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'Enchanted seashell': a portrait of Old Havana


Havana cathedral is a noteworthy example of the adaptation of Spanish religious architecture to the needs of the West Indies.
© Sonia

Sometime around 1515,a handfulof Spaniards led by Captain Panfilo de Nárvaez and Fray Bartolomé de las Casas established a settlement in Cuba on the southern coast of what is now the province of Havana. However, this settlement did not last long and its founders moved to the northern coast near the Straits of Florida, whose swift currents were an aid to navigation. They came to a harbour consisting of a narrow inlet opening into a large bay, well protected by hills against hurricanes. The town of San Cristóbal de la Habana was finally established on the western shores of this bay in November 1519. The exact date is no longer known since the records of the municipal council covering the period from that year to 1550 were burned by the French pirate Jacques de Sores.

by Manuel Pereira

Oral tradition has it that, in accordance with the custom of that time, the weary founders celebrated their first mass and held their first meeting beneath a ceiba tree,in the shade of which a settlement of bohíos (huts) began to grow, for initially the Europeans adopted the indigenous style of dwelling houses made of palm-leaves with a roof of two sloping sides and a beaten earth floor.

Gold fever and Faustian restlessness so captivated the minds of these conquistadores that their only thought was to set forth in search of riches on the mainland (Mexico, El Dorado, El Darien) and of the Spring of Eternal Youth in Florida. The embryonic town lapsed into oblivion and only acquired the title of city when the Spanish crown realized that, thanks to its geographical situation, it was the principal port of call on the route to the Indies. It became the gateway to the New World, through which all the gold and silver from America had to pass on its way to metropolitan Spain.

Pirates and privateers soon became aware of this traffie and were not slow to attack it. Havana was fortified and surrounded with a girdle of stone ramparts which made it impregnable. Remains of this architectural frenzy can still be seen: Morro Castle, La Punta, and the Castilla de la Real Fuerza.

Set on a rock at the mouth (like the lighthouses of San Rico and of Arico in Chile), of El Morro has been aid since 1630. The Castillo de was built between 1555 and oldest castle in America, of the harbor Juan de Porto the light houseing navigation la Real Fuerza 1577. It is the and the first building of its kind on the continent in which the Renaissance design which revolutionized military architecture was used. On one of its bastions stands the Torre del Homenaje (Tower of Homage) the cupola of which is topped by a weathervane known as the Giraldilla, an obvious allusion to the Giralda in Seville.

The famous nine o'clock cannon fire, which alarms foreigners and enables the locals to check their watches, is another reminder of those nights of torches and daggers. It announced the closing of the gates in the ramparts (built in the seventeenth century and demolished around 1865), for after this hour Havana was in danger of attack by pirates.

It was thanks to the growing importance of the port that Havana became a maritime city. Carpenters, cabinet-makers, caulkers, mast- and spar-makers and labourers thronged its streets lined with stores, workshops and merchants' premises. The most important ships in the Spanish fleet were built in Havana's shipyards.

The city was also evangelized. The sword was an earthly cross, the cross was a heavenly sword. The green cross embedded in a corner of the Calle Amargura (the street of bitterness) still marks a halting-place for the procession of the Via Crucis to the church of Cristo del Buen Viaje. But Havana's oldest surviving church is that of The Holy Spirit, built between 1638 and 1661. It is the only one whose catacombs have been preserved intact.

At the same time Havana acquired its squares: the Plaza de Armas; the so-called Old (formerly New) Plaza; the Plaza de San Francisco; the Plaza del Cristo del Buen Viaje; and most famous of all the Plaza de la Catedral. Construction of the cathedral was started by the Jesuits in 1748; it marks an explosion of Baroque, a splendid unfurling of forms, a book of rock music turned to stone. Its highly wrought volutes in coral-veined rock recall the spiralling smoke of a Havana cigar.

The cathedral façade is the finest surviving expression of Cuban Baroque, unique for the simplicity of its lines and its sensual movement.

