The Lost Art Schools of Cuba

In January 1961, exactly two years after Fidel Castro's overthrow of the Batista dictatorship in Cuba, Castro and Che Guevara were playing a round of golf on the course at the abandoned Havana Country Club, trying to decide the fate of this space just outside the city in a new nation without social divisions and elitist institutions. By the end of the round, they had decided to create national arts schools for Cuba on the site, helping to advance one of the goals of the Revolution-the promotion of art and culture.


Constructed between 1961 and 1965, the National Art Schools represent "the revolutionary passion and utopian optimism of a unique moment" at the beginning of the Revolution. Never completed, the architecturally innovative and beautiful buildings now exist as inhabited ruins, a symbol of the state of Cuba forty years after the start of the Revolution. The schools were begun at a time when the Revolution seemed indestructible, and the buildings themselves sought to reflect the idealistic spirit of the country at the time. In 1961, Castro called the National Art Schools "the most beautiful academy of arts in the whole world." However, by the mid-1960s, criticism of the art schools was widespread, and the architects were never able to finish the project.


Shortly after finishing the final round of golf played at the Havana Country Club, Castro commissioned Cuban architect Ricardo Porro to design the art schools, and Porro enlisted the help of two Italian-born architects Roberto Gottardi and Vittorio Garatti. Porro seemed like the perfect choice for the job: well-educated, worldly, revolutionary, and Cuban. By 1961, the young architect was already well-known in Cuba, returning to the country after two years at the Institute of Urbanism at the Sorbonne in Paris. Although not born in Cuba, Porro's friends Gottardi and Garatti had emigrated to Venezuela and then moved to Cuba.


The academy was divided into five buildings, each to hold a different school. Porro designed the School of Modern Dance and the School of Plastic Arts. Gottardi was responsible for the School of Dramatic Arts, and Garatti designed the School of Music and the School of Ballet.


The five buildings were meant to exist as autonomous structures, but they also worked together as a cohesive aesthetic whole, figuratively linked through three guiding principles. The first commonality was the mutually accepted decision to respect the surrounding landscape. The second shared element was the use of native materials which limited the architecture with a positive effect. No steel and very little cement were available in Cuba because of industrial underdevelopment, so these common materials of modernist architecture were replaced by brick and terra-cotta tiles. The final element which unifies the buildings is the use of catalan vaults, thin layers of terra -cotta tiles, which are much lighter than cement and are virtually indestructible.


In the beginning, the project of constructing the National Art Schools was an important emblem of the Revolution for both the country and the architects themselves. In retrospect, Porro expressed the following reflection on the project: "'I now wished to refute both architecture's and my own family's aristocratic past. I wanted to seek an expression of architecture for the people and to delve into the eternal problems of the human condition. The School of Plastic Arts is the expression of beginnings-the beginning of my creative life and the beginning of the Revolution." However, the enthusiasm for the architecture of the National Art Schools was short-lived.


The project soon came under harsh criticism for a number of reasons besides the obvious problem of the financial difficulties of the country. The independence of the Revolution did not last long, and the adoption of Soviet style conformity in architecture was one of many results of the new Cuban-Soviet alliance. Clearly, the National Art Schools did not fit into the pre-fabricated simplistic functional style of Soviet architecture, and this difference led to their criticism as individualistic, an attribute not in character with the Revolution, and driven by aesthetic criteria rather than socialist rigor. Critics were particularly incensed by the sensual architecture of the School of Plastic Arts designed by Porro and expressed distrust of the ubiquitous catalan vaults. Furthermore, the architect team faced antagonism from within the Ministry of Construction because Porro was from the bourgeoisie and not the proletariat, and Gottardi and Garatti were not Cuban.


By 1965, funding for the ambitious architectural project had been cut, and construction was abandoned. A year later, a disillusioned Porro emigrated to Paris. In 1974, Garatti was arrested on charges of espionage, jailed, and later acquitted and exiled to Milan. Gottardi is the only one of the three architects who has remained in Cuba. In the 1980s, a group of young architects with the help of Gottardi began to try to finish the construction of the schools.


Like many of the projects undertaken by the Cuban Revolution, the National Art Schools were never completed, but they still exist as the most important schools in Cuba for the arts. The students have learned to function and thrive within the unfinished structures. The Instituto Superior de Arte, the School for the Plastic Arts, is particularly successful and has recently produced artists who have achieved international recognition. The National Art Schools never fulfilled the high aspirations of the architects, yet they are still used in their current state of partial decay.


Sources:
Loomis, John A. Revolution of Forms: Cuba's Forgotten Art Schools. New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 1999.
Camnitzer, Luis. New Art of Cuba. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 1994.