Reading the Future of Cuba in its Abandoned National Art Schools
On Space, History, and Building a Revolution on a Golf Course
The moment the Rebel Army entered Havana, in early January 1959, the urban space of the capital was transformed into a stage of dimensions unprecedented in national history. In the joy of watching the incarnation of the mythical rebels hitherto protected in the depths of the Sierra Maestra, the assembled Habaneros embodied society, and those rebels were raised up as heroes. Fidel Castro, facing the crowd, was consecrated as the hero’s body. And the public space was occupied so that the people might hear his word.
The revolutionary triumph had depended heavily on clandestine urban operations and on the use of the general strike. Both movements are closely related to space. It is the city and its proliferation of passages that allow the existence of clandestine networks, and it is the visibility of public space that legitimizes the reactive potential of a strike. With the entry of Fidel Castro into Havana, these uses of the city emerged in uniform crowds, ready to redefine themselves as citizens, and thus redefine the city itself.
Following those early spontaneous demonstrations, the city embarked upon a continuous program of public celebration to hear the voice of the leader. However, a passage from the posthumous autobiography of Cuban writer Reinaldo Arenas, Before Night Falls, shows how celebratory marches also brought to the capital, at least temporarily, multitudes that did not know the city and who discovered it for the first time within the socialist organization:
In the summer of 1960 I went to Havana. On July 26th Fidel Castro would always deliver a mammoth speech in the Plaza of the Revolution and he needed people to fill the square. Over a thousand of us young men were packed into a sugar-cane train and arrived in Havana after a trip of almost three days. […] The city fascinated me. A real city, for the first time in my life. A city where people did not know each other, where one could disappear, where to a certain extent nobody cared who you were.
But as the end of the quotation indicates, while the journey may have been part of a mission to assemble a parade of the masses, this experience of the new city was also one of escape and indiscipline after a forced trip framed by obligation or punishment. The city, within its politics of order, necessarily contains anarchy. It is the place where, in the midst of building a society, it is possible for a man to forget his fellow man, to not know who is who.
Reinaldo Arenas is the poet of socialist Havana, although he was primarily a novelist. Arenas only came to know Havana in its new era, so his writing does not contain nostalgia for an earlier splendor. Having grown up in the countryside, his first contact with the city comes about through a political parade, and his subsequent interaction with urban space is immensely productive because Arenas saw the city from a place of exclusion, persecuted for being homosexual and convicted and surveilled as a political dissident. He was a writer of extreme fictions that shook the foundations of utopia.
With the establishment of the revolutionary government, the main figures responsible for the public works of the Batista regime left the country. The big names of the best architecture of the past decade also migrated, as well as many construction technicians and professionals. However, what could have led to a halt in the architectural discourse became the possibility of replacing one generation with a new one. Young architects and designers, enthusiastic for social change, occupied the space of the future to propose new forms. In the early years, the factors governing the architectural scene disappeared: institutions, laws, and clients of the public and private spheres. During that period, the new guild of architecture seized the opportunity to participate in a sphere from which it had previously been excluded by the big project offices.
Recent graduates, ordinarily hired to be draftsmen, could now participate directly in new urban interventions. The architectural repertoire was redefined, leaving aside typologies of individual housing, shopping centers, hotels, and clubs. Construction technologies and materials also underwent big changes: with the U.S. embargo in 1960, cement and steel became scarce. From these conditions—young people without the framework of a clear mission to limit their proposals, and the removal of materials and construction technology—emerged the National Art Schools of Cubanacán, arguably the most radical architectural project of the early years of the Revolution.
Their construction has lasted as long as the Cuban socialist project, and their ages reflect all the tensions of the revolutionary era, step by step. Some of their architects are still alive, as are some of the principal leaders of the revolutionary feat. The spaces, uncompleted, brought together a community of artists who experienced in the confines of a school what happened on a larger scale with the entire country.
Certain events end up acquiring foundational narratives that dislocate them in space and time. On the outskirts of Havana, Country Club Park—an exclusive residential complex and golf course—had been built in 1914 and improved during the 1920s and 1930s. An oft-repeated story has it that one evening in January 1961, Fidel Castro and Che Guevara visited the course. Once the game was finished and the two rookies had experienced the uniqueness of the place, they left with the plan to build art schools there.
Maybe the idea of an art project was obvious since they were conscious of producing a performance piece. In one of the many versions of the story about this sybarite adventure, Castro states: “The golf game was a photo opportunity. The real purpose was to make fun of Eisenhower.” (Pictures of this game, by photographer Korda, were auctioned at Dominic Winter in England in 2010.) Or it may have been a response to that awkward moment when you realize you should be serving the Revolution instead of playing golf with the new President of the National Bank.
