By Kester Rattenbury | Europaconcorsi.com

Anywhere else in the western world, the glamorous modernist buildings of Vedado would have been snapped up by Urban Splash or its equivalent, and would by now be the haunt of rich lawyers. Anywhere else, the 1940s shopping street of Galliano would be an emerging Hoxton or Green Street.

But Havana isn’t like anywhere else in the western world. It is the most extraordinary city, product of a most extraordinary history, and our various western models of redevelopment aren’t up to the job. Especially as it faces its next unprecedented challenge: what will happen after the 79-year-old Cuban leader Fidel Castro dies?

One of the things that makes Havana so extraordinary is that its recent history has been almost untouched by property values. It’s a strange, disconcerting and cheering experience walking along the Prado, the wide, stone-paved, tree-lined, curving promenade leading from the centre to the sea, or the famous Malecon seaside promenade. Palaces, mansions, tower blocks - top-rank real estate - are packed with hordes of families, subdivided into flats, their washing hanging out to dry. It’s a time warp, a paradigm shift.

But these aren’t slums; they’re nothing like the favelas of Brazil. They’re extremely dense social housing, combining substantial problems with elements of utopia. Accommodation is overcrowded, under-ventilated, further subdivided by ‘barbecue’ mezzanines for extra space. You end up living with your ex-wife and maybe her new partner. But there is housing for all - high density, mixed use; shops and garages and flats and dance halls all muddled up together. It sounds hopelessly idealistic, but this is in a way our ideal of the dense mixed city: organised, organic and chaotic it shows up our well-serviced copies for the pale imitations they are.

Havana Vieja, the oldest part of the city with its spectacular 17th and 18th century Spanish colonial mansions, has been a World Heritage Site since 1982 and the subject of a remarkable conservation project under the redoubtable leadership of Eusebio Leal, city historian since 1967. Leal is a figure so powerful that he is likened to Castro and the question of what will succeed him is equally extreme.

After the collapse of the Soviet bloc and therefore Soviet funding, his department was granted special permission to finance its own development - a one-off state commercial development firm with integrated social policies, which has given the old part of the city a remarkable commercial and conservation upgrade.

Havana Vieja looks on the surface as we might expect, but confounds us in all directions. It takes a while to spot the painted stonework joints on the Convent of San Francisco. The conserved building opposite feels more like a standard piece of 1980s commercial development. Next door is a sharp conversion of warehouse into car park, which is not remotely authentic, but seems astute, and incidentally, witty and honest. The Placa Vieja, smartly converted or under conversion, has stubbornly and against all odds maintained a school in its prime piece of real estate.

Though Havana Vieja has a long way to go (the conserved bits are generally the dullest), the Office of the City Historian is now trying to control the impact of gentrification - the social programme along with the urban fabric. architect Anna Joynt, who is writing her thesis on Havana for the AA Conservation Course, says of one of the Havana restoration projects: ‘The Cuban answer was about people when the British question was about restoration!’

‘This dense mixed city shows up our well-serviced copies for the pale imitations they are’

But there is more to Havana than Vieja. Across the Prado is the equally dense 19th century area of Centro, with more astonishing houses which don’t even come near the priority list, and the 1940s-50s shopping street Galliano - a post-apocalyptic Madison Avenue with cracking, leaking shop signs, canopies and pavement logos and the odd dusty item for sale. Galliano’s lost generation US-era shops don’t even make it into the most detailed architectural guidebooks.

And beyond that is Vedado, a hilly, more ‘professional’ mixture of late colonial and 1920s villas and exuberant 1950s modernism, its balconies and brises-soleil crumbling because of salt in the concrete. The tourist boom has just started to hit this area. The old Havana Hilton, now the Havana Libre, with its podium-top pool and its mirror-interior, hallucinatory high-rise bar, is again a seriously posh place to stay. But the scale and quality of the buildings in various forms of dilapidation needs to be seen to be believed.

Havana’s other huge conservation project is the restoration of the organic 1960s National Schools of Art complex. Designed by Ricardo Porro, Roberto Gottardi, and Vittorio Garrati during the blockades (and without imported materials), it uses Catalan vaults - layers of tiles, exuberant and sometimes misleading structural balletics, and has been operating as arts/performing arts high school through phases when it was virtually overtaken by jungle and right through its restoration programme, dynamically managed by architect Universo Garcia.

It integrates dealing with a mass of structural and maintenance problems with redesigning the working complex for its ongoing changing uses as a school. The scale of work is again daunting - beautiful but wrongly thrusting columns, cutting movement joints through the snaking, unreinforced brick and tile walkways. The occasional anomalies - metal windows are to Garcia an obvious, visually identical replacement for timber - only point out a difference of cultural focus.

Common speculation is that Florida developers are gathering like storm clouds waiting to pounce on Cuba; an insufficiently wary market, and converting these most extraordinary pieces of urban fabric into an outpost of Florida. Certainly the recent seafront developments are grim in the extreme, making the idea of Urban Splash in Verdado seem like a deus ex machina.

But are the competing models of Barcelona or Hoxton the best we can offer? Is Florida-style development really inevitable? The (not universal) rush to adopt standard commerce is normally depressing - old Havana buildings have a great passive cooling system in their hollow walls, but aircon is being slapped in because it is thought the tourists demand it. There is a huge potential for ideal ecological approaches here because the starting point is so different (state organised hitchhiking on the main roads) which could cut out generations of expensive problems for Cuba. The Havana vernacular offers lessons at all levels that we’ll bitterly regret if they vanish.

This is not to argue Havana should not change; it certainly will. But it is wrong to see the idealistic view of Cuba as naïve. Havana itself in its current state offers all kind of contradictory lessons for us in alternative ways of doing things: questioning or limiting the property market as the first driver of urban policy; seeing social strategies as integral to conservation ones, in serious high-density living. These ought to be at least as powerful as the competing models of Florida or Barcelona - which we in the rest of the western world are naturally tempted to offer as the only viable alternatives.

Preservation architect Isabel Rigol will give a talk, The Saving of a Heritage City: Working with Havana’s Architectural Heritage, at the RIBA, April 27, at 6.30pm.

Havana’s 20th century architectural gems

Church of Santa Rita, 1942 Architect Victor Morales. A mix of neo-colonial and modern influences.

Yara Cinema, 1947 Architect Junco, Gaston & Dominguez. This modernist structure is still in use as a theatre and cultural centre.

La Rampa Cinema, 1955 Architect Gustavo Botet. Named originally for its internal ramp system, this building has been converted to a complex with offices, a cafe, bar and cinema.

Ildefonsa Someillan Apartments, 1950 Architect Max Borges Recio. Trapezoidal balconies give this small tower a distinctive exterior.

Habana Riviera Hotel, 1957 Architects Polevitzky and Philip Johnson. A 1950s Cuban landmark, this hotel was originally designed by Philip Johnson, but never built. It was completed by a Miami firm.

National Theatre, 1960 Architect Arroyo & Menendez. A two-theatre complex at the Plaza de la Revolucion.

National Art Schools, 1961-65 Architect Ricardo Porro. This centre was launched shortly after the revolution as a performing arts high school. Now being restored.
Compiled with help from Julia Nicholls of Squire & Partners