Inside the cathedral there is a niche dedicated to Christopher Columbus, although his sarcophagus, borne by the colossal statues of four sailors, is in Seville, and his body is said to be in Santo Domingo.

The noblemen's palaces lining the cathedral square form the best-preserved and most harmonious architectural group in Old Havana. "This is the finest colonial square in America," said Walter Gropius, founder of the Bauhaus.

An endless dialogue between architecture and nature was the distinctive feature of these buildings, which were adapted to local conditions and represent a distinctive Cuban style. Venetian blinds to let in the land breeze, multi-coloured window-panes to attenuate the glare of the Cuban light, narrow streets shaded by awnings these are the constant features of an urban architecture that is integrated into the landscape and in which stone, sea and vegetation form a harmonious whole. Ayagruma flowers on a balcony; the walls are veined with white fossils; no house turns its back on the sea; all seek its breeze.

Havana also has its little mysteries. The stones in the walls still bear the personal marks of the masons, cut with their chisels, sometimes initials, sometimes indecipherable signs. Many of the tiles bear the thumbprints of the tilers who moulded them into shape on their thighs, and there is even one which has a proverb inscribed on it in Chinese ideograms "What the heart commands, the hand performs".

In the patios palm trees conduct a dialogue with pillars, as though trunks and columns had mingled and the colonnades been transmuted into petrified palms. Such correspondences and syntheses are a constant feature of this labyrinthine city, which grew in harmony with its surroundings, profiting from the changing light, assuming the varying rhythms of the waves, imposing itself as a living, dynamic organism. Old Havana is a habitable animal, an enchanted, convoluted seashell. Arab influence is evident in the geometrical ornamentation of the carved ceilings, the ironwork arabesques, the foliate motifs on the arches, the stars etched by fire on the ceilings, the proliferation of patio fountains, reflecting nostalgia for the starry skies of the desert and the unquenched thirst of the mudejar. If Havana resembles any other city, it is Seville, except that its walls are not whitewashed; its colours have always been green and blue, vegetation and the sea the city's secret passions.

In 1762 the British made a breach in El Morro and occupied Havana for eleven months. The fortifications which had so stubbornly resisted pirates and filibusters succumbed to British dynamite. This period became known in folk humour as "the time of the mammees", from the name of the Antillean apricot-tree, because of the red coats of the British soldiers.

Spain recovered Havana, and Charles III, having learned a lesson, ordered a huge fortress, La Cabana, to be built on the hill dominating the western shores of the harbour. Havana thus became the first fortified stronghold in the Americas, but it cost such a colossal sum that Charles III, appalled by the cost, went out onto the balcony of his palace and asked for a telescope to look at the lofty walls of La Cabana. "It has cost me so much", he said, "that it should be visible from here".

At this period Havana, with its 30,000 inhabitants, was already one of the major cities of the New World, more populous than Boston, New York, or Philadelphia. The snuffboxes of Louis XVI's courtiers were filled with Havana snuff, and our sugar was beginning to sweeten Europe. The sugar boom transformed Havana from a place of transit into a terminal. Towards the end of the eighteenth century about a thousand ships a year entered the bay to load sugar and deliver goods from overseas.

The independence of the United States brought an influx of traders eager to make fortunes. The revolution in Haiti led to the arrival of large numbers of French. Cosmopolitan elegance prevailed, but slavery was a powder keg ready to explode. Thus appeared the Cuban capital at the beginning of the nineteenth century. It was at this time that neo-classical architecture appeared in Havana. A small-scale imita¬ tion of the Parthenon, El Templete, stands a stone's throw from the mole, on the spot where the city is supposed to have been founded more than four and a half centuries ago. It was erected, not only to commemorate the foundation, but as an act offealty to Spain by the Captaincy General in the name of "faithful Havana", at a moment when America was swept by rebellion.

