Design Action Studio for Research, Architecture, and Urbanism
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Beyond History

Beyond History: The Aesthetics of Authenticity and the Politics of Heritage in Havana, Cuba

by Gabriel Fuentes 

If utopia is an imagined present projected as an ideal future, then history is an imagined past projected as an ideal present. In what follows, I argue that under the assumption of ‘authenticity’, history—the recollection and recontextualization of artifacts and events of the past for the present—is not only an ethical problem of honesty and truth but also an aesthetic problem of representation and power. As such, heritage construction practices—by which I include historic preservation, restoration, and conservation—operate in tension between the ethics of truth and the aesthetics of counterfactuality, conditioning history within asymmetrical relations of power. To construct heritage, then, is not merely to represent the past but to design history itself as a site for possible architectural and urban futures; It is a design strategy and catalyst, particularly in old cities.

In order to ground some broader thoughts on the aesthetics of authenticity and the politics of heritage, I analyze Havana, Cuba, a UNESCO World Heritage site since 1982; a city where heritage construction, globalization, and ideology intertwine with architecture and urban planning/design at multiple scales. Specifically, I analyze the collaborative practices of Havana’s Office of the City Historian (OCH)—the only autonomous, non-centralized, capitalist entity in Cuba’s socialist polity with the power to regulate, design, and develop heritage sites within Havana’s old core.    


The term ‘authenticity’ is rooted in the Greek ‘authentes’, meaning author or authored. Much like its current use, its earliest use denoted the original-ness or genuine-ness of artifacts as opposed to counterfeits or reproductions. Seen this way, artifacts are authentic to the extent that they reflect their author’s original intentions and/or their processes of construction honestly. Hence an artifact’s authentic history—the kind of history that properly constitutes its cultural heritage value—presupposes that truth was a primary historiographic motivation—an objective history with no counterfactuality, no ulteriority.

But if history itself is motivated and narrated—a story about an artifact or a past told from the vantage point of the present—doesn't an authentic history—a motivated and narrated account of the origins and authorial honesty of an artifact or a past—seem like a double-authored surface draped over the core factuality of the past? Seen this way, any claim to ‘authenticity’ poses not only politico-ethical problems around questions of truth and honesty, but also aesthetic ones around questions of representation and power. To frame ‘authentic’ socio-cultural, architectural, and urban histories, then, is in part to condition the (geo)political ground and aesthetic stakes for heritage construction practices in the city, practices that are already implicated in architecture and its related practices.

The construction of cultural heritage unfolds as a negotiation between narrated histories, collective memories, and contested authenticities, often in contexts of power and national identity. In other words, as power relations and national identities shift, the meaning and agency of history, memory, and authenticity shift with them. Seen this way, heritage is not embedded into artifacts, but rather recollected and projected onto them. Such projections, in turn, are often articulated in asymmetrical relations of power and made tangible in tension with the various institutions that seek to regulate meaning and “freeze” heritage objects at specific moments of truth.

It is precisely this “freezing” of time—that aesthetic impulse to reveal and represent specific pasts and, by default, conceal and suppress others—that ties heritage construction practices to the politics of the present, politics that, perhaps paradoxically, are historically rooted in Modern preservation theory. Since the Enlightenment, preservation discourse and practice has been entangled with questions of ‘progress’ and Modernity; for if the Modern stood opposite a “traditional” past, then to preserve that past was to enclose “tradition” and distance it away through the teleological progress of a Modernity purified through reason. Hence preservation not only established a historical ground against which to legitimize the Modern but also helped distinguish a time before Modernity from a time after it—relegating historic monuments to the former in order to help construct the latter. In Hegelian fashion, then, the preserved monument stood frozen in time somewhere between the end of tradition and the beginning of Modernity.

Figure 1. Eugène-Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc, Dictionnaire raisonne de l’architecture francaise du Xle  au XVle siècle (1879).

Figure 1. Eugène-Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc, Dictionnaire raisonne de l’architecture francaise du Xle  au XVle siècle (1879).

