Cienfuegos was one of the cities that arose from the powerful levers that transformed life in Cuba in the early decades of the 19th century 1. Its urban and architectural trajectory resembles that of cities founded in the same period, some in the central region, like Sagua La Grande (1812), Cárdenas (1828) and Caibarién (1831), a group to which we can add the town of Colón (1836), in the central part of today’s Matanzas Province, but communicated with ports thanks to the early establishment of the railroad in the territory. And although the city of Matanzas was founded in 1693, it reached its urban and architectural consolidation in the early decades of the 19th century. They are all very different from the illustrious towns established in the 16th century, represented by nearby Trinidad (1514), Sancti Spíritus (1515) and Remedios (ca. 1520-1528).
The early settlements were basically rural until the end of the 18th century, a long historical period that witnessed the development of the local-creole version that shaped the urban and architectural entity upon which these populations would evolve. The life in the city by individuals belonging to families who had settled there from the early days and who were members of powerful local oligarchies led to a conservatism that motivated the permanence of certain ways of life, including those related to the layout of the city, its buildings and dwellings. The commercial dynamics of the ports in the 19th century radically changed the pace of life and broke the isolation of populations from each another and from the outside world.
Ports opened the nation to the world, and merchants, both Spaniards and foreigners, attained a central role in citizen life, while the most prosperous became landowners. An upper social class was consolidated. Their superiority did not rely on lineage but on money—the latter made it possible to fill the gap in genealogy. The generalization of the printing press and the circulation of newspapers allowed access to information of all kinds. Numerous foreigners, many of whom were involved in construction and crafts, settled down in the city. This led to expanding the scope of architectural and urban undertakings. Growth in the standard of living changed social customs, which went beyond the narrow framework of religious devotions to incorporate different activities of a civil nature.
The modern economic and social ideas engendered in the last third of the 18th century under the Enlightenment influenced the actions of the leading groups, who tended to the physical and functional modernization of cities. The notions of progress consolidated the efficiency of the regular urban typology. For Spanish-American purposes, the orthogonal city with a central square, encircled by porticos and surrounded by buildings representative of religious and public power, was well known since the 16th century given the existence of countless towns designed on a grid, a model used by the Spanish since the dawn of that century. The recovery of the grid plan in the 18th century was accompanied by propositions that emphasized the civil and ornamental significance of public spaces with resources derived from Baroque and enlightened urbanism, such as street furniture for functional or decorative purposes, porches on promenades and main streets in imitation of the Hellenistic plan and landscaped green areas, along with administrative measures.
A different city arose under the Enlightenment, one which was formally defined by its unity, axiality, symmetry, regularity, proportion and rationality. It displayed an unprecedented landscape due to the fusion, all along the streets, of structures that were uniform in size, proportional to the width of the streets, and enhanced by elements of neoclassic inspiration, which, in their recurrence, configured an unbroken rhythm. Stylistically, neoclassicism is precisely the current that prevails in the 19th century, and one of the main foundations of the urban and architectural unity of our towns.
The most significant aspect of 19th-century dwellings in Cienfuegos derived from the new typological proposals of the second half of the century. As we have pointed out, the geographical location of Cienfuegos in the central part of the Island determined the intervention of diverse influences—some from the nearby early towns, especially from Trinidad; others, from the Matanzas-Cárdenas-Sagua region—which, when contaminated and mixed, resulted in the definition of a type that was recognizable since the mid-19th century, an expression of a general trend affecting dwellings. But this did not end here. Subsequently or at the same time, a new type of dwelling was being built. This type of house assimilated elements derived from the so called casa-quinta, while adopting solutions—coming from the United States—that were alien to the Spanish tradition of houses with a courtyard, until then dominant as the model of Cuban vernacular dwellings. This new house featured side gardens with access from the street, inserted into the urban grid. Combined with the previous type of house, this new type gave rise to the expression par excellence of Cienfuegos 19th-century domestic architecture.
The 20th century would bring examples of wood architecture that flourished in the outskirts of the city. This had been part of its building heritage since the very beginnings of the city, but the new century would bring along refinement and uniqueness. Meanwhile, in the heart of the city and the suburbs, we find one of the most extraordinary group of eclectic residences in Cuba. These houses were signified by a marked formal coherence derived from the adoption of a “Renaissance” international type, with or without loggias on the piano nobiles, but with the main areas arranged according to the model of the previous stage, clearly a testimony to continuity and rupture. This is a signature architecture, the work of Cienfuegos natives or of professionals from other places who chose to settle permanently in the city.
The scene is completed with examples influenced by architectural styles that include Art Deco, neocolonial, rationalism, the avant-garde of the 1950s and the work developed in the new suburbs and urban developments during the second half of the 20th century. The result is the material consolidation of one of the most beautiful cities in Cuba, built on a perfectly regular grid against the silhouette of the Guamuhaya mountain range, embraced by its unfathomable and immense bay, its prodigal lands fertilized by rivers, and inhabited by individuals who proudly work and live in the Pearl of the South, or Pearl of Cuba, declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 2005. ▪
1 Under the auspices of the Office of the Cienfuegos Curator, a group of authors are preparing “Cienfuegos, the Pearl of Cuba,” a book which offers a general view of the urban and architectural evolution of the city. The book will be launched on the 200th anniversary of the city’s foundation.