Cracked concrete blocks that soar skyward between elegant single-story houses. Peeling art deco treasures squashed against brand-new smoked-glass shopping centres. Beautifully restored colonial mansions cheek by jowl with collapsing buildings whose ornate balconies hang on by mossy threads. Havana is a city of architectural ironies and paradoxes, of harmony and dissonance.
The city’s eventful history can be read in its eclectic streets, from its beginnings as a humble settlement on the western shore of the great bay to 20th-century suburban sprawl. Old Havana, a UNESCO heritage site, is a miraculously preserved and restored Spanish colonial town, where streets with names like Oficios, Mercaderes, and Obispo recall the craftsmen, merchants, and churchmen who first gave life to the city. The great fortifications stand silent witness to the constant terror of pirate raids, and colonial life over three centuries can be envisaged in the aristocratic houses, with their carriage doors leading to cool interiors, and their immensely tall rejas, the wrought-iron grilles over the windows behind which languid ladies would sit fanning themselves and gossiping. To stand in the middle of Plaza de la Catedral is to go back in time; the square has remained virtually unchanged over two hundred years, dominated now as then by the lovely asymetrical limestone cathedral itself.
In the 19th century, the city was bursting at the seams. The old walls were pulled down, and Havana mushroomed westward into the dense warren of Centro Habana. Unrestored and tourist-free, life spills onto the streets in Centro Habana, contained on the seaward side by the sweep of the Malecón in all its crumbling, glorious mixture of tiled, pillared, and carved candy-coloured buildings.
The 20th century bought independence, the Americans, the Mafia, and the Revolution to the capital within a space of 50 years. Further west, the new district of Vedado was planned with meticulous symmetry, but has an organic, haphazard feel to its wide leafy streets, where banyan roots burst through the pavements and the follies built by the wealthy middle classes boast crumbling towers and turrets, miniature English castles, French chateaux, or the ubiquitous Spanish-style pillars and porticoes.
By the 1950s, Havana was a pleasure-seekers’ paradise, with several cruise ships a week bringing revellers from the United States to sample its bars, casinos, and sleazier nightspots. Not surprisingly, the Mob moved in on the golden goose, and evidence of their brief reign can best be seen in the hotels and former casinos they ran: the twin-towered Nacional, the Capri, and Meyer Lansky’s pride and joy, the Riviera, a fabulous example of 50s style opened just weeks before it was appropriated by the young revolutionary government of 1959.
Nowadays, Havana has a special poignancy, as the years have taken their toll on its architectural riches. The beautiful but battered buildings have been shaped by the elements, the burgeoning vegetation, and the lives of the habaneros who have lived out their history side by side with their glorious architectural heritage.