Revolutionary Architecture: How Cuba's National Arts Schools Were Disgraced and Reclaimed

A golf course, a bold design, exile and return.

Image
Toml1959/Flickr

The Cuban Revolution had barely finished when Fidel Castro and Che Guevara staged one of the iconic moments of post-Batista Cuba. Dressed in green fatigues and black combat boots, the two commandantes hit the links. Mugging for photographers, they goofed around on a golf course in the posh Havana suburb of Cubanacán. "Castro Tries Sport of the Idle Rich," ran the front page headline in the New York Times.

It was at that moment, apparently, that Castro decided to turn the symbol of privilege into one of the first significant architectural projects of the new regime. The golf course would become the campus of the Cuban National Arts Schools. The appropriation hinted at the possibilities of what a communist government might accomplish. The transformation seemed to embody all the promise of the revolution.

Courtesy Flickr user Toml1959

Castro gave architects Ricardo Porro, Vittorio Garatti, and Robert Gattardi a mere two months to formulate a plan. They worked on site, and students began arriving even as construction was underway. "The construction began and the students began also," Porro told the Atlantic last year. "Taking classes and working in the houses. It was crazy. But you know, that’s a revolution."

Porro's design, a spiral of Catalan-vaulted rooms and covered passageways, was, like many acts of revolutionary architecture, a search for new and organic forms. Rejecting the International Style as the architecture of capitalism, the team designed the five schools to look new and different, a fitting goal for that time and place. The site plan encouraged disciplines to cross, on the passageways of the campus as well as in the minds of the students.

Sketch courtesy of Ricardo Porro, via the Atlantic

But like so much of the Cuban revolutionary vision, it turned sour. The designers were accused of invoking primitive forms that recalled the Capitalist past. The aesthetic of the revolution turned toward Soviet-style functionalism, and away from the inventive, experimental forms that had inspired the young architects. Porro and his colleagues were branded as both backwards and bourgeois. The government halted construction in 1965, months before the schools were completed. Some of the buildings were used but allowed to decay. Others were consumed by the jungle.

Porro was forced into exile. He recalled the sudden opposition to his designs:

"In Kafka there is a moment in which the man who is accused begins to understand that something is happening around him, and suddenly he feels that they are talking bad of him. He knows they are judging him, but he doesn’t know who or where, and at the end he is condemned, and he doesn’t know of what or why. That is the sensation I felt when I was forbidden in Cuba."

Redemption began with a groundswell of support from students and scholars in the 1980s. Helped along greatly by the 1999 publication of Revolution of Forms, a book by the American architect and professor John Loomis, the National Art Schools became a destination for visitors. Cuban officials also recognized the brilliance of the project, one of two projects from Communist Cuba to be included in Phaidon's 20th Century World Architecture. In 2009, Cuba declared the buildings a national monument.

The new documentary Unfinished Spaces, currently on tour in the U.S, explores the construction and rehabilitation of the schools:

Unfinished Spaces - official trailer (Espacios inacabados) from UNFINISHED SPACES on Vimeo.

About the Author

  • Henry Grabar is a freelance writer and a former fellow at CityLab. He lives in New York.