15/05/2017

Architecture and a Revolution

  • Havana

Architecture has the power to do more than provide shelter for human activities and everyday life. Architecture has the power to embody the highest values of culture. Architecture can express the ethos of a particular historical moment and provide inspiration for those who follow. The National Art Schools (Escuelas Nacionales de Arte) in Havana fulfill all these criteria and are works of architecture in the profoundest definition of the discipline.

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The importance of the National Art Schools is now recognized internationally, but this was not always the case. Having briefly symbolized the utopian aspirations of the Cuban Revolution and called by Fidel Castro himself “la mas bella academia de artes en el mundo” they fell out of favor and were repudiated by the very institution they sought to celebrate. Forty years later they are now poised for rehabilitation, with the sincere support of the Cuban government. Yet their future still face challenges.

The golf game of January 1961, after which Fidel Castro and Che Guevara decided to found art schools on the site of the Country Club in Cubanacan, has by now entered into the mythology of the Cuban Revolution. Three architects, one Cuban, Ricardo Porro, and two Italians, Vittorio Garatti and Roberto Gottardi were given the opportunity to design five innovative schools for modern dance, plastic arts, drama, music, and ballet. The first principle they decided upon to guide their designs was to above all respect the remarkable landscape of the country club grounds. The second principle was to employ locally produced brick and terra cotta tiles as the primary construction material, and out of this grew the third principle which was to utilize the Catalan vault throughout as the structural system. This building technique was the same employed by Antonin Gaudi in the fluid forms of his architecture in Barcelona where these forms speak boldly of Catalan regional identity. For Porro, Garatti, and Gottardi, the Catalan vault would serve as a refutation of dominant International Style modernism and result in an organic spatial and formal expression unique to these projects expressing their own revolutionary identity. In their uniqueness the National Art Schools stand as the highest expression of the optimistic utopian moment that existed at the beginning of the Cuban Revolution. After forty years of the Cuban Revolution, they still stand out as its greatest achievement in architecture.

Fidel + CheFidel Castro and Che Guevara play golf at the future site of the National Art Schools

Each school was a one of a kind achievement conceived within a common material and structural language. Ricardo Porro’s School of Modern Dance, sited at the edge of a steep escarpment, is an angular, kinetic composition in plan that is softened in volume by the curving vaults. His School of Plastic Arts celebrated Cuba’s multi-cultural roots through a collection of pavilions that read as an archetypal African village connected by sinuous covered passageways, the whole interpreting negritude in a Cuban context. The School of Dramatic Arts by Roberto Gottardi, like the social construct of a theater company, looks inward, creating an intimate interiorized environment, concentrically organized and connected by narrow alleyways. Vittorio Garatti’s School of Music is a 330-meter-long serpentine structure that winds its way through the landscape, culminating in an embrace of a monumental jaguey tree resplendent in roots that hang from its branches. The School of Ballet, also by Garatti, is a composition of terracotta pavilions, magnificent spaces that seem to float in the dense, verdant landscape.

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The enthusiasm with which the design of the schools was initially received had significantly dissipated by 1963, and construction slowed down. By 1965, work on the National Art Schools officially came to a halt despite their various stages of completion. Porro’s School of Modern Dance and School of Plastic Arts were nearly complete; Gottardi’s School of Dramatic Arts had half its program dropped. Likewise, the concert halls of Garatti’s School of Music were cut, and construction on his School of Ballet was terminated though the project was nearly 95% complete. Part of the rationale for the project’s premature termination and abandonment lies in the changed political and economic situation that followed the October (Missile) Crisis. But the schools were also now repudiated because their architecture became seen as out of sync with a newly adopted Soviet inspired industrialized model for architectural production. This model emphasized massive prefabricated construction that yielded anonymous concrete boxes that now were beginning to proliferate across the Cuban landscape. These repetitive rectilinear forms stood in sharp contrast to the sensuous forms of the art schools. Likewise cold concrete provided a distinct material contrast to the warm brick and terra cotta tile employed in the former country club.

