Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Carlos Alberto Fleitas

With the coming of the Cuban Republic, Havana entered a new century stripped of colonial customs and influenced by the search for a new social order. Over five Republican decades her inhabitants coexisted within the urban fabric, which became ever more monumental. Assisted by four centuries of impressive colonial heritage, the period’s urban explosion was driven by a world view that freed its urban spaces and architecture from eclectic European historicism and moved them toward pragmatic North American modernity. Thanks to new immigration laws, passed following the establishment of the Republic in 1902, the population of the capital went from 250,000 inhabitants in 1900 to half a million in 1930. Even so, urban growth during the twentieth century depended not just on the newly instituted republic, supported by the American occupation of 1899-1902, (a period that brought the construction of transportation and sanitation infrastructure, schools, clubs, hotels, hospitals, as well as new building techniques), but even more on the urban inheritance that had developed from the end of the eighteenth century.

The economic growth of the second half of the eighteenth century, guided by the brief domination of the English, made clear to the criollo inhabitants the restraint that had been imposed by the Spanish crown during the development of the island. During this period domestic financial capital sought new places to invest their earnings from tobacco and sugar. This encouraged the breaking up of country estates which went from being rural to urban, and caused the outer city limits to extend. The inhabitants of Havana began to live with a feeling of modernity during this time, which gave greater shape to the development of urban spaces in the era of General Tacón at the beginning of the nineteenth century. Changes to the urban visage were not limited to the physical expansion of the city, nor to the construction of numerous outstanding buildings, but also included an ambitious assessment program for public spaces. As part of the process of urban compression and expansion, well-off groups within the city began leaving the city centre. As a result the city centre moved from the port to the area that is today occupied by the Paseo del Prado, passing the city walls that were now militarily obsolete and which would begin to be demolished in 1863. This expanding zone, which grew in population during the second half of the nineteenth century, is where a flood of urban innovations were introduced, including gas-powered street lighting (1848), the telegraph (1851-1855), animal-drawn public transport (1862), the Albear aqueduct (1874-1893), telephone service (1881), electric lighting (1890), and the improvement of the transport system thanks to the introduction of the automobile (1898) and the electric tram (1901).

The twentieth century offered those living in the new Republican society progressive economic recovery, along with sustained population growth, which together provided the stimulus for a proliferation of new urban projects. Particularly important were the creation of the Malecón, the rebuilding of the Paseo del Prado, and the competition to design the Plaza Cívica. These projects supported an eclectic and monumental period, guided by the desire for modernization.

MALECÓN 1901-1958
From the moment it was founded, Havana, limited to the east by the bay, would gear its continuous growth towards the West, until reaching its other natural boundary, the Almendares river. The Malecon, or Avenida del Golfo, was created by the engineers of an occupying government, and early on displayed its scenic riches as the face of the illustrious city it still surrounds today, rather than showing only its functional purpose. From its creation the Malecón has guarded the city, which lies along the shore. The original stretch was built as planned by the North American engineers Mead and Whitney. The monumental form of the Malecón presents us with a unique urban space due to its scale and its importance as a retaining boundary, although it was originally designed to be accompanied by colonial style lighting, and tree-lined along the opposing sidewalk. Nevertheless, you can feel the magnitude of a complex structural work even within the final simple design. Conceived nearly a century before by the military engineer Francisco de Albear, the Malecón was only one project among a series of avenues, and its high cost and construction complexity destined it to progress without much notice. Initially the Malecón was to extend westward along a short stretch from the Castillo de la Punta, reinforcing the importance given the project by Leonard Wood, who maintained that the value of future governments would be measured by their efforts to extend the construction. The Malecón would be defined by the design of the original stretch, and prepared for later extensions which would all be based on that original design. The Malecón was built as far as the limit created by the Almendares River, with significant urban spaces along its path.
The Alameda de Isabel II, o Paseo de Extramuros, begun in 1772 under the regime of the Marqués de la Torre, would become one of the main meeting and relaxation spots for Havana society of the time. It was not until 1904, two years after the establishment of the Republic, that it was named the Paseo de Martí by the municipal government. The Paseo initially consisted of a simple boulevard created for animal-drawn traffic. In 1834, under the government of General Tacón, the Paseo was remodeled, and acquired greater status through improvements in street furniture, public lighting and paving. Through the urban improvement plan implemented by the North American government of occupation in 1898, the Paseo was rebuilt, and given new trees and furnishings. During the project to expand and beautify Havana under the goverment of Gerardo Machado, the French landscaper Jean Claude Nicolas Forestier was invited by Carlos Miguel de Céspedes, the Minister for Public Works, to redesign the linear park. Forestier was accompanied by French architect Jean Labatut, who designed the obelisk for the José Marti monument in the Plaza Cívica some thirty-three years later. Forestier and Labatut were assisted by a team of Frenchmen and Cubans, including Raúl Otero. The redesign of the park complemented the construction of the Capitol, and both were inaugurated on May 20th, 1929.

