Image courtesy Cuban Heritage Collection/University of Miami Libraries

By Barbara Gutierrez

Image courtesy Cuban Heritage Collection/University of Miami Libraries

Havana at 500

By Barbara Gutierrez
The University’s School of Architecture and Cuban Heritage Collection team up to showcase the history and legacy of Cuba’s capital.

It is 228 miles away from Miami, but many here can feel its allure. Its stately Old World architecture, wide plazas and paseos, its lively sea wall and romantic ambiance has inspired hundreds of artists, writers, poets and architects to capture its streets, its people and its sounds. La Habana, or Havana. This inimitable city will be 500 years old this November.

To celebrate the momentous occasion, the University of Miami’s Cuban Heritage Collection, the School of Architecture and the Center for Urban and Community Design collaborated to present “Havana500: Five Centuries of Evolving Urban Form and Urban Codes.”

“Havana is a living laboratory for any architect or urban designer who studies it, given that so much of its built history remains, offering valuable lessons for all,” said School of Architecture Dean Rodolphe el-Khoury. “The CHC has an incredible wealth of materials on the built environment and we have scholars who are eager to explore these treasures. It's a ’marriage’ made in heaven.”

“We are very excited about our collaboration with Sonia Chao and the School of Architecture,” said Elizabeth Cerejido, director and Esperanza Bravo de Varona chair of the Cuban Heritage Collection. “The partnership offers us the opportunity to showcase the richness of our materials. The CHC is interested in building partnerships with other University departments toward expanding our visibility within the University community, and to work with professors whose area of expertise align with the focus of our collection.”  

Sonia Chao, research associate professor and director of the Center for Urban and Community Design at the School of Architecture, curated the exhibit that will feature collection holdings including maps, engravings, oral histories and historical documents that trace the evolution of the city for 500 years.

In addition to highlighting the manner by which the city evolved across its history, the exhibit will also emphasize the use of urban codes that safeguarded the integrity of its neighborhoods.

“What makes Havana different is that it is intact,” said Chao. “All the layers are sitting next to each other. The city may be disheveled but the buildings are there, as are her streets and public spaces. The layers of urbanism have not been scarred or altogether lost like in other cities.” 

Founded in 1519 by the Spanish, the city of Havana is the second oldest in the New World. Its 500 years of urban history remain evident, from its early colonial neighborhood of Old Havana – with its narrow streets, baroque churches, and courtyard buildings – to the first expansion neighborhoods with their Art Nouveau gems, Art Deco and neoclassical buildings, as well as the more modern neighborhoods such as El Vedado, Nuevo Vedado, and Country Club, said Chao. Because of its unique and rich heritage, Old Havana and its fortifications were designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1982.

Throughout the city’s history, urban codes required that buildings adhered to uniform guidelines such as maintaining a certain number of feet in setbacks, consistent building heights and homogeneity with the neighboring buildings.

“Form-based codes make for a legible city,” said Chao. “That legibility translated into those beautiful setbacks for the garden in El Vedado and the Calzada del Cerro, and the porches that are deep and continuous.”

The exhibit will highlight some of the most treasured holdings of the Cuban Heritage Collection, including precious maps of Cuba and the capital, hung in chronological order, as well as exquisite colonial drawings by Frederic Mialhe Toussaint, a French illustrator who visited Havana in the early 1800s, alongside more recent photographs as well as oral histories.

One of the opening panels of the showcase is a magnificent map of the city, created by a 1996 School of Architecture class led by professors Douglas Duany and Rafael Fornes, followed by several exhibit panels, which Chao and colleagues previously produced to illustrate the evolution of Havana. 

Several display cases inside the Cuban Heritage Collection’s Goizueta Pavilion will show the history of several public projects, including those commissioned by Spanish General Miguel Tacon, who oversaw the enhancement of public areas and the building of several theatres, promenades, jails and other municipal buildings in the 1800s as a way to show Spanish prominence.   

Another display case will explore the master plans created by Josep L. Sert, the Spanish-born architect and Harvard’s Dean of Design, who was commissioned to develop a masterplan in the late 1950s to modernize Havana. One of his plans included the destruction of much of the Old Havana section to accommodate car traffic and larger buildings, said Chao.

“Ironically, the Cuban revolution’s arrival halted those plans. Havana was left mostly intact, as the revolution focused on other areas of the country,” said Chao.

Chao agreed to curate the exhibit because she sees this moment as crucial, as Cuban architects and others working on the island continue their charge to preserve the historic urban fabric of the city, by, if permitted, maintaining the preservation-minded urban codes that make the city’s urban design unique.

The exhibition also highlights 21st century urban codes, such as those created for El Vedado and Old Havana, by the Office of the Historian, led by Eusebio Leal-Spengler.

“One of the reasons I accepted this invitation by the CHC was to underline the vast and significant historic urban fabric that Havana has and how moving forward into its next century, starting right now, it can be preserved or destroyed.

For that to happen, the urban codes must be respected by all, otherwise they are useless, and the city is doomed to the same homogeneity that has diluted the image of too many contemporary cities,” said Chao, who is working on a book on the history of the city’s urban codes and urban history.

The exhibit, on the second floor of the Otto G. Richter Library, opens on Tuesday, September 10 and will be on display through February 2020.

Discussions on “Havana500: Five Centuries of Evolving Urban Form and Urban Codes,” continue on November 13-14, when the School of Architecture will hold a symposium of  international experts speaking about the evolution of the city’s urban form, urban codes and architecture, followed by Tertulias, or informal chats, in the spring semester, in collaboration with the University of Miami Institute for Advanced Study of the Americas.