That afternoon marks the last game of golf on the course. The game in which the players found themselves before a new territory. These leaders, upon visiting the country club, could not experience the space as it once was. They instead saw the place as a potential territory in which to found a city, the city of the arts.
Education was one of the first tasks of the Revolution. The literacy campaign was among the earliest measures taken by the revolutionary government. By September 1959, 10,000 new classrooms had been created in the country, the number of teachers in rural areas increased, and the Worker-Peasant Colleges were founded for adults who wanted access to university education. The year 1961 was called the “Year of Education.” On the legislative front, the Law of General Nationalization of Education was enacted in June, establishing education as the responsibility of the State, and as a public right, free and without discrimination. Literacy brigades were composed of, among others, more than 100,000 young teachers between the ages of 10 and 19 who traveled to provinces across the country. These displacements plotted onto the geography of the island a network extending to its most remote reaches. In December, in a speech at the Plaza of the Revolution, Castro declared the country an Illiteracy-Free Territory.
The Art Schools were a continuation and, viewed from a distance, the crowning moment of this process. Art education was the pinnacle of learning, and the art created by new generations encoded the truth of the new society. The army was of the people, but so too was the art community made up of all of the Island’s inhabitants. The ex-country club was dubbed Cubanacán, an aboriginal word from which “Cuba” was derived. The origin of the name is also a spatial reference: Cubanacán means a center-place, alluding to the center of the Antilles. Although this name evokes the geographical middle of the island, the noun migrated to a peripheral space of the capital, with the expectation that it simultaneously would mark an art center for the Third World. The course and surrounding fields would be a sort of smaller Cuba, the proving ground and simultaneously the realization of the country under construction.
The art schools are in themselves a project that repeats on a smaller scale the ambitions of the revolutionary government. The Cuban Revolution had, in the figure of Argentinian Ernesto Guevara, a central element that lent the process an internationalist spirit. Cuban artists returned to the island, eager to be part of the process; major Latin American and European intellectuals also came. And in architecture, even though the personalities behind large firms had left the country, foreign professionals arrived in Cuba.
Prior to the Revolution, Vittorio Garatti (1927) and Roberto Gottardi (1927) were in Venezuela and had met and worked with Cuban architect Ricardo Porro (1925-2014). They came to Cuba in 1960 with the explicit desire to design a new country. Later, with the constraints of a rigid nationalism, foreign relations and foreign figures became an element of suspicion and surveillance. But at the beginning, and the schools are proof of this, the design of a common space transcended a hermetic conception of the nation.
The golf course is an area that appears to be natural but is in truth subject to the strictest order. Each curve, every rolling green, is calculated for a player who is meant to interact with a paradisiacal space. Vegetation, grass, and hills are arranged to produce bucolic views. The schools were not located on land that obeyed the laws of nature, but in a utopian nature designed for the reception of a golf ball. Somehow this overlapping—the design of the schools on hyperrealistic grounds—returned the land to its lost natural course. And, with the abandonment the buildings would later suffer, it was the very installation of the schools that eventually allowed nature to return.
There were in all five schools. The architects distributed the program according to their affinities. Porro was a sculptor and was interested in folkloric dance, he chose Plastic Arts and Modern Dance. Garatti, responsible for Ballet and Music, had wanted to be a dancer and had musical training. Gottardi selected Dramatic Arts. The history of schools is inseparable from the historical events of the moment: the design work began in late April 1961, just weeks after the victory at Bay of Pigs, which Castro declared in a public speech to be the First Defeat of Imperialism in America.
The design, construction, and use of space were simultaneous. Porro was a professor of sculpture in the same school he was designing. The process turned the new generation into artists, into art students, but also into workers and designers of their own lesson plans. The new art was not a knowledge, nor a profession to undertake. Art was the site of revolutionary practice par excellence. The schools have become (and even at the time of their design and construction seemed to be) symbols of dreams, creative effervescence, and the possibilities of a new social order shown in the plasticity of space.
In the Cubanacán art schools, subsequent debates of postmodern architecture between the figurative and the abstract, between functionality and form, were placed in tension through the construction materials themselves. Buildings returned to the mud. The soil itself was the material used to form the bricks and tiles of the floors, walls, and vaults. Clay and wood are the materials most commonly found in each building. One of the foremen, an old expatriate Catalan, contributed the structural solution to the unavailability of steel. Tile by tile, the spaces produced by the Catalan vault technique began to form under his command. Unlike the three principal architects, this mason was only known by his first name, Gumersindo. The way he taught other masons and, above all, the crucial role of this technique in the image of the buildings added an even more universal spirit to the project. Authorship dissolved into community.
