Beyond the gate, the road curves gently among the sloping lawns and trees of what was once known as the finest golf course in the Caribbean. The din of the tropical birds fluttering above blends with the notes from a trombone which grows louder as we approach and now mixes with a couple of trumpets: Next to the old clubhouse three youngsters stand facing the sprawling lawn and practice scales on their instruments. They are students in the school of music, one of the five departments that make up the Instituto Superior de Arte, Cuba’s remarkable arts academy that’s now a monument to the revolution’s imagination — and one of its failures.
Beyond the trees is a site that has been added to the World Monuments Fund endangered watch list and is arguably one of the most significant places in modern Cuban and world architecture. The campus, nestled in the west Havana neighborhood of Cubanacán, sits on the grounds of what was the Havana Country Club, playground of the moneyed elites who ruled the island in its pre-revolutionary heyday. It was so exclusive that it was famously off limits even to Fulgencio Batista; as a Cuban of mixed race, the dictator who did the bidding of American interests was not allowed in the club.
The landscape by itself transmits a feeling of luxury, but it is beyond the wide lawns and tropical vegetation that one enters a truly magical park. Here a collection of buildings emerge from the mangroves in hemicycles, similar to oriental temples of some forgotten cult. Massive circular domes dot the landscapes, and tall vaults appear to billow over the thick canopy as hot air balloons made of brick and ceramic. The site is reminiscent of a postmodern Pompeii or the valley of Angkor Wat, as upon closer inspection the buildings are largely in disrepair, many sprouting plants from the cracks, like ancient Mayan pyramids. Because this massive architectural project has in fact been abandoned and largely forgotten for the better part of 50 years, left for the jungle to reclaim.
What was born to be, in the words of Fidel Castro himself, “the most beautiful art academy in the world,” today remains as a kind of involuntary archeological site, a monument to the exuberant promise of the Cuban revolution and to one of its prominent failures. Now, as talk of change on the island has become ever louder, spurred by the calculated symbolism of the Obama and Rolling Stones visits, ISA could potentially once again become a topical palace for Cuba.
About 1,000 students study here today, in the School for Plastic Arts, the only complete department of the university-level academy, which originally was meant to instruct 6,000 students. Four additional schools were never finished, their remarkable buildings left in semi-constructed limbo until they were “rediscovered” by John Loomis, an American architect and teacher who wrote about the site and its three designers: Cuban architect Ricardo Porro and two Italians, Vittorio Garatti and Roberto Gottardi.
His 1999 book Revolution of Forms: Cuba’s Forgotten Art Schools, which inspired a documentary and even a musical opera directed by Robert Wilson, tells how in January 1961, Castro and Che Guevara, after shooting a round of golf, had thought about how to repurpose the freshly requisitioned country club. The idea that struck them like thunderbolt, the story goes, was to transform that emblematic epicenter of privilege and inequality into an institution that would embody the victorious revolution’s progressive momentum and forge the next generation of artists for the nascent egalitarian nation. As the former Cuban Vice President Carlos Rafael Rodriguez recalled, “an incubator of culture … which should become the fountain of our future artists, the creators or interpreters of tomorrow’s socialism.”
Loomis writes of how the commission went to three young architects, idealists whose careers had crossed in Venezuela and who, like many intellectuals in those tumultuous and hopeful years, had converged on revolutionary Havana to contribute to the emerging utopia. “I arrived in Cuba in December of 1960,” recalls Gottardi, an architect who is 89 today and who has made the island his permanent home. “For us the revolution represented hope, the promise of radical change in all directions, in the world, in our lives … in our careers.”
Gottardi studied in his hometown, Venice, under Bruno Zevi and Carlo Scarpa. Like his colleague, Garatti (he had been a classmate of Gae Aulenti at Milan’s Politecnico university), he had been strongly influenced by the anti-rationalist modernism articulated by architecture scholar Ernesto Nathan Rogers and his Milanese studio BBPR. Soon, after landing on this island of virgin promise, they were given the opportunity to put into practice some of the theories of “organic” building which Rogers had put forth when he edited the prestigious architecture magazines Domus and Casabella.
At ISA the architects would be able to build according to ideals that opposed the formal rigor prevalent in the modern International Style. To Loomis, Ricardo Porro, who died in 2004, described the excitement of the time as one of those moments “common to every revolution, during which the marvelous becomes the everyday,” a moment “more surrealist than socialist.”
An original Cuban vernacular
Encouraged by Fidel himself, the architects got to work in a converted chapel near the site. They divided their assignments, each working separately on the chosen schools, without a unified plan but in singular stylistic harmony, so that as the buildings took shape they conversed organically with the site and with each other.
