Cuba’s unique urban panorama is one of the most interesting within the Caribbean and Latin America. With a history of invasions, colonialism and immigration, the island’s architecture is a colourful collage that clearly reflects its rich mix of cultures, traditions and beliefs. Throughout the centuries, the country has assimilated various outside influences to create a kaleidoscope of cityscapes which can still be seen today.
From the grand colonial buildings and fortresses constructed after the arrival of Spanish conquerors to the Neoclassical monuments built under the influence of French emigres and the eclectic landmarks of 20th century architecture, Cuba is an ideal setting to observe the grandeur of Western styles splashed with unique Caribbean touches.
Whether you are an enthusiastic photo boffin or a relentless culture vulture avid to explore the best of Cuba’s architecture, you might be wondering where to go to get a comprehensive view of the island’s most remarkable monuments. If this is the case, this article may come in handy in leading you through the events that marked the nation’s urban development and the different styles visitors can find when strolling through its streets.
A living museum of colonial times – Spanish heritage
Cuba was under Spanish rule for over 400 years, since Christopher Columbus arrived in 1492 until Cuban Independence was finally declared and the Republic founded in 1902. During this time, Cuba was one of the key ports in the Spanish triangular commerce as the world’s largest sugar provider; reason why many Spaniards settled in the island to partake in this lucrative economic activity. As a result, the country is home to one of the biggest and best preserved Spanish colonial architecture cores in the entire American continent.
Havana and Trinidad are the two cities which have been the most successful in restoring and preserving their historic cores with the highest percentage of surviving antique buildings and public squares; assembling architectonic, historic and cultural compounds of great value. Both have been registered by UNESCO as World Heritage Sites.
Cuba’s capital boasts the biggest colonial core in all of America, and continues to work hard to preserve its heritage and magnificence. Old Havana is crammed with stunning buildings of superb architectural value, a privileged array of plazas and squares and a mighty defensive system to keep pirates and corsairs away. Practically every corner of the capital’s historic centre boasts large and stunning colonial edifications, but some of the most eye-catching monuments you should certainly stop to observe are The Morro Fortress, the buildings surrounding the Old Town Square (Plaza Vieja) and the newly-restored Alicia Alonso Ballet Theatre.
Trinidad, lovingly nicknamed the Museum City of the Caribbean, also features exquisite examples of Spanish colonial architecture. Oozing a tranquil atmosphere, Trinidad maintains intact not only its buildings but also the atmosphere of a past time. Painted in pastel colours and adorned with murals and second-floor balconies, Plaza Mayor’s buildings are reminiscent of this era. The eye-catching Sanchez Iznaga mansion, now the Museum of Colonial Architecture, is certainly a sight to see, whilst a tour a of the Valley of the Sugar Mills can also be an enlightening experience that opposes the grandeur of large colonial factories and the impoverished and harsh conditions of slaves’ barracks.
Though these two gems are the best examples of colonial architecture in Cuba, the style can be found all over the island. Bayamo, which was burnt completely by its own inhabitants in the early days of the Ten Years War of 1868, so it would not fall in enemy hands, still treasures part of the original Parochial Church and countless extremely important historic sites, plus the local colour of its traditions, like the buggy rides along its aged streets. Yesterday’s Puerto Principe, today’s Camaguey, also comprises a large historic core with small streets of peculiar outlines, picturesque churches, squares and mansions presided by the large jar-shaped clay tinajones, used locally as rain water collectors.
Moreover, Baracoa and Santiago de Cuba are charmingly authentic. Placed by the sea and surrounded by mountains, the Caribbean atmosphere in their ways of life is particularly strong in Santiago de Cuba, while in Baracoa the consequences of being geographically isolated are still visible. Santiago’s San Pedro de la Roca del Morro castle, Adelantado Velazquez’s house, Santiago’s Cathedral, Carnaval Museum, Parque Cespedes and Bacardi Museum are all worth visiting. Baracoa, the Primate City, Cuba’s first capital, jealously guards the first Christian relic in the New World: the Holy Cross of Parra, kept at Nuestra Senora de la Asuncion Church, also an incredible natural surroundings revalue the city.
