Havana: Some Assembly Required

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Havana: Some Assembly Required
The sprawling custom house is a barrier between Old Havana and the harbor / © Hakai Magazine
Havana: Some Assembly Required
The sprawling custom house is a barrier between Old Havana and the harbor / © Hakai Magazine

A communist city struggles to lure foreign money and rebuild its failing infrastructure without sacrificing its revolutionary roots

If a place could be described as bitterly hot, it’s here on a street along Havana’s waterfront. A century-old custom house sprawls the length of three soccer fields, blocking the sea’s cooling embrace. The building is an affront—a dilapidated fortress with broken windows and gaping holes in its terra cotta roof—that I deeply resent right now.

I’m on a walking tour with two dozen international architects and urban designers, as we imagine a theoretical future for Havana. The walk is part of a charrette—an exercise that gives professionals and community members a voice on urban development when there is no formal mechanism to do so, as has been the case in crumbling Havana. At this moment, however, under the searing sun, it’s our imaginations that are crumbling and the water that’s theoretical. Every so often, the scent of sunscreen permeates the air as someone slathers it on their glistening pink face. “Agua?” we inquire, as we poke our heads into doorways on a fruitless search for bottled water.

As relentless as the heat on this “death march”—to quote the mutterings of the design contingent—is our leader: Cuban-born architect Julio Cesar Perez, clad in a heavy blue blazer and exuding a kind of reptilian comfort. His taut, olive skin is radiant under the tropical sun. Like a lizard animated by the heat, he whirls around, pointing this way and that way, and expounding on the failings of this once great city—the largest metropolis in the Caribbean, with a population of over two million. Havana is Perez’s birthplace, his stomping grounds, and his part-time home when he’s not in Miami, Florida. […]

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