An illustrated guide to urban exploration in the Russian capital.
28 May 2016
Like most of the older buildings in Havana’s Vedado district, this one was built without an elevator. I reached the top floor instead by way of a semi-lit stairwell, up stone slab steps with cracked marble banisters that whispered of lost splendour. When I ran out of steps I stopped beside a heavy wooden door and rang the buzzer – there was an electric crackle somewhere in the wood behind my finger, accompanied by the muffled chiming of a bell.
As I waited, I found myself staring at a deep crack running through the plaster wall of the corridor. Only the night before I’d been disturbed by a loud crash, and I had gone outside that morning to find broken masonry piled high in the side alley beneath my window. Three floors up was a gaping crater in the outer wall of the building, where a section of bricks the size of a car had fallen away in the night.
A scraping, dragging sound brought me back to the present – and after drawing back what sounded like an extraordinary number of different bolts and locks, an elderly woman cautiously opened the door to me.
“¿Oscar?” I asked her. I was looking for my would-be host, and while I didn’t suppose for a moment that this woman could be Oscar, I didn’t yet have the language to do any better. She shook her head – I’d later find I was looking for him in the wrong building – but then she invited me inside anyway, and within moments we were stood on a small balcony drinking coffee together.
Across the road from us, the floodlit Hotel Nacional de Cuba rose from the dark palm trees at the seafront like some twin-towered Art Deco palace; while below, the roads hummed with the failing engines of patched-up Pontiacs, Chevrolets, Cadillacs and antique Fords, an endless stream of museum exhibits cruising along the Malecón.
The Evolution of Modernism in Cuba
As I’ve written before (that time I ended up temporarily Homeless in Havana), Cuban hospitality was my very favourite thing about the island… but I’d have to say that Cuban architecture comes a close second. Havana feels like a petri dish, a mad, wild and wonderful smorgasbord of eclectic building fashions.
The way the city has evolved owes a lot to its geopolitics: its alternating periods of occupation and isolation. The Spanish brought European Beaux-Arts architecture to Cuba; then later the island became a playground for the nouveau riche, as Cuban sugar barons grew rich on US capital and they filled districts like Miramar and Vedado with a swathe of new Art Deco mansions. Linear classicism gave way to curves and by the 1920s, even these styles were beginning to adopt a local twist with the inclusion of glazed ceramic tiling, stained glass and bold, tropical colours.
Cuba’s architecture would change again in the wake of the 1953-59 Cuban Revolution, and new buildings like the National Art Schools took the form of utopian spaces built from simple, easy-to-source materials.
The exuberance and festival spirit of the revolution was short lived however, at least in architectural terms – when the Soviets arrived in the 1960s they promoted function over form, introducing the island to the brutalist and socialist-modernist styles then popular across the USSR.
Such conservatism was well-suited to Cuba’s limited budget, particularly after the imposition of new trade embargoes; and over the following decades romanticism was traded for a cautiously optimistic kind of futurism. That era produced the refined geometry of the CUJAE campus, a technical university founded in 1964… and later, the bizarre, constructivist tower of the Russian Embassy (then the Soviet Embassy) in Miramar, designed by ‘People’s Architect of the USSR,’ Aleksandr Rochegov.
Nowadays, the relics from each of Cuba’s architectural periods stand side-by-side in an awkward, colourful mess. Art Deco hotels look out onto 1970s Sovietesque tower blocks. At Miramar, that Russian embassy leers over colonial palaces like some giant concrete monster from the future. Walking around the streets of Havana one gets the feeling that many of these buildings continue to exist simply because no one can afford to pull them down.
But I believe the city is richer for it, architecturally; and what follows is an account of my interactions with three of Havana’s biggest, boldest works of the modernist style.
Edificio Girón is a seafront apartment building, located in the Vedado district where Calle F meets the Malecón. It was opened in 1967; the year that Che Guevara died, and a decade that saw Cuba settle from revolutionary fervour into a functional – if increasingly isolated – socialist republic.
The Girón building was formed from two 17-storey blocks, fitted with elevators and with a series of tubular walkways that join the two hemispheres like neural fibres.
I had arrived in the Caribbean straight from an intense week of urban exploration in Moscow – I was still high from the thrill of clambering over abandoned Soviet aircraft, and scaling construction cranes in the Russian capital – so when I spotted the Edificio Girón down there on the seafront my very first thought was to somehow get up onto the roof of it.
As we approached the building’s ground level entrance, I tried my best to look natural… as if that would ever have worked here. Three pale foreigners nervously entering a residential block in Havana wasn’t exactly inconspicuous, and so I gave up on trying to be discrete; instead I waved back to the kids who circled us on their bikes, and pretty soon even the more curious residents had grown bored with us anyway.
The Girón building sits on stilts, so that walking between those ground-level stairwells feels like entering an underpass – I had to keep reminding myself that instead of a road above us, it was 16 floors of heavy concrete.
The stairs themselves were clean, freshly swept, with only the faintest odour of urine in the corners. Sunlight shone in through a lattice of ornamental concrete bars, drawing a crosshatch where long shadows fell perpendicular across the steps.
