The complicated subject of urban regulations – or rather their violation – and of illegal constructions has appeared once again with force in the Cuban institutional media in charge of watching out for, regulating and preserving their functioning. The visible fact that, for too many years, there has existed an attitude in cities and towns throughout the country that ranges from tolerance to indolence, today weights like a mountain not only over the physical image of the urban settlements but also and very especially over the daily life of thousands of families that, at times for no reason at all, but frequently out of need, have deformed urban regulations and today live in places prone to be classified as inadmissible violations of the existing codes – and which can be even condemned to demolition if the existing regulations – which so many persons and institutions had forgotten for decades – are drastically applied.
As was said before, there are diverse reasons that have caused such an accumulation of problems in the Cuban architectural and urban environment. While it is true that many persons have carried out construction works clearly aware that they were violating some of the existing regulations, the truth is that in the majority of cases what we see today is the result of two close but different attitudes: on the one hand the authorities’ indolence that allowed the violation to be committed and on the other the need of the majority of persons to seek solutions to problems of space and housing, according to their economic conditions, possibilities to build and even their aesthetic criteria.
In the cases of flagrant violations like, for example, the construction in protected coastal areas, or of building sheds and rustic garages in common citizen spaces, it is hard but fairer to apply the existing laws. In the case of alterations of the regulations for “aesthetic” reasons (the quotation marks are not by chance: what they generally lack is precisely aesthetics), carried out in the face of the irresponsible view (and even with the blessing) of the local authorities in charge of regulating the constructive structure of a certain environment, the shared blame makes the possible decision more complex.
However, in the case of extreme need to find a space to live or saving the already existing one with few resources? I believe in that case the situation acquires another another view, especially taking into account that we are living in a country with great housing and room deficit in which, in addition, many of the inhabited constructions are in deplorable constructive conditions.
Many of the persons who have built “emergency” works have opted for the solutions at their reach – which almost never are the most appropriate, only the most feasible. While in some areas of the city of Havana, like the historic centre, there has existed rigor and vigilance, in others with less but also with real heritage values, veritable aberrations have been built that have deformed irreversibly the physiognomy of the place.
Very close to where I live, the barrio of El Calvario is a clear example of this. El Calvario, especially the buildings located on the principal street or very close to it, conserved until the 1960s and 70s many of its original constructions, some of them built in the 19th century. But with the passing of time and the deterioration of the majority of them and with their inhabitants’ need to gain living spaces, the owners of many of these edifications have made the most diverse modifications to the original structures, taking away the value of their historic presence. The result: El Calvario no longer resembles what it used to be…nor does it resemble anything that can be moderately harmonic or beautiful.
But, after so many years and so much effort, how can these persons be asked to undo what they have done, in many cases with huge efforts? To return to what…? In examples like this one, which are seen throughout the country, the cause definitively seems lost. There, the chaos and ugliness are irreversible.
Like in El Calvario (even more than in that small town on the outskirts of the capital), toward the centre of the city, there are also similar attitudes but in even worse conditions in diverse places. During a recent tour I made through the streets near Calzada de 10 de Octubre – and through the same avenue that crosses the very populous municipality –, more than violations of the urban planning regulations, I saw the traces of the insurmountable. The amount of houses and buildings that have lost their roofs is alarming, and innumerable buildings with cracks exhibited like mortal wounds. In the middle of this, the inhabitants of the area have tried to save what cannot be saved and, with the means at their reach and their own inventiveness, they have deformed facades and structures, giving the area the image of a city without regulations or styles that has also achieved the point of no return. And Cerro, Centro Habana, Luyanó? More of the same.
Something similar occurs in cities in the interior of the country which I have visited recently, among which is the painful case of Matanzas, the so-called Athens of Cuba, perhaps now more so: the ruins stalk several of its historic barrios while the previously friendly banks of its rivers today exhibit all the possible levels of neglect. Has there been in all these years an urban planning concern about this historic environment that made Matanzas the beautiful city through which José María Heredia and the poets that followed him walked in the early 19th century? Except for some specific buildings, the rest seems to have been left to their luck…or bad luck.
In any case, looking at what has already been done against the urban structure of the country’s cities and trying to fix it is a necessary task, though enormous and difficult, and which on occasions, as I have seen, could involve great injustices and social problems. The lack of control has been joined by the lack of possibilities that the current state of things has led us to. But, in any case something must be done to amend what cannot be amended and to avoid, above all, that the wrongs in urban planning and the “aesthetic” licentiousness continue going on like a plague that will turn a city like Havana no longer into a city gifted with the beauty of the styles of the things that have no style, as was said by Alejo Carpentier, but into a mishmash of improvisations and violations of the regulations, capable of turning it in the end into a city with no architectural identity or urban planning continuity. (2014)
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