The National Art Schools
Picture this. It is 1961 and Fidel Castro and Che Guevara are in the bar after playing a round of golf at Havana’s elite Country Club. Inspired by the beauty of the place, their conversation turns to its future. What to do with it? Over the next hour an idea crystallises: the grounds of the club should become something that is symbolic of the power of the revolution, bringing education to the people. It would house an Art School reflecting the new socialist Cuba, one that would compete creatively with the best in the world.
The location and event are real, and from it emerged the most individual piece of Cuban revolutionary architecture: the extraordinary Escuelas Nacionales de Arte (National Art Schools).
Designed by three architects, one Cuban and two Italian, the new schools were constructed in flamboyant, sinuous forms deliberately reflecting the local landscape. Built in brick and terracotta as a pragmatic response to US embargo of imported steel and utilising the Catalan vault throughout, these were a confident repudiation of western International modernism. But of the five original schools in the complex only two were completed, as the deepening relationship with the USSR prompted distain for such exotic forms over Soviet functionalism. Castro’s initial enthusiasm waned. Soon the architects fell out of favour and the schools were abandoned to vandalism and nature, overgrown by trees and crumbling ruination.
More recently there has been a revival of interest in the project, with the Cuban Ministry of Culture restoring the schools of modern dance and plastic arts, and declaring the whole site a national monument in 2011. But the threat of neglect continues to overshadow the complex: the schools of music, ballet and drama remain incomplete and in search of a use, with the latter two in imminent danger of collapse. There are corrosive competing interests at play, resulting in a confused and compromised vision for the future with inappropriate development and single-building solutions taking precedence over the whole site. In 2000, World Monuments Fund (WMF) helped to draw attention to the global significance of the Art Schools by placing them on the World Monuments Watch for endangered sites. The Watch listing was repeated this year as a further prompt to find a long-term solution.
The current challenges facing Cuba's heritage
The plight of the Art Schools epitomises the twin challenges that used to face Cuba’s heritage: decay and neglect resulting from economic forces, or ideological opposition. Curiously, the same forces have also resulted in the survival of much of the colonial era charm of places like Habana Vieja, or Old Havana. An absence of money to restore old heritage has also meant an absence of resources to replace it.
However, to these old challenges must be added a new threat resulting as an unforeseen consequence of the thawing relationship between the US and the Cuban governments. With the reestablishment of diplomatic relations between the US and Cuba in 2014, punctuated by Barack Obama’s historic visit in March this year, a sea change in tourism and other investment is underway. Tourism has always played an important part of the Cuban economy, overtaking sugar production in terms of value in the 1990s, as the Cuban government sought to fill the vacuum left by the collapse of the Soviet Union, the country’s main trading partner. Most of those visiting came from [or via] Canada, which normalised relations with the Cuba in the 1970s, or from Europe. The trend will continue in 2016 as more airlines and cruise-ships are granted permission to land or visit.
What might this mean for Cuba’s architectural heritage? The debate is unhelpfully positioned as the Macdonaldisation of Cuba, with hoards of new tourists crudely depicted demanding the recognised brands and standards of home. More usefully, it is about the power of significant inward investment, coupled with the understandable desire to modernise. These twin pressures have the potential to favour new build and global brands over restoration of the old and the retention of distinctive local character.
Learning the lessons from Viejo Habana
Immediately to the west of the mazy, narrow streets of Old Havana is the central business district of El Vedado. Previously a military zone where building was forbidden to protect the old city’s views of the sea, El Vedado developed as an elegant planned district in the latter half of the 19th Century. The sugar boom years of the 1890s and early 20th century brought American investment and burgeoning Cuban affluence that led to some of the best 20th century architecture in the country. Everything from Neo-classical through to modernist styles, by way of Art Deco and Art Nouveau, sprang up on the wide palm-lined boulevards. Hotels, casinos and nightclubs competed alongside parks, government buildings and large residencies in an eclectic mix that has a touch of 1950s Miami or Vegas. Such is the importance of the area that several individual buildings are protected, but alas this may not be enough in the face of the demands of new inward investment.
The situation brings to mind the apocryphal story about how to cook a frog. Drop it in hot water and it will leap out immediately. Instead, place it in cold water, which is subsequently heated, and it fails to notice it’s impending doom. Here the same thing is happening: the accumulated incremental impact of a thousand small changes, compounded by weak planning legislation, will erode the special character of this unique area. Slowly, inexorably, the neighbourhood changes until one day you turn around and it’s gone…
 No frogs were harmed in the writing of this article…
The unprecedented scale and pressure of new investment in Cuba could speed up such a process, not just in El Vedado, but across the island. In so doing it would serve to destroy some of the very things that make Cuba so extraordinary. Fortunately Cuban heritage professionals and planners are acutely aware of the risks and, with international support from organisations such as WMF (who are organising a conference this coming December in Havana on heritage and planning) and with successful experience of restoration in Old Havana, are open to alternative solutions. One of which has to be to ensure that inward investment is coupled with a conservation-led approach, one that seeks to preserve those special qualities. Retrospective? Backward looking? Or, given Fidel Castro’s recent 90th Birthday speech, a choice between the past or the future? No, because conservation is best described as the careful management of change for the future. Viva the old Cuba; Viva the new Cuba.
A shortened version of this article was published in The Art Newspaper on 9th Sept 2016 http://theartnewspaper.com/comment/comment/the-art-schools-castro-built-and-then-neglected/