There is no denying that with 500 years of history behind it, Havana’s architecture is an eclectic mix of styles. Each one reflecting the spirit of the age it represents. It is a treasure trove of delights frozen in time. The architecture in Havana is also a photographer’s dream. It provides glimpses into the past and the people that made Havana what it is today. Unsurprisingly, it got me completely hooked from the moment I stepped my foot there so many years ago.
While it’s been a while since I’ve been to Havana, I found it both surprisingly changed and comfortably the same. You can wander the streets of Old Havana, stroll along the popular Malecon promenade or take a ride into the neighbourhood of Miramar. In each place, you will find examples of all the styles of architecture in Havana. Some are beautifully restored while others are crumbling down in disrepair.
The architecture in Havana is directly influenced by the history that shaped it. All the events in the past added to Havana’s collection of styles through the ages. They are also an important part of understanding the city itself.
In the beginning
The Spaniards founded Havana in 1519, taking advantage of its location in the natural harbour. Today we know it as the Bay of Havana. It became a convenient stop for Spanish ships filled with treasures from the New World on route to Europe. As such, Havana was a target for pirates, buccaneers and privateers.
With its strategic position, Havana became a shipping and commercial port for ships travelling between the Old and the New Worlds. The city grew and so did its economy, especially in the agricultural and manufacturing sectors. Both fulfilling the needs of the shipping industry and those that operated it.
Havana during the 18th and 19th centuries
Havana grew into a prosperous port and became the third-largest city in the Americas by mid-18th century. The British captured it briefly during the Seven Years’ War before it returned under Spanish rule.
These events opened up new trade routes and transformed the Cuban society. Later, many French settlers arrived in Cuba from Haiti after the slave revolts of 1791, seeking refuge and bringing with them their own style.
Trade flourished, making Havana a powerful and fashionable place to be during the 19th century. Many new cultural buildings and expansive mansions built during this time gave Havana the nickname “Paris of the Antilles.” It might be hard to imagine today, seeing the state many of the buildings are in, but it definitely is possible to envision.
Post-Spanish independence and American influence
American interests in Cuba in later years were inevitable. Many of the slave owners moved to Cuba after the American Civil War in 1865, to continue running plantations and throwing their money into different interests in the city. With massive expansions and changing face of architecture in Havana, the city grew in size and population.
After the independence from Spain, the old European influences were cast aside in favour of new American ones. Brand new buildings added a new air of style to Havana. Many wealthy Americans invested money into real estate and influenced the new era of development. It wasn’t long before there was a new breed of outlaws with their sights on Havana – the mob.
Pre- and post-revolution
The 1940s and 1950s were a wild time in Havana. This was a world movies were based on and books were written about. On one hand, it was a playground for the rich and famous. On the other, it was a world of poverty, oppression and inequality. The perfect storm, brewing under the surface.
After the Revolution, the state seized foreign-owned properties, including residences, offices, casinos, etc., putting an end to the age of excess. This was when time stopped for the architectural gems of the past. While the new additions included government-motivated monuments and Soviet-style buildings that lacked imagination, the remainder of the architecture in Havana was left to time and elements.
Early military architecture
After the French pirate Jacques de Sores easily invaded, plundered and burned down Havana in 1555, the Spanish decided to build fortresses and fortifications to protect the city. When you think about their significance in protection against pirate attacks, it really gives you a different perspective on just how important and valuable Havana was in those days.
The structures still exist today, providing an interesting look into the city’s military past and adding to the eclectic style of architecture in Havana.
Castillo de la Real Fuerza (Fort of the Royal Force)
The Castillo de la Real Fuerza, completed in 1577, is Havana’s oldest fort. This star-shaped structure with surrounding moat took almost 20 years and the lives of many forced labourers to complete. During the fort’s early days, Spanish crown’s gold was deposited here on its way back to Spain. The Captain General, Cuba’s governor also had his official residence on premises until 1762.
The bell tower, a 1632 addition, has an intriguing bronze weather vane, named La Giraldilla. Shaped like a woman holding a palm, it is the official symbol of Havana and Havana rum. Common belief is that it’s a tribute to the city’s only female governor, Isabel de Bobadilla. Assuming the post after her husband’s departure on an expedition, she spent years looking out on the ocean waiting for his return.
Castillo de los Tres Santos Reyes Magnos del Morro (Fort Morro)
The fortress Castillo de los Tres Santos Reyes Magnos del Morro dates back to 1587. Slaves used rocks extracted from the moats to construct it along the polygon shape of the rock it sits on. Prisoners held here didn’t fare well either as they were often fed to the sharks through the holes in the back walls. If only these walls could talk, the stories they would tell.