PLAZA CÍVICA 1937-1960
The Plaza Cívica area completes the northern development of the city to the east of the Almendares river. From the moment of Forestier´s first visit to the Cuban capital in 1925, the Loma de los Catalanes was officially recognized as the new physical high point of what would be the Great Havana of the future. This site was selected by the Central Pro-Monument Committee (La Comisión Central Pro-Monumento), which was created in 1937 under the presidency of Federico Laredo Bru. Presidential Decree 2850, issued by Committee Secretary Dr. Roberto A. Netto on September 9th, 1937, ratified the committee’s authorization to study the bidding documents as well as the form, method and process for the bidding competition. The new construction would be placed in the new civic square that was planned for the so-called ‘Hermitage Plain’. This decree set out the bidding guidelines for the Inter American Competition to erect a monument to Martí. 47 artists from different countries participated in the competition. The bidding was significant in that it was a contest divided into three parts: the Plaza, the Monument, and Sculpture. The first contest was declared void as no proposal was presented that fit with the government’s vision of the magnitude and splendor required for the space. From that point on, various competitions were held, until finally in 1942 the first prize was awarded to the work proposed by Juan José Sicre and Aquiles Maza. Even so, a lengthy period of inactivity followed. It was not until 1952 that a committee was finally formed, in anticipation of the hundredth anniversary of José Martí’s birth, to modify and implement the winning project. Different architectural approaches were created from the original winning proposals. Juan José Sicre’s sculpture, as proposed in the winning project from 1942, was chosen . It measured 18 meters high, and was created on-site completely by hand. The monument chosen was an obelisk designed by Jean Labatut, in the form of a pyramid with a star-shaped base. It rose to 139 meters above sea level. Labatut’s proposal had won second place in the 1942 contest. The design and construction of the plaza itself suffered because none of the winning proposals were chosen. The project was undertaken without adequate urban planning studies, and without imposing design parameters on the buildings that would surround the plaza. The top of the obelisk possesses a viewpoint from which you can take in a truly spectacular civic vista. One can see the brilliance of the urban connections, intertwined through the years and interrupted and altered by human hands. Every citizen who visits the highest point of the city, the Plaza Cívica, can follow a forested line, the Paseo del Prado, with his eye, eventually reaching the retaining boundary of the city, the Malecón, which runs into the Caribbean Sea.

article originally published by:   South Florida History Magazine  Volume 30, No.1, 2002
exhibition at:   Historical Museum of Southern Florida  
LA HABANA: Civic Architecture 1902 - 1958   October 7, 2002 - January 12, 2003  
This exhibition featured historical and contemporary photographs of the civic architecture of Havana, during Cuba's Reupublican period, (1902-1958). Among the many buildings and public spaces examined where the Capitolio Nacional, The Malecon and the Paseo del Prado. The images where all from the collection of guest curator Carlos Alberto Fleitas,  architect and photographer.

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