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The Rise And Fall Of The Cuban National Art Schools

Editor Picks | March 9, 2022

Aerial view of part of Cubanacan art schools complex located on grounds of former Havana Country Club. Catalonian vault technique for supports used because of shortage of building materials. (Photo by Lee Lockwood/Getty Images)

On the site of a former country club in Cubanacán, a far western suburb of Havana sits a number of Catalan-vaulted brick and terra-cotta structures. These buildings were part of the National Art Schools, which were conceived and founded by Fidel Castro and Che Guevara

Che Guevara and Fidel Castro playing golf. Source: (Reddit).

Guevara And Castro Conceived The Schools While Golfing

Castro and Guevara conceived of the National Art Schools in January 1961. They had been golfing at the Country Club Park and were contemplating the future of the golf club as the members had all fled the country. They were thinking about expanding the success of the Cuban Literacy Campaign; Guevara proposed the creation of tuition-free art schools to serve young people from all over the Third World. They would be highly experimental to help with the creation of a “new culture.” They wanted to reinvent architecture and Castro believed that Ricardo Porro could design the innovative architecture for the program. Porro asked Italian architects Roberto Gottardi and Vittorio Garatti to work with him on the project.

Source: (Pinterest).

The Design Arose In Part From Necessity 

The designers of the National Art Schools rejected the International Style, which was dominant at the time because they saw it as the architecture of capitalism. The three architects’ goal was to design in the image of the Cuban Revolution, as mixing in expressions of Hispanic and Latin American identity. In their designs, architects wanted to bring together issues of culture, ethnicity, and place and create a composition never seen before in architecture.

In their studio on the site of the country club, they developed their three guiding principles for the art school design. First, the architecture would be integrated with the country club’s landscape. The next two principals arose from necessity: they would use locally produced brick and terracotta tile as rebar and Portland cement was costly due to the US embargo against Cuba and they would use the Catalan vault system although each school would use it in a different way.

Source: (Pinterest).

The Five Schools Had Distinctive Designs

The academy had five art schools: the School of Modern Dance, the School of Plastic Arts (the name for visual arts), the School of Dramatic Arts, the School of Music, and the School of Ballet. The design concepts for each of the five schools were dramatically different. For the School of Modern Dance, Porro imagined the plan as a violently shattered sheet of glass to represent the way the revolution overthrew the old order. Porro designed the School of Plastic Arts to be reminiscent of an African village with a complex of buildings, streets, and open spaces. This school, with its curvilinear design, disorients the user and Porro has said that he tried to make it as the “image of a goddess of fertility.” Roberto Gottardi designed the School of Dramatic Arts to be compact with a central plaza amphitheater; the effect is to create a fortress-like exterior. Despite its ordered plan, it creates the sense of being random and episodic. Vittorio Garatti designed both the School of Music and the School of Ballet. The School of Music begins with curved planters which stretch up from the river; the path, or architectural walk, goes underground, and it creates an experience of light and tropical environments shifting to dark subterranean environments. Garatti’s School of Ballet, which is nestled into the golf course’s ravine also incorporates a subterranean passage as part of its architectural walk. The path also ascends to the rooftops, and the school creates a spatial experience as it moves with the descending ravine. 

The School of Plastic Arts. Source: (Wikipedia).

The Beginning Of The End

Because of the world events in the early 1960s, Cuba was isolated in the Caribbean and had to focus on production and defense; as the population became militarized, the government began to see the National Art Schools as unrealistic and not a priority. Construction slowed down and many thought the Catalan vaults so central to the construction were not reliable and were based on the values of the capitalist past.

Source: (Wikipedia).

Construction Ceased

Cuba started to move towards the Functionalist model for architecture, advocated by the architect Antonio Quintana. Functionalism, the model on which Soviet Union architecture was based, advocated the use of significant prefabrication. This model was at odds with the architecture of the National Art Schools. Quintana rose to power in the Ministry of Construction and his criticism of the schools led to the end of their construction. When construction stopped in July 1965, the schools were in various stages of completion. The theater school was 30 percent finished, the music school only had a few usable rooms, and the ballet school lacked floorboards and glass in the windows. These three schools fell into various states of decay, with the School of Ballet being completely engulfed by the tropical overgrowth although it was used for a time by a Russian Circus school. Of the five schools, the Schools of Modern Dance and Plastic Arts continued to be used although not maintained.

Source: (Pinterest).

A Reappreciation Of The Schools

In the 1980s, architectural journals began to bring attention to the legacy of the schools which sparked a growing interest. It took time, as well as international recognition of the architecture but Castro declared that the schools would be recognized, restored, and preserved as national monuments. In December 1999, Porro and Garatti (who, along with Gottardi had left Cuba) attended a meeting with government officials to plan the restoration. In 2000, the schools were added to the World Monuments Fund Watch List, they were placed on the UNESCO World Heritage Tentative List on February 28, 2003, and in 2011, the National Council of Conservation declared them as monuments.

Tags: Fidel Castro | Havana

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Linda Speckhals


When she’s not out walking her dog, or taking in a baseball game, Linda loves learning about history, science, and philosophy. She will travel wherever the wind may blow, and happily loses herself in a book, whenever she can. At heart, she is a music loving tree-hugger.