In the 19th century, Eugène-Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc theorized restoration as a practice that intertwined historical fact with interpretive counterfactuality. In the “Restoration” section of his 1879 Dictionnaire raisonne de l’architecture francaise du Xle  au XVle siecle (Dictionary of French Architecture from the 11th to 16th Centuries),  he writes, “To Restore an edifice means neither to maintain it, nor to repair it, nor to rebuild it; it means to establish it in a finished state, which may in fact never have actually existed at a given time.”[1]

Along this view, to establish a building in a “finished state” is not to receive heritage as what was built but rather to (re)construct it as what could, would, or should have been built - the aesthetics of counterfactuality meet the ethics of truth in order to condition the public's view and reception of architecture as an agent of Modernity. In the process, Viollet-le-Duc imported graphic techniques from anatomy into his architectural drawings, critically and selectively cutting, separating, and recombining the architectural body, exposing specific parts of it at the expense of others. Hence in “Memory as Construction in Viollet-le-Duc’s Architectural Imagination” Aron Vinegar likens the Dictionnaire as an “imagination technology” that operates as “an instrument for the extension of imagining or visualizing activities through the selective amplification and suppression of matter, form, and content.”[2] Viollet-le-Duc’s architectural drawings are not authentic history; they are a critical element in the construction of a historical counterhistory.  

Inherent in modernization processes, then, are questions of preservation value: By what criteria are things included into or excluded from the preservation frame? What artifacts and events are worth preserving? How is history valued? What makes a monument? In “Preservation and Modernity: Competing Perspectives, Contested Histories and Questions of Authenticity,” Mrinalini Rajagopalan analyzes historic preservation as a political practice in relation to colonization, nationalism, post-modernity, and globalization.[3] By her account, historic preservation can never be separated from power; for if the colonial city used preservation to encode difference onto indigenous pasts, contemporary heritage institutions (UNESCO, ICOMOS, etc.) homogenize aspects of such pasts by standardizing the meaning of heritage across the globe.             

Situating historic preservation within discourses of modernity and modernization exposes inherent paradoxes: as a heritage-building practice, historic preservation entangles narrated histories and embodied memories to bring the past in and out of view (forgetting is the other side of remembering). By simultaneously constructing and erasing histories, the preservation frame renders heritage objects both timeless and contemporary—foregrounding and backgrounding the past relative to the present while crafting and instrumentalizing collective memory for political gain. For while historic preservation attempts to freeze time to a particular moment of universal historical “truth”, the collective memory it bounds and historicizes is both produced in the shared social spaces of everyday life and embedded in contemporary power relations, often in contexts of nationalism.

Seen this way, memories are not embodied into artifacts but rather attached to them through social processes of signification. In “Collective Memory Under Siege: The Case of ‘Heritage Terrorism’,” M. Christine Boyer takes issue with those who represent memory—collective or otherwise—as an objective thing in itself outside of social and political practice.[4] For Boyer, memory is not some withdrawn condition waiting to be released from the urban fabric but is socially produced and constituted in discourse. Heritage objects are the anchoring points for such discourse, the points around which collective memory is gathered, recollected, and/or politicized.

Heritage value, then, is both acquired and projected, not embodied. In his seminal essay “The Modern Cult of Monuments: Its Character and Its Origin,” Alois Riegl theorized monuments as “a human creation, erected for a specific purpose of keeping single human deeds or events alive in the minds of future generations.”[5] For Riegl, there were two types of monuments: 1) intentional monuments: those built to commemorate specific historic periods and events, and 2) unintentional monuments: those that, while built without such commemorative intent, acquire historic value through age. While useful, both types respond to time and distance in very different ways. Whereas the former disrupts time and distance - referencing and representing the past in the present in order to evoke and immortalize a specific memory of that past as history—the latter preserves time and distance—revealing its age, the traces of its “authenticity.” Hence any process of urban / architectural restoration converts unintentional monuments to intentional ones.


