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Cuba´s Forgotten Art Schools: (Revolution of Forms)

Cuba´s Forgotten Art Schools: (Revolution of Forms)


“. . . revolutions have their utopian period, in which their protagonists, committed to the noble duty of transforming their dreams into reality and putting into practice their ideals, believe that the historical goals are much closer than they are in reality, and that their will, their desires and their intentions, above and beyond all objective facts, are omnipotent.” Fidel Castro
One late afternoon in January 1961, as the story goes, Fidel Castro and Che Guevara were having drinks at the bar of what had been the exclusive Country Club of Havana’s elite. They had just enjoyed a few rounds of golf on its well manicured course set within a verdant environment and were pondering the future of this unique site for a new society in which exclusive country clubs would be irrelevant. The beautifully landscaped Country Club was the crown jewel in Havana’s most affluent suburb, aptly called Country Club Park, developed in the 1920’s at the far eastern reaches of the city near “whites only” beaches and the Yacht Club. Breaking with the traditional Spanish grid patterns of Havana’s other neighborhoods, Country Club Park’s meandering Garden City drives defined it as a place apart. But with the revolution most of its inhabitants departed, the area was renamed Cubanacán, a name from Cuba’s indigenous past, and the suburb was designated to serve the general population of Havana. Cubanacán’s beaches to the north of the club, were now open to the general public and the whole formerly private preserve was to be devoted to social uses, with the former Country Club occupying an important place. Surveying the immaculate golf course and surrounding woods, the two former guerrilla leaders, now responsible for developing and executing social and cultural policy, came upon the idea of creating an innovative school of the arts.

Education was conceived as the fulcrum around which the Cuban Revolution’s economic, political social and cultural programs would turn. On January 1 a National Literacy Campaign had been launched, sending 235,000 volunteers throughout the country. In the course of just one year they would reduce the country’s illiteracy from 25% to 3.9%. The revolutionary leaders wanted to capitalize upon this wave of popular mobilization and education. Ideas were circulating as to how to extend this success into the promotion of cultural activities. It was a visionary moment for the new revolution, with the literacy campaign just begun, when the idea for the art schools was launched. The newly board of the schools, chaired by Marta Arjona, drew up a program that would serve Cubans as a center for the education of artists and instructors from which to disseminate cultural literacy throughout the island. But in response to Che Guevara’s internationalist interests the program would extend beyond that and also serve as an international center, primarily drawing from the Third World, granting full scholarships to some 2000 students from Africa, Asia and Latin America in service of the creation of a “new culture” for the “new man.” That is, the schools would have the political objective to educate those artists who would give socialism in both Cuba and the Third World its aesthetic representation. Moreover, the schools were conceived as an experimental center for intercultural education and exchange. The idea was without precedent, the site was without precedent, and so too it seemed should the architecture be without precedent. It was desired by all that this visionary spirit in which the program was conceived would be symbolized in its design. Carlos Rafael Rodríguez,

Cuba’s late Vice President recalls the act of founding of the schools:

I remember vividly today that afternoon when compa?ero Fidel Castro, from one of these balconies, accompanied by compa?ero Hart and some others of us, sketched out what was to become the National Art Schools. The place had been, up to a short time before, where both Cuban and foreign aristocrats, would meet in its exclusive confines to enjoy their prosperity derived from the extortion of our people and the exploitation of our wealth. In what had been their favorite golf course, in this beautiful setting, our Secretary General, with that creative imagination for which he is known, outlined for us what would be the image of this new incubator of culture, this new school. And because of the unique features of this site, it was agreed by all, that the school should not be like any ordinary school, for it is precisely because this site and its unique features invite a design appropriate to this environment which should become the fountain of our future artists, the creators or interpreters of tomorrow’s socialism. And so emerged the beginnings of the foundation of the material support for these beautiful buildings by Cuban and foreign architects. So would begin to develop the dream of that afternoon.

