First time impressions of this district of Havana, known as El Vedado, are its fine views towards the sea from various vantage points. In fact, even before the early waves of settlement that transformed Vedado into an urban haven, those vistas would be important to the survival of those within Old Havana itself.
The terrain adjoining colonial Havana to its west was covered in natural growth into the later 19th Century. This served both as a low-lying landscape of defence for the Spanish colonists within the walls of the historic city to watch for potential attacks – either by pirates or other colonial powers. That foliage has long since given way to the intricate network of residential and commercial avenues, parks and architecture which now define this distinct district of Vedado.
Understanding Vedado from its overall physical layout allows a working overview of the many individual points of interest within. Its wider boundaries stretch from the edges of modern central Havana on its eastern flank, to the Almendares River along its westernmost edges. Within that span, several main thoroughfares bisect it into three areas which are, in turn, intersected by four principle avenues: the north-south stretches of the Avenida dos Presidentes and the Paseo, and then the east-west avenues of Linea and Calle 23. You can enter Vedado along that section of Calle 23 known as ‘La Rampa’, which leads towards some of the iconic hotel landmarks such as the Hotel Nacional, the Habana Libre or the Hotel Riviera. Or, arriving in from the airport, you might drive by the resplendent memorials and statuary along the Avenida de los Presidentes before turning off to your local casa accommodation.
Beyond those initial impressions, what emerges most vividly when walking around Vedado is the variety of architectural inspiration along its major arteries and quieter avenues. That diversity of style began in the decades as Cuba underwent major economic and social changes, following the colonial era, and continued well into the mid-20th Century. After the Cuban Revolution, change in another dimension occurred, as many old structures were re-purposed into another existence. What remains largely intact is the spatial balance between buildings and adjacent outdoors, which resulted from the zoning laws of the late 19th Century. Streets at that time were required to be 16 metres wide, with grassy verges running between sidewalks and street curbs, while buildings had to be set back five metres from the street, allowing for the enduring green presence along the district’s avenues.
The expansion within El Vedado continued from the first American occupation of Cuba in 1898 well into the 1950s, and included major local public buildings along with many of the grander residential structures. One frequent architectural motif among the latter is the expansive front portico supported by columns inspired in design from every classic period and style. At moments, through the leaves of the weeping fig and banyan trees, you may also glimpse the muted shades and paneled friezes that still grace the facades of diligently restored houses. Moments later, another building may come into view with similar neo-classical exteriors but worn from the tropical elements and time, either abandoned or subdivided to accommodate several families.
The architectural vernacular within Vedado includes an extraordinary spectrum of stylistic imports from Europe and their local adaptations – ranging from Classical and Empire to Mudejar, Colonial Baroque and Rococo – and often combining the Neoclassical style favored by Cuba’s social and economic elites of the day. The survival of this outward diversity into the present has often depended on a transformation of aged buildings into new identities and functions – be it as a paladar, a casa particular, a small museum or a cultural centre. Notable examples of these lie along Calle 17, an east-west residential thoroughfare at Vedado’s center where you come across an intriguing spectrum of Cuban historic and contemporary aesthetic interests.
Repurposing such former private spaces into public dimensions can often retain much of the structure’s original style. For instance, further along on Calle 17 is the present-day headquarters of the National Union of Writers & Artists (UNEAC) in another onetime Vedado mansion. Nowadays the expansive terrace overlooking the gardens here serves as both a stage and a patio, providing table seating for visiting and local artistic interests and groups. The bar and restaurant feature a revolving menu dedicated to notable national writers and artists from Wilfredo Lam to Alejo Carpentier and Ernest Hemingway among others. UNEAC hosts regular peñas, or musical and literary gatherings, and the indoor/outdoor setting here is idyllic for that type of project.
Elsewhere in central Vedado, the reinvention of mansion into museum occurs again within the intriguing Museo Napoleonico – a Florentine Renaissance style structure that houses an extensive collection of personal and familial memorabilia of the French emperor, acquired by 19th Century Cuban politician/sugar baron Julio Lobo. Here, Napoleonic art, sculpture and Empire-style furnishings seem to have found a congenial setting within high-ceilinged salons and castle-like premises. Nearby, and retaining its original Grecian style and academic life, are the imposing buildings that comprise the University of Havana, which looks down on the area from a series of wide ascending front steps. A haven in itself not just of learning but also above the busier circulating streets and traffic hereabouts.
