Cuba Will Break your Heart
I don’t typically write about decline and decay. I’m interested in new, cutting edge, historic, artistic, interesting, creative, stimulating and yadayada. If you follow my weekly blog you know. Sure some times guest bloggers jump in there to write about fording rivers in Africa, pretending to be elephants to scare off the alligators. I like these contributions because the stories are interesting and it is fun to keep blog readers wondering what they will see next on DesignDestinations.
This post is about the state of architectural affairs in Havana, Cuba and it is not good. Actually the situation is dire. Wretched. We visited Cuba in January 2014 on a Backroads “People-to-People” trip. About 100,000 Americans experienced trips like ours in 2013.
What we saw was really sad. Tragic. Deplorable. Awful. It wasn’t without its bright spots, but a lot of awful.
This was once a beautiful and glamorous and gorgeous destination in the Caribbean that attracted pleasure seeking visitors from all over the world. Loaded with colonial style buildings with arcades, columns and colorful windows, art deco and modernist treasures, the city was a huge attraction for people from the United States and around the world. They loved the parties, the entertainment, the rum, the beaches. Sadly….no tragically, the architectural gems have been allowed to slide into a terrible state of disrepair. The photo below shows what Cuba once was.
Crumbling, Colorful and Controversial
Let me share the experience. First, I’d like you to look at this photo because it is a symbol of my impression of the city. Yes, you see a building badly in need of renovation. But the spark of creativity and spirit of the people shines through with the mural. I saw glimmers of hopefulness and creativity along with the gritty grimness.
We drove by or walked by buildings like this…… the photos say it all. It isn’t an isolated corner or ghetto. It is the city. Ever since the Revolution and certainly even more so since the Russian aid disappeared in the late 1980s and Cuba suffered an economic crisis, the buildings of the city have been allowed to decay.
We saw it all first hand with Eleen, an architect, who works for the Cuban government who owns all these buildings. Taking a Sunday morning to give us a tour, she showed us the kinds of buildings in which people live. These are buildings that would be deemed uninhabitable in the US. They are bursting at decaying seams with people. No plumbing. Horrible.
And then she took us to an example of a renovated one. Lovely and comfortable. Clearly Eleen was proud of this effort. Unfortunately there aren’t many of these…a drop in the bucket if you’ll pardon my cliche. Under the leadership of Raul Castro, some foreign investment and join ventures are being allowed.
Here are a couple of renovated spaces we saw. They were rare and special.
We gawked at the huge structure that looked like it would be perfect for a St. Regis, Four Seasons or Hilton. And yes, it is being renovated, But Eleen said this project has been going on for ten years. Yep, you read that right. Ten years! When she told us about it, she shook her head and muttered something about “inefficiencies.” It was clear she was frustrated.
We learned that on average a building a day falls down…..yes, these are buildings with people living in them and they collapse. The exception is after rain when it is worse. We had a heavy rain day while we were there and learned that four buildings collapsed. One of them could have been this one. It’s being held up with external supports.
Not to be totally gloomy I did see some bright spots of hope. The Paladars (more on them in future blog post). Some bits of color and fresh paint. A great sculpture. A perplexing sculpture. A church where the nave was recreated with faux painting……no money to redo it as it was originally.
And in the neighborhood where our hotel was located, some homes like this one. Of course, we wonder if these are for the government officials.
I’m going to end with some shots from our walking tour. I couldn’t help but admire the colors, the faded textures, the juxtaposition of architectural elements. Viewed out of context one would say they are quite beautiful in a vintage sort of way. But when you think these are homes for families and elderly and folks trying to get through the day and scrounge enough to eat, it’s heartbreaking.
While we saw extensive decay and decline, we also experienced the wonderful, resourceful, creative spirit of the Cuban people. More on that in future DesignDestinations.org.