The years haven’t been kind to the Edificio Girón. The elevators stopped functioning a long time ago, and now tenants complain about regular power outages. The stairs are missing their handrails, while patches of rusted iron infrastructure show through the salt-corroded concrete.
Crossing the corridor though, from one tower to the other, the view was all I could think about: looking out through full-length embrasures onto the Malecón, and behind it, at the light dancing on the waters of the Caribbean. It was a strange juxtaposition – as if looking out from a Cold War bunker into paradise.
On the way up we passed the entrances to homes. An old man sat smoking outside his front door; on the next floor a woman, mop in hand, was emptying a bucket of water into the elevator shaft. Children played in the connecting corridors and muffled music filled the stairwells, pumping in from both above and below. It may have looked like a crumbling skeleton from afar, but inside, this concrete structure was teaming with life.
I never did see that rooftop. The highest we got was somewhere around the sixteenth floor. Past the apartments, past the top end of the stairwells, one final metal staircase folded up towards a rooftop access hatch. Predictably, it was fitted with a heavy padlock.
It was hard to feel disappointed, though – looking out through the hatch on the south side of this corridor, all of Havana was splayed beneath our feet. From here unto the horizon lay a patchwork of red roofs and palms, vintage automobiles belching smoke into the heat haze. From this height the noise faded out so that the city seemed somehow unreal, like an impressionist painting brought to life.
But even there, at the top floor of the Edificio Girón, we were only half as high as the next rooftop we’d visit that afternoon.
The FOCSA building was completed in 1956 – right in the midst of the revolution. Its design reflected the evolution of Art Deco into Cuba’s big, bold, modernism and at 121 metres in height, it is still the tallest building in the country: taking up an entire block in Havana’s Vedado district.
The Edificio FOCSA was built to house national TV and radio stations, in addition to cafés, shops and a theatre. After nine floors of commercial use, the 30 above were divided into apartments; and at level 33 they built a restaurant with panoramic views across the city.
That’s where we were headed – ‘La Torre,’ Havana’s sky bar. After a hot afternoon climbing stairwells at the Girón building, taking the lift to the air-conditioned thirty-third floor of FOCSA felt like heaven. We ordered a round of daiquiris, and took in the view from the bar. Of course, the drinks were overpriced. I waved away a food menu without even daring to look at the prices – but the waiter gave a knowing smile as I rushed from one window to the next with my camera. They must have been used to this by now.
The FOCSA is more than just a viewing platform though – the building itself is quite magnificent. In 1997 it was ranked as one of the ‘Seven Wonders of Cuban Civil Engineering,’ and it’s an accolade well earned. Between February 1954 and June 1956 the construction team – headed by architect Ernesto Gómez Sampera and chief engineer Luis Sáenz Duplace – built one of the world’s largest concrete structures, allegedly without the use of a single crane. Even today, the Martinelli Building in São Paulo, Brazil, is the only concrete building that tops the FOCSA in size.
During the 1970s the Edificio FOCSA’s 373 apartments were largely reserved for Eastern Bloc and Soviet visitors; with a self-contained supermarket on the ground floor that was off-limits to native Cubans. Since the collapse of the USSR however, the place has been opened up for the tourists – and after one resident died in an elevator accident in 2000, the building’s infrastructure underwent some serious renovation work. These days its bars, restaurants, lifts and lobbies feel about as contemporary as Havana ever gets.
Later that night we tried getting onto another rooftop. We failed though – after bluffing our way past a security guard on the pretext of visiting a restaurant in Tower A, we were thwarted by locked doors and so found our way down to the building’s cellars instead. Somehow we ended up crossing to the other side of the complex, and confused the guard immensely when we eventually emerged from the elevators of Tower B.
But it wouldn’t be the last structure I tried climbing in Cuba… just a few days later, I’d find myself clinging for dear life onto the rusted gantries of a lighting rig hung high above a massive, modernist stadium down by the sea.
I first spotted the stadium from a car window, on the way from Havana to Matanzas. It sat beside Via Monumental on the eastern highway out of town: a ribbed concrete shell that glowed grey-pink in the Caribbean sun. A miniature dust tornado stormed through the empty forecourt and I felt like I was looking at some discarded exoskeleton – as if the real stadium had already burst out of this and gone, leaving only a crust of concrete behind.
Later that week, we took a taxi back there for a closer look. The old Chevy dropped us on the hot tarmac nearby, and even as we drew up level with the building I’d still seen nothing to suggest it was in use.
I walked around the perimeter, beneath a hard grey shoulder where tinted, thick glass windows peered out from what I presumed to be the changing rooms. Below, a lower walkway was piled with rubbish bags. There were deep cracks running through the concrete between intermittent patches of white paint, so that the structure looked unfinished; as if the builders had simply dropped tools and left after throwing together just the basic skeleton of the thing. There was still no sign of life.
