The city of the columns

Cuba’s capital is punctuated by stately limestone columns, which, dramatically, cast shadows and silhouettes in the late afternoon light

Havana’s irresistible visual rhythm is born of the beguiling repetition of columns throughout the city: standing in serried rows in arcades; framing grand portals; sustaining and embellishing churches; supporting statuary and presenting with triumphant fanfares of decorative excess the stately halls and sweeping marble staircases of the grand palaces of the Cuban capital. The elegant and assertive Tropical Baroque of Havana’s buildings features again and again the subtly tapered form of the Tuscan column, with its round ridge and square capital, so often veering above into graceful clusters of arches strongly reminiscent of the springing leaves of the royal palm, Cuba’s national tree. The columns’ appeal lies in the exquisite effects of chiaroscuro created by their striped shadows, slanting across the glow of Havana’s late afternoon light.

Cuba’s celebrated son Alejo Carpentier wrote a lyrical essay to the Old City in La Cuidad de las Columnas, which celebrates “the incredible profusion of columns in a city which is an emporium of columns, a jungle of columns, columns to infinity….’’ Time and again in Havana one is irresistibly drawn to this perennial punctuation of the streets, whether to lean on its shaded side for a moment’s respite from the searing sun of the squares, to feast one’s eyes on smooth, pastel-painted plaster in the cool of the morning, or to savour with one’s palm the rough evening warmth of hewn limestone, with its cross-sections of coral and shells. Extraordinary effects of silhouette and spotlight occur as the same shaft of stone is alternately illuminated, shaded and bathed in diffused light by the passing hours.

The majority of the 18th-century palaces in La Habana Vieja have interior courtyards surrounded by shady arcades, in which columns echo the visual leitmotif of pilasters applied to the buildings’ facades both on ground and upper floors.
On misty winter mornings when vapour drifts around the squares, the columns seem parts of fairytale castles, shifting and insubstantial, abodes of the spirits of the place with its lengthy, idiosyncratic and multicoloured history.

The forms themselves are simple: only occasionally does one come across a decorated column or pilaster. Those on the façade of the Casa de la Obra Pia have roughly incised linear designs around their lower parts and eccentric, would-be Ionic capitals veering outwards in eccentrically flattened perspective. Occasionally one comes across wooden columns incorporated into the 19th-century altars in the city’s churches where a merry Corinthian excess of fluting, colour, gold leaf and frothing acanthus prevails, but the coral limestone used throughout the city is too open-textured and soft to permit finicking Baroque detail.

Old Havana’s early palaces were initially built with flat facades, grand entrances and spacious entrance halls in which the family carriage was often kept. As local families made their fortunes they applied for the right to construct portales, shady arcades supported by imposing columns, which were applied to the facades of their buildings. The archives are full of such applications, and there are few 18th-century domestic buildings in Havana without them, to the extent that many areas of the city may be traversed by the pedestrian in lashing tropical downpours, broiling midday sun or terrifying electrical storms, without suffering the slightest ill effect.

The columns on the fa√ßade of the Cathedral of St Christopher of Havana are set into a riot of Baroque decoration so inventive and unusual that Carpentier referred to it as “music turned to stone.” The columns stand well forward of the surrounding masonry, allowing light to penetrate behind them so that the sun to create curvaceous swoops of chiaroscuro on either side. Within the Cathedral, a stately march of columns parades down either side of the central nave, creating reserved side aisles in which are set a series of neoclassical altars decorated with fluted mahogany pilasters. Many of the columns in Havana’s churches are massive, cuadrifoliar constructions with basic Baroque detailing, but those around the periphery of the garden in the Seminary of San Carlos and San Ambrosio are set in pairs, with small pointed neo-Gothic arches between the principal mediopunto arches of the arcade.

The majority of Havana’s columns are made of local limestone, but occasionally one comes across a delightful surprise: coloured marbles, or even better, wildly inventive faux marble paint effects echoed in Pompeian friezes in the noble interiors of the ballrooms and salons of the palaces around the principal squares. The earliest buildings remaining in Old Havana have relatively diminutive and unassuming columns—those in Tacon Street are particularly evocative of the port’s tentative architectural beginnings—but as the Habaneros’ grandeur increased so did the size of their palaces, until by the latter part of the 18th century their stony confidence knew no bounds and was reflected in the height of their columns.

Intriguing theatrical effects are caused in and around the arcades in the squares. The central, open area is the location for the main dramatic performance and every conceivable sort of human interaction and display is played out there under the spotlight of the sun. The shady corners of the arcades are the perfect location from which to view the drama, but an even more rewarding view can be had by simply positioning oneself at the end of the long, columned corridors fronting the 18th century palaces, and waiting.


Before very long, a satisfying sub-plot to the central action begins to develop before your eyes: a brief flurry of action as a group of children playing, or a couple arguing, or a gossipy exchange, or a pair of fighting dogs erupts between the columns into the arcade, enacts a vivid appearance for a few minutes, then disappears back into the square as suddenly as it came. At other moments, the ad-hoc oeuvre takes its time to develop, as characters gradually emerge from between the pastel coloured stripes of the columned wings and the scene gradually evolves before one’s appreciative eyes.

In the Palace of the Captains General there is an exquisite domination of columns, both in the exterior arcade and the graceful courtyard in which the trunks of royal palms complement their march around its periphery. Hours of blissful contemplation may be passed from the cool marble benches in the arcades, watching the slowly moving vertical shadows defining and articulating their surrounding spaces. In the rainy season the columns frame watery vistas of the courtyard garden: ginger lilies glowing in the green gloom between enormous gleaming leaves upon which the fat drops beat a percussive patter. The deluge passes, leaving the ancient stones laced with puddles in which the newly sunlit columns and arches reflect as fallen fragments of architecture; outside in the squares, great sheets of water reflect the arcades in perfect symmetry in almost Venetian scenes of aquatic excess.

On especially humid days, the rising sun casts triumphant shafts of golden light between the still-dark columns along the arcaded façade of the Palace and in the house of the Counts of Jaruco in Plaza Vieja, the columns and arches at the corners of the first floor courtyard balconies are so exactly reminiscent of the angles of palm leaves, trembling with organic energy, that one can scarcely believe that they do not contain sap.

Eroded and pockmarked by blows from generations of traffic, few of Havana’s exterior columns have remained unscarred, but they stand solid, durable and immovable. They have witnessed three centuries of the city’s changing fortunes. It is now passing through a period of transformation so rapid that its inhabitants can barely catch their breath: uncertainty is the order of the day. In this maelstrom of change, the comforting solidity of the columns is a reassuring reminder that people and theories may come and go, but these stout reminders of Havana’s remarkable past will be appreciated by many generations to come.

“The column appeared in the city… an interior column, born in shady courtyards embellished with vegetation, where the palm trunks lived alongside their Doric counterparts. In the beginning, in houses of solid outline, a little rough in their exterior aspect, like the one opposite the Cathedral of Havana, the column appeared as an object of intimate refinement, destined to support arcades of interior porticoes… thus in many old Havana palaces, in some of the rich mansions which still have their original layout, the column is an element of interior decoration, luxury and adornment, this before the days of the 19th century when the column would throw itself into the street and create… one of the most singular constants of Havana’s style: a pedestrian can leave the area of the fortresses of the port, and walk to the outskirts of the city… following columns ever the same and ever developing in which all the styles of column appear represented, conjugated or combined to infinity. Columns half Doric and half Corinthian, Ionic dwarves, cement cariatids…’’

Alejo Carpentier, La Ciudad de las Columnas.

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