Cuba's Lost Art Schools

Courtesy Princeton Architectural Press

Birds screech as architect and historian John Loomis treks down into the ravine. Below him, terra-cotta cupolas seem to float over the jungle. Here, Cuba's National School of Ballet lies forgotten, some 30 years after its creation. Unfinished and never used, the vine-covered buildings are still sound, with winding walkways and arches that, like ghostly ballerinas, seem to defy gravity. Loomis is awed by their originality and stunned by their neglect.

The ruins sit on the grounds of Havana's former country club. Loomis, '73, has been here before -- Cuban officials reluctantly showed him the nearby School of Plastic Arts 11 years earlier, in 1980 -- but this is his first glimpse of the School of Ballet. The plastic arts and ballet schools, plus three others devoted to modern dance, drama and music, once made up Cuba's National Art Schools. Now largely abandoned, they were conceived in the early cultural fervor of the Cuban revolution, then condemned -- along with their architects -- as ideologically inappropriate.

On his 1980 visit, Loomis thought he'd seen the whole complex, but he came back in 1991 with someone who knew better: Roberto Gottardi, designer of the schools with Ricardo Porro and Vittorio Garatti. "We spent hours walking through an almost magic-realist architecture and landscape, [and] he recounted his story of the project," Loomis says. It was the beginning an oral history effort that would absorb Loomis for the next six years. "I knew then I would write the story of the Cuban art schools," he says, "not just because they are architectural marvels, but also because this is a human drama that deeply affected the good men who designed them."

Historians rarely make history, but that's what Loomis did with Revolution of Forms: Cuba's Forgotten Art Schools (Princeton Architectural Press, 1999). His book sparked its own political and human drama in Cuba, comparable to the "rehabilitation" of Cuban jazz musicians after the release of the film Buena Vista Social Club. In this case, architects and buildings are the ones being rehabilitated.

Last October, Loomis learned that Cuba's minister of culture had given his book to Fidel Castro. In November, Castro called a meeting of the artists' and writers' union to talk about cultural accomplishments of the revolution. He chastised his officials for undervaluing the art schools and letting them fall into disrepair. In December, the schools' three architects met in Havana for the first time since 1965, in a reunion arranged by Castro associates to launch talks on reviving the schools. The group began drawing up plans right away.

Almost simultaneously, Loomis's book attracted the attention of Peter Noever, director of the Austrian Museum of Applied Arts. Noever organized a traveling exhibit on the art schools. Soon afterward, the New York-based World Monuments Fund placed the schools on its endangered list -- a recognition that could translate into money and expertise to restore and reopen the structures. American laws prohibit money transfers to Cuba, but Loomis is quietly lobbying to coax the funding through.

Loomis, 49, seems capable of pulling it off. A compact, energetic man with intense blue eyes, he heads the architecture program at the California College of Arts and Crafts, in San Francisco. An art history major with a master's in architecture from Columbia, he lives in San Francisco with his wife and their 6-year-old son.

As Loomis learned during his research, Castro commissioned the schools in the early 1960s to give artists in Cuba and the Third World a distinct aesthetic voice that would express the goals of the revolution and to make culture available to anyone. The architecture reflects the designers' optimism and zeal for these ideas. "They believed they were building the new utopia," says Loomis, citing Porro's description of that era as "more surrealist than socialist." The men had three aims: to build in harmony with the tropical landscape, to use earthen materials available in Cuba and to use the Catalan vaulted arch as the primary structural system. They chose the arch for its efficiency, strength and grace, as well as its Mediterranean origin. Porro also wanted to evoke Cuba's African heritage, so he designed the School of Plastic Arts to resemble an African village and to convey a sensuousness he believed was distinctly Cuban. The result was a beguiling departure from modernist style, welcoming both artists and art lovers with sexy curves, skylit ceilings and airy rooms that naturally flow into one another.

Cuba's political climate began to change, however, with the island's growing dependence on the Soviet Union after the 1962 missile crisis and the U.S. blockade. The school's sweeping spaces and fanciful design grated against the reality of short supplies and Soviet utilitarianism. Party officials decided the structures were too individualistic, ambitious and grandiose, and they denounced the architects as bourgeois and folkloric. Gottardi fled Havana to pursue modest projects elsewhere on the island. Cuban-born Porro took refuge in Paris. Garatti went to jail on charges of espionage, then left Cuba for his native Italy.

"They suffered emotional betrayal," says Loomis. "But there is still potential for rehabilitation." His dream is to see their vision reemerge -- alive with young dancers, artists, musicians -- and he believes it may yet come to pass.

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