On an international plane, UNESCO’s discourse about places like (Old Havana) reterritorialization by disembedding sites from their concrete locations within the boundaries of local, regional, and national meanings and policies, and reattaching them to UNESCO’s World Heritage program and its notions of “universal cultural value.”[6]_Matthew J. Hill

Heritage construction involves the reorganization of social and institutional relationships that intersect at various geographic and political scales. UNESCO—established after World War II (1946) to carry out CIAM’s Athens Charter mandate to preserve historic urban fabrics—constructs heritage through a dialectical process of deterritorialization and reterritorialization by (dis)articulating geopolitical relationships between and among local, national, and global scales in order to align specific national identities with a “universal history of mankind.” In this way, UNESCO situates local heritage objects within the global flows of capitalist expansion, international capital, information technology, and tourism—looping them together with its global heritage grid, that geographic space of “outstanding universal significance.” Seen this way, heritage is but the other side of globalization; to understand historic preservation as a heritage-building project is to understand the ways in which UNESCO’s global project loops and scales through local processes of (re)constructing sites as cultural patrimony, processes embodied in the multiple, at times competing, interests of specific actors and their institutions.

In Old Havana, historic preservation practices pull UNESCO’s universal cultural project, Cuba’s quasi-socialist political project, and the city’s heritage project into each other as they all negotiate the meaning and value of cultural patrimony; for if UNESCO redraws the world’s cultural and natural heritage in its own image, in Old Havana this image is infused with the ideals and development practices of a nation-state that seeks consumption and tourism to survive. Cuba’s politico-ideological project, in turn, intersects with multiple actors on the ground - architects, urban planners, preservationists and politicians on one hand, the hospitality industry, entrepreneurs, and tourism developers on the other—who participate in “the work of bounding, naming, marking, and regulating the urban landscape so that it can be known and recognized as an ‘authentic’ heritage object.”[7] The institution that binds these actors together is the Office of the City Historian (hereafter OCH).

The Office of the City Historian

While romanticized by the public, architects, and scholars alike as an urban jewel “frozen in time,” Old Havana’s value as a heritage object has been contested since at least the beginning of the 20th century. Emilio Roig de Leuchsenring, Havana’s first City Historian, took on the task of preserving / restoring Old Havana as early as 1935—24 years before the Cuban Revolution. Yet despite his efforts to protect Old Havana from ruin (designating it as a “protected zone” in 1945), he got very few projects off the ground during his tenure. In 1967, Eusebio Leal Spengler (Roig’s assistant) was promoted to City Historian and was tasked with restoring an old urban core that was facing major shifts in demographics, deteriorating infrastructure, and waning public perception.

Figure 2. Palacio de los Capitanes Generales. (Photo by Author, 2017)

Figure 2. Palacio de los Capitanes Generales. (Photo by Author, 2017)

By the 1980s, Old Havana—crumbling under the effects of economic centralization, crime, salt, humidity, water, and government neglect—appeared a different city than its old republican self. To add, both the revolutionary government and the Cuban public associated the dilapidated urban fabric with the ills of capitalism, prompting Leal to double-down on his rehabilitation efforts. His first project was to restore the Palacio de los Capitanes Generales, which would ultimately become the Museum of Havana. The international attention gained by that project helped Leal establish international partnerships to aid in restoration / preservation process; in 1976 the Cuban Ministry of Culture partnered with the United Nations Development program to raise $1 million (USD) to help establish the Centro Nacional de Conservación, Restauración y Museología (National Center of Conservation, Restoration, and Museology). Following the establishment of this agency, the National Assembly of State passed two acts calling for the protection of cultural heritage.

Despite the success of Leal’s early work, however, the revolutionary government stood opposed to using resources to rehabilitate of the old core—focusing instead on building factories and housing in the rural outskirts of the city and leaving Old Havana’s 74,000 residents to live in extreme poverty. Yet ill will towards urban development and real estate speculation left its fabric—its scale, dimensions, proportions, contrasts, continuities, solid/void relationships, rhythms, public spaces, and landscapes—intact, albeit in poor condition. Finally, after drafting a five-year plan to restore Old Havana in 1981, Leal convinced the government to pledge $10 million (USD), to which UNESCO added $200,000 (USD). By 1982, Old Havana—delineated as the 143 hectare geographic area defined by the old city walls, including its 4,000 buildings (900 of which are considered “masterpieces”)—was designated a world heritage site, with all of the geopolitical implications therein. With new international support, the OCH drafted comprehensive restoration plans for the old core, starting with its 5 major plazas and principal streets. Restoration was underway until the Cuban government ran out of money following the collapse of the Soviet Union, their strongest ideological and economic ally at the time.[8]

