Babalú Exclusive – Hiroshima vs. Habana: an appendix to ‘Havana: The New Art of Making Ruins’

An appendix to the six part series, “Havana: The New Art of Making Ruins,” written exclusively for Babalú by Cuban American engineer, Humberto (Bert) Corzo (The series: Part 1, Part 2, Part , Part 4 , Part 5, Part 6):

Hiroshima vs. Habana: Appendix to “Havana: The New Art of Making Ruins”

By Humberto (Bert) Corzo

The video photo montage shows the city of Hiroshima after the atomic blast obliterated the city and 65 years later; and through images compare it to the city of La Habana, which nowadays resemble Hiroshima after the atomic blast. It teaches us that in the long run the consequences of the Castroit tyrannical regime are more devastating than the weapons of mass destruction.
Hiroshima after the atomic blast August 6, 1945.

Hiroshima ruins were made by the atomic bomb attack during the Second World War. Practically every building within one mile of ground zero was destroyed, and only 10% of the buildings survived without any damage. Three months later the occupation government adopted a “war disaster reconstruction plan” for rebuilding cities devastated by the war. Hiroshima’s citizens living in the ruins were sheltered in community housing by using warehouses located in neighboring towns. Over the next two years the city received extra aid from the government to help its recovery.
Night time view of Havana Skyline in the 1950s

The city of La Habana, in its actual location, was founded in 1519 in Puerto de Carenas (Careening Harbor), the actual Havana Harbor. During a period of 440 years the city evolved from a village to a large city, becoming a blend of the old and new architecture, from defensive castles built in the 16th century, to modern high rises of the 20th century.
Map of Havana, 1691

The map shows the straight street grid and rectangular blocks of intramural Havana, showing the demarcation of parishes. Drawn by Engineer Juan de Siscara, Archivo General de Indias (AGI), Santo Domingo. In 1592 Havana was granted the title of a city and in 1607 became the capital of the island.

The Renaissance architectural heritage is represented by fortresses like Morrow Castle and Castillo de la Real Fuerza, and around 150 buildings from the colonial period in Mudéjar style with central courtyard and glazed tiles, dating from the 16th and 17th century.
Morro Castle at the entrance of Havana Bay

The construction of the Morro Castle (Castillo de los Tres Reyes del Morro) started in 1558 and finished in 1589. It was designed by the Italian engineer Juan Bautista Antonelli and served as defense against pirate attack and naval invasions. This magnificent fortress look as it has been sculptured from the rocky promontory. With its lighthouse it is one of the great symbols of the city.

The introduction in the 18th century of the traditional Baroque style, represented by the Cathedral of Havana, Palacio de los Capitanes Generales, Church and Convent of San Francisco de Asís, and the Santo Domingo Convent among others, and the domestic baroque architecture of municipal buildings which included window grills, stained glass and arches walkways that provide shelter from the sun and rain.
Cathedral of Havana

The Jesuit Order started the construction of the cathedral in 1748 and was finished in 1777 by the Franciscan Order, after the Jesuits were expelled from Cuba in 1767. It was consecrated as cathedral in 1789. Its beautiful façade is one of the world’s finest example of Baroque design. It is the most prominent building in the Plaza de La Catedral.

The Neoclassical style was introduced at the beginning of the 19th century by French immigrants fleeing from Haiti. El Templete, Palacio de Aldama, Hotel Inglarerra and many others are representatives of this style.
Hotel Inglaterra

The Hotel Inglaterra, built in 1875 across Central Park, is the oldest hotel in Havana. The use of mosaics from Andalucía give the building a touch of Mudejar influence. The hotel was used by Mayor General Antonio Maceo, during his stay in 1890, as headquarters for the planning of the Cuban war of independence.

