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There has never been in Cuba in the last decades a more controversial project than the National Art School (ENA), begun in 1961 and never completed due to a lack of ideological and aesthetic understanding, as well as a shortage of materials. Considered by its most enthusiastic advocates a symbol of the audacity and the will to experiment that should characterize contemporary architecture, its harshest critics tend to consider it as an aesthetic boom, not without elitism and devoid of any subsequent significance.
A result of the will of the newly-established Revolutionary Government of making education available to future artists, not only from Cuba but from the entire Third World, an impressive site was chosen for the construction of this educational complex: Cuba’s most exclusive country club before 1959, the Havana Country Club, later called Cubanacán, which in the tongue of the aborigines means “the centre of Cuba.” With an initial cost of more than thirteen million pesos, three young architects were commissioned in 1960 to carry out the project—Vittorio Garatti, from Milan, Italy, who would design the Schools of Ballet and Music; Roberto Gottardi, from Venice, Italy, the School of Dramatic Art; and Ricardo Porro, from Cuba, the Schools of Fine Arts and Modern Dance.
Although the unequivocal purpose of achieving an interrelationship with the landscape establishes a line of continuity with the trends of the modern movement seen in selected examples of Cuban architecture of the 1950s, a rupture with other tendencies such as the purism of Mies van der Rohe’s followers in Cuba, without falling in the fanatical search of a so-called “colonial style,” a stereotype that would weigh down many later productions, is also evident.
Perhaps the most controversial of the five schools are the ones designed by Ricardo Porro, who has lived abroad for years and who in 1975 explained that:
The workshops for painting were planned as circular theatres with the model in the centre. In order to cover them with a cupola crowned by a point of light at the top, the cupola was made to resemble a woman’s breast. Outside, surrounding the building, I imagined vegetation…with long leaves that would give the idea of hair. At the centre of the plaza, I designed a sculpture that suggests a fruit, a papaya—a popular name in Cuba for the female sexual organs—and in the centre a jet of water, as if urinating…(1)
Meanwhile, in the School of Modern Dance, “if you look down from the top, you’ll experience a dramatic sensation, as if glass had been shattered with someone’s fist,”(2) which justifies the inclusion of this Cuban architect among the forerunners of postmodernism.
Garatti, on the other hand, dealt with the sloping terrain he selected for the School of Music with a serpentine of rooms: “the worm,” a name repeated over and over by generations of students—first from the National School of Art, ENA, and now the Higher Institute of Art, ISA—that have occupied those rooms, and rhythmic light vaults for the School of Ballet.
Roberto Gottardi, the only one of the three original architects who lives in Cuba, kindly received the editors from Cuba Absolutely in his tiny apartment in Nuevo Vedado, where, surrounded by projects for the restoration and completion of the School of Dramatic Art, presented us with an invaluable first-hand testimony.
I got my degree as an architect in 1952 at the Higher Institute of Architecture in Venice. I worked in Milan with the firm BBPR (Belgiaiso, Peressutti & Rogers) and in 1957 I travelled to Venezuela. I arrived in Cuba in December of 1960 and found a spirit of great freedom and enthusiasm, of commitment, of dreams that were, or seemed to be, attainable at once. So far, I had worked at other architects’ offices, so the School of Dramatic Art was the first project for which I was solely and absolutely responsible. We were given complete freedom to work and to choose the sites for each school, to establish conceptual proposals within certain material boundaries, such as the use of Catalan vaults and brick as alternatives to concrete and steel, which were scare and expensive then.
For his School of Dramatic Art, Gottardi conceived a structure inspired in a theatre company, very much centred in itself, with interrelated areas (actors, directors, set designers, lighting engineers, wardrobe designers, makeup artists) to achieve the ultimate goal: the stage production, for which he conceived a sort of medieval city with articulated performance spaces whose focal point would be the theatre.
The school was conceived as a small community surrounding the theatre, which was the centre of the composition, with the possibility of traditional performances using stage machinery, or experimental forms, such as the arena stage, or theatre-in-the-round, where technical, pedagogical, and administrative functions were organized. The idea was to recreate, physically and spiritually, the experience of belonging to the particular universe of a theatre company.
In view of the conflicting appraisals of the National Art School in general, and the School of Dramatic Art in particular, Gottardi maintains that he still shares the opinion that Cuban painter Hugo Consuegra made public in 1965:
It has been said that they are “baroque”…I do not agree entirely…Instead of baroque, I would suggest a term that seems much more appropriate—“mannerist”. The baroque style, no matter how it splits or twists forms, is always controlled by a homogeneous conception; there is a “baroque logic” in which the presence of the “all” is expressed out of a need of synthesis and subordination: the great baroque rhythms. In the Art School…when one of these rhythms is initiated and begins to grow…then, precisely, we are rushed into uncertainty like someone pushed into space and all consciousness of “development” is truncated.(3)
After his unfinished work in the School of Dramatic Art, Gottardi distributed his time between his work as a lecturer at the Faculty of Architecture at the University of Havana, where he would become full professor, and a number of projects which evidence the diversity of interests: the National Command Post of Agriculture (1967-1971), under the premise of the use of prefabricated structures and which would later experience numerous changes; the Maravilla pizzeria (1967-1968), which faced “the problem of the relationships between a new insertion and a given project,” but of whose intelligent proposals there are hardly any left; the set design for Girón (1981) and Dédalo (1991) by Rosario Cárdenas, one of the most complex choreographers of contemporary Cuban dance; the remodelling of the Caracas restaurant-cafeteria (1997-1998), just to name a few, plus dozens of unrealized projects.
Today, the Venetian-cum-Cuban architect has taken up again the completion of the School of Dramatic Art more than forty years after he initiated it. He recalls:
“While we made our designs, the masons would do their job, and in nearby houses we would watch these youngsters, almost children, paint or dance, and who would later become important cultural figures of Cuba.” Obviously, the original idea has changed:
When I make a project, the economical, material, cultural and historic context is essential for me…Forty years have gone by and the students or the curriculum are not the same; I am not the same, neither as a professional nor as an individual, apart from the fact, for instance, that brick and Catalan vaults would be more expensive today, even if we could find the masons skilled enough to build them. This is why I have preferred, while maintaining the necessary unity of the whole, to single out the two different intervening moments: the sixties and the beginning of the 21st century with the characteristics and requirements of each period.
Again will this maker of realities, dreamer of utopias, make his drawings on the very building site, and picture classrooms, workshops and stages in empty spaces, while very close by, a tune is repeated, a brush stroke is corrected or a grand jeté is executed by the future stars of Cuban arts?
1 Ricardo Porro: “Cinq aspects du contenu en architecture”. PSICON. Revista Internazionale di Architectura (Florence), January-June, 1975. Quoted by Roberto Segre in Arquitectura y urbanismo de la revolución cubana, La Habana, Editorial Pueblo y Educación , p. 116.
2 Darío Carmona: “Una voz bajo las bóvedas”. Cuba (La Habana), October 1964. In Segre: Op cit, p. 117.
3 Hugo Consuegra: “Las Escuelas Nacionales de Arte”. Arquitectura/Cuba (La Habana), No. 334, 1965, pp. 15-16.