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Habana Vieja


In Cuba wastelands are so utterly different to anywhere else. Many buildings are derelict and uninhabitable. They no longer keep the rain, sun or vegetation out, they are unstable, unserviced and pretty much unusable. And yet they are in animate and active use. Usually when photographing derelict buildings there is no one around. In Havana someone would invariably pull up a chair unsolicited and seat themselves in front of the camera.

These buildings are falling apart but are not going to waste. Even a derelict theatre with no roof provides a home on its balcony, an art deco cinema serves as a car park and an ancient and historically important convent with no services accommodates a vibrant community, up to a family per cell, with more in the cloisters and on the roof.

For some years I had been exploring the 'presence of absence', but Cuba contradicts this 'absence' so markedly with its 'presence' and offers an entirely different set of ideas of what wastelands are about. At the time of these photos Cuba was opening its economy to foreign investors. Eusebio Leal, the Historiador de la Ciudad de La Habana and Prof. Orestes del Castillo, his city master planner, (among others) have been piloting a scheme in Old Havana for a block by block approach to development. It is a considered and patient approach looking to accrue a transformation, experimenting with various approaches. If a site in a block has injection of foreign investment this acts as the catalyst for rehabilitating the entire block. The priority is to find a way to accommodate those who currently live there and want to stay. Such an approach is seemingly outside the realms of an open market economy, and time will tell if it can be rolled out on a larger scale and retain its attention to detail and in particular the continuity of culture. If it does it will become one of those rare templates for rehabilitating a wasteland which succeeds without ripping out its subject's soul.

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