The Art Nouveau style materialized from 1900 to 1920. Main representative of this style are the Palacio Viena Hotel (Palacio Cueto), El Cetro de Oro apartment building, Casa de José Crusellas and the dilapidated buildings along the Malecón.
Palacio Viena Hotel, 2008 photo

The Palacio Viena Hotel, also known as Palacio Cueto, a five story hotel built in 1908, is located in the Old Plaza. It remains Havana’s best example of art nouveau. After the expropriation of the hotels in 1960 by the regime, it was used as an apartment building, and since the early 1990s has remained empty due to its state of advanced deterioration. It has been in process of restoration since 2009 and it is anybody guess when it will be finished.
Palacio Viena Hotel under renovation, July 2013 – Photo by saskiabzn

The Art Deco style flourished from the 1920 to 1940. Among the prominent art deco buildings are the 12 story Bacardí Building, built in 1930; the 14 story López Cerrano Building, in 1932; and the 14 story América Theater, in 1941. The historic Hotel Nacional, an 8 story building completed in 1930, has an eclectic architectural style, mixing art deco with neo-classical and neo-colonial elements.
Bacardi Building

The Bacardi Building, located in Avenida de Bélgica in Old Havana, was built in 1930 to house Bacardi’s headquarters. At the time, with its 12 story reinforced concrete structure, was the highest building in Havana (two years later the López Cerrano became the tallest building). The site weak soil was unsuitable to support the loads from the building with the use of spread footings. A total of 500 piles of hard wood were used to transmit the loads to a soil capable to support it. The careful planning of the construction schedule allowed the German company from Bavaria to complete the building in ten months as requested by the company, a remarkable achievement. The facade is covered with red granite and the first story arcades, walls, floor and ceiling with rose granite, both from Bavaria. It is considered one of the best examples of the Art Deco style. On top of the tower is a brass bat sculpture, symbol of the Bacardi Company.

The Modernism style began in the early 1940s and lasted until 1959. The economic boom during those years created the conditions for the unparalleled development of the city by the private enterprise. Myriads of housing, commercial and office building were built by the private enterprise, complementing the government massive construction projects including the infrastructure.
High rise buildings built in the 1950s. The building on the left is the FOCSA, the one on the middle the Colegio de Ingenieros Civiles and the one on the right the Someillant.

Among the prominent buildings of this style are: the avant garde 8 story Solimar Building, built in 1944; the 16 story Retiro Odontológico, in 1953; Partagas Building, in 1953; Seguro Médico, and the 10 story Garn Templo Masónico, in 1955; the 37 story complex FOCSA Building and the 24 story SOMECA Building (Retiro Radial), in 1956; the 32 story Someillan Building, the 23 story Retiro Médico; the 21 story Hotel Habana Riviera, the 19 story Hotel Capri, the 16 story Inmobiliaria 15 pisos S.A.; the 14 story Hotels Deauville and Saint John’s; the 12 story Colegio de Ingenieros Civiles, and the 9 story Seguro del Abogado, in 1957; and the 27 story Hotel Habana Hilton, built in 1958.
FOCSA Building

The FOCSA, built in the short period of two years and fourth months, was inaugurated in 1956. This horizontal property apartment building has 39 stories and a total height of 397 feet (121 meters). At the time of its construction became the third tallest reinforced concrete building in the world (The Havana Hilton in 1958 at 126 m high, became the second tallest in the world and first in Cuba). It occupied a full block between 17-19 avenues & M-N streets in el Vedado. Concrete compressive strength of 7,000 psi was used on the bearing shear walls of the first floor due to high concentration of stresses around the walls openings, and 6,000 psi in the floors above. In the 1950s the maximum compressive strength used in cast in place concrete buildings in the U. S. was 5,000 psi.
Panoramic view of the Plaza Cívica

One of the many government public projects was the construction of the Plaza Cívica (Civic Square). It was started in 1953 and mostly completed by 1958 in the place known by Loma de los Catalanes, the second highest hill of the city. The purpose of the plaza was to create the administrative and political center of the country. The plaza included the Jose Marti monument, the buildings of the Palace of Justice (1957), Court of Accounts (1953), Ministry of Communications (1954), Municipal Palace (1958), the BANFAIC (1959), used to locate the Ministerio de Obras Publicas, National Library (1957) and the National Theater (1958).

