You know that when the latest buildings to go up in Havana make the Russian (former Soviet) embassy look like an architectural jewel, things are going downhill.
Long considered by many Cuba pundits a defining eyesore, the robotic concrete structure designed by “People’s Architect” Alexander G. Rochegov and erected in 1985 had all the brutalist panache of the Stalin regime. Rising over Avenida 5ta, its jarring presence—“thrillingly thuggish,” thought Architectural Digest’s Mitchell Owens—seems so bizarre amid the genteel mansions of leafy and uber elegant Miramar.
I’ve softened to the Russian embassy in recent years. Not least because many of the towering structures now sprouting along the Havana waterfront like mushrooms on a damp log elicit groans of despair.
Which begs the question: How is modern architecture changing the face of Havana? Can the city remain true to its soul?
Havana is unique in the world for having an urban structure that remained essentially unchanged for five decades following the Revolution. “Havana is the world’s last virgin city. It never experienced the urban renewal of recent decades that has homogenized almost every other capital city worldwide,” says Miguel Coyula, retired architect and urban planner with the Group for the Comprehensive Development of Havana.
It never experienced urban renewal, period!
It’s a lived-in museum of fabulous, encyclopedic yesteryear architecture. The buildings come in a spectacular amalgam of styles—from Moorish inspired early colonial classicism to stunning exemplars of Art Nouveau, Art Deco, and Art Moderne, and minimalist Modernist gems of the 1950s.
Havana expanded in stages, ever-westward, from harbor-hugging Habana Vieja—the original colonial enclave, containing perhaps the finest collection of Spanish-colonial buildings in all the Americas. By the end of the 18th century, Habana Vieja was bursting its seams. New districts went up extramuralla (outside the old city walls) as graceful boulevards pushed west, lined with a parade of quintas (summer homes) fronted by classical columns. Havana is a city, noted author-architect Jorge Rigau, “upholstered in columns, cushioned by colonnaded arcades.”
“The worst thing is that they’re not projects by Cuban architects. Therefore, they have nothing to do with our city. They’re generic and aggressive buildings,”Cuban designer Laila Chabaan
Following the Spanish-Cuban-American War, Havana entered an era of even greater prosperity. The city spread out as Vedado and then Miramar evolved, with stylish dwellings and other avant-garde structures in a medley of vernacular styles, while densely-packed Havana Vieja and Centro Habana settled into tragic decay following the middle- and upper-class exodus.
By the 1960s wealthy and thoroughly modern Vedado had acquired award-winning skyscrapers such as the eye-pleasing Edificio FOCSA (still the tallest building in Cuba, and the world’s second-largest concrete edifice), the Hilton (now the Habana Libre), and the Hotel Riviera, mobster Meyer Lansky’s sublime 1957 confection of “Mafia Modernism” rising over the west end of the Malecón.
Of course, festering slums and shantytowns marred the suburbs. Following the Revolution in 1959, the government razed them and erected spartan concrete apartment blocks to house the thousands of slum-dwellers and homeless. For a few brief years, new architecturally significant utopian buildings—among them Coppelia ice cream parlor and the sensual African-inspired redbrick National Art Schools—reflected early revolutionary exuberance. Then Soviet function over form took over (even the University of Havana’s School of Architecture closed).
Thus, in 1967, up went the mind-numbingly obscene Edificio Girón: twin, 17-story, brutalist cement tower blocks as chilling as the Cold War itself, blighting the very heart of the Malecón. And even the brutish Soviet Embassy suddenly seemed like a Cinderella when the concrete twin-towered Hotel Tritón and Neptuno were inaugurated in 1979 two blocks away at Monte Barreto.
Fortunately, most Soviet-era construction was far from the architecturally rich regions, which remained virtually frozen in time. Although many edificios are dilapidated, Havana is exceptional in the world for having been spared demolition. Despite which, the salt-corroded, post-apocalyptic yet still-lived-in Edificio Girón (locals call it “el sarcófago”—sarcophagus) begs for the wrecking ball. One can only hope!
