The architecture of a place cannot be comprehended without understanding its society and culture, while architecture simultaneously speaks of the essence of society. It is a tool that changes the built environment and those residing there. Each structure is a testament to the place’s history, endowed with specific cultural codes that depict the socio-political and economic movements developed in the history of that community.
Cuba, officially known as the Republic of Cuba, is an island country that consists of the island of Cuba along with Isla de la Juventud and a cluster of seven minor archipelagos. Located where the Gulf of Mexico, the Atlantic Ocean and the Northern Caribbean Sea meet, Cuba is situated south of the state of Bahamas and Florida and north of both Jamaica and the Cayman Islands.
Cuba’s architecture can be described as an eclectic mixture that has assimilated different outside influences such as Moorish, Baroque, Art Deco and many more throughout its history. These influences have helped create Cuba’s unique yet striking urbanscapes that can be witnessed to date. With its rich influential architectural history spanning over 600 years, the evolution of Cuba’s architecture was set about after the arrival of Spanish colonisers circa the 16th century.
With the arrival of the early settlers, they also brought traditional Spanish-Moorish features with them, like fountains, patios, and decorative tiles. Still, they tailored these features to complement Cuba’s open culture and withstand its humid climate. The typical townhouses in Havana were fitted with porches or “Grand Colonnaded Portales” to provide shade & shelter from the tropical climate. They started placing “Rejas” or metal bars over window panes as an added security measure against potential burglaries while also allowing less-obstructed air circulation. Glass panes fitted above doorways were multi-coloured (vitrales), which could pleasantly diffuse the sun rays.
The gradual emergence of Baroque architecture was observed at the beginning of the mid-colonial period in the 1750s. As most of the labour force was made up of slaves, the lack of skilled craftsmen in Cuba yielded a simplified version of the European Baroque, having a more streamlined and muscular profile than in places like Vienna or Paris. One of the most exquisite examples of Cuban Baroque is the Catedral de San Cristóbal, Havana’s asymmetrical cathedral. Constructed in the 18th century, native magic-realist author Alejo Carpentier once described the cathedral’s swirling façade as “music turned into stone”.
Following a rampant slave rebellion in the French colony formerly known as Saint Domingue (now known as Haiti) in 1791, many French plantation owners fled to Cuba. Joining the other French émigrés, those who came directly from France and those who had left North America due to the Louisiana Purchase by the US from the French in 1803 brought neoclassical architectural techniques to Cuba. The simplicity and symmetry of neoclassical architecture started spreading across other Cuban cities in the mid-19th century where it merged with the style of Cuban Baroque. Coined by Carpentier as the “city of columns”, Havana adopted a neoclassical style during this era, erecting countless colonnades to its booming avenues.
Major attractions in Cuba
Palacio de los Capitanes Generales
One of the most celebrated buildings of Cuba from the 18th Century is the “Palace of the Captains General”. With its construction beginning in 1776, the palace had been the residence for all the Captains General of Cuba from 1791 until the end of the Spanish rule, after which the structure functioned as the Presidential Palace till 1920. The monumental structure boasts a stately yet sober Neoclassical composition paired with linear Baroque detailing. Having a relatively simple façade, the palace has a triple-lobed arch (arco trilobulado) which opens up to an elegant courtyard consisting of Yagrumo trees, palms, jasmine and lilies.
Plaza de San Francisco de Asís
The great Franciscan church and monastery’s construction began in the 16th century. Being very close to the edge of the harbour, piles had to be driven into the seabed to support the church’s foundation. Still, by the year 1719, the magnificent chapel was on the verge of collapsing, due to which it was demolished and reconstructed in 1738. The beautiful church, finished with Baroque detailing, has been one of the most fashionable spots in Havana.
Gran Teatro de La Habana
The Gran Teatro de La Habana results from a theatre enveloped within a large lavish building. The theatre, known as The Gran Teatro de Tacón, was designed by Gerónimo de León along with master mason Antonio Mayo, and carpenter Miguel Nin y Pons and built-in 1838. The surrounding building around the theatre was built in the early 20th century after the theatre and the Galician Centre of Havana acquired the land around it as their club building. The façade of the building is highlighted by its whimsical Baroque detailing with curved balconies, lavish windows, cornices, and sculptural groups in Carrara marble by Moretti.
The National Capitol Building (Capitolio Nacional de La Habana) is a public building in Havana and one of the most iconic structures in Cuba. Initially used as the Cuban Congress’s headquarters, the edifice took approximately 3 years and more than 5000 workers to finish and has strikingly similar visuals to the United States Capitol Building. Built-in 1926 with white limestone and granite, it currently hosts the “Cuban Academy of Sciences” and the “Science and Technology National Library”.
Plaza de La Revolución (Revolution Square)
A significant memento of the Cuban Revolution, the building was built by the end of Fulgencio Batista’s reign. Previously known as “Plaza Civica (Civic Square)”, the structure’s name was changed to Revolution Square or Plaza de La Revolución after Fidel Castro came into power. The Revolution Square features significant landmarks such as the Jose Marti Memorial and prominent Soviet-era façades having welded artwork of two revolutionary figures of the Cuban Revolution, Che Guevara with the quotation “Hasta la Victoria Siempre” (Until the everlasting victory, always) and Camilo Cienfuegos with the quote “Vas Bien, Fidel” (You’re doing fine, Fidel).
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- Britannica (2016). 7 Iconic Buildings in Havana | Britannica [online]. Available at: https://www.britannica.com/list/7-iconic-buildings-in-havana [Accessed 15 December 2022]
- Obregon, J. (2014) Cuba: Architecture and the Social Order. Syracuse University School of Architecture. https://surface.syr.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1271&context=architecture_tpreps
- Outbound (2020). Architectural marvels of the Cuban capital [online]. Available at: https://indiaoutbound.info/experiences/architectural-marvels-of-the-cuban-capital/ [Accessed 16 December 2022]
- Trip Cuba (2016). El Capitolio, Havana [online]. Available at: https://www.tripcuba.org/el-capitolio-havana [Accessed 17 December 2022]
- insightCuba (2013). Arcitecture in Cuba: Havana | insightCuba [online]. Available at: https://www.tripcuba.org/el-capitolio-havana [Accessed 17 December 2022]