An immediate problem, however, was the scarcity of building materials in a country already feeling the sting of the American embargo. The lack of Portland cement for instance, led the architects to adopt the Catalan vault as their preferential structure. The technique, developed in North Africa and the Mediterranean, allows for the construction of lightweight but extremely strong supporting vaults using brick, mortar and tile. The slight curvature of the vaults allowed them to cover large spaces with optimal load-bearing distribution. The materials they used were cheap, and the technique allowed the architects to develop an original Cuban vernacular, which emphasized the nation’s cultural ties to Europe and Africa.
Porro, Garatti and Gottardi worked tirelessly, infused with the enthusiasm of their young careers and empowered by the contagious optimism Cuba broadcast to the hemisphere. The first buildings were completed, but at the same time the youthful revolution began to be overshadowed by more practical matters. In 1962 the Cuban Missile Crisis was a harsh reminder of the geopolitical realities that rudely intruded on the initial idealism of Castro’s Cuba. As the conflict with the U.S. was heightened by American intransigence, Castro was pushed toward a forced alliance with the Soviet Union in the backdrop of a Cold War, which grew ever hotter in its African and Southeast Asian flashpoints. Cuban isolation was exacerbated by the American economic siege as the revolution began to show signs of a revisionist involution. In Cuba as elsewhere before it, art suffered the bitter fate of preceding avant-gardes, from Russia to Weimar.
Critics began to assail Porro, Garatti and Gottardi’s experimentation as aesthetic elitism. The ever more defensive political posture — and growing influence of the Soviet sphere — coincided with a growing utilitarian strain in aesthetics. The familiar trajectory eventually concluded with ISA construction coming to a halt. Porro and Garatti were subsequently forced to leave the country.
“When they pushed us out in ’65,” Gottardi euphemistically recalls, “people came in that did not do nice things.”
The school opened with only one department complete, a diminished curriculum and the addition of an absurdly incongruous East German-style dormitory building. Painted blue in the middle of campus, this antithetically angular building is nothing if not programmatic: a multi-ton concrete negation of the original buildings’ flowing forms, an architectural jackboot whose penitentiary-like dorm blocks are reviled and still loathed as deadening by current students.
“They made us sleep in this horrible building that looks like an East German prison,” says Yoenis, a third–year theater student who volunteered to show us around. “Since the school was never finished we’re always short on space and sometimes we have to have classes in there, too.”
For Yoenis and the other kids who paint and practice in the luminous domed studios of the School of Plastic Arts, and often scamper over the ruins, using them as impromptu rehearsal spaces for theater or dance projects, the unfinished buildings are a daily reminder of what might have been but never was — both in their school and their country. “We need Internet, damn it!” says Pedro, a freshman in the painting department. “How are we supposed to learn without it in this day and age?” he adds with the universal exasperation of youth, and the particular frustration of Cuban youth.
The way forward
In this place, so emblematic of geopolitical conflict and of the historic clash of ideologies, the modern ruins are all the more symbolic. Whether it be of the congenital failure of Castro’s revolution to deliver on its promise, or of the thuggish, 50-year American effort to ensure we could never know whether it would have done so if left to its own devices. Ultimately in many ways these buildings frozen in time stand as testament of the adult world arrayed against the imagination of youth — of crushed creative aspirations that are all the more ironic on this campus. And today they underscore the generational fault lines that divide this country as it contemplates a way forward.
We visited the school just days after Obama had come and gone. After his departure, Castro broke his silence, sarcastically rejecting unsolicited “gifts from the Empire.” A sharp retort to a perceived condescension which heartened critics of American hegemony, whose hostile policies — including the embargo and the base at Guantanamo — are after all still in effect.
But among the students it was apparent that historical correctness is now less compelling than the idea of a way forward. Not the embittered and vindictive rancor of the Cuban diaspora, not through their fathers’ fight, but simply the universal yearning for a more optimistic future. And some think the writing is already on the wall.
Just down the street from the school stands the working studio of Alexis Leiva Machado, known as “Kcho.” Here Cuba’s most famous contemporary artist is working on an installation for Shanghai’s Power Station of Art museum, curated by Shanghai Biennale director Li Xu. On the wall that bears his name a new sign appeared last year: “Google.” The Internet giant has teamed with the artist to sponsor a free wi-fi hotspot in the studio’s courtyard. It’s a tentative sign perhaps of potential changes waiting beyond a still uncertain horizon.
In the meantime, through the efforts of Loomis and fellow architect Michele Paradiso, the ISA site has been added the World Monuments Fund’s endangered watch list, and talk has resumed about the possible completion and restoration of the buildings, including Gottardi’s School of Theater, with possible financing from the Italian government.
“That’s what they told me,” says the aging architect who would be eager to supervise new construction. “I’m waiting for confirmation from the ambassador. I am an optimist — even though I would have good reason not to be. I’d like to finish those buildings. It would be like lovers finding each other after a crushed idyll — and 50 years later telling each other everything.”