I was enthralled by the retelling of a recent trip to Cuba taken by Dunedin architect Rod Collman of SDG Architecture, and his wife Cindy with a Dunedin Fine Art Center tour. Collman, a well-established commercial architect in the southeast United States and beyond, has gained recognition and won awards for the functionality, affordability and beauty of his designs. It comes as no surprise that the architecture of Cuba would be a highlight of his trip, but a surprise did appear in the form of an art school that has remained largely unknown in North America since its creation in 1960.
“To experience the Cuban people and their culture is to discover their art and architecture,” said Collman. “Because of my background as an architect, I looked forward to seeing the wealth of history in Havana’s buildings and streets. Havana, a city of two million people, was founded only a few decades after the first Columbus voyage. The colonial phase was well represented with a wealth of beautiful buildings in varying states of preservation. There were signs of active renovation of many structures, including old hotels and apartment buildings. A mix of post-revolution 1960’s concrete and glass, brought about by the Soviet Union’s partnership with Cuba, as well as European built buildings, jars the senses.”
Collman described the most unique architecture as that of Havana’s Cuban National Art Schools, featuring extraordinary revolution-era architectural design that was once widely criticized as being… non-Cuban. At the time of the inception of the school, however, the vision of Cuba’s future looked different than what it would become. Castro’s Cuba was to be a socialist Utopian society with free elections for its leaders and high standards of government-based education and healthcare for its citizens. Fellow revolutionary Che Guevara was a staunch communist and would continue to influence Castro’s views and in part, lead to the eventual system of government that Cuba has endured for over five decades.
The ideals set forth in a post-revolutionary, pre-communist Cuba embraced the arts, and the Cuban National Art Schools (las Escuelas Nacionales de Arte, or ENA) was a result of this Utopian vision. According to the story, following his victory in the Bay of Pigs Invasion of 1961, a triumphant Fidel Castro went to the exclusive Havana Country Club with Guevara and other officials to enjoy a drink at the bar and play a round of golf in a political mockery of the class system so derided by the revolutionaries. As they talked on a balcony of the club, taking in the manicured beauty of the golf course, they envisioned the site as an art school like no other. This was a logical progression to an educational campaign already under way that had generated a huge increase in literacy across the country. According to John Loomis, in his landmark 2011 book Revolution of Forms: Cuba’s Forgotten Art Schools, “… 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.”
A young Cuban architect named Ricardo Porro, who had disagreements with the ousted Batista government, returned to Cuba from exile as the chief ENA architect. He chose Vittorio Garatti and Roberto Gottardi, Italian architects he had met in Caracas, to complete the design team. They went to work on five separate faculty structures located on the huge property for visual arts, ballet, modern dance, drama and music, plus a conservation facility.
The project would have three guiding principles:
The origin of the design is not completely known, but was used extensively in ancient Mediterranean countries from Italy to Spain to North Africa. After being revived in the late 1860’s in Spain by Rafael Guastavino y Moreno, he brought the design and technique of building Catalan vault structures to the United States and patented it. The work of the father and son team of Guastavino Fireproof Construction Company can be seen in the Boston Public Library, Grand Central Station and Penn Station. Their greatest accomplishment was the 1909 construction of the central dome of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City, with a diameter of 120 feet.
The use of brick, mortar and terra cotta tiles were the perfect media for the ENA Catalan vault structures. Also known as “cohesive timbrel arch construction”, the Catalan vault provides a very thin mass with great strength as a result of its form. The Catalan vault is known to be nearly indestructible. The vaulted roof structures of the ENA were built of rows of bricks, meticulously mortared into place, defying gravity as the mortar held the bricks to the row before it. Like a simple arch, when a curved row of bricks was complete, gravity locked them into place. According to a recent article in LaHabana.com, Cuba’s Digital Destination, the brick roofs were covered by at least two layers of tile held together by an additional mortar layer, making up approximately half the mass. The resulting designs allowed by such flexible construction media blended ancient shapes and methods with organic, modernist forms – bold, artful architecture for any era.
As a result of the financial stranglehold of the American embargo, the industrialized design and standardization of Soviet-era Cuba, and criticism of the individualistic nature of the architecture of the ENA, work on the school was halted in 1965. The Cuban National Art Schools was never completed, and eventually fell into disrepair and abandonment, but the buildings have been in use to some degree by faculty and students from that time to the present day.
“During our visit of the visual art complex, we saw many artists and craftsmen at work in the school, and signs of current renovation to complete the buildings,” said Collman. “We learned that artists are revered in Cuba, held in higher esteem than doctors. They can sell their work as long as it is handmade and unique and not commercially reproduced (this includes artist-made printmaking techniques). It was clear how a level of government criticism is tolerated, a freedom we saw demonstrated in the political and social statements of the work of some of the artists we met.”
Rod Collman stated that “To experience the people and their culture is to discover their art and architecture”. The stunning architecture of the ENA, once criticized as non-Cuban and inappropriately individualistic, tell us much about the freedom of expression granted to the architects of the school so many years ago. Today, this freedom is shared by the artists of a country known for its oppression, yet embraces the arts and, once again, envisions a new future.