Eusebio Leal Speaks about Architectural Restoration in Havana

Margarita Barrio interviews Eusebio Leal, official historian of Havana, who offers an analysis of the restoration and preservation works in the city and the social impact they have had on Cubans.

When did you discover that Havana had to be rescued? I didn’t discover anything. There is an entire work by predecessors of Cuban culture who were very constant in the defense of the city’s material heritage. First and foremost, my predecessor and professor Emilio Roig de Leuchering, who fought tirelessly, with all the strength of his prestige, and still fights, with all he accumulated to prevent the destruction of Paula Church when there were plans to extend the railroad lines, to prevent the destruction of the ancient Santo Domingo Monastery with the purpose of making a helicopter station in the place. There is an entire list of things I could mention. I have only continued, modestly, what he and others did before the triumph of the Revolution.

You have always defended the idea of not turning the Historical Center into a mock-up, not taking those who live in it out of there, as has been the case in other old cities. It is a Historical Center with an overpopulation caused by migration during the years of crisis. More than 74 thousand people live in the historical area. From the point of view of a respectable habitat, this is unsustainable. There are buildings in which 200 or 300 people live. To maintain the vital signs of the city is of critical importance. And considering housing as an essential calling is the teaching emerging from mistakes made throughout the world, from Venice to Toledo. The problem is that not all can be there and the question would be: who will go and who will stay. An on-site sociological study is made to determine, always after consulting and dialoguing with the people, what they really want. As a rule, those who were born here, with a few exceptions, want to continue living here. We would like them to stay so the vital sign continues.

Tourism at times dehumanizes cities to some extent. What has prevented this to be the case here? The out-and-out defense of that concept you were asking about at the beginning: habitability. An inhabited city, classrooms in the restored buildings, creation of jobs, attention to physically handicapped persons and populations at risk in inhospitable places in the historical centers because of dwelling places in bad conditions, and lack of water and of adequate sanitation. And especially, we have an intense cultural life here in which no week goes by without a festival, or the days of “Rutas y Andares” with its massive participation.The Historical Center has recovered that concept of centrality, although it is not the center of the world. I would say there are points of departure in Cerro, Centro Habana and Playa. A multi-centric town would be ideal, but we have to begin somewhere. [. . .] I am not only devoted to the colonial town. I am interested in the republican and the modern town. There are many examples I could offer. Cubanacan art school is the work made during the revolutionary period which is best known abroad. It is the example and the flagship of the Revolution: to achieve the greatest social justice possible. Also the House with the Green Tiles, in Miramar district, and other buildings made in the republican era in Old Havana or more modern like the Cueto Palace, the Bacardi building or the Trade Market.

[. . .] What patrimonial values was the Office unable to rescue? Many things have been lost, irreparably damaged. There also were the ravages caused by hurricanes. In the Trade Market we saw Mercury fly and fall on the street in pieces. We also saw the Saint Helena in the Saint Francis of Assissi Convent completely destroyed. We were lucky to recover many other things. Others, buildings and houses which had a value in what we could call vernacular architecture – not only what is extraordinary, but everything small or big, outstanding or not too outstanding – were lost, but the same number of them was rescued. After all, Havana, just by mere chance, is intact from the point of view of urban development. Almost no city in the continent can say this and, when we make an effort to restore, what is agonizing revives.

What would you not want to leave behind when you stop being the historian of the city? That day is in view. I will soon be in a position as emeritus. I actually always said I would like another chance, another life perhaps, to see what you were asking me before, not only the historical city restored, but focuses of resurgence in the entire city of Havana.

I think we will have that chance. Cuba will achieve its purposes and, among them, I must highlight that the preservation of its monumental memory is of great importance. There is a movement now in Camaguey, another in Santiago de Cuba, in Cienfuegos and in many other places. We must say, without being too vain, that they were inspired by Havana, but not by what is happening now, but what has taken place through many years. It seems surprising, but it is already four decades and a little more.

For full interview, see http://www.cubanow.net/pages/articulo.php?sec=38&t=2&item=9778

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