Participants in the Havana Charrette on their tour of Havana, in the small plaza where Galiano intersects San Rafael.
Photo courtesy John Pilling

On March 20-26, thirty urbanists, architects, artists, and students came together for the fifth annual Havana Urban Design Charrette. Sponsored by the Cuban and Norwegian chapters of the Council of European Urbanism (CEU) and the International Network for Traditional Building and Urbanism (INTBAU), the 2011 Charrette drew equal numbers of Cuban and international participants. Drawing on their expertise in designing, planning, and restoring the urban realm, they came together to envision the future of the Centro Habana district.

Like the four that preceded it, this year’s Charrette supported the concepts and principles proposed in “A Master Plan for 21st-Century Havana,” created by Cuban architect Julio César Pérez Hernández—one of the organizers of the event—with a team of other Cuban professionals. (Pérez Hernández was interviewed in a two-part Cuban Art News interview in January, and a follow-up interview will be published later this year.)

On the INTBAU website, Pérez Hernández described the Centro Habana district, the focus of this year’s Charrette, calling it “the most diverse district of Havana, the most densely populated and the most dilapidated. Due to construction speculation in the first decades of the 20th century, and neglect for almost half a century, the district is currently decaying and buildings often collapse.” Noting that this part of the city is quite different from the harbor and East Havana districts—the subjects of the four previous Charrettes—he added that one major challenge will be “the integration of this area with the rest of Havana in both physical and cultural terms, so that it gives continuity to the tradition of excellence of Havana’s urbanism and architecture.”

Architecture and urban design professionals define a “charrette” as an intensive planning session where citizens, designers, and other interested participants collaborate on a vision for future development. The program of the Havana Urban Design Charrette generally includes an orientation followed by preliminary studies, an interim review, final studies, and a formal presentation for comments.

This year’s orientation started with a walking tour of Centro Habana, with Pérez Hernández pointing out the district’s characteristics and landmarks, including places of national importance, such as the Fragua Martiana museum and Maceo Park; metropolitan landmarks, including the iconic Malecón, Calzada Galiano retail district, and Hospital Hermanos Ameijeiras; and places of importance to individual neighborhoods, such as Calle Neptuno and Callejón de Hammel.

The walking tour was followed by presentations. Cuban architect Gina Rey, former director of the Grupo para el Desarrollo Integral de la Capital (Group for Integral Growth of the Capital), presented a summary of the “Scheme for the Integral Rehabilitation of the Colón Neighborhood.” Her presentation included a description of the richness and variety of Centro Habana that makes the district so worthy of study. “The Extramuros neighborhood [which includes Barrio Colón] has a sad history of having been the city’s ‘red light district,’” she said, “but carries, nevertheless, a rich cultural heritage, expressed through [its influence on Cuba’s] music and other artistic disciplines. With the demolition of the city walls in 1863 came the surrounding splendor of the Paseo del Prado and the luxury of the commercial axes: Galiano, San Rafael, and Neptuno which, in turn, hid the contrasting poverty and marginality behind [these] edges.”

Once the orientation was completed, the group divided into four study teams. Three were assigned to individual neighborhoods—Cayo Hueso, San Lázaro, and Colón—while the fourth looked at district-wide issues. Working on a scale that zoomed in from the city as a whole to individual blocks, the teams’ conclusions were summarized in the introductory remarks of the final presentations as follows:

Urban Scale: Enrich the district’s connections to the larger city; strengthen the district’s identity within the city; use transportation diversity to reinforce these connections and identity; maintain high population density; create a sustainable 21st-century infrastructure as part of each set of improvements; and make it easier to cross the Malecón.

District Scale: Create three corridors of tranvia (light rail) service (Malecón/San Lázaro, Zanja, and Belascoain); develop a green-space network throughout the district; collect and use storm water locally (either by building or by block); utilize the university as a magnet for knowledge-based foreign investment; utilize the hospital as a health-services magnet for foreign investment, while it continues as district healthcare provider; raise the profile of the Fragua Martiana (the museum commemorating Martí’s sentence of hard labor in the quarries); develop a transit hub for the hospital/Maceo/Torreón area; and begin the first phase of the Malecón highway/future heavy rail tunnel from La Punta to the Maceo monument.

Neighborhood Scale: Maintain the unique identity of each neighborhood (Cayo Hueso, San Lázaro, and Colón); and provide each with a full complement of urban amenities, such as a primary school (12 classrooms), recreation areas (stickball, soccer practice, half-court basketball), neighborhood meeting rooms, and cultural resources.

Block Scale: Maintain the character of each block while improving physical standards; and subdivide land into two kinds of parcels: large lots attractive to international investors and smaller ones to be developed locally for family housing.

As the Charrette proceeded, each day’s work was complemented by social events. Some team members sampled the cuisine at La Guarida in Centro Habana as well as La Cocina de Lilian in Miramar. There was an opening reception at the Hostal Conde de Villanueva in La Habana Vieja, and everyone celebrated the Charrette’s successful conclusion with drinks at the Hotel Nacional followed by dinner at La Roca.

“CEU and INTBAU of Cuba and Norway thank each of the Charrette’s participants for their contributions to what Julio César calls this ‘act of love for the city and people of Havana’ that is the master plan and each of the charrettes,” said Audun Engh, one of the event’s organizers. “We also extend special thanks to the Norwegian Embassy to Cuba, Ambassador John Petter Opdahl, and his staff. The government of Norway, through its embassy, has supported each of the Havana Urban Design Charrettes since their inception. This year,” said Mr. Engh, “the embassy sponsored the Charrette by paying for its venue in the Hostal Conde de Villanueva as well as by hosting a reception, dinner, and live music at the Ambassador’s residence in Siboney.”

A full report on the 2010 Urban Design Charrette and a news update on the 2011 Charrette are now available on my website.

John H. Pilling is a member of the faculty of the Boston Architectural College. He studies architecture and urban design in Mexico and the Caribbean, and has traveled regularly to Cuba since 2001. In addition to his academic work, he practices fulltime in metropolitan Boston.