In 1993, British reporter Jonathan Glancey toured Old Havana with Cuban conservationist Victor Marín when the UNESCO-designated Colegio Santo Angel collapsed. In an article for The Independent on October 19, 1993, Glancey wrote,

To say that Havana is collapsing is to state the obvious. It is even more obvious when the building you are about to enter falls down in front of you. One moment Victor Marín, one of the city’s leading architectural conservationists, is reciting the faded glories of the arcaded 18th century merchant’s house that occupies the northwest corner of Plaza Vieja, one of the oldest and most elegant squares in the Americas. The next, the building crumbles and falls as quickly and quietly as a house of cards.[9]

Figure 3. Colegio Santo Angel, collapse.

Figure 3. Colegio Santo Angel, collapse.

After this article along with images of the collapse spread across European media, President Fidel Castro purportedly met with City Historian Eusebio Leal to discuss restoration strategies in Old Havana. Well aware of the economic constraints of such efforts, Leal suggested a hybrid capitalist-socialist strategy: if granted control over state-owned hotels and restaurants, he would use the profits toward restoration projects in Havana. Soon after, Cuba’s Council of State passed Law Decree 143, transforming the OCH into a decentralized, autonomous, and self-financed institution with the power to not only rezone and redevelop sites in the historic district, but to tax those operating in it. In short, the OCH was granted absolute authority over every public investment in the historic zone (zoning, housing, public administration, financial management, etc.) as well as authority to negotiate directly with foreign investors and run businesses for-profit (hotels, restaurants, museums, real estate deals, etc.) toward the “physical and social” restoration of Old Havana. Starting with $10,000 (USD), the OCH now generates over $80 million (USD) under its own profit-making enterprise, Habaguanex S.A., with Leal himself as CEO.

Figure 4. Eusebio Leal Spengler, Hanava City Historian. Image Credit: Digital Hoy, August 6, 2015.

Figure 4. Eusebio Leal Spengler, Hanava City Historian. Image Credit: Digital Hoy, August 6, 2015.

In 1994, the OCH and Habaguanex S.A. formed a group of architects and planners to master-plan the UNESCO-defined area including Old Havana, Central Havana, and the Malecón—Havana’s seaside promenade. The plan claims to “preserve the historical patrimony of the city, address urban problems, and promote responsible community and urban development.”[10] Their strategy was to implement a “Special Plan for Integrated Development,” which defines a “Priority Zone for Preservation and Highly Significant Zone for Tourism.”[11] On the relationship between tourism and preservation, Leal writes,

Tourism has double significance. It provides an opening to the world, a chance to hear other voices, to break down insulation and the blockade. Tourism draws us closer to other people, to other forms of living, dressing, thinking and feeling, and that is good. Its second significance is economic: tourism is an indispensable part of our economic strategy and is important to the country. We must reconcile tourism with the preservation of the city. We must respect Cuban ecology and Cuban history, and the development of tourism must work within this context.[12]

In theory, the plan develops tourism through preservation / restoration of the old core and uses the revenue for urban and social development projects throughout the city—in effect using capitalism to sustain socialism. In practice, however, the plan narrowly frames and defines fragments of the city as “historic” and marginalizes the majority of Cubanos both socially and economically.

