April 1, 2003 - From the April, 2003 issue

Havana's Architectural Preservationist Mario Coyula On Planning & Historic Preservation In Cuba

In the old city of Havana, two buildings collapse every three days. With a city so rich in architectural treasures, this is a disturbing reality. TPR is pleased to share an interview TPR publisher David Abel recently had with the former president of Havana's Landmarks Commission and Dean of Havana's Faculty of Architecture, Mario Coyula, in which he discusses the preservation challenges both Havana and all of Cuba face to avoid the planning mistakes of wealthier nations.

Mario, we're here with you in Cuba in the old city of Havana. The setting provides a wonderful opportunity for you to enumerate for Americans interested in planning and preservation the historic architectural assets of Havana. It is also an opportunity for you to share the nature of the preservation challenges that face Havana. Please do.

I think we have some similar issues to those in the U.S. But, the basic difference, in my opinion, is that in the U.S., there are many attempts being carried out to revive or to do reinterpretations of the traditional city that was lost: city life, main street, and the like. In our case, we have to preserve these features because we still have them. But, we have to preserve it from overdevelopment. And overdevelopment can happen anytime in a very furious way. So, we should be prepared for that time and to resist those investments that can ruin our built heritage and destroy the social fabric as well as the built fabric.

You're about to go on an 11-city tour of Europe. What will be the central theme of your remarks on that trip?

In some places, I'll be talking more specifically about the city and the river and a part to the west of the city that is very much related to the main river in Havana. And, in other cities, I'll be talking more generally about Havana and the waterfront, called Havana by the Water. And then, in most other places, I'll just be making presentations about the evolution of the city, the way the city acquired its present shape, and, of course, the challenges and opportunities the city has in the near future.

Elaborate on both the challenges and opportunities faced by Old Havana. Clearly, the the old city's built environment has been not maintained. It seems like every day, there's a risk of buildings of great significance falling down. How is Havana presently addressing the challenges and what are the prospects for some success over the next five or ten years?

Actually, the worst part of the city is not the old walled precinct but the sector of the city right to the west of this walled precinct, Centro Havana. Yes, there is a big threat because approximately two buildings collapse partially or totally every three days. This pace is very menacing. However, the pace is slowing, perhaps because most of the buildings that were going to collapse have already done so.

But then the problem is that, from a point of view, we have a big heritage, and this is good, but from another point of view, having such a big heritage presents many problems: how to preserve that, and this is a challenge. The only way to deal with this, even if the government is doing a great effort, and especially the City Historian, is doing a great job, and there is some collaboration from foreign countries, mostly from foreign cities, and we have all this thing going on.

But the real solution, in our case, is not depending on the government or on foreign help, but in the empowering of the local population and creating a local economy that would be strong enough to deal with most of the everyday problems, including the preservation or rehabilitation of the existing built fabric. But this will include, of course, infrastructure, and in this case, of course, nobody can deal with the sewers or water supply. This will require large foreign investments, and of course presently most investments are addressing construction of new buildings, which in turn continue to overcharge the existing infrastructure, which is in bad shape.

So I think we would need to find ways of making it attractive to foreign investors to put money into infrastructure. This city grew fantastically at the beginning of the 20th century because, at that time, it had already a brand new infrastructure of streets, sewers water supply and electricity, electric streetcars, and this was the basic support for the growth of Havana in the first half of the 20th century. But now, this network is in bad shape. For instance, half of the city is not served by sewers. Maybe instead of making sewers follow the 19th century standards, we should try to find some alternative ways, more sustainable ways, of dealing with the cleaning of soiled water using our natural resources. There are ways to deal with this.

I feel that in many ways, the present tough economic condition Cuba is facing has forced the country to look at more sustainable patterns of living. Luckily, the housing programs abandoned these high-rise, prefabricated housing structures that were completely unsustainable. And there has been a demonstration of something we knew a long time ago but it was difficult to demonstrate, that you can achieve very proper densities with low-rise buildings. So in many ways, like urban agriculture, like organic farming, this very hard economic crisis should help us realize the impact of doing these unsustainable sort of development patterns, both in the agriculture, on construction, or in the economy.

Address the role and place of Havana's Office of the City Historian? What role does it play in preservation? How have its responsibilities evolved?

The office always existed, but it moved from being a sort of moral conscience to promoting development, research, restoration and rehabilitation in Old Havana. There always has been a program for, especially after the Revolution, before the Revolution there were few initiatives and mostly funded by private patrons who wanted to, I don't know, renovate the church, whatever. After the Revolution, some money was provided by the government to improve these very fine old buildings. There was a big jump in 1981 when the City Historian's Office took control of the whole investment process. They began to build up a team of planners, architects, economists, and sociologists-this office grew enormously. Now, it's very strong and very influential.

Since 1993, this office was granted the right to run their own economic programs-like real estate or renting office space or restaurants, and hotels-and they are making a lot of money. So, the office went from depending on about ten million a year from the national budget to raising more than 60 million a year independently. Of that, they put back more than 40 million into their restoration programs, contributing the rest to programs that would benefit the local population, and then of course, contributing to the national government. So what once was seen as a burden on the back of the national government is now a resource producing enough revenue to sustain itself and benefit the local population and the national government.

