By Nicholas Kralev | THE WASHINGTON TIMES
Jeffrey Horowitz fears an onslaught on Cuba’s architectural heritage by Western companies as soon as they gain access to the Cuban market.
Havana’s eclectic style, which combines Spanish colonial architecture with art deco and modern buildings, must not be destroyed by sprawling shopping malls and ugly skyscrapers, Mr. Horowitz says.
Urbanists International, a nonprofit organization he founded last year to help cities and countries balance economic development and cultural preservation, has taken on the task of preparing Havana for the day when the likes of McDonald’s, the Gap and Blockbuster land in Cuba.
“There is no doubt aggressive investors will rule one day and another historical theme park will be riddled with ugly tall buildings,” said Mr. Horowitz, a California architect and city planner, in a telephone interview from Berkeley, Calif.
“So we started asking the Cubans what preparations they were making to meet that challenge because we wanted to help them make the right choices,” he said. “Havana is a unique urban treasure that can and must be preserved.”
A delegation of U.S. architects, planners, business people, members of Congress and academics, organized by Urbanists International, is scheduled to visit Havana for four days of meetings with their Cuban colleagues beginning Saturday. Members of the group said the trip is still on, despite last week’s announcement by the European Union of sanctions against Cuba because of the firing-squad execution of three ferry hijackers in April and long prison terms meted out to 75 Cuban dissidents the same month.
Because the long-standing U.S. embargo prohibits Americans from offering any kind of services to Cubans, Mr. Horowitz said his group is only “engaged in exchanging of ideas.”
“We could all end up in jail, so we are walking a tightrope between U.S. rules and Cuba’s national interest. We can’t talk about specific economic models or draw architectural plans,” he said. “We will exchange information about work being done around the world in the hope that it will aid Havana’s architects, planners and preservationists as they chart the future of their city.”
The group is also determined to stay away from politics, especially in light of the recent tensions between the United States and Cuba about the treatment of human rights activists and other dissidents.
“Keeping our stance apolitical has served us well during these very precarious times,” Mr. Horowitz said.
He noted that he and his delegation received a warm welcome both by the Cuban government and the U.S. interest section in Havana during a visit in February. Their dinner with President Fidel Castro lasted until 5:30 in the morning.
Wayne Smith, a career diplomat who spent 25 years in the Foreign Service and ended his tenure there leading the interest section in Havana in the 1980s, is one of the project’s main advisers.
“Although the embargo will not be lifted soon, it’s not too early to discuss these issues. We want to energize people and focus on the problem. There is so much that could be done even without the embargo being lifted,” said Mr. Smith, who is a visiting professor at Johns Hopkins University.
Although there are other Cuban cities deserving attention, Urbanists International has decided to focus on the capital for now. The local authorities have been trying to refurbish Old Havana, but big parts of the city remain in need of urgent care.
“Havana is one of the unique places in the world that has so much to preserve, so much to build on without destroying the cultural and historical essence of this island and the heritage of this great city,” Rep. Sam Farr, California Democrat, said at a press conference during the group’s February visit to Havana.
Mr. Horowitz said his group’s “ultimate challenge is how to create an atmosphere for sensitive growth and development” of the capital. “The creation of a new Cuban urban design and planning aesthetic that respects the context of the city while fostering creativity is vital to the preservation of Havana’s distinct identity,” he added.
Unlike most world capitals, Havana remained unscathed by the urban-design trends of the past four decades because of the communist rule of Mr. Castro, who has been in power since 1959.
“How many examples are there around the world where the same cookie-cutter buildings are put in one city after another and the same signs appear in one city after another,” said Mr. Horowitz, who is also a founder of the Harvard Architecture Review.
“Good city planning and preservation know no political boundaries. It is not about U.S. policy or Cuban political ideology,” he said. “If we do not act in a pre-emptive manner, the identity of our cities will be forever lost to future generations.”