A happy ending looks to be in sight in the up and down tale of Havana’s National Art Schools
A contemporary dancer writhed spasmodically to and fro in a gallery of the Milan Triennale last month. Before you turn the page, this wasn’t the usual architecture-meets-performance-art novelty. The dancer was Cuban, representing the country’s first participation in the Triennale for 50 years, with an exhibition themed around one of its most remarkable, and remarkably abandoned, architectural works: the overgrown terracotta-domed complex of the national ballet school.
It is topical because after decades of neglect and ruination, this revolutionary structure might finally be revived. The Getty Foundation has allocated funding for a conservation and management plan for the entire dacaying National Art Schools site – five institutions devoted to the plastic arts, modern dance, drama, music and ballet on the outskirts of Havana.
I visited a few years ago and it felt like happening upon a lost world. After walking around the guarded perimeter fence of the 160-acre site, I finally found a gap to sneak through, and discovered an overgrown kingdom of great vaulted chambers linked by atmospheric winding passages, like the ruined palace of a forgotten civilisation. It was even stranger given that the buildings at the other side of the site were still up and running, seemingly inured to their cousin’s fate.
The complex was the brainchild of Fidel Castro and Che Guevara who decided, at the end of a round of golf in 1961, to repurpose Havana’s exclusive country club as a tuition-free art school to serve a new generation of revolutionary artists and performers. They appointed Cuban architect Riccardo Porro, and two Italians he had worked with in Venezuela, Roberto Gottardi and Vittorio Garatti.
‘The aspiration was to create a project that would reflect the revolution in all in its dynamic aspects,’ said Garatti (the only surviving member of the trio, now aged 92) in a recent interview. ‘No dogmas were imposed, there was a total freedom … Working in a park, we were immediately reminded of garden architecture: of love pavilions, of the 1,001 Nights, of English greenhouses, of the gardens of the Alhambra.’
‘The aspiration was to create a project that would reflect the revolution in all in its dynamic aspects’
The US embargo against Cuba, begun in 1960, made importing rebar and Portland cement prohibitively expensive, so the architects used locally-made brick and terracotta tiles, developing a system of Catalan vaults to create clusters of domed rooms. The bulging rooftops emerged from the undulating former golf course like great orange bosoms, crowned with pointed skylights (the allusion was no accident). It was like nothing the country had seen, an attempt to reinvent architecture as the revolution aspired to reinvent society.
But, by 1965, the project had fallen out of favour. It was decided that other buildings needed the resources more urgently, and political ideology had changed to support a more functionalist approach. The schools of ballet and music were left unfinished, engulfed by jungle over the following decades.
Over the last 20 years, awareness of the fragile marvel has been growing. The site was added to the World Monument Fund Watch List in 2000, and and the Unesco World Heritage Tentative List in 2003. More recently, Norman Foster was roped in by Cuban ballet dancer Carlos Acosta to imagine how the complex might be completed and transformed into a new centre for dance and culture. Their plans faced an immediate backlash, accused of privatising a national asset and the choice of architect jarring with the nature of the place.
Thankfully their project seems to have quietly fizzled away. Joining the Getty funding is a second grant from the Italian Agency for Development Co-operation, for the restoration, structural reinforcement and renovation of the theatre school. As the optimistic display in Milan attests, the future of this sinuous masonry marvel may finally be assured.
Oliver Wainwright is architecture critic at the Guardian