- The first was to honor the natural beauty of the property with its manicured landscape and small rivers, and find locations befitting each department of the school.
- The second was to make use of native materials for construction. As a result of the U.S. economic blockade on October 19, 1960, steel and concrete were scarce. Brick and terra-cotta tiles were to be the primary materials to be used in the construction of the schools.
- The third and most notable principle was to use the Catalan vault to form the desired shapes and curves for the structures, resulting in the organic clusters of buildings for the various schools. The origin of the design is not completely known, but was used extensively in ancient Mediterranean countries from Italy to Spain to North Africa. After being revived in Spain in the late 1860’s, the building method was eventually patented in the United States and can be notably seen in the Boston Public Library, Grand Central Station and Penn Station.
During last year’s visit to Havana with the Dunedin Fine Art Center, Cindy and I discovered that artists remain highly revered in Cuba. This reflects the ideals set forth in a post-revolutionary, pre-communist vision embracing arts and education, and the Cuban National Art Schools (las Escuelas Nacionales de Arte, or ENA) was a result of this Utopian vision. There wasn’t much need for a golf course in the new Cuba, so Fidel Castro chose the Havana Country Club to be the site of an art school that would rival any in the world. This was to be an extension of an educational campaign already under way that had generated a huge increase in literacy across the country. The school was to provide creative sharing, identity and education for Cuba and countries of the Third World.
A Cuban and Italian architectural team went to work on five separate faculty structures located on the huge property for visual arts, ballet, modern dance, drama and music, plus a conservation facility. Three guiding principles were proposed for the project:
The use of brick, mortar and terra cotta tiles were the perfect media for two of the ENA schools – Visual Arts and Ballet. Also known as “cohesive timbrel arch construction”, the Catalan vault provides a very thin mass with great strength as a result of its form. The vaulted roof structures of the ENA were built of bricks, meticulously placed, defying gravity as the mortar held the bricks to the row before it. Like a simple arch, when a curved row of bricks was complete, gravity locked them into place. In the case of the buildings of the ENA, the roof was covered by at least two layers of tile held together by an additional mortar layer, making up approximately half the mass. The Catalan vault is known to be nearly indestructible. I will let the photographs complete the picture.
As a result of the effects of the American embargo, and the industrialized design and standardization of Soviet-era Cuba, work on the school stopped in 1965. The Cuban National Art Schools was never completed, but the buildings have been in partial use by faculty and students from that time to the present day. During our visit of the visual arts complex, Cindy and I marveled at the beauty and craftsmanship evident in this architectural method, as much art as science. Many artists and craftsmen were at work in the studios creating sophisticated, quality art, and we were able to buy some wonderful ceramics and prints. I think we share the sentiments of everyone on the tour in hoping for a bright future for the school and Cuba in the coming years.
In November of 2015, Cindy and I had the opportunity to visit Havana, Cuba through a tour group working with the Dunedin Fine Art Center. There was a total of 30 people on the tour. The arts were a focus of the trip that featured prearranged visits with artists in their studios and at their homes. These creative people, like everyone we met in Cuba, were warm and welcoming to us at a time when diplomatic talks with the U.S. were still unfolding and American visitors were still rare.
To experience the people and their culture is to discover their art and architecture. Because of my background as an architect, I looked forward to seeing the wealth of history in Havana’s buildings and streets. Havana, a city of two million people, was founded only a few decades after the first Columbus voyage. The city has much to offer, although the decades of sanctions on Cuba account for a gap in time in which the island’s climate has had a brutal effect on buildings that received little to no maintenance. The colonial phase was well represented with a wealth of beautiful buildings in varying states of preservation. There were signs of active renovation of many colonial structures, including old hotels and apartment buildings whose residents are housed by the government until renovations are complete. A glaring mix of post-revolution 1960’s concrete and glass, brought about by the Soviet Union’s partnership with Cuba, as well as European built buildings, jars the senses. A high point for me was visiting the home of Ernest Hemingway and seeing his boat Pilar.
What was most surprising about the people of Cuba is their resiliency living under a dictatorship – how resourceful they have been to prosper to the degree that they can. While healthcare and education are well provided, food can be scarce, and appliances, furniture and other things we take for granted can be impossible to get or available only through a government rental system. This encourages ingenuity, barter and trade, as well as black markets, signs of the continuing suppression of the people.
We learned that artists are revered in Cuba, held in higher esteem than doctors. Our tour guide, Marcos Carvajal, talked openly about life under Castro and how a level of government criticism was now tolerated, a freedom we saw demonstrated in the work of some of the artists we met. They can sell their work as long as it is handmade and unique (not reproduced). This includes artist-made printmaking, pottery and ceramics, painting and more. A reverence for artists was a part of the Cuban revolution’s vision of a Utopian culture, a vision that resulted in the extraordinary campus of the Cuban National Art Schools. Perhaps the most unique architecture and the most moving experience in seeing contemporary artists at work, was at this historic academy for the arts, featuring unique revolution-era architectural design that was once widely criticized as being non-Cuban. This will be the topic of my next post.