Monday, June 6, 2011

Living in Ruins

1945. Havana, Cuba. The City is in full bloom. The port, filled with ships from all over the world, offers the island a taste of the upcoming fashions, the latest technological advances of the automotive industry, and exquisite jewelry, among many other fine things. New neighborhoods – El Vedado, among others-- are expanding to accommodate the fast growing population. Streets are filled with Spanish Colonial, Republican Neoclassical and American Beaux Arts architecture of all scales that share one common element, allowing them to fit flawlessly together, thereby forming part of a greater urban identity. Shops from all over the world fill the buildings. Theaters bustle with crowds anxious to see international celebrities Edith Piaf, Nat King Cole and others. Tropicana’s jungle showgirls dance atop the tree canopies. And a magnificent promenade, built by the US Army Corps of Engineers, the Malecon, highlights the water’s edge, providing an unforgettable welcoming view to those that come to the island daily.
“Esos eran los tiempos …” [“Those were the times…”], something my grandmother always tells me.

These times will only remain in the minds of our loved ones who tell the stories; these memories are no longer the reality of the city. This is not to say that the city has lost the urban and cultural elements that once made it a metropolis; rather, today it persists as a city that is injured, one that requires care and safeguarding.
In the present day, more than half a century later, Havana lies in ruins. But, unlike ancient ruins of civilizations past, these ruins have not been buried, destroyed or forgotten. These are modern ruins; ruins that, through the course of time, have come to represent the island survivors’ inability to overthrow a broken government. Many of the buildings throughout the City are in a state of permanent disrepair. This is not because the building resident does not care; instead, the limited resources available are simply not enough to correctly do the repairs.
Since the designation, in 1982, of La Habana Vieja as a World Heritage site by UNESCO, many institutional buildings, schools, hospitals, private homes and hotels have been renovated and restored. Unfortunately, building maintenance and public housing aid outside the historic center have not been as active.
The citizens with the greatest need to maintain or repair their dwellings are overlooked; and instead they see their homes slowly crumble, when exposed to the harsh forces of Mother Nature. Nevertheless, these residents make every effort to find creative ways to make repairs to their homes and avoid deep structural damage, which is inevitable in some cases. Walking through a neighborhood, one sees in building after building the same story engraved in each foundation. Exposed re-bars from concrete beams proudly show the world what was once the integrity of the building. Peeled layers of plaster facades mimic the face of an old lady, putting on layers of makeup, in the search for the perfect balance that will conceal her years. Skylights, no longer covered, provide naturally lit, intricate “open” spaces within buildings. Partial buildings, still inhabited, show the humidity through their walls, their open pores allowing weeds to infest their layered brick foundations. Newly laid mamposteria [a partition constructed from stones, shells a/o bricks bonded with a sandy aggregate] walls attach to buildings at random instances. Once grand marble staircases have been stripped of their beauty; the only reminder of their heydays are the intricate iron railings that have stood the tests of time.
All these difficulties have only made the Cuban citizens ingenious creators. They figure out ways to reinforce, maintain or make additions to structures with any materials available, sometimes even from construction sites; basically anything they can find. Fixer-uppers appear with wood beams attached across buildings to reinforce walls, stopping them from crashing into courtyards. Ropes, cables and wires are attached to failing columns to help the transfer of loads down to the foundations.
Part of their charm is the complexity of these buildings. Despite their state of disrepair, they still follow the Caribbean principles that guided their original design. Tanks store rain water, old torn shutters are repaired and reused; openings along the top of walls allow for a moderate amount of air flow within the building. Layers composed of window, screen and louvers allow for multiple levels of privacy while still keeping a comfortable temperature. These buildings serve as example of the ideal architecture of the Caribbean and tropical architecture despite the conditions and intricacies of the buildings.
The connection between the building ruin and the inhabitant is exceptionally fascinating and admirable. It is what I consider a romantic affair--the unconditional love and loyalty one shares with the other. They live together day to day, knowing that the failure of one will cause the demise of the other. For both to subsist, both must persist to care for (or shelter) the other. Perhaps this analysis is not as romantic to those that have to live with it on a daily basis. It must be unsettling not knowing if one might wake the morning after in the building or buried under it…
Director, Florian Borchmeyer , Producer, Matthias Hentschler, and Writer, Antionio Jose Ponte “Totico” produced a documentary, Havana: The New Art of Making Ruins, about the life of the individuals which care for these modern ruins. They are devoted to their homes, despite the reality that they are not safe, and so they only hope to maintain them as long as possible.
Havana is still an immensely complex urban collage that serves as an example for the design of cities. I miss my homeland and sometimes feel impotent not being able to help and aid the city. To see it crumbling down, to see loved ones trying to survive in the terrible conditions they are forced to live in, is a terrible price to pay. I still admire the citizens and the city, and look forward to being among them again.

Photographs by Rafael Forn├ęs


  1. Very interesting. Congratulations!!!

  2. Having lived in Havana until 1970 I have experienced what you are talking about. I wish there was a way to prevent the decay of so many beautiful architecture! (sigh)