I dined recently with a Cuban friend; a highly educated and culturally sophisticated woman, now living in New York, who was an ardent Fidelista well into the 1980s — far longer than most in her circle of family and friends. After I mentioned attending a screening of the new documentary film, Unfinished Spaces, about the National Art Schools in Havana, Marilu burst out: “What is it about the Art Schools? Why do foreigners love them so much? There’s nothing Cuban about those buildings. They’re ridiculous architecture for Havana and I always hated them.” What is it about the Art Schools? Good question. Whatever one thinks about the quality or appropriateness of the design, there is no question but that the schools have captured the fancy of North American and European architecture aficionados, who have turned the complex into a pilgrimage site, an object of adulation and the singular emblem of post-revolution Cuban architecture.
The story of the Cuban National Art Schools (las Escuelas Nacionales de Arte, or ENA; I will use the Spanish acronym going forward) is compelling. In January of 1961 — two years after the military success of the revolution — Fidel Castro and Che Guevara, in an ostentatious act of political theater, went to the exclusive Havana Country Club to play a round of golf. Admiring the landscape, Castro declared that the club grounds would make an excellent site for an academy of the arts. The property was promptly nationalized and work commenced to create “the best art schools in the world.” 1 The task of designing the school was assigned to Ricardo Porro, a young Cuban architect who had produced a number of distinctive houses in Havana in the 1950s but had spent the last years of the decade in exile due to his run-ins with the Batista government, returning only after the revolution. Porro enlisted as collaborators two Italian architects whom he had met when working in Caracas: Vittorio Garatti and Roberto Gottardi. With Porro as lead planner, the trio and their clients in the Ministry of Culture decided that the five faculties of the academy would be housed in separate structures. Porro elected to design the buildings for the schools of fine arts and modern dance, Garatti the schools of music and ballet, and Gottardi the school of drama.
Work proceeded at unimaginable speed and ground was broken only two hectic months after the start of design. Architectural drawings were produced steps ahead of the construction crews. With steel scarce due to the U.S.-imposed trade embargo, the schools were built using locally produced materials, primarily brick for walls and tiles for Catalan roof vaults; materials beautifully deployed for the expressive, organic forms of the school buildings. The site teemed with creative activity. Then, abruptly in 1965, work on the art schools was halted. Money was running out and the government questioned the priority of an art academy among the country’s many pressing needs. Doubts were voiced as to the appropriateness of the architectural designs, which by this time were viewed by many in the official hierarchy as suspiciously individualistic. By 1965 the Cuban revolution had come under the patronage of the Soviet Union, and Russian advisors steered the Cuban Ministry of Construction towards industrialized building production and standardization — a model to which the Art Schools represented the polar opposite.
Porro, undoubtedly more sensitive to the shifting political winds, had rushed the construction of his two schools, and the buildings for painting and sculpture and for modern dance were essentially finished at the time of the project’s cancellation. The School of Ballet, designed by Garatti, was likewise very near completion, but the director of the classical dance program, the famed ballerina Alicia Alonso, refused to move from Old Havana to suburban Cubanacán, which left the building unoccupied but for intermittent uses and ultimately abandoned. Garatti’s School of Music and Gottardi’s School of Drama were each only about half finished, but the faculty and students moved in anyway to inhabit these sites of arrested construction. Disillusioned, Ricardo Porro left Cuba for France in 1966. Garatti segued into city planning, but after being accused of espionage he was expelled from Cuba in 1974. Only Roberto Gottardi, who married a Cuban, remains in Havana. With little funding for maintenance, most acutely during the “Special Period” after the collapse of the Soviet Union, ENA slid into disrepair and became a jungle-choked ruin.
