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.