Focus on El Vedado: The 2014 Havana Urban Design Charrette

Fresh approaches to one of the city’s core districts
Pilling4Biljana Savic and Dominc Church present the Strategy Team’s recommendations to the Charrette.
Photo: John H. Pilling

HAVANA, 15 May This spring, Havana once again hosted an international group of urban planners and designers, who joined their Cuban colleagues in envisioning new ideas for the district’s waterfronts and Calle Línea.
Architect John H. Pilling, a longtime participant, reports on this year’s Havana Charrette. The Cuban and Norwegian Chapters of the International Network for Traditional Building and Urbanism (I›N›T›B›A›U) and the Council of European Urbanism (CEU) convened the Seventh Havana Urban Design Charrette in March, 2014. Urbanists from Italy, Norway, the United Kingdom, and the United States met their Cuban hosts to discuss the subject of this year’s charrette, the neighborhood of El Vedado.
Each of these charrettes study Havana’s waterfront guided by the “Master Plan for XXI Century Havana,” authored by Julio César Pérez Hernández and his team of Cuban architects. Previous charrettes studied the waters of Havana Harbor, Habana del Este, and Centro Habana. This year’s subject, El Vedado’s waterfront, is comprised of the westernmost segment of the Malecón and the Río Almendares.
PillingAerialAerial view of the Havana waterfront area, with the El Vedado district highlighted at left. The Río Almendares is clearly visible. Courtesy John H. Pilling

In his introduction to the design problem on the I›N›T›B›A›U website, Julio César Pérez Hernández’s described aspects of the El Vedado. He wrote: “Since the first half of the 19th Century, along the Calzada de Cerro, the affluent bourgeoisie built a series of free-standing Neoclassical villas, called quintas, with gardens and porches that served as a model for the new district of El Vedado—which means ‘forbidden’ in Spanish.
Pilling1 (1)Members of the Charrette begin their tour of the study area at the Torrejón de Chorrera on the Malecón. Photo: John H. Pilling

The colonial fortress of Santa Dorotea de la Luna de La Chorrea [at the mouth of the Río Almendares], built by Italian Engineer Bautista Antonelli around 1645, and the Prince’s [Principe] Castle (1767-1779) built by Engineers Silvestre Abarc, August Crame, and Luis Huet [to the south and east side of the district] were the only buildings in (what was a] wooded area before Spaniard Luis Yboleón Bosque laid out “El Carmelo” in 1859, and a new urbanization that was expanded in 1860 taking advantage of an adjacent piece of land owned by the Count of Pozos Dulces that was also designed by Yboleón and further expanded with “Medina,” another subdivision. The whole district took the name of El Vedado.
The plan emphasized order with a regular grid defined by tree-lined avenues along which the lots were laid out. The building’s frontage featured a setback for private gardens and a porch, allowing for the primary separation between the public and the private realms. This ensured privacy and created a very distinct streetscape that would be signed by the hierarchy of the street network where two major ones would stand out – Paseo, or Avenue of the Mayors, and Avenue of the Presidents or G Street – for their section and urban design. Public space was provided by entire blocks within the grid devoted to parks and gardens.
Pilling6The house of poet Dulce María Loynaz (Loynaz del Castillo family house) on Línea Street, one of the earliest built in El Vedado. Loynaz (1902-1997) was awarded the prestigious Cervantes Prize for Literature in 1992. Photo: John H. Pilling

El Vedado reached its maximum splendor along the first three decades of the 20th century when the international price of sugar cane peaked and beautiful eclectic mansions were built. The neighborhood’s image and environment benefited from the development of the Malecón, started by US engineers Mead and Whitney in 1901, that reshaped Havana’s waterfront and became an iconic seaside boulevard showing Havana capacity to reaffirm its Genius Loci.
Besides the colonial fortresses there are many other landmarks that stand out within El Vedado, like the Christopher Columbus Necropolis (1871-1886) and the University of Havana (1904-1940). Havana’s administrative center is located in the southernmost part of the district, considered the geographic center of the capital by world famous local and international architects and chosen for the building of the Republic’s Square ….
Pilling7Entrance lobby and stair of the former El Vedado Tennis Club, now the Circulo Social José Antonio Echeverría. Photo: John H. Pilling

The Almendares River, on the west of El Vedado, was Havana’s second settlement before the Spanish decided to finally and definitely settle by the harbor and it is one of the city’s most important environmental assets. … Outstanding examples of modern architecture coexist with Eclectic style buildings, Art Deco style and Streamline Moderne. However, the harmonious scale of the district was disrupted by the presence of tall buildings erected in the 1950s.
Pilling3Charrette members look at existing workshops on the Río Almendares. Photo: John H. Pilling

El Vedado has been the subject of previous charrettes [done by groups other than the Cuban and Norwegian Chapters of CEU and I›N›T›B›A›U], such as the one that took place in 2005 and focused on the updating of the Ordinances.