The Palace of Justice, completed in 1957 facing the José Marti Monument, architecturally resembles the Palais de Chaillot, built in 1937 facing the Eiffel Tower. Both buildings of monumental proportions are located in a slightly elevated hill and have two curved wings with vertical windows. The winds are seven story high and the center nine story high.

In the early 1960s, a basement was added under the Presidential office, located in the center portion of the building, and a tunnel was built from it to the MINFAR Building (originally Ayuntamiento de La Habana) and another to the Monument. In 1964 the headquarters of the
Castroit Government was transferred to the Palace of Justice, renaming it Palace of the Revolution. During 1964 and 1965, the interior was retrofitted to accommodate its new function.

The east wing did not have access to the back of the building which is located over 16 feet higher with respect to the Avenida de Rancho Boyeros. In 1965, I was assigned the task to design an access road.

The majestic beauty of the Civic Plaza and monumental proportion of the building, required an aesthetic solution to the design. A typical cantilever retaining wall over 16 feet high and 3000 feet long was not aesthetically pleasing. A bridge solution was not feasible since, the cut of the existing grade to build the bridge footings would undermine the existing building foundation.

I solved the problem by designing a state of the art structure. The inside lane of the road was designed as a standard reinforced concrete pavement on grade. The outside lane was designed as a bridge, using a reinforced concrete continuous slab of variable section, which follows the horizontal and vertical curve alignment of the road, as the superstructure. The bridge consists of four spans of 65 feet and two cantilevers of 20 feet, a total length of 300 feet (91.5 m).The bride is supported on the counterforts of a parabolic retaining reinforced concrete wall 8 inches thick and average height of 12 feet. The thrust of the earth-fill on the counterforts is balanced by the weight of the bridge and the parabolic wall, and at the ends by a typical retaining wall and the embankments. I supervised the construction which was completed in 1966.

Some of the few new buildings added to the city of Havana since 1959 are in an awful architectural style of totalitarian modernism. These ugly buildings, introduced in the existing develop areas, look out of place in the already established neighborhoods. Examples of this style are the Russian embassy, Hotels Neptuno &Triton, Girón Apartment Buildings and the Soviet tower blocks in the Alamar Neighborhood.

Most of the foreign embassies, including the monstrosity of the 20 story Russian Embassy Building, nicknamed the control tower, completed in 1987, are located in the Miramar district along the main thoroughfare, the four lanes promenade Quinta Avenida (Fifth Avenue).

During its years of splendor Havana was the center of admiration for the spectacular and diversity of its architecture, its elegant and wide boulevards and avenues, its parks and gardens with beautiful fountains and sculptures.
Most of the foreign embassies, including the monstrosity of the 20 story Russian Embassy Building, nicknamed the control tower, completed in 1987, are located in the Miramar district along the main thoroughfare, the four lanes promenade Quinta Avenida (Fifth Avenue).

During its years of splendor Havana was the center of admiration for the spectacular and diversity of its architecture, its elegant and wide boulevards and avenues, its parks and gardens with beautiful fountains and sculptures.
The construction of the Fifth Avenue started in 1921 at A Street in the west end of the Tunnel of Calzada, and finished in 1955 at the Santa Ana River, Santa Fe. The boulevard has a total length of 12.4 km (7.7 miles), a width of 35 meters (115 feet) with two tree-line sideways, two lanes of traffic in each direction and a tree-line median.

The fountain, built in white marble from Carrara, was initially located in Paseo de Isabel II (Paseo del Prado), and moved to Central Park in 1863. The fountain was moved back to Fraternity Park in 1928, its original location, near the Capitol Building.

On March 2, 2012, Fidel Castro met with some of the Japanese survivors of Hiroshima nuclear attack, part of a group in support of peace and ban of nuclear weapons. If they would have the opportunity to tour the city of La Habana, for sure they would experience horrible nightmares since the devastation of it would bring to memory the devastation of Hiroshima.

