Cuba’s architecture has assimilated various outside influences over the last 600 years, mixing Moorish, Baroque, Art Deco and more to create strikingly unique cityscapes.

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”. 

Once a major global sugar cane producer, Cuba’s economy hit record highs in the early 1900s, with the years immediately following World War I known as the “Dance of the Millions”. After gaining independence from the Spanish in 1902, the country opened to US influence and huge architectural projects were hatched, funded by the glut of sugar money. Spanish architects from Catalonia armed with the curvaceous ideas of modernisme rubbed shoulders with influential new US transplants enamoured by the City Beautiful Movement, a classical revival movement born in North America that emphasised monumental classical buildings interspersed with salubrious parks and gardens. Cuba’s greatest building of this era was Havana’s towering neoclassical Capitolio Nacional, completed in 1929, a close copy of Washington, DC’s Capitol building. The Capitolio Nacional  housed Cuba’s congress until 1959.

Art Deco infiltrated Cuba from the US starting in the late 1920s. The handsome polychrome Edificio Bacardi, the former Havana headquarters of Cuba’s famous rum dynasty, is considered one of the finest examples of the genre in Latin America. Subsequent Art Deco constructions, such as Moncada Barracks (formerly an army barracks, now a school and museum) in Santiago de Cuba, scene of Fidel Castro’s failed 1953 putsch, conformed to a more austere and streamlined style redolent of the Tropical Deco buildings found in Miami. And although often pigeonholed as Art Deco, Havana’s emblematic Hotel Nacional remains for many a genre-bending hybrid that grafts Art Deco-style towers onto a neoclassical shell with a resplendently tiled Moorish interior.

Daring eclectic architecture continued to break the rules in Cuba in the 1920s and ‘30s as rich sugar barons competed to build ever more ostentatious mansions in the country’s flowering suburbs. Havana is dotted with fairytale palaces and mock-castles, some of them aesthetically stunning like the Fábrica El Laguito (2302 Avenue 146; 07-208-4654), a cigar factory in the swanky Cubanacán district; others verging on kitschy, like the Casa Española (cnr Calle 25 and Avenue 7; 07-206-9644], a restaurant in the neighbourhood of Miramar.

Other cities around the country competed to emulate the growing capital. Cienfuegos’ Punta Gorda peninsula is a riot of eclecticism crowned by the Palacio de Valle, formerly the home of a local sugar plant owner but now a restaurant, a curious blend of crenellated turrets and Islamic arches that could have been lifted from Spain’s Alhambra. To the west, in the otherwise nondescript city of Pinar del Río, the Palacio de Guasch (202 Calle Martí Este; 048-77-94-8300), built by a globe-trotting Cuban doctor named Francisco Guasch in 1914, melds Gothic, Arabic, Byzantium and Hindu features in what is possibly Cuba’s most whimsical building. Conforming to no known architectural guidelines, many observers refer to it as “Guaschian”. Others have described it as an architectural manifestation of magic realism, the writing style popularised by Carpentier and Colombian novelist, Gabriel García Márquez.