The privations suffered by the Cuban people as a result of the US economic embargo, the collapse of the former Soviet bloc, and the general inefficiency of the communist system is well documented. Not as well known are the effects of that triad on the architecture of Cuba. The Florida-based Sun-Sentinel newspaper reported that after Hurricane Ike crossed the island in 2008, 67 buildings in Havana collapsed either partially or completely. The same article quotes architectural experts as saying that “every three days, there are two partial or total building collapses in Central Havana alone.” Given the inevitability of entropy, I doubt that things have improved over the intervening years.
A building that has lost its battle with gravity is what I think I have found on an early morning walk through a part of Havana only a few blocks away from the touristy and restored Habana Vieja area. I talk to a resident of the neighborhood who tells me that the building did not fall down of its own accord, but was in such poor condition that it was condemned and is being demolished. I have been in many buildings in Havana that would have been declared unfit for human habitation in the United States yet are still lived in by many people, so I cannot imagine how bad a building must be to suffer the fate of being condemned to demolition here.
It seems to me that Havana experienced two important architectural periods. The first occurred when Spain colonized the island, constructing many buildings in the Spanish Colonial style exemplified by Habana Vieja. These feature arched windows and doors, columns that support overhangs to shield people from the weather, balconies with wrought iron railings on upper floors, and lots of ornamentation. They surround a large, airy rectangular plaza with two narrow, cobbled streets radiating out at 90 degree angles from each corner, so that the city could grow from these centers in an orderly fashion.
The other period occurred in the early to mid twentieth century and was in the Art Deco style. This has always been my favorite style of architecture, and finding so many wonderful Art Deco buildings here was the most pleasant surprise of my first trip. I suppose that Havana was experiencing a building boom during the apex of the Art Deco period and took many of its cues from the United States at the time. So the same architectural expression that produced the Chrysler and Empire State buildings in New York, the Fisher Building in Detroit, and pretty much all of South Beach in Miami also influenced the construction of many art deco buildings in Havana, the most famous being the Bacardi Building.
The subject of my photograph is a far more understated example of Art Deco. Through the ignominy of condemnation and the debris of demolition I can see what this building once was. My eye is drawn to its geometry, to its stubborn resistance to its fate, and to the sparse decorations that remain on the side that has not yet been pushed over into the street. I can only hope that one outcome of the normalization of relations between our countries will be the preservation of buildings like this.