Working within an autonomous fiscal and political framework, Habaguanex is Havana’s most productive developer and memory machine—linking historic preservation/restoration projects with the construction of dollar-generating bars, hotels, and restaurants. In an effort to preserve “social and spatial balance.” Habaguanex strategically focused on restoring and preserving the dilapidated buildings and sites along Calle Obispo, Paseo del Prado, and Old Havana’s 4 major plazas: Plaza de San Francisco, Plaza Vieja, Plaza de la Catedral, and Plaza de Armas—priming these for tourist consumption along a neatly bound geographic network of heritage sites. In the process, Habaguanex formed international partnerships, often working on specific projects with European investors and non-profit preservation institutions. As foreign investors invested more capital into tourism, Cuba—perhaps unwittingly—invested more “human resources” to its growing memory machine; In 1995, Cuba’s Council of State passed Law Decree 77, mandating that Cuban hospitality workers be paid with national currency instead of the Convertible Peso, a law that in effect not only situated local Cubanos outside of the preservation frame, but also commodified their labor.  

Still, while reopening itself to the international tourism and the global economy, Cuba maintained majority control over restoration / preservation. By 1996, Habaguanex had transformed the former Lonja del Comercio building into a new $13 million (USD) office complex jointly financed with a Spanish firm. They had also begun restoration work on the Plaza Vieja.

Figure 5. Lonja de Comercio (1996). (Photo by Author, 2017)

Figure 5. Lonja de Comercio (1996). (Photo by Author, 2017)

The Plaza Vieja

Built in 1559, the Plaza Vieja was traditionally used for recreational and commercial activities at a time when the city’s only other public square—the military-occupied Plaza de Armas—was used exclusively for civic and defense purposes. Originally named the Plaza Nueva, it was renamed Plaza Vieja in 1835 to distinguish it from the new Plaza de Cristo. But its name was not the only thing changed. After Governor Miguel Tacón commissioned the central Mercado de Cristina, the plaza’s use and geometry transformed significantly until 1908 when the market was destroyed. In 1952 the plaza underwent another major transformation: an increase in cars linking the Malecon to the historic core prompted the city to commission a public parking garage. Designed by Eugenio Batista, the partially sunken structure defined the plaza’s central space for the next 46 years until it was demolished in 1998.    

When the demolition crews arrived to the plaza in 1996, they had planned to implode the garage, eradicating any trace of the republican-era structure and the public park that sat a meter off the ground on its roof. The Havana Park, as it was known locally by Habaneros, was valued as a public urban space: it included trees, benches, an amphitheater, and green spaces for residents to gather, listen to music, drink rum, dance salsa, ride bikes, debate baseball, and enjoy the Caribbean breeze. It was, for better or worse, a true community space, one that framed and intensified everyday urban life.

But the everyday urban life of this community would be disrupted for the next two years as demolition crews slowly chipped away 235 tons of concrete with jackhammers, a compromise in the demolition method made after residents protested to the Communist Party, fearing that imploding the garage with explosives would risk damaging and/or collapsing their dilapidated homes surrounding the plaza. In the end, all that was left was a gaping hole in the plaza’s center, a temporary scar of a recent republican past that was violently erased. In its place, conservationists restored the plaza to street level by dressing the imported topsoil with polished stone paving and - to regain that old “colonial charm”—placing an Italian marble fountain in the center protected by a ten-foot-high black iron fence. Besides preventing neighborhood kids from bathing in the fountain's waters, the fence also set up the spatial relationships necessary for tourist consumption, relationships predicated on strategic distancing between subject and object and the selective (re)bounding, (re)positioning, and (re)narrating of such spaces and objects in order to assert heritage-value.

Removing the garage, repaving the plaza, and installing the fountain was only the beginning of a large-scale, long-term preservation/restoration strategy aimed at transforming the plaza from a public urban space to a commodified tourist spectacle. Consider the interventions that followed, described by anthropologist Matthew J. Hill,

First, conservationists mounted a camera obscura on the roof of the plaza’s tallest building, through which tourists are afforded a panorama of the plaza. Next, they opened the restored balconies of former palaces transformed from tenements into hotels, museums, and shops, offering the tourist another set of viewing points from which to gaze down upon the square. Further, they mounted a large placard at the main entrance to the square, depicting enlarged reproductions of various eighteenth-century engravings of the square by different European traveler artists, and set in place life-sized cutouts of Spanish colonial troops dressed in signature red-and-white uniforms, playing fife and drums. Finally, viewers to this space are instructed in how to see it as part of a “disciplined order of things” by tour guides who circumambulate through the square, instructing viewers what to see and how to see it.[13]

