Tuesday December 12, 2017

Urbanism, Preservation, and Planning Ahead in Habana Vieja

A conversation with Patricia Rodríguez Alomá, director of the district’s revitalization plan

Palacio del Segundo Cabo, Havana (site of XIV Encuentro)

Courtesy Panoramio

Havana recently hosted the 14th Conference on Management and Administration of Historic Centers. For a week, more than 150 experts in heritage management discussed new challenges facing the Cuban capital: the explosion in tourism, the restructuring of the port and leisure areas, the presence of foreign investors, and the increase in entrepreneurial projects.

The impact of these phenomena—visible in the international media as a result of the visits of President Obama, the Fast and Furious Hollywood film crew, the Chanel fashion show, and the tribe of Kardashians—forces us to rethink strategies to best preserve our historical and cultural heritage in the Centro Histórico.

During the conference, journalist Maya Quiroga spoke with Patricia Rodríguez Alomá, director of the Master Plan for the Comprehensive Revitalization of Old Havana, established in late December 1994.

Plaza Vieja, La Habana

Photo by Brian Snelson (Fickr.com)

Tell us about the Master Plan. What is it?

It’s an entity created by the Office of the Historian of the City (OHCH) to lead the development of Havana’s Centro Histórico and, by extension, the area prioritized for conservation. This is carried out in an integrated manner, through a series of fundamental policies. OHCH has special powers and authorities, particularly in the district composed of the Centro Histórico and the Malecón Tradicional. For a while, we were also involved in the preservation of Havana’s Chinatown. 

The Master Plan has been refining its approach to urban planning. Decree Law 143 of October 1993, updated by Decree Law 283 of 2011, transferred the authority to perform this function to the OHCH. Since 2004, we have delegated the responsibility for the physical planning. Later, we took charge of issuing the necessary permits and licenses for the development of locations designated for living or utilization. We work with any government or non-government investor wishing to build in the historic district of Old Havana.

What types of professions are represented on the Master Plan team?

The multidisciplinary team is made up of about 50 experts, seven of whom are architects. I should point out that there are few architects in a planning office. Urbanism involves specialized architects but also requires other disciplines: sociologists, historians, environmentalists, geographers, civil engineers—they’re all part of planning a city’s future. 

There are also those who provide technological support as cartographers, computer technicians, specialists in archives and documentation, and transit and traffic engineers. 

Paseo del Prado

Courtesy AbsolutCuba

In what sense can this project be viewed as an example of economic sustainability?

Since 2004, the Historian’s Office has been allowed to create a business system that is associated with a company that handled tourism and all extra-hotel activity: a real-estate company, and construction and import-export businesses. So the Historian’s Office was given certain facilities to operate, in a businesslike way. The most important thing is that the resources produced in the district are devoted to increasing the investment process in freely convertible currency.

We have to remember that this country has two currencies. The State (and especially Fidel) gave us the authority to create a local economy, so freely convertible currency was devoted to restoration in the district. The State brought its national currency budget. For any investment so far, both currencies are required.

Have you documented the results obtained over two decades of work?

We’ve always been concerned about recording what we're doing. It‘s a very interesting process and requires documentation. Several books show the restoration work. Una experiencia singular (A Unique Experiment) takes a more scientific approach and systematizes the first ten years of work. Now we will publish the second part to complete the two decades of the Master Plan, because the modus operandi of the office has changed so much.

There is Plan Especial de Desarrollo Integral (Special Plan for Integral Development), a planning document with lots of information, which was submitted to a public consultation process. We have another publication, Luces y simientes (Lights and Seeds), which documents the work of the first five offices outside of Havana, which were part of the Network of the Offices of the Historian and of the Curator of the Heritage Cities. 

Another book, Para no olvidar (Not to forget), has much less text and shows the before and after of the restoration process. Now in its third volume, it’s a graphic document that illustrates the recovery of Old Havana.

Now, in the context of the International Conference on Management and Administration, we´ll present Patrimonio y ciudadanía, Experiencias de participación en La Habana Vieja (Heritage and Citizenship: Participation Experiences in Old Havana). This book collects twenty experiences of citizens’ involvement in decision-making for the provision of human and financial resources, and in the management and administration of these processes.

Church of Our Lady of Carmen, Camagüey

Courtesy Trip Advisor

The Master Plan also provides advice to the historic centers of other provinces.

In all annual meetings, there is time for exchange: we both receive and contribute. It’s a kind of knowledge transfer that has happened over the years. This transfer has not only been from Cuba to the world and vice versa, but also to the interior of the island.

In February 2013, the Network of the Offices of the Historian and of the Curator of the Heritage Cities was established. There are currently five other heritage cities—Cienfuegos, Trinidad, Camagüey, Santiago de Cuba, and Bayamo—which also have an Office of the Historian or of the Curator. Whenever the office is established, there is also a Master Plan. It’s almost a prerequisite for establishing these paradigms for development of historical centers.

The intention is to incorporate the city of Sancti Spiritus, and ultimately the cities of Remedio and Baracoa. We also want to bring in Gibara and Matanzas. That would be a total of eleven cities.

Colón Cemetery, Havana

Courtesy CubaTravel



The action of the Master Plan has been extended to the Colon Cemetery, which is outside the precincts of the Centro Histórico. What can you tell us about this heritage rescue project?