The unique qualities of the site and the program demanded a unique vision, and there was no Cuban architect more appropriate for the commission than Ricardo Porro. Newly returned from Venezuela in August 1960, Porro had been occupied with urban planning up until the moment he received the commission for the schools. Even though it was Fidel Castro who would personally give Ricardo Porro “the command” of planning the schools in January 1961, the offer was brought to him by his old friend from university days, Selma Díaz, who was now also the wife of Osmany Cienfuegos, the 25 year old head of the Ministry of Construction (MICONS).

There was a cocktail party at my house. Selma Díaz showed up (uninvited) and told me she had a proposal direct from Fidel, that he wanted to create a school of the arts in what had been the Country Club and that he wanted it to be unlike any other. She said that Fidel wanted its architecture to be completely new and that it should be the most beautiful school ever, and Selma said that he expected them to be complete in two months. I said that this would be impossible. But she replied that this was Fidel’s proposal and I could take it or leave it. So I did what any architect would do, I said yes, of course I would take it.

It was not out of character for Porro to agree to the impossible. Ricardo Porro Hidalgo is a self-confident man with an assertively proud personality. He likes to point out that he was born the year before Fidel Castro, 1925. Porro himself once said, “It has been claimed that my pride is greater than my intelligence, no mean measure in my unhumble opinion.”i Gilberto Seguí, who worked as a young draftsman under Porro on the National Art Schools describes his acquaintance with Porro:

. . . the Revolution had triumphed. All our hopes had been raised. Utopia, everything seemed possible, in politics as well as in architecture. . . [Ricardo Porro] gave a series of lectures at the National Library, each one dedicated to a different architect: Mies van der Rohe, Le Corbusier, Alvar Aalto and finally – Frank Lloyd Wright. Porro used an unknown language. He spoke of art, of poetry. I remember the emotion he aroused in the room when he declared himself a Marxist. . . I introduced myself to Porro one day as we both happened to be on the number 22 bus going toward Marianao. I still remember the welcoming atmosphere of his house in the La Sierra neighborhood, where he lived with his wife and their little boy, surrounded by paintings of Lam, of Milián and ceramics by Picasso. Some of the neighbors were scandalized by Lam’s paintings, believing that they were objects of sorcery ! Porro had just been put in charge of the project for the National Art Schools at Cubanacán. I saw his first sketches. He had produced an architecture of fantasy, with many elements of cubanidad and others non Cuban, but for me they were only comparable with the works I had seen in photos and drawings of Wright. I was enthusiastic, and right away I requested authorization to work with him.

The schools were conceived at an inspired moment. Porro recalls it almost in terms of almost magic realism as “the moment, common to every revolution, during which the marvelous becomes the everyday and the revolution appeared – mas surrealista que socialista.”i To symbolically connect the new cultural program with the unfolding success of the literacy campaign, government officials now imposed a less unreasonable but still demanding deadline for the inauguration of the schools – the official end of the literacy campaign, December, 22 1961. Porro knew he could not accomplish the task alone. To collaborate on the project he called upon architect Iván Espín, brother-in-law of Raúl Castro (who dropped out early on) and the two Italian colleagues with whom he had taught in Venezuela, Roberto Gottardi and Vittorio Garatti. Part of a small but dedicated international community of architectsii who had come to contribute their professional skills to the Cuban Revolution, Gottardi and Garatti had arrived in December 1960 and were working in physical planning with Porro when he invited them to join him on the project for the National Arts Schools.

Gottardi and Garatti brought their own unique talents and experiences to the project. Both had been exposed to antirationalist currents in Italy prior to coming to Cuba. The revisionist thought of Ernesto Nathan Rogers had been an important influence on them as well as on Ricardo Porro who had taken a course with Rogers organized by CIAM in Venice in 1951. The exposure of Garatti and Gottardi to alternatives to the Modern Movement that were proposed in the critical architectural discourse of 1950s Italy, created a sympathetic bond with the similarly influenced Porro who also brought to the project his ongoing search for an authentic architectural cubanidad.