The schools were also turned upon because of a power struggle for control of the country’s architectural production. This power struggle marginalized the three architects whose approach to design stood in opposition to the normative massive Soviet inspired model that became the clear winner. All this took an absurd tone as the three architects were charged with ideological errors such as: “idealism, deviationism, individualism, monumentalism, historicism, and formalism driven by aesthetic criteria rather than socialist rigor.” Moreover, the architects themselves became accused of being “elitists” and “cultural aristocrats,” whose work exhibited their “narcissistic” and “egocentric bourgeois formations”. Along with such Stalinist rhetoric, professors in the architecture faculty were forbidden to mention the schools, and architecture students were discouraged from visiting them as the architecture faculty at the Ciudad Universitaria José Antonio Echeverría adopted technically oriented curriculum imposed by the Ministry of Construction. The art schools themselves went into various states of decline and decay. Some fared better than others did, but in general all were allowed to decline due to everything from neglect to outright vandalism. Elsewhere, the spontaneity of the natural growth has consumed much of the rest of the original grounds as well as the schools themselves.

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The National Art Schools had reached a truly deplorable state by the 1990s when an interesting trajectory of events began to unfold that would lead toward their political and physical rehabilitation. History itself (to paraphrase the famous saying of Fidel Castro) came to absolve the art schools. There had always been voices of support for the architecture of the schools within Cuba, but for many years they were quiet, cautious voices. The cultural climate of the 1980s created a foundation for change within Cuba. During these years young artists and architects, disillusioned with many of the models imposed upon them, were creating a more critically discursive environment that, among other things, opened up paths for a re-evaluation of the art schools.

In 1986 there was a brief glimmer of hope when Roberto Gottardi, the only one of the original three architects still in Cuba, was commissioned to draw up plans for the completion of the schools. But this project was soon abandoned. In 1989 Elmer López, a professor on the faculty of architecture included the art schools in a retrospective exhibit of Cuban architecture at the Instituto Superior Politécnico José Antonio Echeverría. At that time this was an act that required no small amount of courage since there were many faculty who were still critics of the schools. Then in 1995 the National Union of Cuban Architects and Engineers (UNAICC) hosted a photography exhibit of the schools, featuring work by New York photographer Hazel Hankin. In 1996 Ricardo Porro, who had been living in exile in Paris, was officially invited back to give a series of lectures. The following year, 1997, Vittorio Garatti, who had been forced to leave in 1974, was also invited to return to Havana to lecture. Also in 1997 the National Conservation Center (CENCREM) conducted a preliminary study for the preservation and restoration of the schools. Later in that same year the National Commission on Monuments officially declared the schools a protected zone, though they rejected an initiative to declare them national monuments, leaving that option open for the future.

Events reached a significant crescendo in 1999. The beginning of that year marked the publication of the book which I authored, Revolution of Forms: Cuba’s Forgotten Art Schools (Princeton Architectural Press), a labor that had consumed much of the latter half of the 1990s. Concurrently, the MAK Center in Los Angeles, with support of the Austrian Ministry of Culture, produced an exhibit on the schools that opened both in Los Angeles and New York. To inaugurate it, a symposium with additional sponsorship of Columbia University and the Cooper-Hewitt Museum, brought together Ricardo Porro, Vittorio Garatti, and Roberto Gottardi for the first time since 1965. This attention reached the press, and over thirty articles, in 1999 alone, were published internationally about the National Art Schools. Meanwhile, the World Monuments Fund had been working with Cuban officials for two years to prepare an application to get the schools designated among the “100 Endangered Monuments List”. These efforts were successful and the National Art Schools were listed in 1999, bringing them to further international attention, and making them eligible for support from abroad, though the U.S. government has lamentably placed restrictions on many forms of assistance.

