World architects are battling to save Cuba’s artistic heritage

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Architects are fighting to preserve Cuba’s National Art Schools which were conceived more than five decades ago by Fidel Castro and Che Guevara to bring a cultural education to the underprivileged.

“They are landmarks of modernism and the most outstanding examples of new architecture produced by the Cuban revolution,” says Norma Barbacci, an architect at the World Monuments Fund overseeing efforts to save the schools, formally known as Escuelas Nacionales de Arte.

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La Escuelas Nacionales de Arte. Photography by Aidan Imanova.

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The complex is now listed on the 2016 World Monuments Watchlist and two of the five schools are close to collapse. Architects from the World Monuments Fund is hoping the Cuban government can finally find a sustainable way to restore them

The story goes that Castro and Guevara were sitting at the bar of what was then a country club and remarking on its aesthetic appeal. They then came up with the idea of turning it into a national resource – and opening the facility up to the world’s poor.

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Although Castro scaled back his original visions, in 1961 he commissioned three architects — Cuban Ricardo Porro, and Italians Vittorio Garatti and Roberto Gottardi — to build a National School of Arts to educate Cubans in ballet, modern dance, art, music and drama.

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Work began immediately, with Porro designing the schools of dance and arts, Garatti the schools of ballet and music and Gottardi the school of dramatic arts.

But as the Cuban missile crisis came and the country moved closer to the former USSR, the government started to favour utilitarian, Soviet-style architecture, and the curved buildings the architects designed came to be viewed as an extravagant, elitist indulgence.

The three architects also became targets, with the men accused of being “egocentric bourgeois cultural aristocrats”, according to local reports.

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Funding dried up and the government halted construction completely in 1965, declaring the schools open even though Porro’s schools of dance and arts were the only buildings that had been finished.

Lessons were held in the competed structures, but those that were incomplete lacked protection from the elements and began to fall into disrepair.

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The architects were also vulnerable, and after Porro’s home was attacked using ‘Santeria’, or Cuban voodoo in 1966, he sought exile in Paris. Garatti also left the country in 1974 after being arrested on trumped-up accusations of spying, leaving Gottardi alone on the island.

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“It would be wonderful if the schools end up fulfilling the original vision of Fidel and Che, that they do become international and that paying students end up being part of a sustainable business plan,” says architect and author John Loomis who has made a special study of the schools.

“They are unlike anything you’ve ever seen before, so kinetic and organic and three dimensionally complex.

“You can’t really see your destination and you can’t turn around and look back and see where you’ve been. You are always on a journey.”

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