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.
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,