Autocrats always want to transcend their own times. The Roman emperors, Hitler, Mussolini and the communist dictators Stalin, Honecker or Ceaucescu, bequeathed their own styles of architecture.
In Rome they still retain coliseums and palaces. Mussolini left hundreds of works, constructed under the label of fascist rationalist architecture, rolled out in Italy at the end of the 1920s in the last century.
Hitler also put up buildings and spaces in the Nazi cult, with the patronage of Albert Speer, in an original architectural style inspired by neo-classicism and art deco.
Sixty-nine years after the psychopathic Führer shot himself in his Berlin underground bunker, just before the defeat of the Third Reich, the Germans are still driving along the magnificent autobahns built in the Hitler period.
A serial criminal like Stalin left us socialist realism – horrible, certainly – which encompassed all the arts. Nicholas Ceaucescu, another dictator doing it by the book, demolished a fifth of Bucharest and put up new buildings.
His greatest project was the Palace of the People, the second biggest building in the world, after the Pentagon in Washington.
Fidel Castro won’t leave any timeless architectural works. He put up thousands of schools and hospitals, but, apart from the Instituto Superior de Arte, in the Playa Council area of Havana, the rest of his designs disfigure the landscape.
And forget about quality of construction. Most of the buildings put up after the bearded people came to power look older than many built at the beginning of the 20th century.
In Havana, capital of the first communist country in America, the architectural legacy will be irrelevant. You’d have to search with a magnifying glass to spot any high calibre work.
Among them would be the Coppelia ice cream shop, designed by Mario Girona in the centre of Vedado, or Antonio Quintana’s Palacio de Convenciones in the suburb of Cubanacán. You could also make an exception of Camilo Cienfuegos city, in East Havana, and Lenin Park, a green lung provided on the outskirts of the city.
But architectural design from 1959 onwards is, to say the least, odd. If you could demolish the dormitory suburbs of Alamar, Mulgoba, San Agustín, Bahía, or the twenty or so horrible apartment blocks built with Yugoslavian technology in Nuevo Vedado, you would partly put right some clumsy construction mistakes.
Havana, a city which is pretty and conceited with its several kilometers of gateways and columns, and a splendid esplanade among its architectural offerings, maintains the greatest variety of styles.
It was designed for 600,000 inhabitants. Today 2.5 million people live there. The regime has neither modernised nor widened its streets or avenues or a site as important as the Albear aqueduct.
They have only patched and asphalted the principal arteries. They have not improved the roads of Las calzadas de Monte, Diez de Octubre, Luyanó, Cerro, Infanta, Avenida 51 or Puentes Grandes to deal with the increase in vehicular traffic.
Some 70% of the side streets are full of potholes and water leaks. 60% of the buildings are crying out for fundamental repairs.
Let me give you a fact. According to an official of Physical Planning in Havana, 83% of works carried out are done privately. The urgent need for homes to be built has resulted in constructions all over the length and breadth of Havana without benefit of professional advice.
Thousands of home-made cast-iron windows with hideous grills make the capital look even uglier. The impression you get is of a large prison. Without any order or harmony, desperate families refurbish buildings and houses of great architectural value, trying to improve their lives a little.
The once cosmopolitan Havana, at the forefront of new technologies like the telephone, radio, or long distance TV transmissions, has now turned its back on globalisation.
The internet is a science fiction dream for many of its citizens. And what was once a beautiful colonnaded city, which would inspire Alejo Carpentier, is, in the 21st century, a heap of ruined buildings and ancient automobiles.
The Castro brothers haven’t even been able to leave any legacy in the city where they have been governing for years.
Photo: Taken from Juan Valdés César’s blog where you can see more images showing the current state of Havana.
Translate by GH
23 March 2014