The art schools were virtually unknown outside of Cuba — and largely ignored within — until the publication of John Loomis’s ground-breaking Revolution of Forms: Havana’s Forgotten Art Schools in 1999. Loomis, an architect, had traveled to Havana and, like an explorer searching for the lost city of El Dorado, found his way to the ENA campus and was smitten. He spent six years photographing the buildings, researching their history, interviewing the architects and other protagonists in their creation, and writing a lucid text to deliver the story. The book was a revelatory introduction for the greater world to a neglected architectural masterpiece. In a new prologue to the updated edition, published in 2011, Loomis writes that “written history is usually a passive document.” Now we know that this is not really true (passive aggressive might be the correct term), but the influence of Revolution of Forms on the subsequent fate of its subject is impressive.
Even prior to the first publication of the book, the World Monuments Fund placed the Escuelas Nacionales de Arte on its Watch List of endangered sites. In March 1999 the three architects were reunited, in Los Angeles, for the first time since 1966, for the launch of the book and an exhibition sponsored by the MAK Center (and reprised days later in New York, at Columbia University). Apprised of the growing international attention focused on ENA, at a 1999 congress of the Union Nacional de Escritores y Artistas Cubanas, Fidel Castro declared the schools to be a national treasure and announced his determination that they be restored. This led to the convening of the three architects in Havana to talk about the completion of their grand project, which effort is now underway (if slowly, due to the desperate state of the Cuban economy). Far from neglected, ENA is now a must-stop for every architectural tour group visiting Havana. John Loomis’s book also set off a minor industry of cultural production focused on the art schools — a veritable ENAmania.
The documentary film Unfinished Spaces, by Alysa Nahmias and Benjamin Murray, which made its recent debut at the Los Angeles Film Festival and has since been making the rounds of venues including, in December 2011, the Havana Film Festival, gives compelling voice to the tale of ENA as first told by John Loomis. The film is dense with content of value and beauty. Archival newsreels are effectively used to convey the sense of enthusiasm and optimism that prevailed in Cuba during the early, triumphal days of the revolution, and period photographs and film clips illustrate the history of the art schools, their design and construction. Interviews with participants in the creation of the Escuelas Nacionales de Arte including, most significantly, the three architects, are oral history documents of incalculable value, the opportunity for which, if Nahmias and Murray had not persevered with their multi-year project, would simply have been lost. As octogenarian Vittorio Garatti quipped about the stated desire to complete the schools while the original architects are still around, “Apurense.” Hurry up.
Unfinished Spaces also suggests how assiduously the record is being rewritten. The Argentine Roberto Segre was, in the 1960s and 70s, the quasi-official architectural historian and apologist for the revolution, and as such led the intellectual campaign to discredit the architecture of ENA as counter-revolutionary. So it is delicious to see and hear him backpedal to conclude that maybe the buildings aren’t so bad, after all. And, in a similar vein, it is remarkable to hear Fidel Castro, in a clip from his October 1999 speech at UNEAC, implausibly claim that he had no idea that the art schools had never been completed and was saddened to learn so. Interviews with younger cultural figures, including several well-known artists who studied at ENA, add the contemporary viewpoint and remind us that the campus is revered not just as an architectural artifact but also as a vital institution. These interviews and extracts from the archives are enough to justify high praise for Unfinished Spaces; but there’s more, in the form of beautifully filmed views that capture the extraordinary quality of the architecture but without (I am thankful to note) dwelling excessively on the romantic quality of the ruins.
Unfinished Spaces tells a compelling story of a heroic educational and architectural enterprise that fell victim to changing political and economic circumstances, but which may, in the end, prevail. Still, the film oversimplifies the story and gets some not-so-small details wrong. (Full disclosure: I served as an adviser to the project and my name is there in the credits.) When the narrator states that after work on the schools was cancelled, and the Cuban government shifted construction methods to “Soviet style prefabrication” — eliciting boos and hisses from the audience — the illustration that flashes on the screen is of prefabricated building components being craned into place; but this is hard to identify as “Soviet style,” and in fact looks like a cheery promo film from a contracting company that could be anywhere.