Strategies and Recommendations
The range of expertise of the charrette’s participants, from regional planning to real estate development, made it possible to study El Vedado on every scale. Participants were divided into four teams: one to create a strategic view of El Vedado, two to develop urban designs for the Malecón and the Almedares riverfront, and a fourth to create a specific real-estate development plan for the “Fábrica de Omnibus,” on Calle Línea, whose two blocks were originally the shops and storage yard for Havana’s streetcars. Ongoing work was punctuated with breaks for presentations by the members of the charrette. Cuban architect Oscar Jaime Rodríguez showed the history of the redevelopment of La Habana Vieja.
Professor Richard Beacham highlighted the history of the Festspielhaus Hellerau in Dresden, including its ongoing restoration work. Architect Biljana Savic described the importance of strategic planning as well as projects of the Prince’s Regeneration Trust. Lawyer and CEU Secretary Audun Engh showed the results of employing a participatory planning process based on traditional urbanism for the Bergen Waterfront. The strategic planning team noted that the Malecón is both a working spine and a city lounge. The intersections between it and the area around La Rampa and the Hotel Nacional; Avenida Paseo; and Avenida Presidente are ‘hot spots’ immediately ready for private investment. The Rio Almendares area presents an opportunity to create a special development zone, similar to the one for La Habana Vieja, to adapt the district’s industrial buildings and underused parcels into a mixed use, community-oriented retail/recreational riverfront.
Linea, once a streetcar line, should be enhanced as the core of a new urban transit system. Calle 17, already home to emerging micro-businesses, has a future as an enterprise and innovation zone. The vacant parcels and blocks in El Vedado can be redeveloped using a facilitated, self-build housing method that has proven successful in other countries.
Pilling2The proposal by the Charrette’s Malecón Team for alterations to the seafront area in El Vedado. Photo: John H. Pilling

The Malecón urban design team recommended emphasizing the boulevard more as ‘city lounge’ than ‘working spine.’ They showed opportunities for reducing the number of traffic lanes, introducing dividers with tree plantings, transforming the seaside walk into a linear park, and adding development parcels with filled land on the boulevard’s seaside at the mouth of the Rio Almendares. The Río Almendares team noted the opportunities afforded by its location, environment, and availability of vacant and underused land. Their key ideas were connectivity between El Vedado and Miramar, adding a new ‘center’ to the already polycentric metropolis, and focusing on both ‘green river’ sustainability and leisure.
The Fábrica de Omnibus team entitled their proposal “Las Palmas, an initiative of the Barrio Vedado.” The proposal included a central market built by re-using the original streetcar building, with 4,900 square meters of shops and 6,300 square meters of offices. Based on advice from Cuban colleagues about construction costs, they projected a total project cost of US$12,060,00. The proposal for the mill yard block to the west of the streetcar building was for a 290-apartment residential complex with ground-floor parking. Its project cost is estimated at US$30,626,000. 
The capability of this seventh Havana Urban Design Charrette to have both strategies and specifics, combined with the informative presentations by its participants on topics related to traditional building and urban design, made it a success. The plans for next charrette are to study Miramar, the neighborhood across the Río Almendares from El Vedado. CEU and I›N›T›B›A›U of Cuba and Norway thank the Norwegian Embassy in Havana, Cuba and its head of mission, Mr John Petter Opdahl, Ambassador, for sponsoring the Havana Urban Design Charrette and hosting a reception for its participants at the residence of the Ambassador.
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John H. Pilling, AIA is a member of the faculty of the Boston Architectural College. He studies architecture and urban design in Mexico and the Caribbean, and has traveled regularly to Cuba since 2001. In addition to his academic work, he practices fulltime in metropolitan Boston.