’s most symbolic hotel was called in 1959 Hotel Habana Hilton. It was the largest and, at first glance, the most garish of the Hilton group. After Batista
’s fall, Fidel Castro
chose the one-year old Hotel Havana
Hilton as the temporary headquarters of the revolution
ary government and renamed it as Hotel Habana Libre.
Libre, designed by Welton Beckett & Associates in the late 1950’s with the Cuban
firm of Arroyo y Menendez, remains at the spiritual heart of much of the action in present day Havana
. Its location on a hillside at the boundary of central Havana
and the Vedado
district guarantees physical prominence and high visibility from nearly all of Western Havana
This 630-room, 27-story slab tower has a surprisingly minimal impact on its immediate context despite being one of the city’s largest built projects. Urbanistically it is highly successful at the neighborhood scale. Its designers were clearly cognizant of the surrounding context with its conflicting urban design scales. The presence of the late 19th and early 20th century three-story buildings surrounding the site demanded a sympathetic low-rise architectural response, but the program demanded a high-rise solution.
While this is not too different from a great deal of program-vs.-site-related conflict of 20th century urban America, it is frighteningly true of present day Havana
To further complicate the matter, the Havana
Libre sits astride La Rampa, the major street of mid-20th century Havana
. La Rampa is a wide, sloping
boulevard that was once the action center of the casino
gambling and prostitution-filled days of the 1940’s and 1950’s. It appears that the designers of the Havana
Hilton were well awar
e of their challenge. The result is a building complex that works surprisingly well at the level of urban design. The building occupies a full city block and is three stories taller at one end due to its sloping site. The architects chose to place the structure on a wide plinth to provide a level platform—an organizing datum line—on which to build their tower and to place shops at the street level below the plinth, thus providing a nearly continuous retail space at the base below the entry level to the hotel.
The car/pedestrian entry is the built continuation of La Rampa onto the site—a brilliant urban design maneuver that intelligently connects the building with its pedestrian and vehicular surroundings.
By setting the tower back and above the plinth, the architects were able to provide a dramatic series of cantilevered roof structures at the two and three story level that align with the two and three story parapets of the neighboring structures across the street from the main entry. In fact, on this level, as well as at the level of the surrounding streets, one is hardly awar
e of the 27-story tower that is set back at another upper level far behind the actual entrance from the porte cochere. In this regard, the Havana
Hilton provides a valuable lesson for the future large scale architectural interventions in Havana
Around 1994 a refurbishment and modernization process started without closing the hotel to guests, encountering numerous difficulties through the process due the impact of electrical and hydraulic systems in almost the totality of areas.
Rooms were renovated increasing space in them by reducing area from the balconies, all doors and windows were replaced by PVC material, special glasses improving the efficiency of the hotel by reducing electricity consumption around 30 per cent. Also sanitary equipment replacement was carried out for less water consuming ones, decreasing water consumption around 75 per cent.
Another aspect taken into consideration was the hotel decoration, with the placing of art pieces, paintings and sculptures from famous Cuban
artists in meeting rooms, halls and in guests rooms. The hotel façade exhibits an enormous art wall consisting of tinted glass tiles in blue, white and black from Cuban
painter Amelia Pelaez.