Each day of construction, the idea of voluntary work—proposed by Karl Marx, based on the Paris Commune—was put into practice. Such commitment was established in Cuba by Ché Guevara, who later proposed that “voluntary work is a creative school of consciousness, it is the effort made by society and for society as an individual and collective contribution.” That school of consciousness was superimposed onto the art schools under construction.
In the famous 1961 speech by Fidel Castro, known as “Words to Intellectuals,” which would mark as an unestablished law the cultural politics of the entire socialist era to the present day, he referred to the art schools as follows:
Cuba is certainly going to have the most beautiful Academy of Arts in the entire world. Why? Because that academy is situated in one of the most beautiful residential districts of the world, where the most extravagant Cuban bourgeoisie lived […] They lived in an incredibly extravagant manner, and it is worthwhile to take a tour of the area to see how those people lived. However, they did not know that they were building an extraordinary Academy of Arts, and that is what will remain of what they did, because students will live in the homes that were the residences of millionaires. They will not live cloistered. They will live as if in a home, and they will attend classes at the Academy. The Academy will be situated in the middle of the Country Club, where a group of architect artists have designed the construction work that will be done. […] The music, dance, ballet, theater, and painting schools will be in the middle of the golf course, in a site of natural beauty that is a dream.
Reinaldo Arenas, however, comments on the students’ occupation of this type of residence. He writes years later in his memoirs:
A number of them were occupied by female scholarship students who, coming from remote towns in Cuba, were happy to live in a plush Miramar mansion, which they were slowly but relentlessly destroying. Once my aunt and I heard loud noises; the peasant girls were dismantling all the windows of the mansion and using the wooden frames to build a huge fire in the yard so they could boil and whiten their clothes. In this manner, many of the most elegant features of those homes, and also their furniture, ended up as firewood.
The figure of French pétroleuse appears ironically reincarnated in the new city dwellers, who do not burn palaces with the urgency of a confrontation, but to continue an ancient practice of using fire to do laundry.
At the beginning of the 21st century, the Cuban government planned a series of organized protests that were characterized by long parades of blocks of citizens in a public square designed in front of the U.S. embassy. The objective of these crowds was to create an internationally accessible image of unity and commitment to a common cause.
For these ideological flashmobs to take centerstage, an unintended backstage reenactment of ancient migrations from the countryside to the city became necessary. The contemporary revisitation of those journeys took place in large transports at dawn that carried the inhabitants of rural villages and laid them on streets adjacent to the principal avenue where the parade would take place. The newcomers, brought to a night city—unknown to many of them—remained in the street: one by one, they ended up lying down on the asphalt in the pursuit of a few hours of sleep. This massive event was the counterpart and dismantling of the parade that would happen later. Subjects suspended from their sleep were brought to the city as a herd, and once there on the dark streets, they sought to lie one next to the other on the long road to return to their interrupted sleep.
The way urban space is being used for those hours of sleep is, in a radical way, original, and this communal experience of the origin of the city also brings it closer to nature. Their waking with the dawn, that moment before the parade, to get up in the street and to see for the first time (and perhaps not even recognize) the timeless city, recalls the following Benjaminian passage from Giorgio Agamben’s The Open about a restored nature: “The ‘saved night’ is the name of this nature that has been given back to itself, whose character […] is transience and whose rhythm is beatitude. The salvation that is at issue here does not concern something that has been lost and must be found again, something that has been forgotten and must be remembered; it concerns, rather, the lost and the forgotten as such—that is, something unsavable. The saved night is a relationship with something unsavable.”
Perhaps this perception—of an unsavable city—may also illuminate the fate of the art schools. The erotic nature of the fountain in the plaza of the Plastic Arts building, evoking a female sexual organ, awoke opportunistic moral attacks from a bureaucratic class in the socialist power structure that was beginning to be defined. Regardless of the details of the communal construction process, the architects were labeled elitist. The increasingly evident proximity to the Soviet model with its use of prefabricated building systems envisioned for the country a functionalist and unremarkable architecture. The schools emerged as the result of an ideological deviation. In 1965 construction was paralyzed. Only two schools were finished at the time.
It is difficult to separate the history of the Cuban Revolution from the fate of the National Art Schools as they themselves were building revolutionary desire. During their abandonment, over the course of decades, nature returned. This time it was not the scenic nature of the old golf course, but the greed of vines, lianas trees, animals, and flooding. The story that follows is exciting and timely and brought some vindication. The future of the city will imprint on them the mark of space to come. In moments of opacity, when it is difficult to read the reality of the Island, a close look at the state of the art schools may even offer answers.