In 1961, Fidel Castro said: “Cuba will count as having the most beautiful academy of arts in the world." The Cuban National Schools of Arts, originally imagined by Castro and Che Guevara, are perhaps the largest architectural achievements of the Cuban Revolution. The innovative design of the schools, which aimed to bring cultural literacy to the nation, encapsulated the radical, utopian vision of the Revolution.
Unfortunately, the nation’s idealistic enthusiasm lasted for a fleeting moment in time and the Schools quickly fell out of favor; they were left to decay before even being completed. Today, following nearly four decades of neglect, the architects have returned to try and bring these derelict schools back to their intended glory.
The National Schools of Art were built on the grounds of a famed country club in Havana, thus transforming an emblem of wealth and capital into a tuition-free, educational institute. Castro commissioned Cuban architect Ricardo Porro, a Latin American modernist, who was then joined by two Italian architects, Vittorio Garatti and Roberto Gottardi; the three were given a mere two months to devise a plan for the Schools.
The architects were guided by three major principles: first, to integrate the schools into the varied, wild character of the site’s landscape; second, to use locally-produced bricks and terracotta tiles, which, following the US embargo on Cuba, were cheaper than imported materials such as steel and cement; and, thirdly, to use the Catalan Vault as the dominant architectural element, as its unique spatial formation would stand in bold contradiction to the geometrical, “capitalistic” architecture of the International Style.
A total of five schools were constructed: Modern Dance, Plastic Arts, Dramatic Arts, Music, and Ballet. All shared a similar approach to material and structure; however, each presented a different interpretation of the site and reflected its specific program. Garatti’s School of Music was a 330-meter serpentine structure, which followed the contour of the river, and was complemented by the Catalan Vaulted spaces and two vast concert and practice halls. Another design of Garatti’s was the School of Ballet, which consisted of a cluster of terracotta-covered, domed pavilions, between which wound intertwining paths that encouraged chance encounters within the complex.
Porro’s School of Dance presents a dynamic composition of non-rectilinear streets and courtyards that sprout from a central entry plaza, covered by fragmented glass sheets that are symbolic of the dramatic shatter of the previous regime. Porro took a different approach with the design of the School of Plastic Arts, which was inspired by the nation’s Cuban-African heritage and assumes an archetypical village structure made up of a series of oval-shaped pavilions of various sizes, connected with curved, shaded colonnades.
The school of Dramatic Arts, the only school designed by Roberto Gottard, contains a dominant, central amphitheatre. Cellular, inward-facing classrooms create a unique, intimate environment; in contrast, the exterior, punctured only by small, unshaded alley-like paths, gives the school a fortress-like appearance.
The enthusiasm that accompanied the schools' inception began to deteriorate with the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. The schools seemed out of scale with the Revolution: an extravagant, unnecessary use of resources. Furthermore, Cuba’s new ally, the communist Soviet Union, preferred anonymously pragmatic, functional architecture, which stood in striking contrast to the organically-inspired, craft-oriented, site-specific designs of Porro, Gottard and Garatti. The three architects were accused of promoting ideals of individual expression, branded as “bourgeois,” cultural elitists, and compelled to leave the country.
In July 1965, and despite the schools’ various stages of completion, construction came to a complete halt. In the years that followed, the schools became a haven for squatters and vandalizers; cattle and wild jungle vegetation soon took over the site. In addition, by the 1970s, people began to adapt the site, constructing prefabricated concrete dormitories as well as roads and paths, which answered pragmatic needs but disrupted the original design.
Changes began to unfold in 1999, when the American architect and historian John Loomis published a book titled Revolution of Forms, which brought the story of Cuba’s forgotten schools into international awareness. That same year in Cuba, José Villa, the chair of the National Council of the National Union of Cuban Writers and Artists, declared the Schools the most important architectural work of the Cuban Revolution.
At last, Castro’s personal attention was piqued and he declared that the time had come to restore the beloved project of his youth. The completion of the schools became a national mission, led by the Minister of Culture himself. Porro and Garatti were invited back to Havana, where they joined Gottard for a historical meeting in which they discussed the challenge of restoring their derelict masterpieces. As part of the plan, the world-renowned architect Norman Foster was invited to redesign the school of Ballet; however, as of now, the Cuban government has paused the restoration due to the global financial crisis.
Mario Coyula, the architect in charge of preservation in Havana, aptly stated of the project: “In most cases, architecture must adapt itself to human need, but in cases of exceptional works of architecture, human need should adapt itself to architecture.”
Check out the trailer to the incredible documentary Unfinished Spaces, directed by Alysa Nahmias and Benjamin Murray, which tells the story of the schools and features interviews with the architects.
Note: This article was originally published on September 12, 2013, and updated on June 27, 2020.
- Year: 1961
- Photographs: Corbin Keech [Flickr] bajo licencia CC BY-NC-ND 2.0, Terry Feuerborn [Flickr] bajo licencia CC BY-NC 2.0, Owen Lin [Flickr] bajo licencia CC BY-NC 2.0, Vittorio Garatti [Wikimedia] bajo licencia CC BY-SA 3.0, toml1959 [Flickr] bajo licencia CC BY-SA 2.0, Dieter Janssen [Wikimedia] bajo licencia CC BY-SA 3.0, DuendeThumb [Wikimedia] bajo licencia CC BY-SA 3.0, vxla [Flickr] bajo licencia CC BY 2.0