Touches of Arab influence – Spanish-Moorish features
Colonial buildings also often reflected the influence of Moorish architectural styles brought to Cuba by Spaniards. These early settlers incorporated traditional Spanish-Moorish features such as patios, fountains and decorative tiles into their new dwellings, but tailored them to suit Cuba’s more open culture and humid climate.
Typical townhouses in Havana were fitted with grand colonnaded portales (porches) to provide shade and shelter from the tropical weather and metal bars were secured over open window panes to protect against burglaries and allow for a freer circulation of air. Other distinctive Cuban features include vitrales -- multi-coloured stained glass panes fitted above doorways to pleasantly diffuse the tropical sunrays -- and entresuelos, mezzanine floors built to accommodate live-in slave families.
Many classic colonial buildings in Cuba boast the refined touch of “estilo Mudejar”. Some of the most famous examples are the Casa de los Condes de Jaruco, now an art gallery, and the Hostal Conde de Villanueva, now a hotel, both in Old Havana.
Cuban Baroque – central courtyards and decorative columns
A style of European architecture, music and art that originated in the 17th century characterized by ornate detail, Baroque reached Cuba later on and developed in the island with very specific and distinctive traits. Cuban Baroque architecture consists fundamentally in all the constructive work done on the island in the Eighteenth Century. Nonetheless, the style would adapt peculiarly to Cuba’s materials and weather and take a different appearance.
Cuban Baroque architecture has very specific characteristics, according to the building materials that were disposed to undertake the works, mainly stones that due to their fragility could not be worked with the Baroque exuberance assumed elsewhere. The climate and geographical conditions made necessary adjustments that in the practical order were very sui generis.
The ornament-filled style is defined by the use of the curved line as a basic element of design that winds in its terminations, the play with this light on the facades and the seeking of the chiaroscuro effect, pilasters and columns lose their structural function and they get attached to the walls as decorative elements to escort empty niches in occasions, the use of perspective is highlighted and dominates the symmetrical balance in the composition.
The ultimate expression of Cuban Baroque architecture is reflected in the residence of the wealthy creole inhabitants. Manor houses would now consist of two floors and a mezzanine with large upstairs balconies along the facade and others small ones in the mezzanines. The balusters of the balconies and stairs are now made of turned wood, like the large lattice windows. Spiked and heavy doors complete the carpentry of a house that still has the seclusion and privacy of the seventeenth century, whilst the central courtyard defines this house, the coolest place to be in the house with direct access to every room.
The most notable works of this style are present in the Havana’s urban area, but it can be found throughout the country. Perhaps the finest example of Cuban Baroque is considered to be Havana’s strangely asymmetrical Catedral de San Cristóbal, constructed between 1748 and 1787, a cathedral whose swirling facade native magic-realist author Alejo Carpentier once described as “music turned to stone”. Those who love to wander can also enter any of Old Havana’s antique manor houses, which are complete with the charming central courtyard and walls adorned with colourful tiles.
French-imported Neoclassicism – the revival of simplicity and elegance
Moving on in our timeline, Cuba’s early 19th-century architecture had a recognisable Gallic influence. Following a violent slave rebellion in the neighbouring French colony of Saint Domingue (now Haiti) in 1791, many French plantation owners fled to Cuba fearing for their lives. Joining up with other French emigres, some directly from France, others who had left North America following the 1803 Louisiana Purchase by the US from the French, they began to build new cities using neoclassical architectural techniques that were in vogue in France at the time.
Renowned as the “Pearl of the South”, UNESCO-listed Cienfuegos on Cuba’s southern coast is the island’s most neoclassical city. Founded by French immigrants in 1819, the city is brimming with broad colonnaded avenues embellished with neat lines of elegant and well-proportioned facades painted in an array of pastel colours. Cienfuegos’ most iconic building, the Tomas Terry Theatre is notable for its frescos and gold-leafed mosaics, whilst other stunning monuments like the Triumphal Arch commemorating the declaration of Cuba as Republic at the far end of Plaza Marti, is the only one of its kind in the island and is reminiscent of the one in Paris.
By the mid-19th century, the neoclassical fondness for symmetry and simplicity had spread to other Cuban cities, including Trinidad and Camaguey, where it mixed with Cuban Baroque. Havana also adapted a neoclassical look during this era, adding endless colonnades to its burgeoning streets. Other important neoclassical examples are the Sauto theatre in Matanzas and La Caridad in Santa Clara.
