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New Film Celebrates an Unsung Icon of Modern Cuban Architecture

January 19, 2012

By Carl Yost

Modern Dance School
Photo courtesy Unfinished Spaces/Alysa Nahmias and Benjamin Murray

Modern Dance School. Click on the slide show button to view additional images.

 

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If architecture embodies a culture’s history and values, perhaps no project better represents Cuba since the 1960s than the National Art Schools in Havana. After sitting neglected for decades, a symbol of the Cuban Revolution’s lost idealism, the campus is getting the recognition it deserves thanks to Unfinished Spaces, a new feature-length documentary by New York-based filmmakers Alysa Nahmias, Assoc. AIA, and Benjamin Murray.

Begun in 1961, Cuba’s National Art Schools comprise five institutions: the Schools of Plastic Arts and Modern Dance (their buildings designed by Ricardo Porro); the Schools of Ballet and Music (by Vittorio Garatti); and the School of Dramatic Arts (by Roberto Gottardi). The buildings were commissioned by Fidel Castro and Che Guevara, who sited them on a golf course to antagonize wealthy country club members. With sinuous curves and vaulting domes that resemble the organic, elemental modernism of Frank Lloyd Wright and Louis Kahn, the structures were constructed largely of brick and terra-cotta, the most readily available materials under the U.S. embargo.

The Plastic Arts and Modern Dance buildings were the only structures completed before Castro and Guevara changed their minds about the project in 1965, condemning the schools as elitist and halting construction. As the political winds shifted, misfortune befell the three primary architects: Gottardi was accused of espionage and sentenced to forced labor on a construction site; Garatti served 21 days in prison before being exiled to Milan; Porro fled to Paris.

The institutions have remained active since their inception, however, and the buildings have hosted classes (and squatters) with varying degrees of frequency, despite their physical condition. The almost-completed Ballet school largely remains structurally intact, but encroaching vegetation and floodwaters have taken their toll; it and the half-built Music and Dramatic Arts buildings, their brick walls open to the skies, today resemble an archaeological site. Some of the film’s most poignant moments show students practicing amid architectural ruins, as sunlight and vines spill down ceiling vaults. Though Cuban officials have recently expressed interest in completing the project—the Plastic Arts and Modern Dance schools, the only two completed in 1965, were restored in 2008—the government is strapped for cash, and the continuing embargo hinders foreign aid.

Co-producer and co-director Nahmias first encountered the National Art Schools in March 2001 as an architecture student at Princeton, when she personally toured them with Gottardi. Though she sees the project as a window into understanding Cuban history, the story for her is essentially a human one: “It is about architecture, it is about Cuba, but it’s also about the creative process in general,” she told Architectural Record. “These are three architect-artists who followed their vision—at tremendous cost.”

Unfinished Spaces will be screened at film festivals, museums, and universities nationwide throughout the year. Latino Public Broadcasting will bring the film to public television stations in the United States in mid-2012.

 

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