Havana starts to resemble Hiroshima after the atomic blast 65 years ago, except than the ruins have been created by deliberate neglect, not by war. The city with its crumbling buildings looks like a war zone, its previous splendor unrecognizable to those who have lived in it before. The decrepit state of the buildings in Havana after five decades of continuous neglect by the Castroit tyranny, keep causing the death of Cubans living in dilapidated buildings.
Hiroshima today, 2010

Japan’s rebuilding efforts over the decades, under a Democratic Capitalist system, have been very successful. The remarkable rebuilding of Hiroshima has been spectacular. Downtown Hiroshima is lined with high-rise buildings of modern architecture. The city, which in 1945 had a population of 350,000 and reached 1.74 million in 2010, has vast green public areas and parks for the enjoyment of the inhabitants.

Theodore Dalrymple in his article Why Havana Had to Die, writes about the dilapidated city falling apart:

The city is like a great set of Bach variations on the theme of urban decay. The stucco has given way to mold; roofs have gone, replaced by corrugated iron; shutters have crumbled into sawdust; paint is a phenomenon of the past; staircases end in precipices; windows lack glass; doors are off their hinges; interior walls have collapsed; wooden props support, though not with any degree of assurance, all kinds of structures; ancient electrical wiring emerges from walls, like worms from cheese; wrought ironwork balconies crumble into rust; plaster peels as in a malignant skin disease; flagstones are mined for other purposes. Every grand and beautifully proportioned room—visible through the windows or in some places through the walls that have crumbled away—has been subdivided by plywood partitions into smaller spaces, in which entire families now live. Washing hangs from the windows of what were once palaces. Every entranceway is dark, and at night the electric lights glimmer rather than shine. No ruination is too great to render a building unfit for habitation: Havana is like a city that has been struck by an earthquake and its population forced to survive among the wreckage until relief arrives.

What can it mean that people should live contentedly in the ruins of their own capital city, the ruination having been brought not by war or natural disaster but by prolonged (and in my view deliberate) neglect? They are not barbarians who actively smash or destroy what they do not understand and value; nor do they fail to notice, how could they? that the buildings in which they live are on the verge of collapse.

In the circumstances, therefore, it became ideologically essential that the material traces and even the very memory of that society should be destroyed.

But who created Havana, and where did the magnificence come from, if before Castro there were only poverty, corruption, and thuggery? Best to destroy the evidence,…better to let huge numbers of people camp out permanently in stolen property and then let time and neglect do the rest.

The terrible damage that Castro has done will long outlive him and his regime. Untold billions of capital will be needed to restore Havana; legal problems about ownership and rights of residence will be costly, bitter, and interminable; and the need to balance commercial, social, and aesthetic considerations in the reconstruction of Cuba will require the highest regulatory wisdom. In the meantime, Havana stands as a dreadful warning to the world—if one were any longer needed—against the dangers of monomaniacs who believe themselves to be in possession of a theory that explains everything, including the future.

Castroism had caused more lasting damage to the city of Havana than an earthquake or the atomic bomb. Castro’s desire is becoming a reality, what he couldn’t accomplish during the missile crisis with nuclear warheads stationed in Cuba, the extinction of the island in a nuclear confrontation, he is accomplishing it through the course of time.

“We can make the tragedy of the destruction a marvel of reconstruction, which allow to develop Havana in modern codes without losing its identity of great city, to a human scale that still has not lost.”- Cuban Architect Nicolas Quintana (1925-2011).

Havana, one of the oldest city in the Western Hemisphere, was one of the world’s grandest and beautiful cities expressed in its cultural heritage and superb architecture. Like the Ave Phoenix emerging from its ashes, Havana would be reborn more powerful and beautiful than ever, and will again be the envy of many.



Humberto (Bert) Corzo was born in Cuba. In 1962 he graduated from University of Havana with a degree in Civil Engineering. Since coming to the United States in 1969, he established his residence in Los Angeles, California, where in 1972 he obtained the registration as a Professional Engineer. He has over forty five years of experience in the field of Structural Engineering. He is a Member of the American Society of Civil Engineers and the Cuban-American Association of Civil Engineers.



One thought on “Babalú Exclusive – Hiroshima vs. Habana: an appendix to ‘Havana: The New Art of Making Ruins’

  1. That old photo of Havana at night is heartbreaking. Can you imagine Havana now if Cuba had been spared the Castro plague?

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