The so-called “Havana solar,” today is part of the city’s popular culture … a halo of aged elegance inherent in the very structure of the stately palaces that time has not been able to erase
In the late 19th century, when Havana tripled its population and the need for more space drove it to expand beyond its walls, the enriched “sacarocracia,” i.e. the sugar aristocracy, and its descendants began to move outside the city walls seeking cooler temperatures, privacy and new habitats. This is the time when new houses inspired by neoclassical architecture, more modern and with gardens, began to be built in the neighborhoods of El Cerro first, and El Vedado afterwards.
Because of this move by the wealthy classes, the old colonial mansions and palaces within the historic center were abandoned, and people from different backgrounds began to occupy them. Over time, this created a type of coexistence within the colonial dwelling that was very different from the single family residence that was initially conceived. Former slaves, Spanish immigrants with limited resources and workers became the tenants of mansions that an incipient middle class divided and subdivided into innumerable rooms to rent as many as possible, with few changes made by its dwellers. Thus, the cuartería emerged as an extreme expression of the practice of leasing in Havana.
These are, broadly, the origins of the so-called “Havana solar,” which today is part of the city’s popular culture—a place of close, oftentimes precarious, group coexistence in which, at the beginning, the original kitchen and bathroom were shared by all its inhabitants. The word solar in reference to a place of these characteristics is a Cuban particularity, given that solar in its original architectural meaning refers to a vacant lot.
Old colonial mansions, built mostly in the early 19th century, featured high ceilings, several floors (the family lived on the top floor and the servants’ quarters were housed in a mezzanine level) and huge courtyards around which the rest of the house was organized. This amplitude and the flexibility of the initial design of the rooms allowed making the many changes and subsequent structural divisions, thanks to which a property that had been designed for 9 or 10 members and their servants later ended up accommodating more than 50 families.
After the triumph of the Revolution in 1959, the palaces and mansions that had been transformed into ciudadelas (another word used in Cuba for solar) were expropriated by the State, and their tenants either became owners or free long-term leaseholders (usufructuario gratuito). Among other factors, the demographic explosion of the 1960s and migrations from the rest of the country to the capital prevented improving the conditions in the solares, with their share of deterioration and overcrowding.
As a consequence of this economic precariousness and the needs of the tenants, an architecture of survival has developed, being almost always carried out by the owners themselves, in a totally intuitive and spontaneous way, with the materials available to them, more often than not reclaimed products. The urgency of seeking a certain intimacy leads to a deconstructive-constructive process on the original architecture.
In the middle of what used to be single rooms, its inhabitants build the so-called “barbacoas,” makeshift mezzanines born from subdividing the original high vertical spaces of the house into two or three other rooms. They are almost always made of wood or of materials that sometimes are not typical of domestic architecture. Small bridges or stairs are created to connect the new mini-homes, and bathrooms, kitchens and living rooms are added. Everything is camouflaged in a maze of walls and windows where the tenant takes over the environment and adapts it to present-day imperatives, which are marked by the need for space and thriftiness.
The result is a decadent aesthetic, in which significant deterioration and an enormous capacity for short-term survival coexist. All this surrounded by a halo of aged elegance inherent in the very structure of the stately palaces that time has not been able to erase—wide, curved marble stairs, wrought iron grille work with floral motifs, solid wood gates, tiled floors, huge entranceways, Arabic inspired mosaics or semicircular arches where those very Cuban stained-glass windows that author Alejo Carpentier defined as “interpreters between the sun and man” still exist. This sumptuousness has also survived in some courtyards (most of them have become passageways leading to the rooms), in the wooden ceilings and in the ubiquitous columns.
If Havana’s 19th-century colonial house is the basis of today’s solar, its principal origin can be found in Castilian and Arab-Andalusian houses of solid exterior structures and discreet facades, with bustling interiors of close coexistence. Cohabitation and gatherings took place around the courtyard and the staircase that connected both floors, as well as in the galleries and corridors, which featured adjoining rooms placed in a row. The fact that several generations of a same family were living under the same roof led the back of the lot to be used extensively, sometimes with several houses within one dwelling. It was also not unusual to rent the ground floor to a person outside the family to set up a business, or build a room over the entranceway for a trusted tenant.
Perhaps this model of cohabitation of Spanish traditional origin, along with African council meetings, which during colonial times took place in open lots in Havana where lodgings for certain members were also created, gave rise to a typology as unique as today’s Havana solar. Some of these ciudadelas, which have already become classics in Old Havana—over 50% of the dwellings in the Historical Center are located within solares, although they have spread, over time, to different areas of the capital and other Cuban cities—today practice a division similar to that of their Spanish forerunners: the ground floor that fronts directly onto the street accommodates a small restaurant or souvenir shop, while the family lives in back or on the top floor.
A solar lacks formal structures or defined types because its sole motto is versatility and immediacy. Meanwhile, traveling back in time, unique flexibility with respect to space and its potential adaptations can be seen in the mentality of Havana. From the outside, these houses seem to have been made for immovable eternity, but inside, they are bustling with the most unpredictable and changing solutions.