Ruination In Havana

Havana, Cuba is an unsettling mix of old buildings crumbling to the ground, residents still inside, and a Carribian get-away for the foreign tourist. On the waterfront, Havana boasts a beautiful historic district, “Old Havana”, but stray far from the main streets and plazas and you will find yourself surrounded by neglected buildings. The ruination of these buildings tells the story of a government with limited money that chooses to prioritize the city’s appeal to foreigners above its safety for locals.

Old Havana is the historic district of Havana and became a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1982 (Perrottet 2018). Since then it has received funding from outside sources and support from the Cuban government. Restorations of historical architecture (Figure 1) have won Havana officials dozens of international awards (Eaton and Lewin 2018) and brought tourists flocking to the city. Cubans benefit from the economic boost brought by the tourism industry, but those economic gains fail to offset the hardship of many families’ deteriorating residences.

Figure 1. Part of the beautifuly restored Old Havana, the Plaza de San Francisco. Photograph from Planet Ware.

In the ongoing restoration process of Old Havana, many people feel left behind. In 2012, about 7 percent of housing in Havana had been declared uninhabitable and 7 in 10 buildings needed major repairs (Rainsford 2012). Even when residences are repaired many families are displaced, since the government does not allow as many households back into the buildings as were crowded in previously (Perrottet 2018). Government programs work to rectify the housing crisis that has many people living in buildings that could collapse any day (Figure 2), but they are not addressing the problem fast enough. According to USA Today, “3,856 partial or total building collapses were reported in Havana from 2000 to 2013, not including 2010 and 2011 when no records were kept” (Eaton and Lewin 2018). These collapses stand in stark contrast to the beautiful historic architecture Havana officials work to preserve. The Cuban government is short on money and has to prioritize projects. Their priorities are clear; Havana is quite literally collapsing while a historic district for foreign tourists grows.

Figure 2. People continue to live in the crumbling buildings in Havana, Cuba. Photograph from Translating Cuba.

Allowing for or requiring destruction of “certain people and places, often in the name of humanitarian work” (Beisaw 2017) is a political process known as ruination. The humanitarian effort of preserving a UNESCO World Heritage site comes at a price and the people who die because they cannot leave the buildings their government has condemned are paying it. Looking at the ruination of Havana reveals a rift between the Cuban government and its people. The government has the authority to choose what will be restored and what will be left to decay. So far it has chosen to restore the tourist epicenter that brings in new-comers, and leave the people already living in Havana to fend for themselves. Ruination shows power and where that power lies. Cuban officials hold the power in Havana, and the citizens of Havana see the evidence of it every day in the ruination of their home.



Beisaw, April M.
2017 Ruined by the Thirst for Urban Prosperity: Contemporary Archaeology of City Water Systems. In: Contemporary Archaeology and the City: Creativity, Ruination, and Political Action, edited by Laura McAtackney and Krysta Ryzewski. Oxford Press. pp. 132-148.

Eaton, Tracey and Katherine Lewin
2018 How Havana is collapsing, building by building. USA Today. accessed November 10, 2019.

Perrottet, Tony
2018 The Man Who Saved Havana. Smithsonian Magazine. accessed November 10, 2019.

Rainsford, Sarah
2012 Cuba’s crumbling buildings mean Havana housing shortage. BBC. accessed November 10, 2019.


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Additional Content

Havana: The New Art of Making Ruins

Documentary about the people living in Havana’s ruins

Why Havana Had to Die

Why Havana’s buildings sunk into ruin initially

Typological Sequence in Greek Sculpture

By focusing on one type of Greek archaeology — the Kouros statues and similar — and examining the evolution within the type, a basic chronology presents itself. Archaeologists study artifacts, such as Greek sculpture, for similar attributes that allow them to group the artifacts into types. Both among types and within one type there may be an evolution of attributes that archaeologists can use to place artifacts into a relative chronology (Renfrew and Bahn 2018:111). This understanding of which attributes unite a type and which have evolved over time provide insight into where a type fits within a larger timeline.

Figure 2. An example of a Kouros sculpture, Kroisos. Photograph by It’s Artalicious.

Figure 1. An example of Kouros sculpture, the New York Kouros. Photograph from the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The New York Kouros (Figure 1) and Kroisos (Figure 2) are two examples within the the Kouros type. Both share a frontal orientation and similar stance of one foot in front of the other with evenly distributed weight. They are nude male youth, larger than life and highly stylized. Their hair is in unnaturally linear braids and their muscle is largely denoted by lines and partitioning of the body. However, the Kroisos’s hair falls with the curve of its neck and shoulders, and its abdominal muscles and knee caps are semi-realistically modeled. By contrast the New York Kouros’s hair comes down in a straight sheath and its muscle exists primarily as faint lines across the chest and winged bulges above the knees. Kroisos’s progression towards naturalization indicates that it was created after the New York Kouros.

Figure 3. A similar sculptural example, Polykleitos’s Doryphoros. Photograph by Ilya Shurygin.

A third sculptural example, Polykleitos’s Doryphoros (Figure 3), differentiates itself from the Kouroi most notably though contrapposto, “bearing the weight on one straight leg, while the other is bent” (Museum of Art and Archaeology [MAA] 2019:1) which is “counterbalanced by the arms, one of which is flexed while the other hangs relaxed by the side” (MAA 2019:1). This more realistic posture causes the Doryphoros to begin to blend into a new type, but it still shares many attributes with the Kouroi. It remains a young nude male with a partitioned body structure evident most clearly in the distinct curve at the hips and in the overly stylized abdominal muscles.  

Studying these ancient artifacts through an archaeological lens allows them to be categorized together and placed into a larger historical context. Because of the distinctive features that define the Kouroi, the Doryphoros, and other similar sculpture, it is evident that they belong to a specific period of Greek history. Initially artist “were presenting images to be read, not compared with life” (Rumy 2000:53) as inspired by the purposefulness of Egyptian sculpture (Rumy 2000:53). Later works within the type, such as the Doryphoros, are increasingly interested in an accurate representation of the human body making them bleed into a new period (MAA 2019:1). This evolution from Egyptian-inspired sculpture to more natural attributes indicates that the type follows the Greek Orientalizing Period and precedes the Classical Greek Period, placing the sculptural type in the Greek Archaic Period from 650 to 480 BCE (Rumy 2000:52).



Hilloowala, Rumy
2000 Anatomy and the art of Archaic Greece. The Anatomical Record 261(2):50-56.

Museum of Art and Archaeology University of Missouri                                                      2019 Doryphoros. Electronic document,, accessed September 22, 209

Renfrew, Colin, and Paul G. Bahn
2018 Archaeology Essentials: Theories, Methods, Practice with 303 Illustrations. Fourth ed. Thames & Hudson Ltd, London.



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Additional Reading


A discussion of the differences between Kouros statues and Egyptian sculpture and the tools that made realism possible

The Study of Ancient Sculpture

A discussion of other ways to analyze and gain meaning from Greek sculpture