A communist city struggles to lure foreign money and rebuild its failing infrastructure without sacrificing its revolutionary roots.
If a place could be described as bitterly hot, it’s here on a street along Havana’s waterfront. A century-old custom house sprawls the length of three soccer fields, blocking the sea’s cooling embrace. The building is an affront—a dilapidated fortress with broken windows and gaping holes in its terra cotta roof—that I deeply resent right now.
I’m on a walking tour with two dozen international architects and urban designers, as we imagine a theoretical future for Havana. The walk is part of a charrette—an exercise that gives professionals and community members a voice on urban development when there is no formal mechanism to do so, as has been the case in crumbling Havana. At this moment, however, under the searing sun, it’s our imaginations that are crumbling and the water that’s theoretical. Every so often, the scent of sunscreen permeates the air as someone slathers it on their glistening pink face. “Agua?” we inquire, as we poke our heads into doorways on a fruitless search for bottled water.
As relentless as the heat on this “death march”—to quote the mutterings of the design contingent—is our leader: Cuban-born architect Julio Cesar Perez, clad in a heavy blue blazer and exuding a kind of reptilian comfort. His taut, olive skin is radiant under the tropical sun. Like a lizard animated by the heat, he whirls around, pointing this way and that way, and expounding on the failings of this once great city—the largest metropolis in the Caribbean, with a population of over two million. Havana is Perez’s birthplace, his stomping grounds, and his part-time home when he’s not in Miami, Florida.
Unlike the rest of us sun-numbed dolts, his brain gallops around the problem of the behemoth blocking views of the sea and its cooling breeze. Perez barks out a solution: hollow out the ground floor of the custom house, tear off the exterior walls, and liberate its bones, the structural supports. I can almost feel the rush of fresh air. “The bay is Havana’s most important geographic feature,” Perez booms. “Geography is what allows cities to be born!”