Ever since Cuba’s National Art Schools broke ground in 1961, they have proceeded at a stutter-step pace, mainly due to how much political and artistic controversy they’ve inspired. First, construction was halted in 1965, when the Cuban Ministry of Construction began importing and mandating the use of prefabricated building technologies from the Soviet Union: In with International Style Modernism, out with the curvy, organic architecture of the school buildings. Two of the three architects, Ricardo Porro and Vittorio Garrati, were subsequently exiled to Italy (Roberto Gottardi remained in Havana and still lives there today.) Years later, in 1999, author John Loomis published the buildings’ history, Revolution of Forms: Cuba's Forgotten Art Schools (Princeton Architectural Press, 1999), spurring the World Monuments Fund to add them to its watch list a year later—and the project was revived. But then Cuban officials stopped the project again in 2009, when the worldwide financial crisis hit.
Now, on the eve of the television premiere of Unfinished Spaces (on Oct. 12 at 10 p.m., on PBS; check local listings), the 2011 documentary about the schools’ history, yet another twist in the plot appears. Cuban ballet dancer Carlos Acosta has hired British architect Norman Foster to finish the School of Ballet. But what about the original architect, Vittorio Garatti, who is still alive and has been raising funds to finish the building for years? ARCHITECT talked to Alysa Nahmias, co-director of Unfinished Spaces with Benjamin Murray, who explains in a condensed interview about how she found this project as well as if the buildings will ever become finished spaces.
You got your M.Arch. from Princeton University in 2006 and practiced for three years. How did you switch from architecture to producing documentaries?
Unfinished Spaces was 10 years in the making and arose as I was becoming interested in architecture and film. I applied for my master’s and then went to Princeton and was shooting the film throughout. I always knew that I was interested in design and space, but I was also interested in how spaces are used—the social and political histories of a space. I knew I was interested in architecture as a broader discipline beyond building.
How did you stumble upon this topic?
I was on a trip to Cuba in 2001 with a nonprofit foundation in Cuba called the Ludwig Foundation, one of the few NGOs operating in Cuba at the time. And I said that I wanted to learn more about architecture in Havana, and they said, well we know an architect that you could meet with; it just so happened that that architect was Roberto Gottardi, who is the architect of the School of Dramatic Arts at the National Art schools. Roberto told me his story about designing the buildings in the ‘60s, and what he and the other architects went through as far persecution and exile and how they were now being invited back to finish the project. And I said, ‘‘Well somebody should make a film about it.’’ And he said, ‘‘Why don't you do it?’’
What did that school look like when you first saw it?
It was magnificent. You can’t understand these buildings without being in them and moving through them because they have such potential for narrative by adding that dimension of time. For example, Vittorio Garatti designed the School of Ballet so that dancers can perform on the rooftop; the building folds down into the landscape, but it also rises up into these domes that stand 30 meters. Also, they didn’t fit the stereotypes that I had about Cuban architecture. It wasn’t a colonial Spanish style, but it also wasn’t International Style Modernism that had been imported during the ’40s or ’50s. But it wasn’t yet postmodernism either. The author John Loomis calls these buildings ‘‘another Modernism.’’ They kind of mark … that moment in Cuba which was such a moment of truly believing that there was a possibility to reinvent society, to reinvent the way that human beings engage with nature, the way that they engage with themselves. We know that it [the revolution] didn’t turn out the way that they thought at the time. But that optimism can still be felt at the National Art Schools.
Did you have to get any special permission to visit Cuba and photograph the schools? What was that process like?
What really gave us access was that we met the architects first. Once they agreed to be part of the film, then it was easier to get access to the buildings themselves. And then it took time to gain the trust of the people who were restoring the buildings. In the beginning, they would only let us in for an hour, a couple of hours, only when the architects were there. But by our last two shoots, they were like, ‘‘Oh you missed that spot. What about that detail?’’ At one time, they also had somebody help us ride a motorcycle through the building with Ben on the back with the camera so that we could get moving footage through the buildings.
I think it might be surprising to those outside of architecture that a building can cause so much controversy—maybe the crusade to save Brutalist buildings would be a similar case–but not quite. Why are people so passionate about these buildings?
These were the first buildings designed after the Cuban Revolution, commissioned by Fidel Castro and Che Guevarra, and they had some international attention at the time; they were published in magazines in Italy. So when people first saw these buildings, they saw a kind of hopefulness of the Cuban revolution, and then when they saw the construction stopped, they also saw the optimism cut off. But then architecturally speaking, they are incredible crafted buildings. The architects … Ricardo Porro had been in Paris and had met Le Corbusier; Vittorio Garatti had worked in the office of Ernesto Rogers in Milan; and Roberto Gottardi had studied with Carlo Scarpa in Venice, so they [the architects] were really at the center of International Modernism, and then here they went and did something in Cuba that was very much new, revolutionary aesthetically. And then the other reason why people in Cuba care about these buildings is because … if you look at any Cuban artist who was born 1950 or later, they will have gone to this school. And now, with so many Cuban artists exiled around the world, the alumni network would include the greatest Cuban dancers, painters, sculptors, theater and film stars. And that’s why people venerate this place.