“Cuba will count as having the most beautiful academy of arts in the world”. With these words, late Cuban leader and dictator Fidel Castro announced the ambitious project for the National Art Schools in Havana. In the wake of the Revolution, Castro and Che Guevara commissioned to three young architects a visionary masterpiece that should have become an example of the country’s freedom of expression. After over 50 years, the neglected building survived its commissioners and still stands as a crumbling witness of the history of Cuba.
Five pavilions composed of Catalan-vaulted brick and terracotta structures took the place of a former golf course in Havana. The project aimed to reflect the utopian optimism and revolutionary exuberance. “It had an open design. Open as the revolution used to be…” Said late Cuban architect Ricardo Porro who designed the building with Italians Vittorio Garatti and Roberto Gottardi.
In the Unfinished Spaces documentary, Alysa Nahmias and Benjamin Murray narrate how this dream fell into ruins – Watch the trailer. As Cuba moved closer to the Soviet Union heading to 1962 missile crisis, the government favoured Soviet-style architecture. The construction was abruptly halted and the architects and their designs were deemed irrelevant in the prevailing political climate.
In 1974, Garatti was arrested, imprisoned and expelled from Cuba. Porro was forced to flee the country; in in 2014 he passed away in Paris after over 50 years of exile. Gottardi is still one of the most well-respected local architects even if he managed to complete only small projects as, until 2011, Cuban architects could work with one commissioner only: the state.
Eventually, in 2007, Castro ordered a complete rehabilitation that should stabilised the incomplete pavilions and aimed to restore the pavilions of the schools of dance and plastic arts. But 2008 world crisis halted the construction site again.
New initiatives by UNESCO, the Italian Embassy and international Cuban ballet dancer Carlos Acosta might save the site. In 2016 the complex was listed on World Monuments Watchlist. International architecture community hopes the Cuban government will finally find a sustainable way to restore these fading pieces of history before they are lost forever.