The functionality of iron elements went hand in hand with the creativity of master blacksmiths who gave the buildings an air of dreamlike beauty
The 19th century came knocking on Old Havana’s door announcing the birth of a New Havana outside the city walls, foreshadowing winds of change. One of the reminiscences of this century that we find embroidered on the facades and interiors of many Havana buildings is the use of iron as an architectural decorative element. Wooden uprights, footings, corbels and turned spindles for balconies and galleries would gradually be replaced by others of equal functionality, made by new masters of their craft: the blacksmiths.
Ironwork in Cuban colonial architecture acquired a gradual leading role resulting from the use of simple elements such as door fittings, wrought iron door knockers and handles, wrought iron nails on doors and the addition of a novel, late 18th-century device, the lamp bracket, which began to be used for street lighting. Pre-manufactured or ready-to-assemble products brought by way of companies based in Spain, England, the United States, France, Germany and Belgium coexisted with pieces forged in Cuban workshops.
The golden age and heyday of blacksmithing is evident in 19th-century architecture, which is classified as essentially neoclassical. Wrought-iron railings, iron bars for balcony structures and wrought iron gates on stairs were built in Havana’s foundries under the influence of the use of ironwork in architecture in such Spanish cities as Madrid, Seville and Cadiz. This new trend brought a penchant for modernizing the appearance of historical buildings, but it did not come without criticism. The 20th-century scholar Francisco Prat Puig described the supporters of the trend as arrogant and irreverent for destroying or adulterating relics of the past.
The Aldama Palace and the Santovenia Villa have been the most admired examples of neoclassical domestic architecture thanks to the beauty of the ironwork in gates within its inner courtyards, cast iron railings with calamine flowers and majestic lamp brackets, just to mention a few.
The functionality of iron elements went hand in hand with the creativity of master blacksmiths who gave the buildings an air of dreamlike beauty by adding lyre shapes and large flowers with sinuous lines to guardavecinos , arched grillwork, balcony structures and corner braces… all of which still survive.
The 20th century brought the discreet presence of Art Nouveau, which sought to imitate craft art and provided Havana with grillwork on windows and balconies, featuring unique plant-inspired motifs, with flowers playing the leading role. The Catalan influence set the tone for the creation of this new architectural style in which the decorations—applied almost always in modest homes—captivates us with its beauty. Simultaneously with the brief presence of Art Nouveau, eclecticism, which prevailed during the first decades of the century, used iron to create striking grillwork and iron gates. Besides providing protection and decoration, they often touted the owners’ wealth. More modest versions still survive in most Havana neighborhoods.
After the triumph of the Revolution, construction efforts in domestic architecture were aimed at overcoming the severe inherited housing deficit with massive productions while making the most efficient use of resources possible. Iron work was largely relegated to the role of replacing wood in some windows and furniture. Current interventions, successful in some instances and not so much in others, have once again put ironwork at the center stage in fences, doors and windows featuring decorative grillwork motifs that either imitate their predecessors or are left to be decided by the artisan—some with extensive experience and proven skills; others, neophytes in a now very profitable trade—and customers, who are more often than not concerned with achieving more with less, although some are willing to display iron fences that are crowned by gilded spearheads and other ornaments, suitable or not to the codes of the building to which they are being added.
The continuity of the art of blacksmithing, forging and founding, is spearheaded by graduates from the Gaspar Melchor de Jovellanos Workshop School of the Office of the Historian of Havana, who are experienced in traditional handiwork. The recently created, non-agricultural cooperative Metales Calflat, made up of Blacksmith/Restorer graduates from this school, are undertaking restoration works on many of the elements that decorate our architecture like iron lace. ▪