Meanwhile, just one block east, the spanking new twin-towered Hotel Grand Aston La Habana opened in September 2021 as the Girón’s no less evil twin. “Unveiling unique design architecture,” claims Indonesia’s Archipelago International hotel group of its 600-room hotel, built in partnership with Cuba’s Inmobilaria Almest real estate investment company and Grupo Gaviota hotel and tourism corporation (both are divisions of GAESA, the Cuban military’s mammoth umbrella enterprise corporation).
“¡Que cosa mas fea!”
Few people seem to like this soulless, 21-story contemporary high-rise. It’s of a piece with virtually every other modern hotel and foreigner-focused apartment building to have recently risen, or currently rising, in Vedado and Miramar.
“The worst thing is that they’re not projects by Cuban architects. Therefore, they have nothing to do with our city. They’re generic and aggressive buildings,” laments Cuban designer Laila Chabaan, a graduate of Havana’s Instituto Superior de Diseño. “We have to build a new city, true, but I think it should at least be conceived by ourselves.”
Not that using Cuban architects per se will automatically lead to new hotel designs sympathetic to Havana’s past.
Witness the nearby Meliá Cohiba, opened in 1994 as the first high-rise hotel to be built since the 1970s. Championed by the then Minister of Tourism, Osmany Cienfuegos (ironically, an architect by training), this monstrous Cuban-designed, post-modernist hotel reflects “a placeless corporate hotel architecture that, if propagated, is a threat to the distinctive character the tourists are coming to experience,” thought Minneapolis architect Thomas Meyer.
The Meliá appears even more garish for its towering juxtaposition next to the Hotel Riviera—a stunning example of 1950s “Miami Beach” hotel architecture that Miguel Coyula considers “as yet undefeated in all respects.” The “Cancún-ification” of Cuba’s beach resorts has been underway for two decades, but Coyula says the challenge will be avoiding the same in Havana, where hotels are concentrated close to the shore.
The recent past doesn’t posit well for the future.
“For many Cubans, including some decision-makers, urban development is associated with glitzy patterns developed in consumer societies,” noted Miguel’s cousin and fellow architect and architectural historian Mario Coyula Crowley (1935-2014) in an article about Havana’s Monte Barreto written for Failed Architecture.
Beginning in 1998, the Tritón-Neptuno complex became the focus for the broader development of Monte Barreto, with five new hotels and the Miramar Trade Center spanning Avenida 5ta. Cuban architects designed them all. Among them, the Panorama hotel, a gaudy blue-glass ziggurat (Coyula considered it “a giant sun collector… with small windows barely big enough to stick the head out and smell the nearby sea”) one step up from the gauche Monte Habana Aparthotel, its “striking palette of greens, violets and yellows a failed attempt to compensate [for] the lack of architectural interest.”
Dr. Coyula would be aghast, then, at the latest iterations launching Havana into the future. Three hotels being built in Monte Barreto at the intersection of Avenida 3ra and Calle 70 include an eight-story, 524-room, X-shaped resort hotel and a 515-room, glass-sheathed tower that wouldn’t look out of place in Singapore, Panama City, or, er, Cancún.
Meanwhile, Havana is about to get its first skyscraper. Inland, at Calle 23 and K, work is progressing on the final stage of what will be by far Cuba’s tallest building. Soaring some 154 meters, the 42-story hotel—nicknamed “La Torre K”—will dwarf the 25-story, cockroach-infested Hotel Habana Libre one block away. Looking like a cross between a cubist gravestone and a gas-station pump, this slab-like rascacielo (skyscraper) has met with outrage by Cuban urban planners and architects for its insensitivity.
Their public protest revealed that in 2017 the Institute for Physical Planning had twice denied permission to Inmobiliaria Almest (which is providing 100 percent of the capital) because “La Torre K” far exceeded the permissible height in the Regulaciones Urbanísticas for Vedado (page 114, Chapter 4.3.6), which under Article 175 limits buildings for this particular zone to 25 floors—the same height as the Hotel Habana Libre—and 77 meters. Almest went ahead regardless.
“Our worn-out model of centralized urban management remains intact, but the private sector has assumed informal power, with actions that go from disrespect for our heritage to violation of urban regulations and from there to outright illegality,” bemoans architect and urban planner Pedro Vázquez.
In a country where overt criticism of the government has consequences, concerned design professionals mute their critique, point the finger of blame at foreign hotel investors, and speak in allegories. No one dares squarely challenge GAESA, which calls all the shots!
