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Ernest Hemingway famously wrote, “If you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man, then wherever you go for the rest of your life, it stays with you, for Paris is a moveable feast.” In the 1920’s Hemingway called Paris home—the city glittering with expatriates, artists, song and dance—but if Paris held the young Hemingway’s attention, the island of Cuba would become intrinsically linked with his later life.

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Dancer at Tropicana burlesque show; celebrities, including Hemingway & Spencer Tracey, in Cuba

Havana had been an affluent and vibrant port since 1492, with a base of wealth that grew along with a booming sugar industry. In the late 19th century, Havana blossomed as a center of arts and culture. Despite turmoil and war in other parts of the island, this was a time of elegant lifestyles, marked by athletic and beach clubs, luxury hotels, and fashionable mansions. After Cuban Independence, new elite residents flocked to the city, forming a illustrious group of expatriates, art enthusiasts, and prominent American architects of the time.

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La Concha Bathhouse, one of numerous clubs & tourist attractions around the beach

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Early Elegance caught by Time Life pictures in the early 20th century; sketch of rooftop at McKim, Mead & White’s Hotel Nacional de Cuba

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Recently, I was able to join Soane Travels (a program of Sir John Soane’s Museum Foundation) in Havana, jumping at the chance to visit Cuba and experience its cultures old and new. Much can be said for the fascinating mélange of color and contradictions in Havana, but what really struck me in our short time was its flourishing art scene—and the artful-ness of its “in-between” spaces—the courtyards, arcaded streets, and public squares.

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Logenze-shaped classical courtyard, Casa de José Miguel Gómez, El Paseo del Prado

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Rooftop terrace at La Guarida; Fabrica de Arte Cubano, in a former peanut oil factory

Touring art galleries, the breadth & quality of work was outstanding—many of the young artists having been trained at the National Art Schools. The FAC—or Fabrica de Arte Cubano—occupies a former peanut oil factory; on top of the exhibits and events held there, it’s one of Havana’s thriving social venues.

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The Gran Teatro de La Habana at night

In contrast to the new, the trip also explored some of the opulent estates and public places of this bygone era. It was great to visit a few of Havana’s best-preserved homes—the courtyards with typical shutters & fanlights, lush exterior terraces, and the mix of classical and art deco details—some of which are host to contemporary art installations.

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Courtyard installation of metal artwork by Cuban artist Damian Aquiles

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Sketchbook pages including the Cuban National School of Arts

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Triangle shaped courtyard garden, Napoleonic Museum; Entertainment terrace, La Condesa de Revilla de Camargo

Many of the era’s mansions were built along the Paseo del Prado—originally designed in 1772 and then redesigned in 1925—the tree lined avenue not only creates a community space but also divides the areas of Centro and Old Havana. In contrast to the narrow streets of Old Havana, the Prado allows the city to ‘breathe’, echoing traces of Hausmann’s boulevards in Paris and Las Ramblas in Barcelona. An elevated walkway with low walls gives separation from traffic and is one of the city’s enjoyable public spaces.

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Paseo del Prado streetscapes

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2016 Chanel Fashion show in Havana, runway along the Prado

Havana’s dramatic squares are in Old Town, filled with color and bustling with human energy. Street vendors call out, musicians play, parades and performances pass by. Plaza de la Catedral consists of deep arcades, shaded and sober in contrast to the baroque 18th century facade of the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception.

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Cathedral Interior and the facade of the Immaculate Conception

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Shady arcades along Plaza de la Cathedral

Another church square, Plaza de San Francisco is formed by the side of an early Franciscan church and monastery built around 1580 and renovated in baroque in 1730. Powerful forms—including the large entry portal and hushed nave interior— are monumental in their shadowy stone vaults and quiet sense of permanence. Outside, sensing the history contained in the plaza cobblestones, I imagine the bustling marketplaces, colorful and joyous religious gatherings, and festivals that occurred in these civic plazas.

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Basilica of San Francisco

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The Cathedral at Havana, 1762 by Dominic Serres the Elder

On our last evening in town, the final stop is colorful Plaza Vieja. This urban gem bears the imprint of the Office of Eusebio Leal—the Havana City Historian—responsible for restoration of many classical facades in Old Havana. As we find a place to watch the early evening, I enjoy the slow movement of light and shadow, the passing moment set against an architectural backdrop of revived elegance and centuries of history. Children play carefree as energetic cocktail chatter mingles with local musicians; a stray dog lounges at our feet.

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Restoration of Havana continues, alongside growing new construction: a testament to Cuban optimism in the face of poverty and buildings that, left to their own, frequently crumble and collapse. Through it all, Havana has retained its color and richness; a visual and cultural feast for those fortunate enough to experience it. Despite complexities and challenges, hope persists that it may retain its moniker of bygone days: Paris of the Caribbean.

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Soane Travels is an education & enrichment program of the Sir John Soane’s Museum Foundation providing unique travel appointments to Cuba, Italy, London & Japan. To learn more: http://www.soanefoundation.com/travels.html
Sir John Soane’s Museum Foundation is also presenting a traveling grant for Cuban Architects to study in the United Kingdom, with 2017 its inaugural year. To learn more: http://www.soanefoundation.com/grant.html