Roberto Gottardi, born 1927 in Venice, studied architecture at the Instituto Superiore di Architettura di Venezia where both Bruno Zevi and Carlo Scarpa were influential. He was an assistant to Scarpa prior to his graduation in 1952. Gottardi credits Scarpa as an important influence on his own approach to design:

Scarpa is the teacher who influenced me the most. He taught me much about architecture as well as about many other things. For me the experience with Scarpa was not about formal codes. It was more about the manner in which to pose a problem and how to think about architecture – something very indirect. Every time I go to Venice, I search out his work and I always learn something new.

From 1955 to 1957 Gottardi worked closely with Ernesto Rogers in the studio BBPR. This environment where theory and practice converged would also be an important part of his formation. In November 1957 upon the invitation of a Venezuelan architect visiting Rogers, Gottardi left for Caracas. There, a mutual friend, the photographer Paolo Gasparini, introduced him to Vittorio Garatti and later to Ricardo Porro who later invited him to follow him to Cuba.

Vittorio Garatti, born 1927 in Milan, graduated from the Politécnico di Milano in 1957 where his classmates were Guido Canela and Gae Aulenti. He left that same year for Caracas with his wife to join his parents and siblings who had immigrated there in 1948. There, after other jobs he found employment in the Banco Obrero where he worked alongside and became friends with Ricardo Porro. Porro provided Garatti an introduction to the university, where he also taught until 1960 when he decided to follow Porro and commit himself to building the Cuban Revolution. Prior to assuming his new responsibilities in Havana, Garatti and his wife took a fifteen day trip to the United States, where he sought out the work of Frank Lloyd Wright in Chicago, Racine and New York. The experience left him deeply impressed, especially the Johnson Wax Building, and further reinforced his convictions about the deficiencies of modernism.

Porro, Gottardi and Garatti began to work on the design of the schools in earnest in late April 1961 after the successfully repelled invasion at Playa Giron (Bay of Pigs) that lasted from April 17-20. The band of 1500 American backed counter-revolutionaries had been easily defeated by the revolutionary armed forces commanded by Fidel Castro himself. This victory added to the confidence and optimism of the population that supported the revolution, and reinforced a general feeling of omnipotence. The three architects, themselves energized by the collective euphoria, labored in a commandeered chapel that had once served the aristocratic Sarrá family at their former residence in Vedado, and which was now the headquarters for the National Council for Culture under the directorship of Vincentina Atuna and the influence of Edith García Buchaca. Important cultural figures such as Alejo Carpentier and Wifredo Lam frequently dropped to visit the surreal environment of the chapel/design studio where the country club of the elite was being transformed into art schools for the children of the workers:

I organized our office in the chapel. It was an marvelous place. To work in the chapel was enchanting. A series of delightful youngsters from the architecture school came to help too. I began to work, Vittorio began to work, and Roberto began to work also. And to work in that dark atmosphere, all night and all day, was a poetic experience, the most beautiful possible. It was clear that the architecture we developed right from the beginning was strongly connected to that of each other, even though I did not intervene in the architecture of the others and they did not intervene in mine. . . Era una arquitectura rica – organica.

The three architects originally conceived the project as a single center with shared services for five schools: Modern Dance, Plastic Arts, Dramatic Arts, Music and Ballet.i But the directors of the schools soon requested that the individual disciplines be accommodated in separate buildings. This generated a new master plan. Besides assuming general leadership, Porro also took responsibility for the design of Modern Dance and Plastic Arts, Gottardi for Dramatic Arts and Garatti for Music and Ballet.

