the city’s development, while Old Havana has become a tourist hub, often marketed as a product rather than a lived-in space.

The transition between these two distinct areas is exemplified by San Lázaro Street, where the Vedado’s perfect grid meets Centro Habana’s more irregular layout. This juxtaposition serves as a visual representation of Historic Havana’s transformation over time.

Everyday Havana

This term refers to the part of Havana that is most familiar to its residents and where they have deeply rooted their lives. It is characterized by its Soviet-style architecture, including micro-brigade buildings, 12-story buildings, Gran Panel 4 typologies, housing blocks, Sandino-type multi-family buildings, and the famous 5-story buildings. This is also the area where many neighborhoods that were previously exclusive to non-owners were populated after the exodus of these residents following January 1, 1959.

The construction of housing complexes in various areas of Havana was carried out in the purest Soviet style, making them look like they did not belong in Havana, but rather in Kiev or Moscow. The most significant example is Alamar. Additionally, the distributions of Alberro, San Agustín, Reparto Bahía, Eléctrico, and other similar areas have been built in this style. It is a different Havana, but it is, by far, the largest of the three.

Precisely in Alamar is the pool that was once the largest in Latin America. With about 5,000 square meters, the Giant Pool was a huge project built in the 1980s. Large nearby windmills were part of the mechanism that allowed the pool to be emptied and filled, and a water recirculation system renewed its contents every night. As is known, this facility collapsed at the same rate as the socialist camp, although to be fair, the so-called Storm of the Century in March 1993 gave the coup de grace to this unique space.

Hidden Havana

This elusive part of the city lacks a defined form and is often referred to as “Havana behind Havana.” It encompasses solares (small, informal housing units), shelters, “llega y pon” (temporary settlements), and unhealthy settlements. While its exact boundaries are unclear, prominent examples can be found in neighborhoods like El Fanguito and Romerillo.

Hidden Havana extends beyond the other two Havanas, infiltrating all social strata of the city. Interestingly, it can be found not only in the outskirts of more elite neighborhoods like Vedado or La Víbora but also within their very cores. In these areas, it is not uncommon to encounter houses constructed with sheet metal, dirt floors, and gravel, lacking basic sanitation and plagued by poor hygiene and health conditions.

Despite its challenges, Hidden Havana is the one that most purely preserves the primal spark of creation. Beyond its needs and deficiencies, its form arises from the imperative need to BE, to LIVE, and to EVOLVE, driven by its creators, whether native or those who have arrived from diverse parts of the country, much like the great metropolises of history have been formed.

Three Important Questions

The three Havanas represent distinct eras and approaches to urban development, each with its own unique characteristics and challenges. Our relationship with these three Havanas varies as well, shaped by the different ways they have come to us: inherited, imposed, and created. Although each one reflects its era, this leaves us with three questions:

  • Is the Havana we have created better or worse than the ones that came before it?

This is a question that each individual, regardless of their origins, must answer within themselves.

  • Does the existence of an imposed Havana mean that this part of the city lacks value?

From an architectural and heritage perspective, this part of Havana holds immense value. It is a city deeply connected at the urban and, above all, social levels. City tours are particularly impactful as they showcase each of the three Havanas, offering a unique lesson in life and evolution, narrated through its architecture and, especially, its inhabitants. The most crucial aspect is that in the future, Havana residents should be able to look in the mirror and accept each of their Havanas as parts of their history, shaping who they are today.

  • How to ensure that the fundamental values that define Havana residents are perpetuated in each of these Havanas, regardless of their architectural typology, façade style, or social characteristics?

Havana is synonymous with drive and courage. Its history teaches us to mold our present to our own form, to reinvent ourselves wherever we go, and to accept nothing less than happiness for ourselves and our rightful endeavors.

So, whether you are a Havana resident or simply someone who has experienced the city’s magic, no matter where you are, be it in Los Sitios of Centro Habana, in Seville’s Triana neighborhood, or in the stylized Coral Gables, I assure you that you have this answer etched in your heart:

BEING FREE

© 2024 Eastern Engineering Group wrote and published this article. All rights reserved.

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