El Vedado and its spectacular architecture are a privilege for Havana, which was proclaimed as Wonder City
At the beginning of the second half of the 19th century, a residential development, distant from previous Havana expansions, was taking shape while ensuring its undeniable uniqueness. The district known as El Vedado was born near the mouth of the Almendares River with the added benefit of being associated with the coastal landscape. A regular street grid, rotated to make the best use of the breezes; tree-lined streets, parks and promenades; the design of its streets, sidewalks and parterres, which years later would facilitate the arrival of the automobile; city blocks reserved for services and public spaces were just some of the many novel features of the urban project.
Throughout its 150 years of existence, El Vedado has accumulated the wide and varied architectural repertoire that has characterized it, endowing it with an incredible wealth. In the early 20th century, it was recognized as the most elegant neighborhood in the city, and it has remained, over time, a preferred space for Habaneros, both for its attractive and pleasant surroundings and for the centrality acquired over the years.
The porches and front yards, which were required by the urban project, favored the consistency of the resulting image, which also received the contribution of the excellent architecture inserted in its blocks, irrespective of typological variety, formal expression and the hierarchy of the buildings. Although El Vedado is associated with the neighborhood of the elite and the aristocracy of the first decades of the Republic—view based on the magnificence of the residences built during the second and third decades of the 20th century—before that time and especially after that period, buildings were designed for different social groups.
Other manifestations of residential architecture, mainly those created for the growing middle class, which were not so grandiose, yet bearers of undoubted elegance and high-quality construction, would occupy a large part of urban spaces. Different types of apartment buildings, from the most luxurious to the most unpretentious, were added to the architectural landscape.The advantages of the innovative urbanism made it possible for spectacular palaces of the Republican era, sober neoclassical hacienda style houses, attractive eclectic villas, modest semi-detached and terraced houses, and even poor dwellings in hidden tenements, inside the block, flanked by eclectic porches, to coexist in total harmony, achieved thanks to the imperatives of urban planning and the undeniable quality of the construction itself.
Indisputably dominant in the urban image, eclecticism would be followed closely by Art Deco in the 1930s and 1940s, bringing new charm to the neighborhood. Modernity would also leave its mark in the 1950s with the appearance of high-rise buildings, tower blocks, some with the alternative of horizontal property. Thus, certain sectors of El Vedado would be marked by a new profile, especially along the seafront, whose skyline would identify the city from the sea.
Like any vibrant city, El Vedado and its architecture would assimilate the changes imposed by the new circumstances associated with social, economic, cultural and technological development. At the same time that manifestations of modernity were being incorporated, the extensive and varied inherited residential repertoire followed its own evolution, which implied reforms and transformations.
While some low-rise houses had two levels—for the sake of comfort and extreme spatial specialization—years later many of those two-story houses looked for ways to make them independent and turn each level into an individual home. The increasing import of automobiles into Cuba dictated the need to create alternatives for garages, and many of the old carriage houses were adapted for this purpose. The gradual expansion of the sewerage system led to the creation of bathrooms in more functional locations, such as the popular Jack and Jill bathroom. The new concrete slab made it possible to replace many of the original sloping ceilings with flat ones. These and other motives resulted in significant construction endeavors through which residential architecture was updated, without affecting the authenticity and relevance of the urban ensemble.
Although a part of Havana’s upper-crust aristocracy, especially the younger generations, would begin to settle in the new Miramar district on the other side of the river, the opening of new businesses on the main streets of El Vedado would become an important component of the system of urban centrality in the capital, reinforcing the people’s preference for the neighborhood.
After 1959, the departure of many homeowners to other countries led to an inevitable refunctioning of houses. A part of the most relevant architecture has been preserved by turning buildings into cultural institutions, diplomatic offices, administrative or service centers, among others. But the decisions to changes are very sensitive, and factors such as the typological characteristics of the property and its heritage category, as well as other aspects related to its location within the urban fabric that are influenced by conventions of usage and convenient return on investments should be given priority.
Preserving dwellings for residential purposes by turning the original single-family home into a multi-family house is a very risky alternative for architecture, especially for architecture of high heritage values. However, it is not an unsuitable option as long as it is based on a respectful, well led project. The convenient and desirable preservation of El Vedado imposes complex challenges. While repairs and extensions to buildings, the opening of private businesses and services, and the recent mechanisms of buying and selling homes have beneficial social and economic effects, at the same they time they pose significant risks, therefore requiring efficient urban management.
We cannot ignore the positive repercussion that the changes of ownership are having in terms of recovering noteworthy houses that seemed destined to total ruin. Many of El Vedado residences, even the ones whose urban expression, so well connected with the harmonious setting, make them imperceptible, are worthy of being treated with utmost care, capable of ensuring their preservation as a legacy for future generations. Likewise, former commercial establishments that had lost or diminished their original roles have been recovered, thus improving the traditional centrality of certain avenues and street corners.
El Vedado and its spectacular architecture are a privilege for Havana, which was proclaimed as Wonder City. The protection of its heritage values and a greater demand in controlling interventions will contribute to the deserved conservation of the unparalleled Havana neighborhood of El Vedado. ▪