The architectural evolution of a city can be fascinating to behold. Take a city like Bangkok, where gleaming mirror glass skyscrapers sit side by side with ornate Buddhist temples and crumbling buildings that may or may not be abandoned. Sometimes the architectural evolution of a place can be difficult to perceive to the untrained eye. Are all those buildings in Copenhagen really that old, or are they merely built in a style to match the style of their immediate, legitimately centuries-old neighbours? Sometimes you need to leave the heart of a city to gain a wider knowledge of the styles that have shaped a place, such as the unending, stout, rectangular apartment blocks of Moscow. This is also the case when one city has been shaped by another nation to a certain extent, and the Soviet-style apartment blocks in the former East Berlin are a prime example. While Cuba was politically aligned to the Soviet Union throughout much of its modern history, the country did not receive all that much architectural influence from that part of the world, and this not exactly a bad thing. The design on display in the buildings and public spaces of Cuba are a lesson in the nation’s history, all laid bare in a wonderful avoidance of urban renewal. There are some key sites in Cuba where there are some shining examples of design that are uniquely and authentically Cuba, wherever their inspiration might have come from.
La Habana Vieja
We can thank the collapse of the Soviet Union for much of Cuba’s contemporary tourism industry. While it was always possible to visit Cuba (although with some complications for Americans), the advent of modern tourism on the island nation was born out of a need for the money that tourists can inject into an economy. The restoration and maintenance of Havana’s Old Town (La Habana Vieja) can partially be credited to UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) who designated it a World Heritage site in 1982, which allowed for the cultural and social importance of the area to be maintained through the preservation of its buildings. This is why it’s arguable that aside from some minor cosmetic differences, a resident walking through Havana some one hundred years ago would see basically all that you would see walking through it today.
This is a remarkable project, and is more of a one man effort as opposed to any sort of official initiative. Similar to how the fingerprints of Gaudi can be observed at many spots in Barcelona, the Cuban artist José Fuster (born 1946) wanted to give his new neighbourhood a playful, distinctive look. He settled in the district of Jaimanitas on the outskirts of Havana and rapidly began to transform the exterior of his home using bright mosaics and bold, almost garish embellishments, such as murals and small sculptures. This rapidly spread, and Fuster ended up reworking entire streets in this style, making Fusterlandia look and feel like you’ve stepped into a boldly coloured piece of art… and technically speaking, that’s exactly what you’ll do when you visit.
Hotel Nacional de Cuba
Art deco made its mark on Cuba, and there are two key examples of this in Havana. The first is the Bacardi Building in central Havana (which was repurposed as an office building when the rum company who built it moved offshore). But the most beautiful example is the opulent Hotel Nacional de Cuba, which first opened its doors in 1930. Though it officially uses a number of styles all encompassed in the one building, the art deco accoutrements are what really leap out at you. Overlooking the ocean, this lavish building should be visited while in Havana, even if only for a wander around its exterior (although treating yourself to a cocktail in the lobby bar is certainly recommended).
Palacio del Aldama
There are countless grand buildings throughout Europe that were erected in the neoclassical style, and given its history as a Spanish colony, Cuba has its fair share. The most pertinent example is the Palacio del Aldama, which was completed in 1844. Throughout its life, the building has been a private home, a cigar factory, an office building, and now a museum. A third story was added which essentially messed up the carefully considered proportions of the building’s facade, although this third story was mercifully and painstakingly removed some decades later. The unassuming exterior of the building is still incredibly beautiful, and while it might not be as fabulously ornate as other buildings from the same era in Cuba’s capital, many of which can be appreciated with Locally Sourced Havana Tours, it is perhaps the most architecturally significant. As for whether or not you find it to be the most beautiful building you encounter in Cuba is another matter… after all, it’s quite the competition!