In the aftermath of the Cuban Revolution, it’s said that Fidel Castro and Che Guevara conceived a grand plan for an abandoned luxury golf course. It would be a campus for fine arts and house the National Art Schools. And it would be the envy of the world.
Five schools were conceived, all in a style that rejected the popular modernist aesthetic. Instead, architects Ricardo Porro, Roberto Gottardi and Vittorio Garrati set out to create a wholly new, Cuban style of architecture.
But within five years of the groundbreaking, the conditions under which the architects were working shifted dramatically. A Soviet-inspired emphasis on pre-fab Functionalist architecture gained favour in the Ministry of Construction, and the sculptural forms of the National Art Schools were seen as elitist – aristocratic, even. Two of the architects were forced to leave the country. Two schools have been in continuous use, but not maintained, and the others were abandoned. The school of ballet, situated theatrically at the floor of a ravine, eventually became overgrown by jungle.
The fortunes of this campus, from highs of early construction to years of neglect and ultimately restoration, also reflect the story of Cuba. In Unfinished Spaces, filmmakers Alysa Nahmias and Ben Murray look at the history of this unique project and the restoration efforts currently underway. In the 1980s, the more permissive Ministry of Culture advocated a restoration effort that has been underway since 1999. Since then, Ricardo Porro’s schools of plastic arts and dance has been completed, and Roberto Gottardi’s school of theatre is next in line for restoration.
“The schools have a different traditional lineage than standard institutional buildings,” says Murray, who also worked with Nathaniel Kahn on My Architect. “No columns, no single grand entrance, no rigid formality. These buildings are derived from a native, romantic Latin American tradition. I was impressed with how the buildings were integrated into the landscape. The spacial relation of being there on foot was breathtaking.”
“The schools are a perfect reflection of the architectural ideology of the revolution,” he says. “Over the years, the upkeep and renovation of the schools is tied to the ideology of the country.”
With a standing embargo on outside funding, financing the restorations will be difficult. But having prevailed for nearly 50 years, overcoming neglect and encroaching jungle, the buildings have proved to be remarkably resilient, and are in use even today, full of the students’ energetic creativity. “It’s inspiring to see architecture have such a direct impact on how students positively relate to their environment,” says Murray.
Unfinished Spaces will have its Canadian premiere at the Design Exchange (234 Bay St. Toronto, ON) on January 19, with screenings at the IFC Center in New York and the Dochouse in London, U.K. in February. See the film’s website for showtimes and tickets. unfinishedspaces.com