National School of Art, Cuba


Trevor Patt

On the bucolic grounds of a golf course in a western suburb of Havana, sometime after the Cuban revolution of 1959, Che Guevara and Fidel Castro played a round of golf.

Af Nina Tory-Henderson

The story goes that as they swung their clubs in jest of the bourgeoisie land on which they stood, they decided to turn the golf course and country club into a school of art. A perfect antithesis to its former life as a playground for the elite, the school was envisioned as the cultural center of the socialist world.

The project began in haste. In 1961 local architect Ricardo Porro was asked to design five schools of art (drama, ballet, music, plastic arts, and modern dance) in two months. To manage the near-impossible timeline, Porro engaged two Italian architects (Vittorio Garatti and Roberto Gottardi) and the three designed the project collectively.

As one of the founding projects of the revolution, marking the formation of a new society, the question of the school’s form was also one of national identity. The architects embodied Cuba’s desire to break away from tradition and destabilize hierarchies. They worked with a revolutionary spirit, with a curiosity and eagerness to create change. The result was a series of sculptural buildings organic in plan and form, unlike anything that had been built in Cuba before.

While each architect oversaw the design of individual schools, they devised a shared tectonic language, materiality, and spatial logic. Spatially each school was considered as a fragment of a city rather than a building. Each campus is a network of open walkways, courtyards, plazas, gardens, amphitheater, and buildings. They are not enclosed or walled but bleed into the surrounding landscape. With no defined entrance or spatial hierarchy, their labyrinthine circulation can be accessed from anywhere. More than just an appropriate climatic design for the tropical location, Garratti likened the spatial framework to the spirit of the revolution: “It’s an architecture that cannot represent power, it has to represent integration.” The school’s nebulous plans resist a single view, path, or determined use of space — refusing a fixed dogmatic position.

With an embargo in place from the United States, materials had to be sourced locally. Steel and concrete were extremely expensive and had to be kept to a minimum. This resulted in a homogeneous materiality of Cuban clay in the form of terracotta tiles and bricks. All schools employed a Catalan vaulted construction in order to achieve large, open spans without the use of concrete or steel. While the structural and material logic was a pragmatic and resourceful one, the spaces created feel far from the architectural austerity we associate with such terms.

The complexity of the plan created a project of spatial riches: domed classrooms with large oculi at their apex filter soft light into their elliptical plan; vaulted colonnades of terracotta and brick frame brilliant green landscapes beyond with their contrasting red color; bending passages conceal what lies ahead, creating a sequence of spatial unfolding and discovery; curving walls bow to form a dark and shaded nook, then fan out to skirt large courtyards that frame the sky.

The consistent construction logic and materiality in combination with spatially complex plans created a series of buildings both coherent and complex, exuberant and resourceful, contemporary and traditional. Architect Hugo Consuegra has likened the complexities, ambiguities and disjunctive qualities of the schools as in harmony with the Cuban revolution, but unfortunately, not everyone agreed. In 1965 the Ministry of Construction cut off funding, claiming the school was at odds with the ideals of the revolution. They labeled the project and its architects as elitist, intellectual and narcissistic, giving preference to climatically inappropriate, prefabricated concrete structures with an aesthetic of pragmatism, anonymity, and functionalism. With this simplistic perception of what a socialist architecture should look like, the qualities of the school were overlooked.

In 1965 only two schools were complete — the other three were left in their unfinished state. They have been in disrepair for many years, but since 2000 refurbishment works have been underway. The school is now on the World Monument’s Watch overseeing the management of the site.