Overgrown task: Finishing Cuba's 40-year-old arts academy
By TRACEY EATON / The Dallas Morning News
HAVANA – After most of the rich fled Cuba, rebel leaders Fidel Castro
and Che Guevara played a few
holes of golf at the Havana Country Club. As they strolled across the exquisite greens, they
made a brash promise: to turn the seized property into the finest art school of its kind.
Even before ground was broken, Mr. Castro was calling it "the most beautiful
academy of arts in the
whole world." And so was born one of the strangest yet little-known stories of modern
architecture, a tale of youthful exuberance, red tape, intolerance and, finally, redemption.
Work on the massive five-building complex started in 1961 and was quickly
seen as an architectural
marvel, an expression of revolutionary passion and pride. But it soon fell out of favor. It
was too flashy, too hedonistic and too expensive, unlike the practical, though unsightly, concrete-slab
apartments springing up east of the city.
And so 36 years ago last month, Cuba's National Art Schools officially
opened – unfinished. Much of
the complex then plunged into ruin – "abandoned in the middle of the jungle, a Tikal of the 1960s,"
Cuban art critic Gerardo Mosquera later wrote, referring to the famous Mayan complex in
Now, incredibly, the Cuban government has asked the original architects
to return and finish their
masterpiece, listed along with Peru's Machu Picchu and Italy's ancient Pompeii as one of the world's
100 most endangered monuments.
"I felt very good when I heard I'd get to continue the project," said
Roberto Gottardi, a 74-year-old
Italian who moved to Cuba in 1960 and designed the project's drama school. "This time I think it will be
finished. It's in the government's interest – and Fidel Castro's, too."
Under Mr. Castro's original plan, Cuban students and roughly 3,000 other
young people from
around the Third World were to study at the academy, all expenses paid.
"The students are going to live in the houses that were the residences
of millionaires," the Cuban
president said at the time.
'Everything is possible'
Work on the project began in earnest just weeks after the failed CIA-led
Bay of Pigs invasion in
"Cubans felt euphoric, enthusiastic," said Mr. Gottardi, who supported
the revolution. "We were
breathing in air that told us 'everything is possible.'
"Sometimes we did a drawing one day that would be used to raise a wall
the next day. We'd
work to the beat of African drums."
Joining Mr. Gottardi were two other "rebel" architects – Ricardo Porro,
a Cuban born in 1925,
and Vittorio Garatti, an Italian born in Milan in 1927.
Mr. Porro opposed dictator Fulgencio Batista and allowed Castro loyalists
to hide out in his home
in the 1950s. He later fled to Venezuela, where he met Mr. Garatti and Mr. Gottardi. After Mr.
Castro took power, the three were asked to design the academy.
"I could not shoot a gun, much less kill anyone. But I aided the revolution
wherever possible," Mr.
Porro was later quoted as saying in the 1999 book Cuba's Forgotten Art Schools – Revolution of Forms .
The book's author, John Loomis, chairman of architecture at the California
College of Arts and
Crafts, said he first caught a glimpse of the schools during a visit to Cuba in 1981. A guide whisked
him away, explaining that the complex was "inappropriate architecture" for the revolution.
He returned to Cuba 10 years later and met Mr. Gottardi, who gave him a tour of the schools.
"It was so utterly moving and astonishing," Mr. Loomis said. "I felt
like an explorer, like I had
discovered something nobody knew about."
Mr. Loomis said he was especially intrigued by the ballet school, wedged
in a lush ravine. It was 95
percent complete when it was deserted and was used briefly as a hall for student circus performers in
Thieves moved in quickly, carrying away ceramic tiles and mahogany panels.
windows and scribbled on walls. Then nature took over, engulfing the school in vines, plants and,
occasionally, water from the nearby Quibu River.
"What a metaphor for the Cuban revolution – ideals overgrown by reality,"
Mr. Loomis said. "This is
what happens to dreams."
He spent six years researching his book and concluded that the academy
wasn't finished because it
clashed with Cuba's changing and increasingly extreme political culture.
Not everyone agrees.
Some blame the academy's decline on shifting priorities and the desperate
need for new housing. One
sprawling European-style housing project for 8,000 people was designed almost overnight and
finished before 1960. Many such projects were designed by young architects who had very little
experience. After the revolution, about half of the 600 or so architects in Cuba left, critic Sergio
Baroni wrote in 1992.
