Feeling Havana

The city's name summons images of crumbling colonial palaces, forts, and churches; of 1920s art deco decadence; of 1950s nightclubs, 1960s revolutionary politics, and the 21st century tourism trade. Havana is all of these simultaneously, a place of contradictions and ironies, never settling down to visitor's expectations. Photographer Sean Drakes searches for the spirit of Cuba's capital in its unmistakable cityscape. With an introduction by writer Claudia Lightfoot, an honorary habanera

  • The Malecón. Photograph Sean Drakes
  • The Hotel Riviera. Photograph by Sean Drakes
  • Church in Vedado. Photograph by Sean Drakes
  • Looking out to quiet Campanario. Photograph by Sean Drakes
  • On Calle Enna. Photograph by Sean Drakes
  • Near the Paseo del Prado. Photograph by Sean Drakes
  • Ornate balconies in Habana Viejo. Photograph by Sean Drakes
  • The Museo de la Revolución. Photograph by Sean Drakes
  • High-rise apartment buildings on the Malecon, with a statue of Jose Marti in the foreground. Photograph by Sean Drakes
  • Calle San Ignacio. Photograph by Sean Drakes
  • On Calle 21. Photograph by Sean Drakes

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

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.