20th century splendour - Eclecticism, Art Nouveau and Art Deco
The beginning of the 20th century marked a new era in Cuban history and its urban development. The wealth attained after World War I due to the high demand of sugar (used to make gun powder), brought many new architectural projects to the city scene. As the country engaged in close relationship with the US, it also received a great deal of influence from this country’s architectural styles. This period was mainly defined by three big movements: eclecticism, art nouveau and art deco.
A combination of styles
Used to describe the combination of elements from different styles in a single work, eclectic architecture started began to gain popularity in the island at the beginning of the 1900s. The style began to break the rules in Cuba in the 1920s and 1930s as rich sugar barons competed to build ever more ostentatious mansions in the country’s flowering suburbs.
Neighbourhoods like Vedado were built and many avenues and streets were constructed. Some of Havana’s most prominent monuments from the eclectic style are the Parque Central, the Commerce Market (Lonja del Comercio) which was one of the tallest buildings of the time and the astoundingly beautiful Capitol building. With a size of 681 by 300 feet, its design was inspired by that of the Washington D.C. monument.
Other cities around the country competed to emulate the growing capital. Cienfuegos’ Punta Gorda peninsula is a riot of eclecticism crowned by the Palacio de Valle, formerly the home of a local sugar plant owner but now a restaurant, a curious blend of crenelated turrets and Islamic arches that could have been lifted from Spain’s Alhambra. To the west, in the otherwise nondescript city of Pinar del Río, the Palacio de Guasch, built by a globe-trotting Cuban doctor named Francisco Guasch in 1914, melds Gothic, Arabic, Byzantium and Hindu features in what is possibly Cuba’s most whimsical building.
New modern era with Art Nouveau
In the search of a new style for a new era, the Modernism or “Art Nouveau” was the first step in contemporaneous architecture (before the arrival of the new century). This new architecture extended to big European cities such as Paris, Brussels, Glasgow, Turin, Vienna or Barcelona and even distant cities such as Istanbul or Cairo, and even reached the United States. In Latin America, only Mexico D.F., Buenos Aires and Havana embraced the new movement to mark their era and the wealth of the middle class.
The movement was characterised by the predominance of asymmetrical shapes, the extensive use of arches and curved forms, curved glass, plant-like embellishments, mosaics, stained glass and even Japanese motifs. Some of the most representative examples of Art Nouveau in Cuba are the White Building in the corner of Reina and Lealtad streets, the Cueto Palace in Plaza Vieja and the pink mansion in the corner of Belascoain and Clavel streets.
Fascination for man-made objects with Art Deco
The architectural style of art deco made its debut in Paris in 1903, standing out for its clean lines, rectangular forms and no decoration on the facades. Architects often used expensive materials, which frequently included man-made substances (plastics, vita-glass, conrete) in addition to natural ones (jade, silver, ivory, obsidian, chrome, and rock crystal). Though Art Deco objects were rarely mass-produced, the characteristic features of the style reflected admiration for the modernity of the machine.
The movement infiltrated Cuba from the US starting in the late 1920s. The handsome polychrome Edificio Bacardi, the former Havana headquarters of Cuba’s famous rum dynasty, is considered one of the finest examples of the genre in Latin America. Subsequent Art Deco constructions comprise the Moncada Barracks (formerly an army base, now a school and museum) in Santiago de Cuba and even Havana’s emblematic Hotel Nacional remains for many a genre-bending hybrid that grafts Art Deco-style towers onto a neoclassical shell with a resplendently tiled Moorish interior.
After the Revolution in 1959, most construction plans took only practicality in account. Influenced by the Soviet example, architecture was focused on providing a quick and economic solution to housing problems amongst the population. Therefore, beauty was not a deciding in factor and most buildings are characterised by their symmetry, their effort to save space and the lack of decor.
In recent years, however, with tourism growing as one of the country’s economic pillars, the country has welcomed an elevated number of new hotels in hubs like Varadero, Havana and the keys. These edifications respond to the most contemporary standards of comfort, efficiency and beauty.