OHCH has the obligation to safeguard the historic and cultural heritage of the entire city. The Cuban government asked us to intervene with a skilled workforce in parts of the city where there are important elements of historical heritage. That was the case for the Necropolis of Columbus, National Monument, which obviously needed major capital works restoration. As a result of our work, now you can visit the Necropolis, where the effects of restoration are visible.

Also, the University of Havana is receiving the benefits of restoration: in the Faculty of Law, at the Aula Magna, and the Rectory. We also worked at the Higher Institute of Art (ISA) and at the Quinta de los Molinos, an extraordinary work where all the potential of environmental culture that the office develops is concentrated. 

National Capitol, Havana

Courtesy Destination 360

What is the status of major projects in Havana—the Malecón, the Port of Bahía, the Gran Teatro, and the National Capitol?

Obviously, there is a territorial strategy that drives the entire restoration process. That territorial strategy started from the main plazas and the major streets that connect them, and today we are working on the edges. We are able to develop other major works. It’s undoubtedly a great challenge: this is not the scale of the buildings or the techniques and technologies we’re accustomed to.

Colonial-era buildings—with masonry walls, structures with wooden roofs, beams, and planks, stone slabs and tiles—don’t require the same treatment as structures from the Republican era, which incorporate steel, reinforced concrete, or large metal structures such as those at the Port or some parts of the National Capitol.

Martí Theater, Havana

Courtesy LaHabana.com

We are faced with very complex works in terms of structure, and even function. For the Teatro Martí, for example, it was necessary to add almost a building of the same size to provide all the technology of a modern theater, and enable a much better cultural operation. 

The National Capitol (El Capitolio Nacional) is a great challenge because of its scale, the excellence of the work of the era in which it was made, the magnitude of the restoration that extends from the building itself to the furniture it contains—another part of the national patrimony. For us, it’s a great responsibility because of the role it will play, as the headquarters of the National Assembly of the People's Power.

Gran Teatro, Havana

Courtesy Agencia Cubana de Noticias

As a result of the Capitol rehabilitation, our consultancy on the restoration of the Gran Teatro, the construction works on the Hotel Manzana de Gómez, and the repairs to Martí Theatre and the Hotel Saratoga, something interesting is happening on the Havana Prado. It’s a privileged place in the city that is currently undergoing a process of intense restoration and recuperation.

Construction works on the Avenida del Puerto are also very complex, not only because of the buildings but also because they are over breakwaters. We have to accomplish very complex marine works. On the traditional Malecón, we are working in an area hit annually by the north winds, and by a marine erosion that makes it difficult to maintain this built-up strip. With our advice, and with funding from the Government of the City, all infrastructure networks have been renewed. A project of great complexity that we’ve currently undertaken will address the undermining of the road. The sea has been eroding the under-structure, and we need to fix the road and the sidewalk, which have been sinking.

View of the Malecón, Havana

Courtesy Havana Radio

Without neglecting any of these projects I’ve mentioned, at the same time we’re continuing our traditional work with tiles, lintels, and colonial patios. In this area, we are now undertaking a major project in the Convent of Santa Clara.

As it moves into its third decade, how is the Master Plan looking ahead?

We are rethinking, looking for a different way of working that will better meet the transdisciplinary requirements of projects undertaken by the Office of the Historian.

We’re developing works very close to the community. We are promoting truly participatory projects, building methodological instruments to facilitate real citizen participation. A number of very interesting synergies are occurring in the territory between the government and the non-governmental sectors. We face a very big challenge ahead; we are preparing for that.

We think the emerging force of these non-government, entrepreneurial small businesses can contribute a lot to the restoration of our Centro Histórico. I think we can establish strategic alliances, from the state sector and the OHCH, with these private entrepreneurial ventures. Trinidad is an example of the potential involved, with positive and negative results. We are the technical force to guide an educated recovery of our heritage. 

Aula Magna, University of Havana

Courtesy Pinterest

Will community participation be founded on the precedent-setting work done in the Neighborhood Integral Transformation Workshops?

Yes, but with another dimension. We’re trying out new ways of doing things, and we’re approaching micro-entrepreneurs whose goals show concern for the community. For instance, the Arte Corte Project directed by Gilberto Valladares Reina (Papito). This produces a benefit to the community and to the businesses themselves. It becomes a new source of employment for young people. It's a win-win synergy. We’re following this process so that it can be reproduced and upscaled.

Moreover, we’ve tested an interesting approach called Participatory Budgeting. That is, people decide to allocate certain resources to help their community: they may choose to put up a street light, donate equipment to schools, or set up a sports area. It’s not a top-down communication. The community decides and participates in a conscious, useful way.

This initiative took place in Cuba for the first time this year. There was a whole methodology to select the right place to carry it out. The place that was chosen was the Cathedral People's Council, where there are a number of ideas, and leadership, for projects that serve the community, the nation’s heritage, and urban planning.

It requires an awareness of urban planning and civic responsibility, so that it’s not a demagogic, sterile exercise. The population has been informed and a proactive, not just reactive, attitude has been encouraged in a citizenry accustomed to decades of paternalism.

Later, a second initiative will take place elsewhere, where almost no parameters of earlier projects have been set. It will be another completely new way of working. 

Maya Quiroga Paneque (Havana, 1976) has a degree in Chemistry from the University of Havana. She has done diploma courses in Journalism and Speech, and has a degree in directing from the Audiovisual Media department of the Instituto Superior de Arte (ISA). She is a member of the Union of Journalists of Cuba (UPEC) and the Cultural Journalists Circle. She has worked as a reporter and editor for culture and television channels on the island.