The entrance pillars are surmounted by bronze pineapples, an emblem of Havana. Behind the gates stands the founding ceiba tree or rather its descendant, since the original died in the middle of the eighteenth century from the effects of the salt air from the sea nearby.

The inventions of the nineteenth century soon reached Havana. Watt's steam engine was operating in the city within four years of its invention. Havana was the fourth capital in the world to establish a railway and the third to be lit by gas. Morse had scarcely launched his campaign to promote his telegraph system before Havana had its telegraph lines. The telephone arrived with its inventor. Moreover, Havana was the first city in the world to have an automatic telephone system, because it was chosen as a showplace for the experiment. The first radio station was opened by Marconi himself in Havana. Six months after their introduction in Paris, the first cinematographs to appear in America were set up in Havana.

It was a century of prosperity, or rather of apparent prosperity, for after 1868 the flame of the fight for independence from Spanish colonial rule was alight in the eastern part of the country.

Meanwhile, splendour took over in Havana. In the mansions of the nobility, luxurious but on a human scale, iron gradually replaced wood: doors patterned with nails, grilles, door-knockers, locks and handrails... roofs with terracotta denticulations. What we now call Old Havana and what was then simply the city within the walls, is thronged with images. This is the Havana of Marti and Carpentier, of Humboldt, Einstein, Sarah Bernhardt, Garibaldi, Juan Ramón Jiménez, Lorca, Antonin Artaud, Mayakowski, Isadora Duncan, André Breton, Caruso, Simón Bolívar, Benito Juarez, Francisco de Miranda, Valle-Inclán, Igor Stravinsky... They all came here and were dazzled.

When the twentieth century began, the star-spangled banner was flying over El Morro. After thirty years of war against Spain, Cubans had failed to achieve full independence because of armed intervention by the United States. A make-believe, frustrating republic was subsequently proclaimed. The last gas lamps gave way to electricity, trams replaced the two-wheeled carriages called voluntas, and asphalt took the place of cobblestones. Art Nouveau and Art Déco made a fleeting appearance on some buildings, but the dominant style was that of the foreign banks: grandiloquent, eclectic, theatrical. Meanwhile, first the aristocracy then the bourgeoisie moved out to the new suburbs El Cerro, El Vedado, Miramar that were growing outside the city walls, and their city mansions were converted into phalansteries, the community dwellings known in Havana as solares.

Overcrowding and promiscuity were the hallmarks of intra-mural Havana during the first half of the present century. The port area was full of "joints" with illuminated signs in English in a country where more than a million people could not even read Spanish. Many historic buildings were demolished to make way for absurdities in imported glass.

The Cuban historian Emilio Roig de Leuchsenring (1889-1964) protested, but the demolitions continued, and it was only the triumph of the 1959 that halted the destructive advance in the name of "modernity" and "civilization" which threatened to fill the oldest part of the capital with skyscrapers. After half a cen¬ tury of officiai indolence, the Revolution inherited a sad, badly scarred Old Havana.

A land of passage for so many years, people of the most diverse origins from Africa, Europe, China, Yucutàn have met here in a kaleidoscopic amalgam that has produced our unique but varied ethnic, ethical and aesthetic identity. A crucible of cultures, styles, iconographies and mythologies. Is it because our streets are so narrow and the balconies so close to eachother that the inhabitant of Old Havana is such an expansive, loquacious, cordial being? The humble folk who people this city, living in former palaces, are like new princes who need no coats of arms because their nobility is of the heart.

It is impossible to rescue 465 years of stone overnight, but Old Havana will be saved. Its splendid face will be restored and be converted, not into a lifeless museum but into a museum that is living and can be lived in. It will be saved, with its gas lamps and distant ships, its harbour wall for lovers, and its shadow pantomime, its nine o'clock cannon and whispering fountains, its damp pavements and the winking eye of the cyclops on El Morro.


Manuel Pereira

A Cuban novelist and journalist, Manuel Pereira is currently working on a novel set in Old Havana. His novels El Comandante Veneno and El Ruso have been translated into several languages.