Can the enchantment of Havana survive?

This article was written as a guest column for the Iowa City Press-Citizen by Joan Kjaer

A few weeks ago, my eyes and my heart were opened to the extraordinary people and culture of Cuba.  At unexpected moments at home in Iowa, I once again see Havana’s brilliant blue sea and sky, hear the music and conversation in the streets, smile at the flashing memory of an unforgettable meal, and recall the lipstick-colored almendrones (old American cars) whizzing by.  As a sensual experience, for me, Havana’s beauty, charm, and historical character are rivaled only by Rome.

Havana’s 500-year history lives in the colonial fortress protruding into the bay and in the elegant urban design and architecture of El Prado, near the nation’s capitol  building (which looks quite familiar to Americans as it was inspired, in part, by the U.S. Capitol).  

You see it in the gracious homes and stately porches that line the streets of El Vedado, a tree-filled district developed in the early 20th century to suit the tastes and bulging pockets of Cuba’s economic elite. 

And you see it in the thousands of buildings that were once not only substantial, but grand—structures like those in Central Havana that now seem to be all but lost.

Having lived through nearly sixty years of political rancor and mutual mistrust between the U.S. and Cuba, I never expected to be able to set foot on Cuban soil.  But President Obama’s and President Castro’s joint announcement on December 17, 2014, opened a new era that holds the promise of greater access to tourism, a renewal of family ties that were ruptured during the revolution, entrepreneurial opportunity for Cubans, an infusion of international capital, and any number of development initiatives.  

It’s not hard to imagine why entrepreneurs, developers, and international business interests have their eyes on Cuba at this critical turning point.  Nor is it hard to see that Cubans are ready for change.  They know all too well how insufficient much of the infrastructure is, how damaged the streets and sidewalks are, and how limited are public transportation and economic mobility.  There’s a tangible thirst to see what comes next......and a certain trepidation for those who hope that Havana’s cultural heritage will be respected and honored as a new future materializes.

A group of about thirty Cubans and others from around the world gathered in Havana for a week in late March to posit the best possible outcomes of the development that is sure to embrace Cuba in coming years.  We were participants in the 2015 Havana International Charrette on Urban Design*, a collaborative workshop led by Cuban architect, urban planner, and author Julio Cesar Perez Hernandez. 

This week-lo

ng, intensive, and thought-provoking exercise threw architects, urban planners, developers, financiers, educators, and others interested in sustainable communities and the preservation of culturally and historically significant architecture together to plant and nurture a vision for the next phase of Havana’s growth.   We came from vastly different backgrounds and entered the room with our own individual expectations.  But we left with a unified vision--and great hope--for the future.

The people of Havana have the right to a livable city, one that works and remains faithful to its idiosyncratic nature.  While the infrastructure needs repair and thousands of homes and buildings must either be demolished or rehabilitated, this massive undertaking can be accomplished with beautiful and timeless results if developments are held to the highest design and architectural standards and if development is inclusive, comprehensive, and scaled appropriately for Havana. 

Havana is much more than its buildings—and yet the built environment tells a story.  The story of a rich and vibrant culture, historical complexity, and the Cuban people’s creativity, vitality, and appreciation of beauty.  As the next chapter opens, I can only hope that the enchanting nature of this global city is not lost but infused with fresh energy and the inspiration that springs from a true understanding of her uniqueness.

*The 2015 Havana International Charrette on Urban Design was organized by the International Network for Traditional Building, Architecture & Urbanism (INTBAU) and presented by the Cuban chapter of INTBAU, and its president, Julio Cesar Perez Hernandez.

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