- 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.