People from all over the Island visiting the city, then and now, take back home, as a trophy, a personal or family picture with the Capitolio as backdrop
In my distant childhood, Havana was a gift. In my youth, an obsession. In my old age, a reason to live. Havana has been journeyed by writers, poets, painters, travelers and tourists, but its destiny is in the hands of its people—once you’re a Habanero, it doesn’t matter the ground you tread on, what’s important is the heart that beats and the brain that thinks. But the city is not only admired by the people living in it. Old Havana and its Fortification System were declared a National Monument in 1978 by the National Monuments Commission, and in 1982, UNESCO included them in its World Heritage List. In 2016, Havana received the title of Wonder City, chosen, along with six other cities, through a poll organized by the Swiss-based New7Wonders Foundation.
The Cuban capital has had different symbols and allegories, like the weathervane known as the Giraldilla, the India or Noble Habana Fountain, the Morro lighthouse and fortress, and in the Republican era, the Capitolio Nacional, with the new attributes of the initials RC (Republic of Cuba) and the National Coat of Arms. As a realization of that chimera, that is, the concept of Republic, the Capitolio was inaugurated in 1929. It was a political symbol and an unquestionable milestone for the city, whose skyline it still dominates. For Cubans, it was the emblem of Havana, and for outsiders, it represented Cuba.
People from all over the Island visiting the city, then and now, take back home, as a trophy, a personal or family picture with the Capitolio as backdrop. During the past 20th century, the building was showered with adjectives in line with the interests of the critics. Trivialization and eventual recognition were the two extremes that marked this process.
An extensive plot of land, partly occupied by the Villanueva Train Station, along the old Paseo Extramuros or Isabel II Avenue, then Paseo del Prado but really called Paseo de Martí, was set aside for the construction of the Capitolio. The plot was not as large as would have been ideal, but big enough to contain the building. Originally, the grounds were to be the site of the new Presidential Palace, but plans were changed and part of what had already been built was demolished. This gave way to the development of projects and construction works that would culminate in the building now standing in the present urban fabric. The general architectural project would be guided over time by eminent professionals, workshops and construction firms: Raúl Otero, José M. Bens Arrarte, Mario Romañach, Eugenio Rayneri, Evelio Govantes, Felix Cabarrocas and the French landscape architect Jean-Claude Nicolas Forestier, all of whom were at the service of the then Ministry of Public Works.
The lot covers several rectangular blocks outside the city walls and is limited by Dragones, Industria, San José and Paseo de Martí (aka Prado) streets. The generous grounds offer just enough space to wish there was more in front, where the principal facade and the monumental stairway are found. The clash with urban reality is immediate, as is the case on Industria and San José streets. The greatest dissatisfaction is the central axis of access to the monumental stairs along Prado, which, if you are coming from the walled premises, is reduced to the width of Teniente Rey Street, and for pedestrians, its observation is partial and gradual. No one was able to assess or predict the intensity that the Capitolio would have communication-, image- and identity-wise for the Cuban people.
Designed by Jean-Claude Nicolas Forestier, the paved and landscaped open spaces surrounding the building to the very edge of the vast grounds are known as the Capitolio Gardens. Towards the south, the gardens optically expand into the fragmented Parque de la Fraternidad Americana that reaches Calzada del Monte (Máximo Gómez Avenue), the backdrop for those traveling along the exceptional urban setting of Paseo del Prado. The terrazzo pavement in several colors, featuring centered borders and motifs within a classicist design, emphasizes the main entrances and the perimetral paths leading to the huge, solid building. Flowerbeds and parterres are enhanced with bushes, lawns, trimmed hedges and royal palm trees that have been grouped informally. The urban scale is discovered in single and triple head lampposts of cast iron shafts and bronze details with the recurrent RC monogram and the National Coat of Arms. In more intimate areas away from the busy borders, simple marble benches wait for someone to sit down. Children were allowed to play as long as their game was not aggressive for either pedestrians or the park.
The four sides of the building were indistinctly identified as the East, Principal or Paseo del Prado Facade; the South, Dragones or Senate Facade; the West, Rear or Industria Façade; and the North, San José or the House of Representatives Facade. The Principal Facade has always been the best known of all thanks to the stairway, the central portico and the dome that rests on a circular drum. It is also the most publicized image of the Capitol. Like the other facades, it was very well designed along classicist lines. Given its monumental scale, the rich variety of materials and sculpture decorations, it was at the same time sober and elegant—the granite columns 1.55 meters in diameter in the portico and galleries gives us an idea of the size of this façade. The North and South lateral Facades are distinguished by the clear expression of their respective hemicycles, which have the same scale as the central portico, although without its shaded depth. The Rear Façade is characterized by a portal that juts out, is accessible to cars and protects visitors from the elements. Due to its height, the external stone-clad dome can be seen from anywhere in the city and we like to believe that it belongs to the Paseo del Prado Facade.
As you go up the grand central stairway to the main floor and cross the portico, you enter the polygonal rotunda, which is the base of the interior coffered dome. At this point, you need to stop, not only because of the amazing Statue of the Republic, but to choose whether going to the north or south wing of the Hall of Lost Steps. We will always have this double option of touring the building from the central symmetry axis: the Lost Steps, the hemicycles with their galleries and the courtyards are like two twin circulation systems that lead us to the counterpoint between the main entrance and the secondary doors on Industria Street, which also offers lobbies, interior staircases, elevators and again at the central axis, the Martí Room, the Library of the Senate and the Antonio Maceo Public Library. On the third and fourth floors there are comfortable vestibules, passageways and offices for the two legislative bodies and general offices.
If we trace our steps back to the rotunda and virtually stand in the middle (prevented by the diamond that marks Kilometer Zero of the Central Highway, embedded in the floor), we can admire the inner drum of the peristyle and its semi-spherical coffered dome. This is something we all do after we go through the entrance doors. The richness of design, the quality of materials and workmanship, both in terms of construction and of furniture and accessories, is another factor that distinguishes the public spaces, in fair contrast with the sober elegance of the areas for private use or services. The latter are arranged in separate basements located beneath the two hemicycles and the vestibules on Industria Street.
The ground level, which appears on the outside as the base of the facades, is occupied by rooms for general services to the public, and under the main stairway, with access through a tunnel or covered vehicular road, there is another important and direct entrance to what it should have been, and currently is, the Crypt of the Unknown Soldier. The basements house the different double technological systems (north and south), including ventilation, vacuum cleaning, water supply with a Kewanee pump, telephone system, electricity and cisterns for independent and alternative use by the northern and southern halves of the intricate building.
After having had several uses, finally, in the 21st century, the Office of the Historian of the City of Havana undertook the comprehensive refurbishment of the Capitolio. Some of the deadlines of this engagement have already been met, such as establishing the headquarters of the National Assembly of the People’s Power and the inauguration of the Crypt of the Unknown Soldier. The latter, which is a memorable topic for the nation, was included in the original project, but was never completed. Now, almost a century later, given its importance, priority was given to its adaptation and completion during this intervention.
The Capitolio Nacional, the most extensive and tallest building in Havana of its time, continues to dominate its traditional urban skyline. And when it has been restored in all its splendor, it will be an exceptional witness, in 2019, to the festivities marking the 500th anniversary of Havana.