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International Study Trip

Egypt 2000 | England 2001

Havana, Cuba
March 2002

Designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1982, Habana Vieja, or Old Havana, is a 528 acre area that contains approximately 4000 buildings in a variety of styles including Spanish Baroque, Neocolonial, Beaux Arts, and Moorish. Since the 1990s, development efforts in Havana include extensive historic preservation, architectural renewal, and modernization of infrastructure. Despite a tumultuous past of imperialism and fighting, Cubans have come to regard the reclamation of historic buildings and neighborhoods as critical to preserving their cultural heritage and Cuban identity. During the process of revitalization in Cuba, issues germane to urban revitalization, historic preservation, and restructuring have emerged. Therefore, Havana, Cuba is an ideal place to study architecture and historic preservation.

Between March 1, 2002 and March 10, 2002, twenty-four professionals and students from Georgia State University traveled to Havana, Cuba, and what a whirlwind adventure it was. When Kit Sutherland and Richard Laub first announced that travel between Cuba and the United States required an entire day, many participants were in disbelief. But, it was true, and every minute of waiting, nodding, sleeping, and snacking was worth it to be able to experience Havana, Cuba. It is important to note that I find it inconceivable to sum up Havana, Cuba in a page. Just putting Havana into words is a formidable task. It now makes sense to me why others who have been to Havana and speak about it use words like magical, intangible, and surreal to describe it - because Havana is all those things and more. Havana is a city of color, light, music, dance, and art - a city in constant motion. Havana is also a city of contradictions: rich/poor, new/old, static/dynamic, loudness/quiet, and happiness/sorrow - it is the combination of all these qualities and contradictions that coalesce together making Havana otherworldly. Experiencing Havana, Cuba was an amazing opportunity.

After a full day of travel, our eventual arrival in Havana, and checking into our hotel at 10:00 at night on Friday, we were all greeted by refreshing Cuba Libra's, one of Havana's many signature drinks. The next day we were off and running on our tour de force of Cuba. In addition to Richard, Kit, and Jessica Lavandier (who acted as our interpreter and leader), Lizette Cruz, who is very knowledgeable about Cuban history, acted as our tour guide, and Frank transported us across the city. Of course our friend, Architect Alina Ochoa of the City Historian's Office was our liaison for the trip.

Our eight-day itinerary took us to a number of different places, focused on a variety of topics, and introduced us to the Cuban people.

  1. On day one, we toured the Maqueta, which is an impressive scale model of the city of Havana. The Maqueta is used as both a planning and education tool for professionals, the public, and school children.
  2. On day 2, almost an entire day was spent touring the Castillo de Los Tres Reyes del Morro and the Castillo San Carlos de la Cabana. Both fortresses served as key military outposts and offer impressive views of Havana.
  3. The following day (day 3), Architect Alina Ochoa took us to see a different scale model of the city of Havana Vieja used by the Office of the city Historian. Then a city planner explained the role of the planning department in Cuba and their approach to planning and preservation. Finally, Dr. Isabel Rigol of the University of Havana architecture faculty gave a presentation on Cuban architecture and current preservation approaches. Dr. Rigol stated that the most advanced thinking in preservation is to preserve all layers. However, she noted that the treatment of buildings is quite varied - much like in the United States.
  4. On the fourth day of the trip we traveled to the Museum of the Revolution. In the afternoon, Victor Martin, Deputy Director at the National Centre for Conservation, Restoration, and Museum Studies (CENCREM) lead us on a tour of Park Central and took us to see a number of significant nineteenth and twentieth century buildings, including the Estacion Terminal. The Estacion Terminal, which was built in 1912 and designed by an American architect, looks surprisingly similar to Atlanta's Terminal Station designed by P. Thorton Marye in 1910.
  5. Day five took us out to Vedado and the Mirimar areas. These areas were developed in the twentieth century and have an impressive collection of neoclassical and mid-century modern structures. Interestingly, Spanish-Colonial houses similar to shotgun type houses were located in this area.
  6. On day six, the group learned about Havana's cultural programs and their relationship to the City Historians Office. We had the honor of visiting with the Historian for the City of Havana, Dr. Eusebio Leal, who has been involved with the restoration of Havana for more than thirty years. Later, we visited a restoration crafts/trade school, a primary school, and a geriatric center that were all housed in buildings restored by the City Historian's Office. The director of the trade school explained the difficulty in finding skilled restoration workers and the serious efforts that the City Historians Office is making to educate and train workers in traditional crafts such as metal, glass, masonry, wood, and paint.
  7. On the morning of our seventh day, we visited the Jose Marti Memorial Museum. In the afternoon, we went to Colon Cemetery, which has an extensive collection of monuments, buildings, and mausoleums in styles ranging from Romanesque to Art Nouveau.
  8. The eighth day of our trip, our last day for touring Havana, was a free day. Among other things, group participants visited local museums, toured Old Havana, and went to the Cigar factory.

During our visit to Havana, we ate at a number of good restaurants and everyone had their fair share of Cuban sandwiches. The Paladares, or privately run restaurants often located in historic homes, were the most fun of dining experiences. LaGuaridita (featured in the Cuban movie fresa y chocolat) with its marble staircase, golden plaster walls, dripping candelabras, balcony view, and incredible food was determined to be our favorite spot. During the evenings, several people took excursions to the ballet, the Tropicana, music venues, and more. Richard has some impressive photos of the Tropicana where the dancers wear chandeliers on their heads and less than that on their bodies.

Cuban was a truly amazing experience. Many thanks go out to Richard, Kit, and Jessica for leading us on our journey, also to Lisette and Frank for touring us around, and finally to Architect Alina Ochoa who was instrumental in making the Havana, Cuba trip possible. Hopefully, this is just the beginning of a long friendship and tradition with Cuba.

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