Michael reflects on his recent travels to Cuba in Part II.
The streets at 8am are bustling- old cars and trucks rumble and honk, little yellow rickshaws hustle by as mothers shuffle their children off to school. Sidewalks are washed and street sweepers sweep streets that have long lost their pavement. Life is rich among the tapestry of colorful architecture as people bustle down the endless colonnaded arcades of Havana.
Laundry is hung like colored confetti from the balconies of ruins. Long vacated by their original inhabitants, the old classical buildings now serve as crowded housing for the collective many. Block after block of beautiful stately buildings are all in some state of collapse. Ask why so many Cubans walk in the middle of the streets, the answer is simple- “they don’t want to be hit by falling debris.”
Founded in 1519 as a protective port for the Spanish Main before the fleet sailed for Spain laden with gold from the Americas, Havana was the richest port in the Western hemisphere. The architecture followed suit with its stately Spanish colonial architecture.
Narrow streets protected citizens from the intense tropical sun while funneling cool ocean breezes. Colonnades of coral stone gave further relief to the squares built on an orderly grid according to the Laws of the West Indies. The busy streets teemed with commerce, while inner courtyards offered a cool respite with wide, tall verandas shaded by shutters and colored glass where rocking chairs rocked to capture every possible movement of air.
After the British occupation of Cuba in 1762 opened the island up to free trade with the rest of the world, commerce boomed and the walls of the Old City grew too confining as the streets grew more & more crowded. Columns of every order and color began to define the character of the city, as the tendrils of the arcades grew westward.
In 1888 French landscape architect, Jean-Claude Forestier began planning parks and tree-lined boulevards and promenades, such as the Paseo del Prado outside the old city walls, along which sprung the beautiful homes and social clubs of the wealthy sugar families. New streets were lined by buildings that reflected the architectural languages of the many regions of Spain new immigrants flooded in from.
Soon, as even these fast growing areas grew crowded, the city expanded west to the Vedado along tree-lined boulevards like La Rampa, where houses became free standing, surrounded by lush gardens.
Fifth Avenue stretched beyond, expanding yet further west to the respite of the leisure of the new country clubs, where the wealthy who were benefiting from the “Dance of the Millions” enjoyed a quiet and secluded life on estates designed by famous American and European architects. Here, the golf, sports, and beach clubs flourished as the social elite entertained and socialized.
As Havana’s international allure grew, so did its appeal to Americans escaping prohibition and other limits to an unabashed high-life. As tourist flocked to Cuba’s shores, Havana followed the latest architectural trends. Buildings by McKim, Mead & White’s Nacional Hotel mirrored the stately Breakers Hotel in Palm Beach, the sexy lines of art deco, as seen in the Bacardi Headquarters reflected those of a glimmering Miami Beach across the Florida Straights, and by the mid-century, nightclubs and casinos mirrored those of Las Vegas, equal in their glamour, lined the shore.
Today, as though frozen in time, a band practices behind the closed doors of the Copa Room at the Habana Riviera, a lofty Cuban beat drifting through the musty lobby, still furnished with the original art and furniture from the 1950’s, as if it stands ready for the day the crowds return.
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