In general I found the use of the phrase “Soviet style” to describe any architecture that was, well, not ENA, glib and pandering. To illustrate an interview with Porro in which he invokes the same term, we see a photo of an apartment building that is indistinguishable from any number of public housing projects built in the same era in the United States or Europe, and perhaps better for the inclusion of balconies. I grant that Cuban architecture hit abysmal lows in the 1970s and ’80s, but was it really all “Soviet style,” or indeed that far out of step with contemporaneous international ideas of urban development? And the closing words on the screen — “In 2009 … the Cuban government cut funding for non-productive architecture projects, including the National Schools of Art” (more boos and hisses) — I found to be gratuitously negative. As the final sequence notes, this happened in the context of a world economic crisis and two major hurricanes. In 2009 Harvard University suspended work on its planned expansion in Alston after its endowment plummeted. Might Cuba, additionally punished by natural disaster, not react similarly? 2
And now — after the book and its recent reissue, and the documentary film — we can look forward to an opera about the Art Schools. Charles Koppelman, a San Francisco-based film maker, inspired by the Loomis book, has undertaken the translation of the story of ENA for the operatic stage. Entitled Cubanacán: A Revolution of Forms, the project has gone through several iterations, as such things do. I attended a 2005 workshop presentation of an excerpt at Robert Wilson’s Watermill Center, in Southampton, NY, and a 2010 performance of musical selections as part of the New York City Opera’s VOX series. I didn’t really recognize the place or the protagonists, but these were just sketches of a work very much in progress, and the concept was compelling. At the time, Placido Domingo was said to be interested in playing the role of Ricardo Porro. I am told that the work is now progressing well as a joint Cuban-American artistic project, with Koppelman completing the libretto and working with an impressive team of Havana-based collaborators, including composer Roberto Valera and musical director Zenaida Romeu.The story of ENA certainly has the ingredients for operatic treatment: tumultuous social and political context, big egos, grand plans, tragic denouement. How many operas about architecture do we have? I can think of Daron Hagen’s Shining Brow, about Frank Lloyd Wright (and not exactly a staple in the repertoire), but little else — and an opera about a living architect? This is surely unique — and I can report that Sr. Porro, who is a close friend of mine, is duly impressed and not the least bit displeased.
I proceed with this essay with some trepidation, as all of the aforementioned protagonists in the story of ENA, its rediscovery and celebration, are (with the exception of Fidel Castro, whom I’ve never met) friends or acquaintances whose work I admire. My intention is not to deprecate anyone’s book, film or opera nor, certainly, the buildings of ENA themselves. Let me be perfectly clear: I consider las Escuelas Nacionales de Arte to be masterworks of extraordinary beauty and importance in the histories of Cuba and modern architecture. My interest here is in the interpretation and valuation of ENA by non-Cubans in ways that, I feel, have distorted the true narrative of the project’s genesis, demise and resurrection; a story that might be corrected by the provision of essential context. Moreover I fear that the excessive attention focused on the Art Schools has occluded our view of post-1959 Cuban architecture to the extent that a larger and richer story is ignored.
Let us recapitulate the story of ENA. Idealistic young architects come to Cuba to lend their talents to the revolution. Consistent with the optimism of the moment they design an academic campus for the arts of exceptional vision — a unique and fitting monument to the revolution. With heroic effort the designers and construction crew, which included students at the schools, forge ahead, only to be stopped short by philistine government bureaucrats in thrall to their new Soviet patrons, thus ending revolutionary Cuba’s short-lived support of progressive design. The expressive, humane architecture is labeled counterrevolutionary and condemned to languish, unfinished, for decades, until the schools are discovered by foreigners who lobby internationally for their preservation and restoration. This is the story related with some complexity and nuance in Loomis’s book, condensed with appealing visuals into the 86 minutes of Nahmias and Murray’s film, and sure to be pumped up to heroic dimension in Koppelman’s opera. Unfortunately this seductive and dramatic story is incomplete, oversimplified and misleading. It seems that in order to illuminate the story of the Art Schools the authors of these works felt it necessary to cast shadow on the activities and output of other Cuban architects working in this heady period. Whether this is active erasure or passive neglect — or the unfortunate exigencies of the publishing, filmmaking and opera industries, in which it’s the big story simply told that sells — the effect is the same.
