cuba heritage .com - Cuban History, Architecture & Culture
Modernism or Art Nouveau in the Havana architecture
During the 19th century, Cuban architects began to look for a new style which would be the emblem of a rising new era and reflect the progress generated by the industrial revolution and the evolution of society. In this search, the historical and eclectic languages were the cement of debate which had started between the defenders of tradition and the partisans of renovation. It was the origin of modern architecture, in which the use of new materials made in series played a large part. Glass, and most of all, reinforced concrete or iron structures were hidden, in the last decades of that century, by a collection of ornaments recovered by the aesthetic quality of the “revivals”. This represented the aesthetic taste of that period; the crude nature of the buildings was hidden by a covering make-up, which evocated Greek Latin, Egyptian or neo Middle-Ages shapes.
Precisely in the search of a new style for a new era, the Modern art or “Art Nouveau” was the first step in contemporaneous architecture (before the arrival of the new century) putting an end to shapes dictated by the history of styles and giving birth to a more natural and impetuous architecture. This new architecture extended to big European cities such as Paris, Brussels, Glasgow, Turin, Vienna or Barcelona and even distant cities such as Istanbul or Cairo, and even reached the United States where the design of the lamps at Tiffany’s in New York, with their dragonfly, butterfly and poppy shapes, illuminated the interior spaces. Buenos Aires, Mexico DF and Havana also adopted this new architecture, which was spread by the middle class, eager for being fashionable and showing their wealth.

For the Cuban capital, the early years of the 20th century were a period of constructive splendor. Cuba was beginning its new independent life, even if it was under North American control, and this new situation was a challenge, which was encouraged by favorable worldwide circumstances. Indeed a lot of factors from scientific and technical revolution of that period participated in the change of architecture: development of the industry, of means of communications, culture and most of all the advances of medicine and new theories about hygiene. It was at this time that Havana started its urban expansion, new types of buildings appeared that were in relation with the new needs of society, the former walls of the colonial city disappeared and the streets were filled with modern buildings, which expand to the new areas such as Central Havana and Vedado, to lodge an avalanche of immigrants who were attracted by a dream of richness.

Big or small shopkeepers, landowners and professionals were part of the flourishing and growing middle-class of Havana who, for the construction of their houses, chose among the different styles that were fast becoming fashionable, from the neocolonial or medieval to the Art Nouveau. These styles would live together in harmony during the first three decades of the 20th century.
But it was mostly the neocolonial shapes which covered the facades of houses in the new areas. Just between the new and the old city, new buildings appear such as in Jose Marti Avenue, former Isabel II Avenue.

The reasons for this predilection for neocolonial style in the decoration of middle-class houses of Havana were related to the thought of the society of that period. Indeed, the patriotic exaltation of the middle-class, from the 19th to the 20th century, was attached to nationalisms and regionalisms, which shot out in the occidental part of the world and which, in the case of architecture, evoked local tradition as the sublimation of its most glorious history and of the peculiarities of each ethnic-group. In the case of Cuba, it was even reinterpreted from the own ecclesiastic languages of the Caribbean and its colonial past. That is why this neocolonial style means the valuation of an architecture inherited from the Spanish style, but with a Creole touch, which had been adapted to the tropical climate, with porches to offer shelter from the constant and unpredictable rains and from the suffocating summer heat. All these porches were held up by a multiplication of supports with capitals inspirited by the classic orders, and which have made Havana known as the “city of columns”, in reference to the title of Alejo Carpentier’s essay; whereas its balconies, open under arches and protected with balustrades, combine neo-Renaissance decorative patterns with neo-Baroque ting
by by Maria Pilar Poblador Muga, from University of Zaragoza
Article ID 541
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