|School of Music near the Jaguey Tree, uphill from the stream (Photo credit: Wikipedia)|
|School of Plastic Arts, Ricardo Porro (Photo credit: Wikipedia)|
|School of Dramatic Arts, Roberto Gottardi (Photo credit: Wikipedia)|
|School of Ballet, Vittorio Garatti (Photo credit: Wikipedia)|
|English: View downhill towards stream and the School of Ballet (Photo credit: Wikipedia)|
|View towards entrance from the School of Modern Dance (Photo credit: Wikipedia)|
Having made documentary films in my day, I know how difficult it is to express ideas and issues in any form that will not bore the audience to tears. Which is why I have such astonished admiration for a film recently broadcast on Al Jazeera called Cuba’s Unfinished Spaces made by Alysa Nahmias and Benjamin Murray.
Although the ostensible subject of this film is the saga of the construction of five Art Schools in Cuba in the early years of the revolution, the filmmakers have managed to make revolution, in the full meaning of that word, its real subject --- the delights, excitements, inspirations of revolution on the one hand, and the despairs and crushing disappointment that sets in as the revolution hardens, becomes bureaucratic, and the romance and excitement gradually degenerates, as one of the architects in this film said, “into a rule.”
This film, in other words, is absolutely worthy of the revolution which inspired it, of the marvellous old men who, as youngsters, seized their chance and managed to create the Schools of Modern Dance, Ballet, Music, Dramatic Arts, and Plastic Arts that have been recognized by authorities outside Cuba as precious examples of modern architecture, while within Cuba they have been neglected as trees and plants have overgrown them.
The story begins when Fidel and Che one day go to the immense layout of the local golf course, in the Country Club, a preserve of the rich before the revolution, and Fidel says how wonderful it would be to use this space for the use of students of the arts. The next act comes when Fidel, driving in Havana one evening, spots Selma Dias, a young woman described as “a real revolutionary and an architect”, stops the car, orders to get in, and drives her to the golf course ---she can see nothing because it is already dark --- where he announces she is to be in charge of the creation on this land of Art Schools at which thousands of young Cubans will be educated. She accepts the charge, goes to an architect of her acquaintance Ricardo Porro, tells him of this revelation, and asks him to be the architect in charge. He is amazed, staggered, of course, he says, he will accept. But says Selma, there is a condition. The work has to be up and under construction in two months. Two months! says Ricardo. Impossible! That's the offer, says Selma, take it or leave it. I take it, says Ricardo.
Soon thereafter, Fidel gathered the architects of Cuba together and told them the era of big buildings, of luxury projects, is over. “We are building now for the people,” he said. Porro said some architects left Cuba immediately, but he recruited two Italians who had previously worked with him in Venezuela, Roberto Gottardi and Vittorio Garatti . He was interested in the work that an elderly man called Gumensindo had been doing experimenting with ways to enclose space without using expensive materials, and he decided that this work, the placing together of bricks in such a way as to form vaults --- very similar to the way an Inuit igloo is constructed --- would be the basic method used in building the schools. Some people did not believe in the vaults, because the architects were men with very little experience, “but everything we did was daring,” one of them said. “We unleashed our dreams and visions.” The designs had no doors, temples or columns. “I thought of my school as an initiation ritual,” said one of them. “That is why it is full of indirect passages, mysterious and tortuous.” Porro said: “I tried to make the school of plastic arts as an image of this romantical moment of the revolution. I wanted to express in the School the atmosphere I felt in Cuba during the revolution. I thought of the Schools as if there were one million people in a piazza, and then they would each go in their own different direction.”
The construction started almost as soon as the first drawings were made, and before the Schools were finished, students were already at work. Everyone from Porro at the top down to the youngest student, was moved by the absolute freedom they were given, and this was, perhaps, the source of their downfall. Porro kept urging his architects and workers --- at the maximum they would have 800 workers busy with the construction ---- not to waste time on minor things, because “perhaps one day it is all going to be stopped.”
He was a wise man. During the sixties the Soviet Union became Cuba’s main supporter, and the events of the Cold War became important and changed national priorities. Soviet ideas begin to influence the leaders, and nothing in Soviet attitudes as translated to Cuba had to do with beauty, and those who were concerned to make these beautiful Art Schools began to come under criticism as being bourgeois, intellectual, elitist. Pretty soon the workers made available were down to twenty-five, and, as Porro remarked he found himself in a situation like that described by Kafka. “One day you learn that you have been accused of something, then you have been judged, then you realize you are guilty, and nobody tells you of what.” Porro, who had been a friend of Castro’s when they were both students, and had in fact been arrested before the revolution, and had to leave the country, again had to leave for France, where he worked across Europe with distinction as an architect until his death in 2014 at the age of 89. The film-makers, who spent ten years putting this film together, were lucky to have interviewed him extensively before his death.
Eventually Che wrote an article in which he criticized the freedoms exercised in the Art Schools, which found themselves thereafter subject to military discipline, and were forced to expel gay students. In the end only Porro’s Plastic Arts and Modern Dance School ever got finished, and Garatti who had designed the Music and Ballet schools was forced out of the country in 1974.
Gradually, however, word spread around the world of the tragic neglect suffered by what so many regarded as the greatest architectural achievement of the Cuban revolution, and the film has a brief statement in which Castro declares that when someone showed him a drawing of one of the Schools, “it was like falling in love with a young girl.” He declared that the work must be rehabilitated and completed, and said, “I was ignorant.” (Quite an admission for a man whose word was law.) So began the slow process of reconstruction and rehabilitation, which, according to the film has slowed since the resignation of Fidel.
The rehabilitation of this work at an international level was signalled by the publication in 2011 of a book by a Californian John Loomis called Revolution of Form: Cuba’s Forgotten Art Schools. Subsequently many exhibitions have toured showing photos of he work, and it has even been the subject of an opera. The World Monuments Fund placed the Art Schools on their watch List, and all this attention persuaded Cuba to recommend the project as a World Heritage site that has outstanding universal value to the world.
I believe this film about this extraordinary achievement is itself wonderful in that it gives such a clear-headed, in some ways inspiring, and in other ways depressing, view of the meaning of revolution. Something a guy like me, who tends to sympathize with revolutions, is in dire need of.