In fact, in 1961, when construction on the art schools began, ENA was hardly the only project of social vision and architectural daring in the young government’s portfolio. Just months after Fidel Castro entered Havana in triumph in January 1959, his administration embarked on a construction program of extraordinary ambition, pledging, in fulfillment of political promises, the delivery of much-needed infrastructure and social service facilities. The pace of construction in Cuba during the first, heroic phase of the revolution was prodigious, the output impressive both in quantity and quality of design. It was a moment during which the socialist government and a major portion of the Cuban artistic and intellectual avante garde were in mutually supportive synchrony. A young, progressive cadre of architects — most of their elders in the profession having left the island along with their wealthy clients — was entrusted with building the new Cuba. The variety and quality of innovative designs that were realized across the island —including housing, schools, hospitals, clinics, agricultural stations, workers’ vacation villages and recreation complexes — are eye-popping. 3
It is difficult to single out just a few outstanding projects, but any survey would include the spectacular medical school campus in Santiago de Cuba by Rodrigo Tascón (1964), a delightful Havana primary school composed of round classrooms (Rafael Mirabal, 1963), Octavio Buigas’s bravura work in thin-shell concrete at the Parque Deportivo José Martí (1960) on Havana’s Malecón, Mario Girona’s much-loved Coppelia ice cream parlor (1966) in the Vedado district of Havana, the Centro Nacional de Investigaciones Científicas (1966) by Joaquín Galván, and several projects by Antonio Quintana. 4 But ultimately the construction boom of the 1960s proved unsustainable. The U.S. embargo, imposed by the Kennedy administration in 1964, achieved its objective of wrecking the Cuban economy (with help from some misguided policies on the part of Cuban government planners). Much had been accomplished but many visionary development projects were aborted, in most cases not because they had fallen into any ideological disfavor but, more prosaically, just ran out of money.
Las Escuelas Nacionales de Arte was the smallest of the three Proyectos Grandes planned for the city of Havana by the Castro government (so identified by Roberto Segre in his 1970 book Diez Años de Arquitectura en Cuba Revolucionaria), the others being Habana del Este, a 1,306-unit, mixed-scale housing complex of intelligent design built at the eastern terminus of the harbor tunnel, and Ciudad Universitaria José Antonio Echeverria (CUJAE), a new campus built on the city outskirts to house the technical faculties of the University of Havana, including architecture, engineering and the sciences (and named after a martyred leader of the revolutionary student movement, who happened to be an architecture student). Unlike ENA, Habana del Este (1959-1961) and CUJAE (1964, first phase) were completed on schedule and have been gainfully occupied ever since.
CUJAE presents the most apt comparison to ENA, being an academic campus as well as the project most often cited — initially and positively by “official” historians like Segre and, later and negatively, by non-Cuban commentators — as representing the ideologically correct way to build in post-revolution Cuba. Designed by Humberto Alonso, Fernando Salinas, José Fernandez and others, the high-tech buildings were erected using an advanced system of prefabricated concrete components with expressively articulated joints and connections. Classroom buildings are single-loaded with exterior circulation, brises soleil and cross-ventilation; raised on piloti to create exterior walkways that protect students from the sun and the afternoon downpours. The beautiful complex is an exemplary model for a university campus in a tropical climate.
Industrialized construction? Yes, of course. Soviet-style prefabrication? Hardly. CUJAE was designed before Soviet advisors came to influence Cuban construction programs, and Cuban architects, in 1960, did not need the Russians to stimulate their interest in prefabrication. Industrialized construction methods were very much in the air in the 1960s, around the world. With good reason, progressive architects in Cuba felt that prefabrication might be the key to the expedited realization of a revolutionary utopia. Government-sponsored research on industrialized architectural production was particularly intense in the housing sector, with some wonderfully innovative schemes produced by Cuban architects in the 1960s. 5 John Loomis gives fair credit to Alonso and the quality of his design, but incorrectly concludes that CUJAE was a ”unique example, not to be repeated.” Construction techniques pioneered at CUJAE were repeated many times over in hundreds of secondary schools, technical academies and university campuses built across the island in the 1960s. To be sure, few of the simplified, provincial models display the finesse of CUJAE, but they accomplished the job of delivering superior educational facilities to communities that needed them.