The year 1999 was significant in Cuba itself, for in November the national council of the National Union of Cuban Writers and Artists (UNEAC) took up the cause of the National Art Schools. During the previous year of 1998, architecture had been an important topic of discussion at the national convention. Important figures Mario Coyula, Graziella Pogolotti, and Alfredo Guevara argued that Cuban architecture and the Cuban city were the most important vehicles of Cuban cultural value. At a subsequent meeting in November 1999, the discussion about the importance of Cuban architectural culture prompted José Villa, chair of UNEAC’s association of plastic arts, to bring up the importance of the National Art Schools in Cuban architecture. This prompted Fidel Castro’s interest and he invited further discussion on the schools. Architect José Antonio Choy declared that the National Art Schools were the most important architectural work of the Cuban Revolution. Furthermore, he stated that the schools represented the best of the creative forces of the Revolution, and that with recent international attention had become the most renowned work of Cuban architecture abroad. Moreover, he noted that there was growing concern internationally about the declining state of the schools. Eusebio Leal, Historian of the City of Havana, and known for his successful restoration of much of the historic core, confirmed Choy’s position and declared his support for the restoration of the art schools. Fidel Castro joined in saying that the National Art Schools had been a much beloved project from his youth, and that he also lamented their decline. Moreover, he declared that the time had come for the restoration and completion of the National Art Schools.

With this important support in place, the Ministry of Culture assumed responsibility for the project, and there the schools had strong support from the Minister himself, Abel Prieto and his deputy Carlos Martí. Porro and Garatti joined Gottardi in Havana the following month, December, where they participated in the preliminary planning process. This was the first time that they had been together in Havana since 1965. At this historic meeting it was decided that they would still be considered the principal architects and would have full authority over all decisions affecting their projects. The three architects dedicated themselves to the project for no compensation.

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In the same year, 1999, the Cuban government promised to commit $20 million to the project, no small investment for a country struggling with difficult economic conditions. It would seem that the happy ending to their story would have been just around the corner. However, there are still challenges that face the restoration and completion process that raise some serious concerns.

The primary principle the three original architects established for the design of the art schools was respect for the Country Club’s unique landscape. That landscape was to be the great unifier, along with the common use of brick and tile Catalan vault construction. Because of years of neglect, only traces of the original landscape now remain. Nature has intervened spontaneously often in very beautiful ways, often in very destructive ways. Humans have intervened less gracefully with ancillary buildings that have nothing to do with the original concept.

The country club site is no longer a golf course. It must now be thought of as a park. As we know in the U.S., parks are often contested landscapes with many interests desiring to make their mark, and it is often a constant struggle on the part of conservancy organizations to maintain the integrity of the landscape. The Cubanacan site faces similar challenges. For the project to be successful, the original five art schools must occupy their rightful and privileged places as jewels in the crown of the former Country Club Park. In order for this to occur, this conceptually strong site plan designed in accordance with the best landscape design principles and guided by the three original architects is requisite.

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In a few short years, the National Art Schools have gone from being “forgotten” to being the best-known works of architecture of the Cuban Revolution. Certainly they are the best. They are now not only an important part of Cuba’s architectural patrimony. They are also a part of an international patrimony. There is great interest in their welfare not only in Cuba, but abroad. There is interest from the Italian government in their restoration, as well as potential interest from international organizations and foundations such as the World Monuments Fund. While the previously mentioned concerns are very important, perhaps the most serious challenge is financial. It is not exactly clear where the money will come from, given the many other economic challenges Cuba faces. The National Art Schools have many friends throughout the world, and it might be the time to unite these forces into some sort of broad international advisory board to provide support and assistance for their restoration.

There is a work of graffiti inscribed in Vittorio Garatti’s abandoned Ballet School that says, “Amo todo q’tengo. Pero no tengo todo q’amo,” or “I love all that I have. But I do not have all that I love.” Now, after many years, as the National Art Schools in Cubanacan begin a new chapter in their controversial life, they have become much beloved, and it also appears that with luck, all those who love them may finally receive all that they love.

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Words by John A. Loomis, Professor at San José State University, is an architect and the author of Revolution of Forms: Cuba’s Forgotten Art Schools (Princeton Architectural Press: 1999 & 2011), also Una Revolución de Formas: Las Olvidadas Escuslas de Arte de Cuba (dpr-barcelona 2016).

Photos by Adrian Morris

You can watch a video on World Monuments Fund’s website containing footage of the original architects speaking about their work and some onsite footage of the schools HERE.

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