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A Cuban Architectural Treasure: National Art Schools

havana art school-1-editedBeautiful, mysterious, romantic. Before 1959, the Instituto Superior de Arte, the National Art Schools, was once the site of Havana’s Country Club, located in Havana’s Playa neighborhood. With its 18-hole golf course, this recreational heaven for Havana’s elites was turned into the most prestigious art university on the island. Three architects – Ricardo Porro, Vittorio Garatti and Roberto Gottardi – were given complete freedom to design and build four different faculties in the lush and tropical gardens of the Country Club. The architects seized the opportunity. The result: an amazing series of distinctive compounds perfectly integrated into their surroundings.

Some of the faculties were left unfinished, and others have fallen into disuse, casualties of resource constraints. The site is hauntingly exotic, with sensuous Catalan domes, engineering masterpieces, made with distinctive red bricks growing above the exuberant tropical vegetation. As we walked through the school a solitary trumpet student practiced his scales on the vestiges of the then music faculty, popularly known as “El Gusano” or the worm, for its meandering shape. Originally the intention had been to shape it like a treble clef but it was never finished. Nevertheless, one can easily imagine the virtuosity and the beauty of the design, blending over the years and into the dense growth. The contrast between the crumbling orange bricks and impenetrable green is truly a spectacle.

The years of abandonment of some of the buildings, particularly the circus and theatre schools, have created a mysterious landscape that evokes the ancient and Renaissance worlds. But the empty buildings also testify to the magnitude of the attempt. The whole ensemble–a living elite cultural university, the unfinished parts, and the abandoned buildings–have an inspirational quality. They leave an indelible mark on the architectural landscape of Cuba and the world, and a unique restoration project for the future.

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