In the film, architect Vittorio Garatti talked about the fact that though the buildings are in need of repair, there’s still something attractive about the imperfect beauty. Is there beauty in ruins?
Imagine that you would see in your own lifetime one of your buildings be ruined, not in a natural disaster of some kind, but actually by time and nature, consumed as if it were a Piranasian landscape. There’s an aesthetic of the ruin; it tells us something about human nature and about the way that all of our work has an expiration date of some kind, even architecture, which we feel is so solid and permanent and heavy and lasting—it too is something that will pass. I think that they [the architects] see the metaphor, how these buildings also stand for their own lives and for all of human structures—physical structures or political structures or social structures.
What is there to learn from these buildings in their unfinished, somewhat decaying form?
Architects today can really expand their role, the way they see themselves in society. When we are designing physical spaces, we’re also making statements about how our lives are organized. A building in some sense is frozen; it’s going to look the same, but it can also leave room for the marks of change that will happen, whether from the climate or from the users or from the changing program inside the building. Some architects do it with materiality, with a material that’s going to show wear. And I think that the brick in the National Arts Schools does that, but some people do it with technology. It’s more about the approach and the thought and the idea behind the building.
What did you see of the surrounding architecture when you were filming in Cuba?
The colonial architecture in old Havana is attended to fairly well. Old Havana is a UNESCO World Heritage site since 1981, so they’ve been restoring old buildings in old Havana, mostly colonial architecture. But there’s also amazing modern architecture in Cuba. There are Art Déco buildings, Art Nouveau buildings, International Style, buildings by Breuer, and amazing modern buildings that have been been maintained over the years, because a lot of them were given to ambassadors or high officials. But otherwise, you see architecture that’s suffering because of a lack of funding for maintenance and because of the climate. Frequently, buildings just fall down in old Havana and in central Havana.
These were the first buildings to be put on the World Monuments Fund’s watch list while the building architects were still alive. What does it mean for the three architects to have the hope of completion in their lifetime, and then to see the restoration stopped again?
Earlier this year, the answer I would have given you was yes, the restoration has completely stopped; they’re feeling frustrated, they’re feeling hopeful, but not necessarily optimistic that the work would be completed in their lifetimes. They’re all about 90 years old. But Vittorio Garatti has been trying to raise money to finish his schools. He has completed the drawings pro bono and set up a nonprofit foundation, Comitato Vittorio Garatti, in Italy to try to raise enough money to restore and protect his buildings at least from the elements. And Roberto Gottardi in Cuba continues to work on the plans to restore his School of the Dramatic Arts. Ricardo Porro’s building is complete, so he’s content in that way.
But the recent twist is that in the past few weeks, it’s come to our attention that a Cuban exiled ballet dancer named Carlos Acosta has partnered with the Ministry of Culture in Cuba. He wants to restore the ballet school by Garatti and create a private foundation. Vittorio had met with him once, but after that, it’s been reported that Acosta has hired Norman Foster’s office to do some kind of analysis. There seems to be concern that Garatti would not be consulted or involved with this project that Acosta is doing. For me, I hope for the best. It could be a really exciting possibility if Acosta with the funding, and if the firm with the resources and knowhow to help with this incredible site in Cuba are able to collaborate.
Watch Unfinished Spaces on PBS on Oct. 12 at 10 p.m. (double check local listings), and check unfinishedspaces.com for screenings coming to your city this fall.
This story has been updated to add that John Loomis's book on the history of the schools is called Revolution of Forms: Cuba's Forgotten Art Schools (Princeton Architectural Press, 1999).