Castillo de San Salvador de la Punta (Fort San Salvador)
The Castillo de San Salvador de la Punta, along with Castillo de los Tres Reyes del Morro and Castillo de la Real Fuerza appears on the coat of arms of the Havana. Completed around 1630, this was one of the most important defensive structures in colonial times.
For centuries, a 250-metre chain served as a defensive system against the pillaging ships as it was raised between San Salvador and del Morro. However, it wasn’t the pirates that eventually damaged the fort. It sustained serious damage during the British invasion mid-1700.
Fortaleza de San Carlos de la Cabana (Fort San Carlos)
After the British captured Havana, the Spaniards fortified the city with a 700-meter long fortress, the largest in the Americas. The Fortaleza de San Carlos de la Cabana, completed in 1774 and named to honour King Carlos III, was an effective addition to the fortifications of the city. The fort, designed using the most advanced defective concepts of the time, served as a prison, execution site and eventually Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara command headquarters after the 1959 Revolution. Definitely an interesting element of architecture in Havana.
One of big tourist attractions is the firing of the cannon at La Cabana fortress each night at 9 p.m. It is a long-standing tradition, which originated to signal the nightly closure of the city gates.
Spanish colonial architecture
NOTE: Spanish colonial refers to the period of Spanish rule in Cuba, from the time conquistador Velazquez’s arrival in 1511 until the 1898 when Cuba gained independence from Spain. This includes variations of different styles that were influences and introduced in Cuba through Spain.
The Spanish brought with them their own style of architecture, dominant in Spain at that time. Buildings with uncovered terraces dominated the style, but semi-enclosed porches also took up in popularity. This was a direct response to the heat and dramatic weather of Cuba, which was more pronounced here than in Europe.
Best example of the Spanish colonial architecture is in Old Havana (Havana Veija). Here you’ll find a lot architecture of that period. Buildings with balconies, wrought-iron gates and internal courtyards. The large windows, fitted with security bars, are an effective feature that lets the air in while keeping unwanted visitors out.
Slave trade was a massive part of Cuba’s economy between 16th and 19th centuries, supporting the local sugar plantations. Many colonial mansions were built with basements or mezzanine levels to accommodate the house slaves, as there wasn’t a lot of room for separate quarters. It’s not something I’ve ever thought about, but it does make sense when you think about it. Suddenly those beautiful mansions take on a different, darker perspective.
Over the centuries, many of these buildings fell into disrepair, becoming a shadow of their former glory. The once magnificent Spanish colonial architecture fell into ruin for decades until restoration efforts have brought them back to life. Old Havana is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, which has helped with bringing back the beauty of the past.
Piazzas and squares
Old Havana’s original urban layout is still clearly visible today. Narrow streets interconnect between old urban plazas, each with its own charm. It is here that you can admire the many styles of architecture in Havana. You can feel the nostalgia of the bygone eras as you stroll around. It’s a marvelous experience for the senses to walk around, camera in hand, capturing the beauty around you.
There are five plazas, each worth admiring during your visit to Havana. They are:
- Plaza de Armas
- Plaza Vieja
- Plaza de San Francisco
- Plaza del Cristo
- Plaza de la Catedral
Beautiful buildings with restaurants, shops, museums and most importantly, history surround each one. Sometimes it’s best to get lost in them and imagine yourself in a different time.
Moorish inspired architecture
The architecture in Havana that feels surprising at first is one with Moorish features. It’s not something you would expect on an island in the Caribbean, until you take into consideration its history. When the Spaniards arrived five centuries ago, Moorish architecture was a familiar part of Spanish style. It’s not surprising then to find its influences here as well.
Courtyards, fountains, columns and tiled details are very reminiscent of what I’ve seen in Morocco. It felt like finding hidden treasures right in Havana. I think that’s the beauty of travel, the discovery of similarities and influences of cultures and styles in unexpected places.
During the early 20th century, Moorish revival style became fashionable and many of Havana’s buildings in this style originate from that time. You can find Moorish inspired architecture in many buildings around Havana. Sometimes it’s obvious and sometimes you have to look very closely to find it. Definitely a great treasure hunt. Our hotel was one of those gems.
We chose to stay at Hotel Sevilla simply because we loved the way it looked. Many elements reminded me of Morocco, especially the courtyard patio and the lobby, lined with pictures of the famous visitors including Ernest Hemingway.
The hotel opened in 1908 and was quite the place to be in its heyday. After 1939, Havana’s mobsters owned and ran the Sevilla, adding more intrigue to its colourful past. It underwent some renovation in recent years, but it’s not quite in the shape it must have been in its prime. It was a very enjoyable spot for our stay in Havana.
Cuban baroque architecture
Although baroque was all the rage in Europe around 16th century, it made its way to Cuba about a century and a half later. Fully embraced by the nouveau rich sugar merchants and slave owners who didn’t skim on grandeur, the style had to be adapted to local conditions creating a more streamlined look.
