La Necrópolis de Cristobal Colón: Being Dead in Public

Abstract:

  This article will attempt an articulation of the distinction between cemeteries and necropoli, extrapolating from the common characteristics of worldwide necropoli. We shall present a working definition of the necropolis and a set of criteria for its identification. One of our major concerns is the relationship between the cities of the living and the cities of the dead: whether or not urban theory is analogous to urban necrotheory. La Necrópolis de Cristobal Colón, in Havana, Cuba, is one of the most opulent and densely populated necropoli in the world, and offers a vivid case-study of urban necrogeography. We shall investigate the relationship between La Necrópolis and Havana itself, specifically the neighborhood of El Vedado. Important to a study of this kind are issues of socio-spatial organization, the varied impulses and phenomena of urban aggregation, and correlative architectural practices between the two spaces: polis and necropolis.

Spatial Stratigraphy:

  The Necrópolis Cristobal Colón, in Havana, Cuba, is the final resting place for over two million people. At times in the history of the city, the population of the Necrópolis has surpassed the population of Havana itself. As we shall see, the relationship between these two poli is one of intricate maneuvers involving reflection and refraction, internalization and incorporation between the living and the dead.

The original site of the city of Havana, on the southern coast of Cuba where Batanabó stands today, was established in 1514. Five short years later, the capital was moved to the site on the northern coast where it has remained for the better part of five centuries. Havana, like many walled cities, was bursting its seams by the middle of the nineteenth century, and when the walls came down, the city expanded into the surrounding forest reserve known as the Vedado (literally, “prohibited”). The Necrópolis, too, was moved from its original site near the Malecón, and has undergone significant expansion.

The lands upon which the Necrópolis now stands were originally Chinese Coolie agricultural plots known as “La Dionisia.” The lands were proposed for use as a cemetery in 1866 and the first stone of the Necrópolis was laid in 1871, in the midst of the flurry of construction which characterized the era in the Vedado. In both neighborhoods we see a condensed version of nineteenth-century architecture in the New World, marked more than anything by its eclecticism; and the rapid growth of the Necrópolis mirrors the intense and telescoped expansion of the city which houses it.

Nothing in contemporary Cuba escapes the significant after-effects of the Cuban Revolution, and the Necrópolis is no exception. Today, the Necrópolis is in an abominable state of disrepair, and current efforts at the rehabilitation of the city extend to the city of the dead as well. The space has been nominally democratized, but its use remains for the most part available only to those Cubans who can afford the relatively steep price of interment here. In this way, the Necrópolis is literally the most affluent neighborhood of Havana and, as such, merits thorough investigation.

 

Project Proposal:  

The written part of this project will be an article examining the most important theoretical implications of the space of the Necrópolis, including a treatment of its indexical and iconographic status within Cuban culture. An initial working definition of the necropolis in general, derived from a comparative study of four major necropolitan sites, from Paris to Argentina, will situate the Havana Necrópolis within the conceptual spectrum of mortuary practices. We shall then demonstrate the points of intersection between the Necrópolis and the city of Havana which houses it. Central to this discussion will be the example of the Baró-Lasa tomb, constructed in the 1930s. Its counterpart, the art-deco manor of Juan Pedro Baró and Catalina Lasa (Paseo No. 406, e/ 17 y 19) was built in the Vedado in 1927, and the design of the mansion is the work of René Lalique, the same man who realized the project of the family pantheon. A detailed comparison of these two surprisingly different structures will illuminate the significant contrasts between the house of the living and the house of the dead, but more importantly, will paint a vivid picture of the similarities.

Also imperative to the written study will be an exploration of the internal urban logic of the Necrópolis. From the teleology of the chosen topography: coolie farmland to the present-day TTE (totality of the topographical emission), we will extract a deeper understanding of the layers of meaning embedded in the sacralized economic aura of the Necrópolis. Included among them are: post-mortem utopianism; conceptualizations of the afterlife, class structure and religious symbolism as evidenced by the approach to the space; and the urban semiotics of the plastic construction within it.

Along with the scholarly work of the project, the Center will present a work of haptical cartography, consisting of the literal objectification of the process of mapping, visual representations of imagined spatial qualities, and the superimposition of real upon temporal space.

Methodology:  

The field component for this project is complete. In June 2003, a team consisting of a historical archaeologist and an urban theorist from the Center for Landscape and Artefact visited Havana. One of the members lived and worked in the Vedado for six months. Over the course of this fieldwork period they surveyed the Necrópolis, captured more than two hundred photographs of the mausoleum architecture and layout of the Necrópolis, collaborated with Catalan filmmakers on-site and worked intimately with the museologist. City conservation archaeologists and published and unpublished documents available exclusively in Cuba were also consulted.

In August 2003 the Center began aggregating field data into tenable texts for publication in a scholarly journal.  We are currently transforming the photographs and video data into presentations which will accompany the written text. Thus, the expected outcome will be a succinct text and an accompanying visual work that will serve to elucidate Nowist concepts of urban space, including the Nowist vision of haptical cartography.

Project Contributions:

  This project will contribute to the understanding of necropoli and the Necrópolis de Colón in particular, the way that they mirror the polis and the distinctions between an urban theory for the dead and for the living. The project avails itself to the improvement of landscape, geographic, urban, architectural and mortuary studies. It is also an important facet of the oeuvre which displays Nowist thought.

 

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