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Casa Havana: Before Castro

Havana, like the Cuban regime, has seen better days. But, as Robert Polidori's photographs reveal, its crumbling facades and flaky interiors have a distinctive, haunting charm. By Simon Calder
The well-intentioned foreigner in Cuba is forgiven almost any transgression. But, as I discovered in Havana a year ago, the fraying fabric of the Old City conceals a raw collective nerve.

I was clambering around a ruined terrace along Health Street, as Calle Salud literally and inappropriately translates. My plan was to try to decode the dereliction, to scavenge among the rubble for a sense of the people who had built and occupied these once-handsome 19th-century homes.

The police who came for me were plain-clothed but well-armed: a Russian revolver stands out in alarming relief from a tattered T shirt. They had presumably been tipped off by a whisper from a zealous member of the local Committee for the Defence of the Revolution, a kind of political Neighbourhood Watch. "Warning: Westerner digging too deeply into one of the capital's many wounds of neglect." I was promptly arrested.

All of which makes Robert Polidori's startling images all the more miraculous. He has tiptoed into the post-colonial, post-Soviet catastrophe of the Cuban capital, and captured Havana with its civic clothes in considerable disarray.

The biggest city in the Caribbean should also be the most handsome. Ancient Andalucian architects translated the heroic cityscapes of Seville and Cordoba to the hook of land on Cuba's north coast that guards a fine natural harbour. Vast yet articulately designed doors and shutters still guard the surviving properties, whose stonework speaks of four centuries of obstinacy.

The age that Polidori mainly presents, though, is the 19th century - 100 years that both enriched and almost shattered Cuba. The city exploded with neo-classical pretension, as the nouveaux riches capitalised on each economic boom by importing absurdly elaborate columns, ironwork and glasswork to a city coming to terms with its own architectural adolescence.

The island hauled itself into the present century with independence of a sort, which effectively meant that the nation's title deeds passed from Madrid to Washington. They were finally wrenched back by Castro and Che, the jokers in the world's political pack. Che Guevara lives on as the city, and country's, icon, while Castro last month showed he had not lost his sense of humour by notching up a new superlative with a 450-minute speech.

The Socialist Revolution was post-dated. Having battled to depose the dictator Batista, and struggled free from the American economic yoke, Cuba found new family and friends in the Soviet Union and its satellites. Upon the capital's magnificent confusion were laid the finest eastern European traits of shoddiness in design: erratic plumbing, doors failing to agree with doorways, chipboard and veneer armchairs that look less comfortable than the inside of a Havana police station.

Thirty years on, those friends all walked out, emptying the larder and taking their cash as they slammed the ideological door. So the Cubans did as they always have: they made do, defying economic gravity while the city crumpled around them. If you want to see perfectly preserved, pastel-painted plazas, amid streets that reveal shady courtyards and ornate balconies heavy with style and atmosphere, head for Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic. For real life, go to Havana. When you're arrested, say you're sorry. And mean it

Falling plaster (above) reveals the timber-lathed skeleton of a mansion that once belonged to a Countess O'Reilly. Squatters who carve up one big space into rooms behind a patchwork of planks call it making 'ciudadelas', or little cities. Without partitions but using paints and paper, tenants (below) have managed to individualise their space within the mansion, juxtaposing 1950s furniture and busy skirting board with classical Doric columns

The drawing room of Luisa Faxas's house in the Miramar section of Havana (above) still has its exquisite 18th-century Spanish mouldings, cornices and architraves. But they have been ripped out in other rooms in the same house (previous page). Luisa Faxas, who was born in Barcelona, bought the house with her mother in 1942 Although this land on a prime oceanfront site at Malecon (below) was developed at different times, all the balconies align. A pair of canary- yellow Spanish buildings from the last century set the height at street elevations which subsequent architects observed. Neither the Soviet block to the left nor the cigar-thin buldings to the right spoil it

The graffiti tells the history of this handsome high-vaulted space in Havana's Vieja district (above). Charting the fortunes of the residents, it began as a bank at the turn of the century before reinventing itself as a discotheque and shutting down. Schoolchildren in the 1920s at the Escuela Modelo (below) in the Vedado quarter were often caught staring at the windows. Then the roof began to leak and the Ministry of Education moved in