In the post-war era into the Fifties and Sixties, a new infusion of architectural style and influence began to make its own visual imprint on sections of Vedado, due, in part, to changes in local zoning laws that allowed higher construction. Nowadays noteworthy in this category are some of the institutional and public structures that come into view along the coastal and northwestern areas of Vedado, where major new construction occurred during this period. The revival art deco and other modernist influences are present at such landmarks as the high-soaring Casas de las Americás just across from the busy Malecón. On open days, the visitor can stop in to browse the Latin American artwork at the in-house Galeria de Arte Latinoamericano or, time allowing, engage further at one of the scheduled workshops, lectures and other cultural events held here. Just a way east from here along the Malecón, and also imposing in its own fashion, is the Estadio José Martí sports park stadium. As longtime Havana observer and author Chris Messner (of Cuba – Inside Out travel series) described it to us:
“Its open face stadium bleachers looking out to sea are built in a modernist style of architecture, with an elegant abstractness to it. This structure is supported by large cement columns that rise high above from behind the bleachers, reaching out and arching high over the stadium sustaining an artistic rolling scallop shape that alternate between red and white colours.” In Vedado, even the life of sport may display an aesthetic awareness.
The variety of styles and reinvented purpose are certainly eclectic in the northwestern Nuevo Vedado section of the district – one of the most unusual examples being the former cooking oil factory that now serves as art gallery, performance space, lounge and entertainment areas for film, music or theater collectively known as the Fábrica de Arte Cubano. The brainchild of renowned Afro-Cuban fusion musician X-Alfonso, its entirely revamped floors now serve as space and stage for both new and established voices in music and art, all interconnected by hallways which also serve as display surfaces for more visual art. The surviving chimney stack and brick facades outside remain the only indication of the original life of this fascinating present-day structure.
More leisurely moments of time in El Vedado for local refreshment may also include other encounters with more diligent and often ingenious transformation.
Such is the case at Habana Blues, housed in a refitted former mansion and redesigned on the theme of many shades of blues, apparent in the blue painted skies along the interior upper walls. The high-ceilinged interconnecting rooms with their thick walls, and the decorative friezes with their garlanded motif still visible along the uppermost border of the walls reflect the building’s past life. Former classical inspiration and contemporary spirit harmonise to present a current identity that draws well on both. Other local paladares converted from former mansions, such as Nerei and La Casona de 17, take advantage of the original architectural integration of interior and exterior spaces by extending their own dining floorspace onto outside shaded terraces overlooking the avenue and passing life.
A diverse green mosaic of the outdoors – from parks and neighbourhood squares to grand avenues graced with broad median strips of park, all form part of the connecting natural dimension of Vedado.
A large measure of the original attraction of this terrain in the 19th Century was the openness and connection to the natural it provided in contrast to the narrower confines of the original historic urban quarters of old Havana.
While the larger reliance on park and vegetation is often most apparent in the quite lavish reliance on it along main thoroughfares, such as Avenida de los Presidentes, the value of the respite and space afforded by natural growth to the districts early residents is also apparent in the extensive gardens and spaces of the Quinta de los Molinos. A favoured leisurely oasis in the area in colonial times for the wealthy classes, nowadays it endures as the welcome backdrop for young artists and popular music performances. But just as enjoyable in their smaller existence are the shaded plazas and neighbourhood parks that still allow resident and traveler alike an interlude of rest from the Caribbean sun. Of course, since this is Vedado, you may also note even here the abiding awareness of worlds and figures beyond Havana – be it the Parque Victor Hugo or the Parque John Lennon. Look for a bust or figure of either, and then also expect that sense of fellow feeling that Vedado appreciates in the life and spirit of such figures. A connection which emerges even in small corners such as at Parque John Lennon, where the statue of the late Beatle seated on a park bench also bears his quote: “You may say that I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one.” Indeed, his vision is still appropriate here in this ever-intriguing corner of the Cuban capital, a district whose own inhabitants have always displayed that resilient capacity to engage and dream so well of the surrounding world – and worlds far beyond.