Too often we allow geography to inform judgment. Prejudicial attitudes toward societies other than our own, lazy ignorance or innocent unfamiliarity can affect our interpretation and valuation of foreign cultural production. To the case at hand; when architectural prefabrication is essayed by, for example, Paul Rudolph in New Haven (Oriental Masonic Gardens, 1968-71) or Moshe Safdie in Montreal (Habitat 67), North Americans laud the effort as visionary experimentation (even if noble failures), while contemporaneous projects in Cuba (let alone the eastern bloc countries) are, without examination, condemned as “Soviet-style” regimentation (even if they succeeded). In rather the same way, the stripped classicism of the 1930s in Berlin or Rome is labeled “fascist,” but in the District of Columbia is seen as the appropriate continuation of the classical idiom of the capital of democracy.
In fact, the unique example, not to be repeated, was ENA. Ricardo Porro idealistically sought a path to a new “Cubanidad” in architecture that would eschew North American and European paradigms and, in general, mainstream modernism. With real genius, he proffered a new design model based on organic form and polycentric planning, evoking tropical sensuality and the African ingredient of Cuba’s heritage. But the fact of the matter is that not everyone in Cuba thought then (or thinks today) that an African village is such a terrific model for a 20th-century academic campus — nor, for that matter, is a medieval Italian village, which was Roberto Gottardi’s stated inspiration for the School of Dramatic Arts.
Porro, today active on the lecture circuit as a happy consequence of Unfinished Spaces, delights North American audiences with his descriptions of the School of Fine Arts as the embodiment of Ochún, the Afro-Cuban fertility goddess; he notes the series of domes modeled on women’s breasts, and his infamous “papaya” fountain sculpture (“papaya” being crude Cuban slang for vagina), the water to which was turned off by prudes in the communist party. You don’t have to be a stern revolutionary feminist to find such talk problematic. The architecture of ENA is truly unique and it remains so. The low-tech, organic, expressionist model for a new Cuban architecture may have been stillborn on the island, but it clearly caught on outside of Cuba, among non-Cubans; a curious phenomenon that has worked to elevate ENA to a historically imbalanced position of importance and to preclude any deeper understanding of the larger architectural story of the time.
How does one explain this turn of historiography? Or, to return to my friend Marilu’s question: What is it about the art schools? To me it seems clear that we love the Art Schools because they are exotic. It is ENA’s uniqueness, difference and strange beauty that enthrall its international admirers. The buildings fit the outsider’s notion of what Cuban art and architecture should be. CUJAE, in contrast, looks like a thoroughly modern campus that could have been built, to excellent reviews, in any country with an advanced architectural culture — which Cuba in the 1960s most certainly was. ENA, however, is perceived and embraced by outsiders as being somehow more authentically, indigenously Cuban, never mind the fact that it is the product of a cosmopolitan Paris-educated Cuban and two Italians. Don’t try this kind of architecture here in the USA; but for those emotional, sex-crazed Latins, it’s fine; we love it.
The architecture of ENA is seductive, but our North American obsession with its primitive nature betrays a disturbing trace of latent colonialism, condescension and — dare I say? — racism. Far from being representative of the heroic construction efforts associated with the Cuban revolution, ENA is a magnificent anomaly, a masterpiece stranded by time, place and politics. The unique character of the Escuelas Nacionales de Arte heightens the urgency to preserve and rehabilitate them (in all senses of the word) but it makes them an imperfect vessel for all of the meaning that outside observers want to pour into them.