Havana's Azulejos / by Soy Cuba

By Marie McFalls

Cuban Tiles on the Streets of Havana . Photography by Luiza Repsold, 2018.

Cuban Tiles on the Streets of Havana. Photography by Luiza Repsold, 2018.

Cuban tiles can accompany habeneros throughout nearly their entire day. They pave the hallways and floors of homes, they ascend to decorate the walls of commercial buildings, they even rise overhead to decorate the name plates of the city’s streets and plazas. The three-dimensional landscape of the city thus appears almost canvased by these silky coverings.

The relieving sensation of cool tile underfoot seems countered by the fiery explosions below - dozens of trapezoids and circles emerging in unison from their disparate, pinpoint origins. A geometric kaleidoscope seems to turn with every step. In their fecundity, these forms coalesce with their neighbors to form the mesmerizing visual bass-line of the city of Havana.

Tiles in the Studio of Pedro Pablo Oliva.  Photograph by Luiza Repsold, 2018.

Tiles in the Studio of Pedro Pablo Oliva. Photograph by Luiza Repsold, 2018.

Perhaps, buried in each of these microscopic epicenters, lies some vestige of their origins, a single segment of the thread of the passage of time and space. Here, the modern Cuban home collapses the voyages and aims of those conquistadors who first set foot in Cuba, and before them the Moorish conquerors’ ships which first pulled ashore in their own Al-Andalus. The humble, complex and ubiquitous glazed tile provides links to the pathways of these grand voyages, and the quotidian journey from one side of the plaza to the other.

Each of these formations, however, assumes a tranquility despite the medium’s cataclysmic past. A near meditative sensation arises from gazing at them, as the eye becomes occupied and placated through a soothing engagement with repetition of shape and color. Their predictability seems to mimic and project the universal desire for the serenity in our quotidian lives. We awake, we eat, we work, we sleep. We generally do not wish for this cycle to be overly disturbed. This sense of visual fulfillment and satiation seems to exist as an oasis compared to the fluidity of Cuban society. If we see the tiling indoors as geometric both literally in its form and metaphorically in its exactitude and reliability, then the streets of Havana in some ways constitute organic forms. The urban environment appears ever-changing and complex, a cultural crossroads and a society, like many, still reckoning with the past.

Sign for Calle Muralla at Plaza Vieja, Havana.  Photography by author, 2018.

Sign for Calle Muralla at Plaza Vieja, Havana. Photography by author, 2018.