Many books have been inspired by Havana, and not just because of its warm atmosphere or its seafront. Its architecture, which ranges in style from neoclassical to eclectic, stands out particularly because of its unique columns.
In one of his essays, the writer Alejo Carpentier referred to it as “the city of columns,” and not only because of the quantity, but also because of the centuries of history still to be discovered behind every pillar that embellishes the the Cuban city’s architecture.
Touring Havana is like participating in the history of a city in real time, where the African, Spanish and Anglo-Saxon cultures converge. It means enjoying the magisterial quality of the columns that support it; it’s like living with the cultural syncretism that has been described as “a marvel.”
Many of us do not even realise the very existence of those sensual “stone” ladies that adorn the city’s historic district in the form of big arches. Havana’s features date back to the architectonic patterns of the Greco-Roman era. Its columns support life in the city and are preserved in historic memory. Just months before Saint Christopher of Havana – its real name – celebrates the 500 years since its foundation, we reflect on the stories witnessed by these columns as they have been a fixture of palaces and patios since colonial times.
But the columns are not created as just decorative elements, because part of their function is to emphasise the intensity of the tropics, allowing the light to pour in just like a windowpane. Havana becomes another character; it is the main character of soap operas, stories about Cubans’ everyday life and about the visitors who stroll along its streets. Cuba would not be the same without it. Havana’s DNA is spread by the mere mentioning of it in any literary work. This city is like a canvas painting made from stone, glass and sea.
Doric, Corinthian, Tuscan and mixed columns decorate the facades of the city that captivated Carpentier and still show “shady patios, with vegetation, where palm tree trunks… live cheek by jowl with the Doric shaft.”
The epithet “the Caribbean key” that was used to refer to Cuba even before the 18th century, alluded to Havana as an indispensable region coveted by countless and worshipped by many more.
Carpentier wrote: “a city that is an empire of columns, a forest of columns, an infinite colonnade, the last city to have too many columns, columns which, no longer in their original patios, speak of the decadence of pillars throughout the ages.”
The columns of the Cuban capital tell a story. They whisper their traditions in the ears of all those who walk along the streets, speaking of the significant moments of the spaces that they decorate and the history of a city that, close to the 500 years of its foundation, exhibits its patrimonial values. History will reveal the mysteries that still lie hidden behind the temples erected on the columns that, according to Cuba’s national hero Jose Martí, there won’t ever be quite enough of.