Beyond restoring colonial features, these strategies produce heritage space by selectively highlighting historic elements that cast the plaza’s colonial past; that is, they reveal a specific colonial history by concealing the cultures, events, histories, and features that don’t fit neatly into the colonial heritage framework. The newly restored Plaza Vieja, for example, uses all sorts of defense mechanisms against potential defilements: ranging from heavy metal cannons and chains at the four corner entries, to security features placed in lieu of public benches, to the uniformed police officers that, fearing the onslaught of kids, prostitutes, thieves, hustlers, and flaneurs, discourage local Cubanos from mingling with tourists, to the banning of Rumba—a form of Afro-Cuban music linked to the tenement classes—from the plaza’s bars and restaurants.

Figure 6. Plaza Vieja fit for tourist consumption. (Photo by Author, 2017)

Figure 6. Plaza Vieja fit for tourist consumption. (Photo by Author, 2017)


“In Havana, we have a unique opportunity, a chance to do something no other city in the world can do, which is to try to figure out that question.”_Paul Goldberger, The Future of Cuban Cities Conference

Havana is anything but a city “frozen in time;” It is not a static artifact but a living city. To be sure, all cities mediate—and are mediated by—multiple and intertwining ecologies, their socio-cultural, political, economic, and environmental systems. Put differently, cities are structured, formed, and informed by a multiplex synthesis of physical and nonphysical forces, forces that architects and urban designers must leverage and negotiate through expanded critical practices. Change in Havana is inevitable. But it’s how Havana changes that’s important. Romanticizing nostalgia—whether of nineteenth century colonialism, 1950s Vegas-style consumerism, or 1980s Miami Vice—is unsustainable, indeed counterproductive to Havana’s future. “Havana must not become Disneyland, but it must not become Houston either.”

What we need, then, are heritage construction practices that go beyond “business as usual;” that is, heritage practices that understand Havana as a living, breathing city with multiple histories, multiple stakeholders, and multiple potentialities. Instead of limiting such practices to revealing the colonial and / or concealing the republican (preservation through negation), we ought to preserve through design--to discuss what and how to build the Havana of the future as opposed to freezing a specific Havana of the past.

*This article was written for Future Anterior 14:2 (forthcoming)


[1] Eugène-Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc, Dictionnaire raisonné de l'architecture française du XIe au XVIe siècle. Vol. 1. Morel, 1854.

[2] Aron Vinegar, "Memory as Construction in Viollet-le-Duc's Architectural Imagination,” Paroles gelées 16, no. 2 (1998).

[3] Mrinalini Rajagopalan, “Preservation and Modernity: Competing Perspectives, Contested Histories and the Question of Authenticity,” in The SAGE Handbook of Architectural Theory (London: SAGE Publications, 2012): 308-324.

[4] M. Christine Boyer, “Collective Memory under Siege: The Case of ‘Heritage Terrorism’.” in The SAGE Handbook of Architectural Theory (London: SAGE Publications, 2012): 325-339.

[5] Alois Riegl, “The Modern Cult of Monuments: its Character and its Origin,” Oppositions 25 (1982): 20-51.

[6] Matthew J. Hill, “Reimagining Old Havana” in Deciphering the Global: its Scales, Spaces and Subjects (New York: Routledge, 2007): 59.

[7] Ibid.

[8] For a more comprehensive study on the relationship between preservation and tourism, see: Lauren Stamm, “Deconstructing the Dual City: Preservation and Tourism in La Habana Vieja.” (2014).

[9] Jonathan Glancey, “Walls came tumbling down,” The Independent, October 19, 1993.

[10] “Para la Revitalización Integral, Plan Maestro de La Habana Vieja (2011),” PEDI Plan Especial de Desarrollo Integral: 37.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Matthew Hill, “The Future of the Past: World Heritage, National Identity, and Urban Centrality in Late Socialist Cuba” in Global Downtowns, Marina Peterson and Gary McDonogh, eds. (2012): 186-206.