While they worked independently, they agreed that the design of the schools would be governed by three guiding principles that would unify their work. First, the schools were to respect and respond to the verdant landscape of the former country club. The well manicured golf course occupied the central part of the site, traversed by the Rio Quibú, a small tributary of the Rio Almendares. Therefore, the architects decided to place the individual schools at various locations at the periphery. Modern Dance was placed on a high point overlooking the others. Dramatic Arts was located in the meadow at the edge of the valley while Ballet was immersed in a deep gorge. Music was to occupy a middle ground along the side of a ridge. The existing clubhouse located on the plain would accommodate offices, cafeteria and other common services. Across from it and the entrance to the complex was placed Plastic Arts.

The second guiding principle concerned materials. As Porro remembers, “Joy was everywhere, but scarcity was beginning to make itself felt and it was difficult to find steel or cement. It was, however, easy to employ earthen materials, and even the Ministry had advised the architects to substitute them for cement.”ii Indeed, due to Cuba’s industrial underdevelopment, there was no steel produced on the island and very little Portland cement. With the imposition of the U.S. economic blockade on October 19, 1960, and the subsequent inflated cost of imported materials, Cubans were left to their own devices. So it was that brick and terra-cotta tiles were to be the primary materials to be used in the construction of the schools.

Contingent to the decision to use brick and tiles was the third and most significant principle, formally and tectonically. That was the decision to employ the bóveda catalana, the Catalan vault, as the primary structural system. This came about in part due to a fortuitous discovery of a skilled who was the son of a mason who had worked with Antoní Gaudí in Barcelona. This mason, simply known as Gumersindo, had learned the craft from his father. Despite its name, the exact origins of the Catalan vault (or “cohesive timbrel arch construction”) are unknown, but attributed to ancient vernacular practice rooted in the Mediterranean countries of North Africa, Spain, France and Italy, and perfected in Catalonia.iii The craft has several merits. The Catalan vault is typically very thin. It derives its strength not from its mass, but from both its form and its construction technique. Thin terra cotta tiles, typically 15x30x2.5cm, are positioned flat in at least two layers, one orthogonal, one diagonal, and held together by a thick bed of mortar, which, making up about half of the mass, results in what might be considered almost a concrete shell with a tile aggregate. Structurally monolithic and light in weight, the Catalan vault offers great latitude as to form since it exerts very little lateral thrust. It can therefore assume shapes with very little curvature without impairing its structural integrity. Because of the strength and cohesive nature of their construction, Catalan vault structures are virtually indestructible and, in fact, can prove difficult and costly to demolish.iv

From its existence as an almost lost art, the Catalan vault was revived in the 1860s in Barcelona, primarily through the work of Rafael Guastavino y Moreno. In the 1870’s he moved to the US where with his son (also named Rafael) he established the Guastavino Fireproof Construction Company. Together the father and son team built some of the greatest civic works of the American Beax-Arts by architects like McKim, Mead & White, Richard Morris Hunt, Cass Gilbert and Carr?re & Hastings. Boston Public Library, Grand Central Station, Penn Station, and the facilities at Ellis Island all incorporate the Guastavino’s Catalan vault construction. The Guastavino’s greatest structural achievement was the central dome of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, constructed in 1909 with a diameter of 40.4 metres and a crown built of only three layers of tile, just 11cm thick. Guastavino the elder also published the first theoretical treatise on the technique, Cohesive Construction, in 1893, that remains the definitive work on the subject.

While in the US the Catalan vault was a practical solution to structural needs, one most often covered up by neoclassical decoration, in Barcelona it was loaded with meaning in terms of cultural identity and was exploited more in terms of expressive form. Architects of the Movimento Modernista Catalano, such as Muncunill, Doménech i Montaner, Puig i Cadafalch and Berenguer, not to mention Antoni Gaudí, pursued its revival as an assertive plastic expression of cultural identity and critical regionalism. Le Corbusier demonstrated a brief interest in the craft and incorporated a modified version of it in the roofs of the maisons Jaoul and Sarabhai. In Argentina both Antoní Bonet and Eduardo Sacriste were known to have employed it in the 1940s. And of course the engineer Eladio Dieste (b.1917), master of plastic form in masonry, used it in many of his unique projects. The cultural relevance of the craft persisted in Barcelona, where in 1960 the church of San Medi by Jordi Bonet was constructed with its hyperbolic paraboloid Catalan vault forms.