Around the next corner I had my first look inside the arena – and through a long, barred tunnel I glimpsed an oasis of green amidst all that concrete. Like the Edificio Girón before it, this dead-looking husk concealed a hive of life inside. The pitch at the centre of the stadium was encircled by a track where people jogged, raced, and stretched on the turf. Small groups sat watching from the open-air stalls while to the east, a semi-covered grandstand rose up around the stadium like the lip of a seashell.
Later I’d learn that the stadium still keeps regular fixtures for baseball, football and athletics competitions. It has a maximum capacity of 50,000 people, and was opened in 1991 when it served as the principle venue for the 11th Pan American Games; the ‘Estadio Panamericano,’ they called it.
The games that year welcomed athletes from 39 countries, with an opening speech delivered by President Fidel Castro. Cuba won 140 gold medals and came first in the competition, leaving the US lagging behind in second place. At the time, the stadium was equipped with the height of technology available to the Cubans: electronic marker boards, modern lights and audio systems.
Even by early 1991 though, there had still been doubts as to whether the Cubans could actually pull it off. In January The Washington Post had commented, “it’s hard to imagine a less inviting place to stage one of the more important sporting events in the Western Hemisphere.”
“The Estadio Panamericano has the look of the Roman Coliseum,” the article continued. “Unfortunately, it looks the way the Coliseum looks today.”
Castro had been adamant about hosting the games; and especially after the loss of his long-term benefactors in Moscow, an international sporting event was the perfect way to present Cuba to the world as a resilient and self-reliant republic. Corners were cut, some facilities were never quite finished – Cuba even sent its own athletes to work on construction sites – and by August 1991, the country had managed to build 15 new stadia in addition to an adjacent ‘sports village’ of 55 buildings and over a thousand apartments.
Strolling along the perimeter of the playing field, past open wounds in the concrete where rebar lay exposed and rotting in the sun, I tried to picture the place when it was new: a smooth, clean coat of paint disguising the fast-and-cheap construction. We passed a lighting tower (or was it a scoreboard?) that looked extraordinarily fragile, a narrow pinnacle stretching high above the stadium. A staircase led all the way up, zigzagging like a bloody bootlace and dribbling red stains down the concrete.
Of course we had to climb it.
Aside from the chronic lack of funding that lets such structures go unmaintained, Havana’s modernist architecture seems to be plagued by two aggressively destructive factors: humidity and salt. Back when the Panamericano stadium was still no more than a twinkle in Fidel Castro’s eye, architects and engineers had warned against building it next to the sea. But Castro was not to be so easily persuaded – the leader insisted on a stadium with a sea view.
Climbing up those rickety ladders, I could empathise with both arguments. On the one hand, Castro was absolutely right – the location was superb. As we rose above the amphitheatre the landscape opened up before us in a wide, sparkling vista of tropical vegetation against the Caribbean coastline. On the other hand though, that salt air really had taken its toll on the structure. The stairways creaked beneath us, while the railings painted my palms vivid orange with rust. I should have been looking at the view, but the higher we climbed the more my mind was drawn to fears of structural insecurity.
By the time we hit the second flight of stairs, I was carefully testing every step before I put my weight on it. The gantries wobbled, but they showed no sign of coming loose.
Behind the stadium, I looked down on a decorative plaza – paving slabs forming a path round a fountain shaped like a socialist star. There was no water in the fountain, and only one or two people in sight around the plaza itself. Beyond that, tucked in amongst trees along the coast, stood the low, square shapes of the former athletes’ village.
We turned a corner, and started on the third set of rusted steps… I found myself moving slower, gripping tighter, the higher we got. By the time we hit the fourth and final flight my palms were sore from contact with the railings, but the view – looking down onto Estadio Panamericano, at its tiny players, its Che Guevara billboards and beyond that, to the sea – was just exceptional.
From this high up the structure’s cracks and broken railings, its bare, corroded infrastructure, was invisible. All I could make out were figures running on the tracks, kids kicking a ball around a healthy green pitch. Some areas of the stadium were actually renovated as recently as 2008 – the track was replaced, and the original grass turf of the pitch was switched for an artificial substitute. The latter process proved to be a major operation involving construction teams and stadium staff, workers from the Revolutionary Armed Forces and the Youth Labour Army.
The infrastructure might have been failing, but the people kept it patched up well enough to be functional; enjoyable, even. Some might say the stadium was like a microcosm of Cuba itself.
By the time we got back down from the tower, my appetite for altitude had been well and truly sated. We left the stadium to go looking at Cold War relics, the deactivated missiles left behind in the wake of the Cuban Missile Crisis… and for the rest of my stay in Cuba, I was perfectly content to remain at ground level.
By the way… This post wouldn’t have been possible without the local tips I got from a friend based in Havana. Without his advice I’d have missed out on a ton of hidden treasures, including the trip we made a different day to Cuba’s unfinished nuclear power station. He also happens to run tours: so if you’re ever looking for a guide who knows their way around the weird and wonderful underbelly of Cuba, then I really can’t recommend this guy highly enough. See you next time, Al!