In January, I visited Havana to reconcile my notion of the city with its real counterpart. And while first impressions confirmed my preconceptions, they did not reflect all of Havana’s rich nuances. This is no city trapped in the fifties, back when Castro’s revolution introduced communism and preserved the status quo. There is more to Havana than an open-air museum of golden era US vehicles. Fidel’s long reign involved many twists and turns. And every major event in Cuba’s history – the communist revolution, American blockade, fall of the USSR, etc. – left its indelible mark on today’s city and society. As a result, I discover and explore several different Havanas, each of them “stuck in the past,” yet each also capturing a different era, time, and place. Suffused with nostalgia, these layers invite their own reflection, then overlap and interweave to form an intricate, dreamlike mosaic – beautiful, complex, and one-of-a-kind.
The 1950s, the era of President Fulgencio Batista, left an indelible mark on Havana’s streets and minds. Even now, people look back on the dictator’s reign as a time of scandal and injustice: His were the days of glaring income gaps, corruption, gambling, and prostitution. At the same time, the 1950s also witnessed an incredible construction boom (financed, according to public opinion, entirely by the American mafia) that gave the city its astonishing architectural heritage of mostly Art Deco and modernist marvels. Ever since Batista’s deposition, Havana has more or less stayed the same.
Strangely enough, however, today’s anachronistic cityscape feels extremely fresh and contemporary. The overthrow of Batista (1959) coincided with an era of heroic architecture and great modernist projects like Niemeyer’s Brasilia (erected 1956-1960). Frozen in time, the entire city encapsulates the most inspiring aspects of 20th century thought and design: It epitomizes an era characterized by architectural dreams, belief in progress, and pursuit of future. Towers of white, glass, and concrete (depicted so beautifully in the 1964 Soviet movie “I am Cuba“) still flank the city’s embankment, the Malecon, as proud reminders of the heyday of modernism. Beautiful, googie-style automotive infrastructure – gas stations, flyovers, etc. – celebrates individualistic abandon, untouched by the subsequent postmodern criticism of the “car city.”
Havana is free of all architectural inventions of the last half-century. No postmodern historicism, no “fitting the context,” no reflective panel in sight. No shopping centers, almost no pedestrian streets. No Bilbao-style art centers, no creative clusters in industrial areas. In Havana, the architectural doctrine of revitalization – i. e. filling old buildings with new life – took another route. Here, progressive modernist buildings bustle with lives and styles that no longer exist anywhere else. By blocking the new, Havana managed to fully preserve this elusive atmosphere of times gone by; the genius loci of prior epochs.
Vintage cars wherever you look. Relics from pre-oil crisis times, the assembled Chevrolets, Buicks, and Pontiacs are huge, incredibly comfortable, and enormous fuel guzzlers. These American old-timers, however, are not the only automotive imports: On Havana’s streets, they often drive side by side with Soviet vehicles. Back in the early days of Castro’s rule, people would be eager to swap their old “Americans” for shiny new “Russians.” Now, all seem equally out of date and context. In this one unique place on earth, long-forgotten Cold War artefacts ignore prior rivalry and technological competition to rub shoulders, well tires, in peaceful open-air obsolescence.
My taxi is an old Lincoln Continental convertible. “Is this the same car that Kennedy was shot in?” I ask the driver. “No,” he shakes his head. “They were driving a 1961 model; this one is three years older.” Mentioning Kennedy is a risky move: On Cuba, the revered US president is still considered a villain. In my case, the risk pays off as I strike a note with my elderly chauffeur, who goes on to tell me in detail about his memories of the Bay of Pigs US invasion and the subsequent Cuban Missile Crisis. To me, all of this is as remote and abstract as black and white television, broadcasting scenes of Kennedy’s death. To him, it feels just as immediate, tangible and real as his trusted Lincoln.
Just like appliances, radios, window frames, or doorknobs, cars are objects of everyday use; they are constantly improved, exchanged, or replaced and have a much shorter lifespan than buildings. Yet when, for some reason, they stick around, their power of connecting us to the past is much stronger than that of architecture. Due to extended sanctions and blockades, Cubans had to repair what others might replace. In Havana, people have gotten into the habit of preserving what others throw away. An approach that rules the city to this day: By using elements from the past and different epochs in our daily routines, we, too, take a step or two back in time.
I find myself talking to Juan Carlos, a Cuban friend and photographer. To look up an unfamiliar word, I habitually take out my iPhone. Yet once I glance at the screen, I remember that there is no internet in Havana. Juan Carlos smiles, takes out his own iPhone (yes, smart phones are everywhere, even in communist countries!) and helps me out. He has installed all of Wikipedia on his phone, downloaded and supplied by a friend. By now, Juan Carlos has assembled many parts of the “offline” internet. Welcome to another anachronistic aspect of Havana – an offline metropolis.
Although a mere decade ago, we did not have Facebook or Instagram, today’s lives seem almost abstract without them. Once you get used to spreading your attention across the globe – knowing exactly what all of your friends are, have been, and soon will be up to – it is quite a challenge to return to a world that only offers the here and now. Interested in tomorrow’s weather? Watch the evening news. Up for some music? Stay at home – your tunes are not mobile. Want to catch up on daily events? Buy a paper.
So, what does a pre-internet city feel like? Without the net’s ever-present stream of information, life becomes a lot harder to parse. Every action requires careful planning; meetings rely on accuracy and punctuality. Yet once you get used to this less flexible, more committed approach, the city itself appears more real. The lack of instant access, this thin layer of mystery, makes every experience so much more precious.
Many other quirky, outdated, or idiosyncratic components make up this collage called Havana. Golden era pirate relics can be found next to abandoned structures, a horse-drawn taxi tuning in to Soviet pop, or colonial architecture infused with the spirit of Che Guevara. At the same time, none of these antiquated components feel dead or museum-like. Although dating back to past times, they are genuine and thriving parts of the city. Will these alternate Havanas be ousted by the slow reappearance of Western lifestyles on Cuba? Or will today’s trends, in future times, become yet another layer of the back-in-time city?
Text & all images: Kuba Snopek