“Cuba’s public sector is weak in the face of foreign investment pressure, which is oblivious to public opinion,” adds Vázquez.
“Agreements are conducted without transparency. We import decisive projects tinged with vulgarity and conceived by foreign designers who barely understand the city. Dazzled by the image of other cities worldwide, they implant designs not even adapted to the humid tropics, while Havana’s architectural environment is violated. The changes that are being introduced will result in a different city,” Vázquez warns. “Without an articulated civil society, it’s difficult to protect our patrimony against these new merchants. It’s noteworthy that foreign investment only becomes irreverent where the public powers allow it.”
Fortunately, that hasn’t happened with the city’s architecture in Habana Vieja.
“Every first-time visitor to Havana will tell you they’ve come to see it before it changes into a facsimile of every other capital city worldwide,” says Cubaphile photographer Jack Kenny, bemoaning the new extramuralla hotels. “They need to resurrect Eusebio Leal!”
In 1982, after UNESCO named Habana Vieja a World Heritage Site, Cuba formalized a plan to rescue much of the dilapidated colonial city from decades of neglect under the guidance of Eusebio Leal Spengler (1942-2020), head of the Office of the City Historian (and a member of Cuba’s National Assembly, the Central Committee of the Communist Party, and the all-important Council of State).
Thanks to Leal’s caring vision, the many new luxury hotels recently built or under construction in Habana Vieja are exemplars of how to integrate Havana’s quintessential historical signature into eye-pleasing, state-of-the-art design. Several former palaces and townhome mansions were converted into hotels run by Habaguanex (the Office of the City Historian’s commercial division), while the façades of many once grandiose buildings on the verge of collapse were propped up with scaffolding, awaiting the day when they could be incorporated into brand new hotels.
Thus, such deluxe hotels as the Hotel Saratoga (2005), Gran Hotel Manzana Kempinski (2018), Iberostar Grand Packard (2019), Hotel Palacio Cueto (2019), Gran Hotel Bristol (2019), and the soon-to-be-completed Hotel Corona (formerly a cigar factory) and art nouveau Hotel Regis all feature brand new innards and contemporary-style upper levels fused harmoniously onto colonial era façades. Even Almest/Gaviota’s Hotel Prado y Malecón (replacing a derelict tenement bulldozed in its entirety) harmonizes with its colonial neighbors in a nod to its locale on the edge of Habana Vieja. (However, Leal categorically opposed the initial design presented by Almest and its French clients, Accor Hotels and the Bouygues Batiment Internacional construction company, thus forcing a redesign more respectful of its surroundings.)
For better or worse, in 2017 Habaguanex was taken over by GAESA; its hotels are now run by Gaviota.
Meanwhile, in the Spanish-colonial-style Hotel Parque Central (1999), featuring the partially ruined façade of its collapsed predecessor, Miguel Coyula is giving a presentation called “Havana: Past, Present, and Future.” His audience, one of my U.S. tour groups, is rapt.
“Havana is a quiet and very peaceful city. It’s unique. No drugs. No guns. No freeways. But decaying,” he says wistfully. “Some people believe that we should preserve the city the way it is Other people say, ‘No! The city is dilapidated. The best idea would be to bulldoze the derelict areas and build a brand-new city.’”
His presentation is building towards a conclusion…
“The human being is the only animal that stumbles on the same stone! Just think on how many times some people get married.” he says, drawing laughs.
Then a slide titled “The future Havana?” appears on the screen. It shows an anonymous mass of tight-packed high-rise buildings.
“Shanghai!” says Coyula. “Shanghai is no longer a Chinese city. It is a city in China!
“Many people in Cuba are enamored with the Chinese model. They say, ‘But China was nothing! Look at them now! We must be like China!’” he scoffs. “Whenever I hear anyone say ‘imagine Havana looking like that,’ I ask, ‘Do you know the implications? Do you understand the consequences of this?” he adds, as he shows his last slide. A Chinese man carries a child on his back. Each wears a mask against a backdrop of Shanghai’s towering buildings, hazy amid the thick smog.
“I wouldn’t want Havana looking like this! We must do what we can to preserve Havana as a Cuban city!”