Cuba’s eclectic architecture
Havana´s Catedral de San Cristóbal is strangely asymmetrical. (Christopher Groenhout/LPI/Getty)
Cuba’s architecture -- rather like its music -- is an eclectic mixture that over time has assimilated various outside influences to create strikingly unique cityscapes which can still be seen today.
The evolution of ideas began soon after Spanish colonisers arrived in the 16th Century. These early settlers incorporated traditional Spanish-Moorish features such as patios, fountains and decorative tiles into their new dwellings, but tailored them to suit Cuba’s more open culture and humid climate. Typical townhouses in Havana were fitted with grand colonnaded portales (porches) to provide shade and shelter from the tropical weather, and rejas, metal bars, were secured over open window panes to protect against burglaries and allow for a freer circulation of air. Other distinctive Cuban features include vitrales -- multi-coloured glass panes fitted above doorways to pleasantly diffuse the tropical sunrays -- and entresuelos, mezzanine floors built to accommodate live-in slave families. Cuba supported a massive slave economy from the 1520s until 1886 with the Spanish colonisers arranging for huge numbers of African slaves to be shipped across the Atlantic to work on the country’s sugar plantations. Many classic colonial mansions survive today, including the Casa de los Condes de Jaruco (107 Calle Muralla; 07-860-8577), now an art gallery, and the Hostal Conde de Villanueva, now a hotel, both in Old Havana.
Stylistically, the mid-colonial period beginning in the 1750s saw the gradual emergence of Baroque architecture, a genre that had its genesis in Italy in the late 16th Century and was imported to Cuba via Spain a century and a half later. However, due to the lack of skilled craftsmen in Cuba, where African slaves made up the bulk of the labour force, Cuban Baroque became a simplified version of European Baroque, with a more streamlined and muscular profile than Paris or Vienna. Grand public buildings, such as Old Havana’s Palacio de los Capitanes Generales (the former residence of the Spanish Captain General, which today hosts the city museum) was sculpted from hard, rough limestone hewn from the local San Lázaro quarries. The finest example of Cuban Baroque is considered to be Havana´s strangely asymmetrical Catedral de San Cristóbal, constructed between 1748 and 1787, a cathedral whose swirling facade native magic-realist author Alejo Carpentier once described as “music turned to stone”.
Cuba’s early 19th-century architecture had a recognisable Gallic influence. Following a violent slave rebellion in the neighbouring French colony of Saint Domingue (now Haiti) in 1791, many French plantation owners fled to Cuba fearing for their lives. Joining up with other French émigrés, some directly from France, others who had left North America following the 1803 Louisiana Purchase by the US from the French, they began to build new cities using Neoclassical architectural techniques that were in vogue in France at the time. Unesco-listed Cienfuegos on Cuba’s south coast, founded by French émigrés in 1819, is Cuba’s most neoclassical city, with broad colonnaded avenues embellished with neat lines of elegant, well-proportioned facades painted in an array of pastel colours. Its most iconic building, the Teatro Tomás Terry (270 Avenue 56; 043-51-33-61), notable for its frescos and gold-leafed mosaics, is one of a trio of plush provincial theatres built in a similar style with neoclassical exteriors and lavish auditoriums. The others are the Sauto (Plaza de la Vigia; 045-24-27-21) in the city of Matanzas and La Caridad (Parque Vidal; 042-20-55-48) in the city of Santa Clara.
By the mid-19th Century, the neoclassical penchant for symmetry and simplicity had spread to other Cuban cities, including Trinidad and Camagüey, where it mixed with Cuban Baroque. Havana also adapted a neoclassical look during this era, adding endless colonnades to its burgeoning streets. Carpentier later coined it the “city of columns”.