Unlike their European cousins, the Cubans relied on slave labour that lacked advanced stonemasonry skills. As a result, the Cuban baroque architecture became its own style.
Elaborate details of traditional baroque were modernized and other localized features were added. From metal security bars on windows to allow for easy airflow, multicolored glass panes fitted above doorways to allow tropical sun in to mezzanine floors and galleried exterior walkways.
Today, some of the best examples of Cuban baroque architecture include the Catedral de San Cristóbal and Palacio de los Capitanes Generales (once a residence of the Spanish Captain General, today a city museum).
You can also spot many other great example of this architecture in Old Havana. Later examples of Cuban baroque architecture include the stunning Great Theater of Havana, where former U.S. President Barack Obama addressed the Cuban public in 2016, as well as the National Museum of Fine Arts.
Somewhere by mid-19th century, architecture in Havana became all about neoclassical architecture. The beginning of the 20th century brought on a second neoclassical revival and a major building frenzy. Clean, streamlined symmetry, grandiose frontages and imposing columns were a direct response to the overly elaborate baroque style.
It was during this time that Havana’s Capitol building (Capitolio Nacional) and the University of Havana were constructed. The Capitol building, modelled after the one in Washington, is a striking building with a cupola, once the highest point in the city.
Other great examples of neoclassical architecture include the Teatro Tomas Terry to Cienfuego, the Sauto Theatre in Matanzas and Centro Hispano-Americano de Cultura.
Art Deco architecture and eclecticism
I never knew how much I adore Art Deco architecture until I discovered it in Havana. For some reason, I don’t think this style has had the same adoption and longevity as the others. In fact, I don’t think you find that many great examples of Art Deco in the world, unless you go to Miami.
As Havana was going through a boom, economically and developmentally, money was used to fund the latest trends. That included Art Deco and eclecticism. This allowed Cuba to reinvent itself. In wake of independence from Spain and newfound economic relationship with the U.S., it was a step away from colonialism and old ties with Europe.
If you’re going to visit any place in Havana, make sure you go see the Bacardi Building. The 12-story beauty, inaugurated in 1930, was the headquarters for the Bacardi rum company and tallest building in Cuba. Walking inside is like stepping back in time. From the lobby, the doors, chandeliers and façade to the coffee shop on the mezzanine it feels like you are in an old movie. There is a lookout on top of the tower; however, it was closed for construction during our visit. The Bacardi building was by far one of my favourite places in Havana.
Other great examples of art deco and eclecticism include the Museo de la Revolución (former presidential palace), Casa de las Americas, Fausto Movie Theater and the Museo Nacional de Artes Decorativas (National Museum of Decorative Arts).
The Cuban Revolution ended the building boom and foreign interests. The austerity that came with the change in government also changed the architecture in Havana. This was the time of soulless, faceless and boring soviet era buildings rising over the city skyline. They are a stark contrast to the styles of the past, yet add another layer to the beauty of Havana.
You don’t have to look hard to find post-revolutionary architecture in Havana. Plaza de la Revolución (Revolution Square), the Russian embassy and the many tall apartment buildings are all reminders of that time.
This is definitely not my favourite style or architecture in Havana. There is nothing about it that I can find appealing, no matter how much I try.
Thoughts on architecture in Havana
Havana was once one of the most prosperous cities in the New World, with money flowing in abundance. Part of it is frozen in time. Once glorious mansions are crumbling down after years of neglect, often taking causalities with them. Many have turned into Frankenstein creations from the desperate DIY upgrades of their occupants. Dilapidated they may be, but they are still standing centuries later, a testament to quality of the work that went into creating them.
There is also another part of Havana. One that is once again shining in its centuries old glory. Meticulous restoration efforts have brought back the splendour of what Havana once was. There is still lots more work to be done, one building at a time. How much can be saved is anyone’s guess but with each visit there is a new discovery.
You have to wonder what Havana would have been like today if the Revolution never happened. It’s likely that many of the old buildings would have been torn down to make way for new development. The charming, narrow streets would have been widened to accommodate bigger cars, slowly eradicating the charm of the past. Quite possibly, Havana would have lost its rich architectural history in the name of progress.
I hope that one day, sometime in my lifetime I’ll be able to see most of Havana restored to its glory. Not just the cultural buildings, museums and hotels, but the homes of everyday people. Many of them live in deplorable conditions and probably care more about safety and running water than the history behind the building they inhabit. The people, like Havana, are resilient and resourceful, and that gives me hope.
I am by no means and expert on architecture, but I do have an intrinsic passion for it. Havana is an architectural-lover’s dream and I hope this post gave you a glimpse into its beauty. Let me know what you think.
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