You've been involved in planning in Havana for a number of years. What's the lesson you've learned about how planning can be a positive as well as a negative? What are the lessons?


The old idea from the 1960s that everything could be planned just was not possible. A totally planned society, a totally planned world, would be a very boring world, not to mention dysfunctional. So the wise thing is to adjust to changes, constantly adjust to changes. That's the way nature works. I don't neglect planning, but I make a point about having a very flexible planning strategy that can adapt fast enough to changes that are impossible to forecast.

There should be a combination of master plans with strategies, more short term strategies involving not only physical planning, but also cultural considerations, and using tools which are more flexible in bringing into decisions the local population. Sometimes, we have this very arrogant planning where planners think they knew better than everybody else, that there was no need to ask people about what they felt or what they wanted because they knew better than the people. That was a big mistake. It's not only undemocratic, but it's also a big mistake.

We're doing this interview in the Havana's Park Central Hotel. What lesson should we draw from how this hotel, on a very important and historic square in the city, was designed and commissioned?

It's a pity that they wasted the possibility of doing a very nice contemporary building that would fit within the surroundings. This opportunity was lost because of a very poor design. And, it's a great location, it's a great place. Once you start approving projects without getting the full picture from the very beginning, you start committing yourself to projects, and when in the end you realize it's a bad project, it's already too late. That's what happened here. Most people agree, even people who were involved in this, that the results are poor. Again, it's a pity that it happened this way. This is a project that should have been the subject of a competition.

Today, you've given a traveling group of developers, planners and preservationists from the US and Britain, led by USC law professor George Lefcoe, an architectural tour of the old city. One of the take-aways from this memorable tour is how many times you have pointed out that the fortresses and the wall around the old city were all constructed centuries ago by a king or a central power authority. You emphasized that by the time each was built as a costly means to defend the city, they were out of date. Can that comment be extracted as a reference to the inherent problem of any centralized land-use planning?

Well, there's a joke always told that the military are always preparing for the next war thinking about the last war. It has happened many times and it happened in Havana. In fact, that's the way the British seized Havana in 1762. The Spanish were waiting for them facing the ocean and they just circled the ocean and came from the land. So, centralization has advantages, but it has also many disadvantages. Of course, it's very difficult to achieve a balance deciding what should be centralized and what should be decentralized. You run the risk of chaos if you decentralize too much. But if you centralize too much, then you stop things from changing and you make things very difficult to change-stagnation is death. A revolution means constant change, and I think a revolution in architecture also means constantly changing architecture. Since this city has such a very fine built heritage from all different periods, layers of time, architectural styles and trends, we also are committed to give this city a very good contemporary architecture, an architecture that is worthy of this city, its past, and of this revolution that has been the center of the life for many of us during the last 45 years.

No interview here in Cuba could end without addressing the presence of Cuba's neighbor to the north, 75 miles away. What particular challenges arise for Havana given the absence of a formal relationship between Cuba and the United States?

To be honest, any future moment for Cuba has to do with what will be the future relations between Cuba and the United States. Of course, if you think long term, they will be become normal again, but I don't know when or how and how much suffering we still will need to go through. Normal relations with the U.S. will bring wealth to this country, but can also present threats as many people will try to make fast money and fast profits from investing here. It's very difficult for a country that's running always short of money to resist the allure of getting money quickly. Many American cities have been ruined by this sort of overdevelopment and I wouldn't like that for my cities, Havana and the other major Cuban cities.

The question is how to achieve a proper balance between development and preservation, between contemporary and historical, between national and international. We cannot dream about stopping progress, but I would try to make a point that progress doesn't mean copying the mistakes other developed countries have committed before. Some developing counties are repeating the same mistakes developed countries made some decades ago, like identifying progress with pollution, car dependency, high rises, and big highways, disturbing the fabric of the city, and disrupting community life. I don't want that for my city.

Lastly, you clearly have had many visits from and conversations in Havana with Americans from historic preservation groups, from the Urban Land Institute, and from the Lincoln Land Institute, etc. What's the nature of these exchanges? What developmental expectations have arisen in Cuba from the increasing number of visits by potential investors from the U.S.?

The basic idea, and everybody agrees it's good for us, is to know more. The more you know, the better you are prepared to deal with challenges, especially if it comes from countries and institutions that already have this experience in their own countries. Some people here in Cuba feel that we cannot learn from Americans because they have made so many mistakes in their cities. I always say that you can learn from good examples and also from bad examples. There is good planning going on in the States.

Since we are being forced more and more to build with foreign investors and to use the rules of a market economy, it's very important for us to familiarize ourselves with the business behavior of capitalists. Capitalists are seeking profits. I always say, as a socialist country, if we are forced to deal with capitalists, it's better to do that with real capitalists and not with clowns disguised as capitalists. At least you know what to expect.


© 2024 The Planning Report | David Abel, Publisher, ABL, Inc.