There are two aspects of the Catalan vault that should be noted. One is that it is a very labor intensive technique, and one requiring skilled labor at that. For this reason its use died out in the US during the 1920’s and 1930’s with the adoption of reinforced concrete. The other is that few engineers are familiar with the system or have been capable of providing a quantitative analysis of it, until the more recent development of computerized models.v It is a craft that resides within the artisan tradition of the master builder and not within the technical discipline of the engineer. But with Cuba’s material shortage, the use of the Catalan vault was a resourceful and inspired decision, and its use in a variety of shapes would be the formal signature for the National Art Schools. Moreover, the significance of the Catalan vault as a craft of Hispanic and Mediterranean origins was well understood by the architects for the National Art Schools, searching an appropriate idiom in which to develop their vision of a revolutionary cubanidad.

In June of 1961, with ground barely broken and designs still in development, Fidel Castro praised the National Art Schools as “the most beautiful academy of arts in the whole world,” and lauded their architects as – “artists.”

Carlos Rafael Rodríguez, “Problemas del arte en la Revolución,” Revolución y Cultura, no. 1, (October 1967): 6, (author’s translation). Hart here refers to Armando Hart, a one time anti-communist in the July 26th Movement who after the victory underwent a dramatic conversion and went on to serve as Minister of Education and later Culture for many years. Carlos Rafael Rodríguez, an old communist from the PSP who unlike many of his comrades, had given his support to the armed struggle early on and had been in the Sierra Maestra with Castro has held many positions of importance in the government, and served for many years Vice President. He died in December 1997. This supportive statement was made in 1967, interestingly enough well after the “official” repudiation of the schools and Ricardo Porro’s departure.

R. Porro, interview with the author, November 1997.
Nakamura, Toshio, “Ricardo Porro,” A+U 282, (March 1994): 60.
Gilberto Seguí, “Les odeurs de la rue,” La Havane 1952-1961, Série Mémoires, no. 31, (May 1994): 34. (author’s translation)

R. Porro, “Cinq Aspects du Contenu en Architecture,” PSICON – Rivista Internazionale de Architettura, no. 2/3, (January/June 1975): 165. (author’s translation)

Some of the other architects from abroad who came to dedicate their professional skills to the revolution were: Sergio Baroni (Italy), Rene Du Bois (France), Joaquín Rallo (Spain), Jerry Barr (US), Walter Betancourt (US), Paul Jacobs (US) Roberto Segre (Argentina) and Fruto Vivas (Venezuela). It is interesting to note that, Hannes Meyer, Ernst May, Andre Lurçat and other foreign architects had gone to the Soviet Union in the 1930s, in a parallel act of solidarity, to contribute their skills to the First Five Year Plan.

R. Gottardi, interview with the author (June 1992).
R. Porro, interview with the author (July 1992).
Modern Dance and Ballet were given separate facilities largely due to the insistence of Alicia Alonso the prima ballerina and director of the new Cuban National Ballet.

R. Porro, “Cinq Aspects du Contenu en Architecture,” 165.
For an thorough historical and structural account of the Catalan vault with particular attention to the work of the father and son Guastavino’s in the US see: George R. Collins, “The Transfer of Thin Masonry Vaulting from Spain to America,” Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians, vol. 27, no. 3, (October 1968): 176-201. Also of interest: Janet Parks and Alan G. Neumann, The Old World Builds the New: The Guastavino Company and the Technology of the Catalan Vault, 1885-1962, (New York: Columbia University, 1996).

