Looking Toward Havana’s 500th Anniversary
By Graziella Pogolotti
A CubaNews translation.
Edited by Walter Lippmann.
The information panorama is beginning to show signs of preparations for the forthcoming commemoration of the fifth centenary of the founding of Havana. Many of us were eagerly awaiting this promising announcement, because the passing of time has left scars in a city endowed with unique values and the deterioration of the environment is inevitably reflected in the behaviour of the citizens who live there.
In this context, I think it is right to begin the urgent rescue operation with the restoration of order and cleanliness and to offer concrete answers to the most pressing demands of daily life in the neighborhood. Thus, from the grassroots level, it is possible to appeal to the committed and participatory action of the inhabitants.
The rediscovery of the urban values that have characterozed, through an incessant secular accumulation, the profile that makes the capital unique, cannot be postponed and is no less important. Eusebio Leal’s stubborn preaching has helped to place the heritage legacy forged in colonial times in the place it deserves.
In the remote days of its foundation, Havana was a disorderly agglomeration of adobe and wooden shacks, located next to the port, subject to devastating fires and the threat of the freebooters. With the passage of the fleets and the construction of the defensive system, streets were laid out and houses became larger. The image of the city was configured with its palaces in dialogue with the squares. Moderately baroque, the façade of the cathedral has a space of perfect proportions, open and intimate, like a theatre. After all, the need to preserve urban planning imposed the requirement to delineate regulations through municipal ordinances. Oriented in various directions, the roads, still in use, connected the centre of the city with the surrounding territories.
The expanding city grew westward in successive stages. In search of a more favorable climate, the wealthy built mansions next to the Calzada del Cerro. They would then go to Vedado, Miramar, Cubanacán. In the uninterrupted movement in space and time, stylistic and epochal marks crystallized. They form a treatise on architecture and urbanism, a vocation for modernity tempered by the local context.
The first Industrial Revolution unleashed, in the nineteenth century, the excessive growth of cities. Faced with the danger of a polluting proletarianization, Baron Haussmann made Paris the spectacular scene that we know today. The initial notions of urban design were being established, which has now become a complex transdisciplinary knowledge, aimed at restoring the human dimension to the habitat with the participation of technical knowledge for the management of construction, hydraulic infrastructure networks and waste disposal, adequate road traffic and the social sciences, particularly sociology.
With a modernizing will, Vedado was born presided over by a clear notion of integral urban design. The layout of the main avenues favored rapid communication with the city. Mandatory regulations determined the height limits of the buildings and the lawn area that separated the houses from the sidewalks, conducive to a lifestyle and gave a unique visual characteristic of the area.
In the middle of the last century, financial speculation over land value threatened to subvert the harmonious coherence of the whole. The Revolution was able to preserve its original character for many years, contrary to what happened in other countries where a predatory gigantism destroyed significant historical legacies.
The effects of the economic difficulties, from the special period onwards, partly lacerated the assets we had managed to preserve. Aside from legislation, improvised interventions appeared everywhere. However, in essence, the original imprint of the area remains. We are still in a position to safeguard it if we become aware of its value, because the very rich built heritage of Havana extends beyond the colonial zone. This is how the writers perceived it in some of the best pages of our literature, and it also manifests itself in the latent and underground memory of our popular music.
The approaching half-millennium poses an immense challenge. To assume it wisely and turn it into a collective will is a way of growing. It can’t all be done at once. It will have to be tempered as much as possible, according to the available resources. However, the most important thing, however, is to take into account the imminent while considering the perspective of the future based on the key factors that are unique to the region.