author: Prof. Arch. Maria Elena Martin Zequeira, PhD
Everyone who visits the city of Havana has the feeling of being in a frozen city. Old cars, aged buildings, narrows streets, no skyscrapers neither expressways. People walking and smiling on the streets or singing and dancing in a square, it is a common image all over the town. Havana is a sort of timeless city in the middle of the Caribbean Sea.
During the 60s and 70s decades of the last XX Century, while most of the Latin-American countries had a constructive boom, opening space to tall apartment and offices buildings, Havana remain totally original exposing a lot of traditional architecture styles as eclecticism, art nouveau, art deco, and modern movement, among others. The revolutionary government of Fidel Castro, which came into power in January 1959, immediately started to develop the rest of the country and stopped the capital development. Hundred of universities, schools, hospitals, housing and factories were built all over the country during the first decades of the Revolution period. Also a system of highways was created to link all of the cities along the country. During those years the capital city was abandoned and started a very big urban deterioration that still persists today (Fig 1).
Fig. 1. Some deteriorated buildings in central areas still persist today.
At the end of the 1980s began a national program to rehabilitate and restore the most important historical centers in the country. As a consequence of that, UNESCO has declared in the past years four of them as World Heritage Sites. La Habana Vieja (Old Havana) was the first of them, declared in 1982. (Fig 2)
Fig. 2. Old Havana was the first Cuban historical center declared by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site.
This particular situation beside a very nice weather, an astonishing nature and a warm people, made Cuba, in general, and particularly its capital city, in a very attractive place to be visited together with the possibility of learning a lot about history and architecture.
Probably having been attracted for the possibility of learning about the physical environment of the city of Havana, beside other interests, a group of students of Architecture from Delft University has visited the place from 19th to 27th July 2015.
The group, integrated of 23 students, five of them the organizers; and two professors of the University (Fig 3), had prepared a comprehensive program to know about urban development in the capital and its architecture. The main interest was focused in Foreign Investment and Urban Revitalization.
Fig. 3. Delft University students with Cuban professors Ricardo Nuñez (to the left), María Elena Martín (center) and Isabel León (to the right).
Charmae Pyl Nercua, the Marketing and Communications Officer of the IHS Alumni Relations Officer, contacted through email messages ex IHS alumni in Cuba to help Delft students in their proposal. Architects Ayleen Robainas, Isabel Leon and Maria Elena Martin; and Economist Ricardo Nunez, were the IHS ex alumni, who collaborated with the students program in Havana.
The visitors were led by students Corina Regales, Sarah Heemskerk, Marrit Terpstra, Ronnie Maat and Nick van Assendelft (Fig 4); and Professors Hans Wamelink and Sake Zijlstra.
Fig. 4. Marrit Terpstra, Corina Regales, Sarah Heemskerk, , Ronnie Maat and Nick van Assendelft, the leaders of the group.
Among the most important activities during their stay, were a walking tour around La Habana Vieja, with professor Maria Elena Martin; the lecture “Comprehensive Rehabilitation of Old Havana”, presented at the Association of Cuban Architects, and leaded by Architects Ayleen Robainas and Isabel Leon; and two lectures in the United Nations Development Program office in Cuba (UNDP) by Economist Ricardo Fernandez (Fig 5): “Land Value and Real Estate Development in Havana” and “Local Human Development Agenda of the UNDP in Cuba”. Also the group visited La Isla Real State agency, a new type of private office to deal with housing problems in Havana; Monte Barreto Real State; and had a contact with Bellavista and Ceiba Joint Venture programs, among others.
Fig. 5. Delft University students having a lecture by Professor Ricardo Nuñez in United Nations Development Program office in Cuba.
During the academic activities the students showed their interest in the presentations through a very impressive attention and a lot of intelligent questions. They were educated and concentrated in all of the activities included in the program.
The group rented two B&B, placed on single family houses in La Habana Vieja, one of the private businesses approved by the Government. So they could know a little bit about the way Cubans live today.
After the statement of President Barack Obama last December 17th, about the attempt of normalizing relationships between Cuba and USA, the island is a very special context to observe changes on the economic, social and of course on urban and architectural environment.
The visit of Delft students of Architecture was the first of a group of students and professors from The Netherlands interested in knowing more about the architecture and urban development in one of the few Socialist countries all over the world and the only one in the American region.