“The Metropolitan Museum vaults presented considerable difficulty in their removal. On several visits to the demolition, the present author failed to find a single whole tile in the rubble; the aggregate had proven to be so homogenous and rigid that pneumatic drills were being used with confidence by workers standing on unsupported remnants of the vault that jutted out as much as eight feet.” Collins, op. cit: 183.

“Such was the case for the Metropolitan Museum of New York in Wings H and E of New York’s Metropolitan Museum where cracks developed, apparently from weaknesses of the walls, [built by other contractors] and, as no engineers could be found who could predict reliable enough to satisfy the insurers the action of the existing vaults when submitted to the weight of large exhibition crowds, the Guastavino vaults were removed and replaced with concrete floors.” Collins, ibid, footnote 11.

Fidel Castro Ruz, quoted in “La mas hermosa academia de artes de todo el mundo,” Noticias de Hoy (May 4, 1963). (author’s translation) See Documents.
“The National Schools of Art in Havana are works of extraordinary imagination that speak eloquently of their moment of creation.  When John Loomis published Revolution of Forms in 1999, the schools stood unfinished and derelict, virtually forgotten in Cuba and unknown to the rest of the world.  Loomis’ influential book transformed their situation and brought them deserved national and international attention. The book has played its own revolutionary role in the history of the buildings, inspiring among other things an opera, and a documentary film.”
Bonnie Burnham, President, World Monuments Fund

Revolution of Forms: Cuba’s Forgotten Art Schools, published by Princeton Architectural Press, 2011, examines the convergence and collision of architecture, ideology, and culture in 1960s Cuba through the architectural design for the Escuelas Nacionales de Arte. The attention that his book brought to these works of architecture prodded the Cuban government to commit to their restoration, and to declare them national monuments in November 2010. In addition, the book has provided the inspiration for a documentary film, Unfinished Spaces by Alysa Nahmias, an art installation Utopía Posible at the 2009 Gwangju Biennial by Felipe Dulzaides, and an opera, Revolution of Forms, being developed with Robert Wilson as director.

You may purchase this book at:
John Loomis
John Loomis is an architect, educator, and author of, Revolution of Forms: Cuba’s Forgotten Art Schools, published by Princeton Architectural Press, 2011. The book examines the convergence and collision of architecture, ideology, and culture in 1960s Cuba through the design for the Escuelas Nacionales de Arte (National Art Schools). The attention that this book brought to these works of architecture encouraged the Cuban government to commit to their preservation. The book played an important part in the creation of, Unfinished Spaces, a documentary film by Alysa Nahmias. It also inspired a series of installations by Cuban artist Felipe Dulzaides, most notably Utopía Posible, as well as “Next Time It Rains,” and “Broken Glass.” Revolution of Forms has also become the basis for an opera being created by producer Charles Koppelman with Robert Wilson as director.

John Loomis practiced architecture in New York with Kiss, Cathcart, Architects, a leader in the development and integration of photovoltaic technologies into building systems. He taught architecture at The City College of New York/CUNY. Moving to California he chaired the Architecture Program at the California College of Art. He has also taught at Stanford University and University of San Francisco. He is currently a professor at San José State University.

He is former Director of Development and Communications for CyArk, a project of the Kacyra Family Foundation, which brings laser scanning and other advanced geospatial technologies to the preservation of world heritage sites.

In June 2002, John Loomis co-?chaired with Marisa Oliver the Association of Collegiate Schools of Architecture International Conference, Architecture, Culture, and the Challenges of Globalization, in Havana. In December 2002 he was a member of the California Business and Trade Delegation to Cuba.

In addition to Revolution of Forms, he has authored over thirty articles, which have appeared in Design Book Review where he was executive editor, Casabella, Harvard Design Magazine, Progressive Architecture, Urban Land, San Francisco Chronicle and other journals. He has been a Visiting Scholar at the Getty Research Institute and a Loeb Fellow at Harvard University. Oct / 2011

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