Resurrecting a revolution: The fight to save Cuba's forgotten art schools

Story highlights

  • Cuba's National Art Schools are an historic architectural marvel
  • They were built on Havana's old country club in the 1960s
  • Plans are underway to try to save the schools once and for all

(CNN)Conceived more than five decades ago by Fidel Castro and Che Guevara to bring arts education to the world's underprivileged, Cuba's National Art Schools lie on the edge of Havana, a stunning but collapsing monument to the country's revolutionary beginnings.

"They are landmarks of modernism and the most outstanding examples of new architecture produced by the Cuban revolution," says Norma Barbacci, an architect at the World Monuments Fund overseeing efforts save the Schools.
    Admired for their serpentine beauty and proud brick and terracotta domes, numerous attempts to restore the schools have been made by the Cuban government and outside parties over the years -- including by locally born ballet star Carlos Acosta.
    But with the complex now listed on the 2016 World Monuments Watchlist and two of the five schools close to collapse, architects from the World Monuments Fund, the Italian government and Acosta are all hoping the Cuban government can finally find a sustainable way to restore these fading pieces of history before they are lost forever.

    Architectural ideals

    Fidel Castro tees off
    It was a famous game of golf on the then Havana Country Club between Castro, and his loyal guerrilla Guevara in 1961 that first breathed life into the schools, according to John Loomis, an architect and academic who has written a book on the story.
    "Afterwards they were sitting around at the bar, drinking mojitos and discussing the marvelous country club and what a marvelous resource it was and they came up with the idea of making it into a school for the arts," he says.
    Although Castro scaled back his international visions, in 1961 he commissioned three architects -- Cuban Ricardo Porro, and Italians Vittorio Garatti and Roberto Gottardi -- to build a National School of Arts to educate Cubans in ballet, modern dance, art, music and drama.
    "The architects were all very young, they were very idealistic, very communist, they really felt they were building the new utopia and that the future would be theirs," says Loomis.

    Bourgeois curves

    The School of Ballet, designed by Vittorio Garatti, under construction
    Work began immediately, with Porro designing the schools of dance and plastic arts, Garatti the schools of ballet and music and Gottardi the school of dramatic arts.
    But as the Cuban missile crisis played out and the country moved closer to the USSR, the government started to favor utilitarian, Soviet-style architecture, and the curved, sensuous buildings the architects designed came to be viewed as an extravagant, elitist indulgence.
    The three architects also became targets, with the men accused of being "egocentric bourgeois cultural aristocrats", according to Loomis.
    Funding was gradually pulled back and the government halted construction completely in 1965, declaring the schools open even though Porro's schools of dance and plastic arts were the only buildings that had been finished.
    Lessons were held in the competed structures, but those that were incomplete lacked protection from the elements and began to fall into disrepair.
    The architects were also vulnerable, and after Porro's home was attacked using 'Santeria', or Cuban voodoo in 1966, he sought exile in Paris. Garatti also left the country in 1974 after being arrested on false accusations of spying, leaving Gottardi alone on the island.
    "It was very tough, it was very brutal for the architects," Loomis says.

    Revolutionary beauty

    Although shunned in Cuba, the schools attracted international attention in 1999 after Loomis' published his book, "A Revolution of Forms", and revealed the unique architecture of the schools to a broad audience.
    "They are unlike anything you've ever seen before ... so kinetic and organic and three dimensionally complex," he says.
    "You can't really see your destination and you can't turn around and look back and see where you've been. You are always on a journey."
    A subsequent listing on the 2000 World Monuments Watch also highlighted the schools' plight, and together they drew Castro's attention to the forgotten schools.
    He eventually ordered a complete rehabilitation and from 2007 to 2009 the schools of dance and plastic arts underwent restoration and the three incomplete schools were stabilized.
    Student life returned to the two renovated schools, but any further restoration work was terminated in the wake of the global financial crisis and the other buildings were once again abandoned.

    A last chance

    Acosta (right) and Garatti on the grounds of the school in 2015
    Efforts to revive restoration works since then have yielded little success, despite the Cuban government declaring the complex a National Monument in 2011 and listing it as a potential world heritage site with UNESCO.
    The arguments that ensued after Acosta's offer to fund and develop a dance center in the ballet school in 2012 -- some sections of the government accused him of trying to privatize the schools while Garatti bristled at the idea of other architects becoming involved -- are indicative of the problems any plans have faced.
    Barbacci and Loomis say things have improved since and that the Cubans are receptive to ideas that would see the school opened up internationally and provide a sustainable funding base for the future. They also said the rift with Acosta has been patched up.
    Indeed, the Cuban government established a commission at the beginning of 2015 and has asked its members -- which include Cuban government representatives, Loomis, Barbacci, UNESCO, the Italian Ambassador and Acosta -- to work with the Ministry of Culture to guide restoration and develop a plan that would ensure the schools have a sustainable future.
    The School of Music is being overtaken by trees.
    "It would be wonderful if the schools end up fulfilling the original vision of Fidel and Che, that they do become international and that paying students end up being part of a sustainable business plan," says Loomis.
    However, for all the optimism, the World Monument Fund has again added the complex to its 2016 list of the world's heritage sites that are most at risk and Barbacci says that with the schools of ballet and music about to collapse time is finally running out.
    "Each year the site becomes a bit less architecture and a bit more romantic ruin, until at some point there will be nothing to preserve," she says.