And Nobody Tells You
“To Fidel, everything had to be the greatest in the world,” says Selma Diaz. “To him, they were the best in the world, not just the best in Latin America. They had to be the best schools of art in the world.” Under her narration, the camera in Unfinished Spaces makes its way along brick corridors and up stone stairways. As the structure appears both old and empty, in some disrepair, you might guess this journey is coming to an end even as she remembers its origins.
But the film, in looking back, in taking you inside Cuba’s National Schools of Art, also suggests another journey. If it’s of a piece with the one initiated with the overthrow of Batista in 1957 and the triumph of the Revolution, it’s different too. That other journey begins with reconsidering the hopes and confusions of the period, the politics and the struggles that go on to this day. Screening at Stranger Than Fiction on 7 February, followed by a Q&A with directors Alysa Nahmias and Benjamin Murray, the documentary includes interviews and archival footage, as well as tracking shots that take you through the buildings, shots that might have appeared in a horror movie. But the ghosts and spirits here aren’t so much dead as they are waiting.
Commissioned in 1961, the Schools were touted as incarnations of the Revolution’s ideals, of freedom and change, of the “guerrilla spirit for adventure,” as architect Vittorio Garatti puts it. Apparently first imagined as Fidel Castro and Che Guevara played golf at the “most aristocratic country club in Havana” (an event documented in newspapers around the world at the time) plan was to make Schools for all students of art, for dancers and musicians and painters, so they might advance the Revolution’s best notions. The five buildings themselves would represent this project, each designed by an architect with a vision.
The project is remembered here by those architects, including the head of design, that most gregarious purveyor of “organic” ideals, Ricardo Porro, who says, “I help to make revolution, but in a very soft way. I never fought. I don’t think I’m a man to fight with guns. I fight with ideas, that’s all.” He brought in two Italian architects and friends, Garatti and Roberto Gottardi, and their designs were ready to build just a few months later. If each structure had its own concept, they also worked together, in part out of necessity: unable to import materials from the US, the designers made use of local materials, “what was in the earth,” says Porro, bricks and wood. Rounded walls were made with molds, using local laborers.
The enthusiasm was thrilling, remembers Garatti. “The schools came alive without being finished,” he says, classes commencing informally, students committing to the construction as part of their education. “We went there to build,” asserts artist Manuel Lopez Oliva.
As he conceived the School of Music, Garatti says, he had the idea “that architecture can’t represent power. It has to represent imagination, it has to represent total freedom.” Just so, the walls are sinuous, the interiors open, by way of windows and expansive rooms into hallways. For the School of Ballet, he designed an entrance resembling an “initiation ritual: you don’t enter the theater directly.” Rather, you must follow a “series of passages to arrive.” As the camera emulates this ritual, you might imagine the excitement of the time, the optimism for the future.
As they look back, the artists seem to understand one another, to share in that optimism and appreciate each other’s idiosyncrasies. As Porro recalls his plan—“I tried to make the School of Plastic Arts the image of the goddess of fertility, I put a lot of breasts in the domes of the buildings”—and architect Mario Coyula notes this had as much to do with his ego as his art (“He always likes to call attention to himself”), the film recalls the controversy this design engendered. If actress Mirtha Ibarra could see humor in the fountain shaped like a vagina, other “ladies” were less amused. The Ministry of Culture, says Porro, “found the sculpture very indecent,” a sign of what was to come, namely, that the project would be deemed “wrong.”
As Che and other Revolutionaries came to the idea that students at art schools, on scholarships, should not be “practicing freedom,” but instead learning to conform to military standards, the functions of the schools began to change and the drive to finish them tapered off. And the essential notion of architecture in Cuba took on another shape, following the model of the nation’s primary benefactor, the Soviet Union, using prefab components and designed to look that way. As Porro recalls, “It was just like the process in Kafka: one day you know that something isn’t going very well and then you realize you have been accused of something and then you realize that you have been judged. And then you realize that you are guilty. And nobody tells you.”
He and the other architects responded differently to the crisis. In 1966, Porro left for Paris, and shortly after, Garatti returned to Italy. Roberto Gottardi remained in Cuba, he says, because even if moments can be “difficult,” “I say it’s like an act of love with Cuba, like when you get married and say, ‘In good times or bad, we will stay together.’” When the Soviet Union collapsed, and all funding for the Schools with it, the buildings were left to decay, to break down and flood, to be covered over with moss and foliage. The architects’ different paths, like their different designs—still unfinished and still without Cuban funding, though now respected around the world—recall the many freedoms Cuba once imagined.