Scarce resources added to the difficulties, Mr. Gottardi said. "There
was a surplus of enthusiasm, but
we lacked many things."
If money was an issue, Mr. Loomis asks, why was the ballet school dumped
when it was nearly
finished? "It doesn't make economic sense to walk away from it."
Five schools were designed for students of dance, drama, ballet, music
and art. Architects used what
was readily available – terra cotta tiles and bricks. They didn't have steel beams, so they supported their
buildings with Catalan vaults, a sturdy,labor-intensive dome structure used for centuries in Europe.
Mr. Porro put the dance school on a ridge on the south side of the golf
course. He wanted the building's
roof, viewed from above, to look like broken glass hit by a fist and shattered, symbolic of the
revolution's overthrow of the old order, according to Mr. Loomis.
He also designed the art school, giving it the feel of an African village
"fused with the heightened
sensuality and eroticism of the tropics," wrote one researcher.
Mr. Garatti designed the ballet school. He wanted it to be tropical
and at one point even considered
submerging it. He settled on huge wooden fanlights, dark passageways and majestic Catalan domes
that appeared to defy gravity.
He also created the music school, an innovative, snakelike structure
nearly 400 yards long and filled
with lights and shadows. Only a third of it was built.
The drama school was Mr. Gottardi's project. Much of it is now covered
by vegetation, far from
what the architect envisioned. Using bricks and little else, he wanted to build an urban village with
streets leading to a stage in the center.
"A lot of people want me to finish the project exactly as I designed
it, but I think that would be a
mistake," he says now. "Cuba's changed, I've changed. I'm not the same boy I was."
Cuban students have been using four of the five art schools since even
before they officially opened.
The scholarship program for foreign students never materialized, however, and the buildings have had
very little maintenance for 35 years, Cuban architects say.
The schools, Mr. Porro said, emerged at a time when the revolution was
"more surrealist than
Then socialism kicked in – and so did the criticism.
The Catalan vaults are going to collapse, killing the students, warned
some party hard-liners, adding
that reinforced concrete should have been used.
By 1963, the government had banned private architectural practices.
Officials began encouraging the
standardized building designs that the Soviets favored and shunned such innovators as Mr. Porro, said
Mr. Loomis. Some Castro loyalists even left decapitated chickens on Mr. Porro's lawn; he left for
Paris in 1966.
Mr. Garatti returned to Italy in 1974 after the Cubans jailed him for
three weeks on what were later
seen as trumped-up espionage charges.
"These architects were first given a commission to do a job. They really
believed they were creating a
new utopia, a new world. Then they had the rug pulled out from them," Mr. Loomis said. "They were
treated very, very badly."
The government's decision to finish the schools puts "these very fine
architects ... back on the map,"
For nearly a decade, some Cuban and foreign architects had been quietly
pushing for a renovation of
the academy. The government began replastering some of the dance school's walls in 1997, but little
else was done.
Mr. Loomis published his book in early 1999. As the story goes, it wound
up in Mr. Castro's hands,
and he ordered the schools repaired. The government summoned the three original architects, and
they met in Cuba in December 1999 – their first encounter in more than three decades.
The architects say the schools' political message to the world in the
'60s was that culture and
education were among the top priorities of the small, embattled island. That message in today's Cuba
is as important as ever, Castro supporters say.
Still, money may be an obstacle, Mr. Loomis said.
"Cuba has committed to restoring the schools, but they're struggling
to put together the financial
pieces," he said.
Meanwhile, the World Monuments Fund in New York has added the schools
to its list of the 100
most-endangered sites. The group raises money to preserve imperiled cultural sites around the globe,
though fund officials say they can't send any money to Cuba because of the U.S. ban on trade with
Still, the art schools – the youngest site the group has ever recognized
– represent "an extraordinary
example of revolutionary architecture for that epoch," fund vice president John Stubbs said. "They
have many character-defining features, including a very daring use of thin-shelled domes. They are
Mr. Loomis went further, calling the schools "the most memorable architectural
works of the Cuban
revolution ... the most genuine architectural expression of cubanida " – that which is Cuban.