BY Ben Ehrenreich in Frieze | 06 JUN 08
Featured in
Issue 116

Havana and its Doubles

Exploring the history of Cuba’s National Art schools – a tale that reflects the hopes and failures of a revolution

BY Ben Ehrenreich in Frieze | 06 JUN 08

I was running late, which is easy to do here. My taxi was stopped by a police officer, and the driver, depressed about the ticket, couldn’t find the building. His old Russian Lada coughed its way about the pitted streets of Nuevo Vedado until I decided to try my luck on foot. I stopped the first person I came across. He asked me whom I was looking for. ‘Roberto Gottardi,’ I told him, ‘the architect’. ‘Ah,’ he nodded, ‘Señor Gottardi.’ He led me to an old, Soviet-style apartment building of stained concrete and pointed up. ‘Fifth floor,’ he said.

The first half of this story takes place in Havana, in the actual city, with its actual skies, actual poinciana trees and salt-air decay. The second half takes place in another, less stubbornly material Havana, in the Havana of fantasy and nostalgia – which is to say, in Miami. You’ll have to find the other halves in the spaces between these two. But for now, Havana, a city that, perhaps more than most, wears its past atop its present – like a baggy suit, like a paste diamond, like a lousy marriage, like the silence that follows a fit of laughter, like a headache, like a suit that’s much too tight.

I was sweating by the time Gottardi came to the door – no elevator, tropical heat – but his apartment was as cool as a cave. He had an air-conditioner, which denotes relative prosperity in Cuba, and what little sunlight passed through the window was tamed by a pane of green glass. The walls were lined with paintings and books. A folding partition broke the room in half, concealing an unmade bed and a wooden scale model of Gottardi’s latest design for the School of Dramatic Arts.

Gottardi – a fit, energetic man of 77 with a white handlebar moustache – welcomed me inside. He and his wife, the actress and dancer Luz María Collazo, have lived in the same small apartment for 30 years. ‘In Cuba’, he said with a smile, ‘we don’t have a choice.’ But there was nothing like self-pity in the old architect’s voice, and no trace of bitterness. He was more excited than he’d been in years. After decades of abandonment and nearly eight years of delays, construction was finally set to resume on the National Art Schools. In his old age Gottardi may see the grandest dream of his youth made real; only a certain wary calm tempered his enthusiasm. He told me the story of the art schools, which is at the same time the story of the Cuban revolution, of its saddest failures and its most ebullient hopes. Born and educated in Venice, Gottardi was working in Caracas when Fidel Castro’s victory march arrived in Havana in January 1959. Like many European leftists, he was enthralled by Cuba’s revolution. In Caracas he had met a Cuban architect named Ricardo Porro, a young radical who had fled Fulgencio Batista’s government. Porro returned to Havana and invited Gottardi and another Italian architect, Vittorio Garatti, to join him. Their talents were sorely needed, as half of the island’s architects had left. A new nation was to be built, and not only that. Cuba intended to construct, in Che Guevara’s words, a ‘new man’.

Gottardi arrived in December 1960. The following month, as legend has it, Castro and Guevara played a round of golf on what had until recently been the manicured greens of the Havana Country Club, a few miles west of the capital. The society they envisioned had no place for country clubs, so the two revolutionaries agreed to build an art school. Culture would be no longer a commodity hoarded by the wealthy but the birthright of the people. It would begin here, where the rich had played, created by the children of the poor.

Castro assigned the project to Porro, who brought on Gottardi and Garatti. None of the architects had any experience with such scale, but then, Gottardi pointed out with eyebrows raised, ‘the revolution meant that anything was possible’. The schools would be located on five campuses, and Gottardi would design the School of Dramatic Arts. Aside from a few basic directives, the architects were given complete creative licence. ‘The euphoria of that time’, he told me, ‘is difficult to describe’. But 47 years later it still lit his eyes and lifted the timbre of his voice.

They worked night and day. Gottardi described the process as being like an intoxication, a euphoric spell that he couldn’t quite shake off. Musicians and dancers practised on the lawns as masons worked around them. Everyone lent a hand. The project was not merely inspired by revolutionary ideals – it embodied them. The buildings themselves were extraordinary, departing equally from the chilly Modernism that had dominated the architecture of the time and from the colonial Neo-Classicism that had preceded it. Porro designed the School of Modern Dance as an explosive complex of interconnected, fragmentary vaults. His School of Plastic Arts turned to Cuba’s African roots – a surreally erotic sub-Saharan village recast in brick among the palms. The cupolas of Garatti’s School of Ballet curved through a ravine and his School of Music wound like a lizard’s tail tracing the banks of the river that limned the old club.

Gottardi’s School of Drama, a complex of airy classrooms surrounding a central amphitheatre, strived to recreate the intimacy and spontaneity of urban space. Brick-walled corridors curved like alleys in a North African medina. Sight lines were intentionally obscured, ‘so that you wouldn’t know what’s coming’, Gottardi said. ‘Like life.’

On 26 July 1965, though they were far from complete, the National Art Schools were officially declared open. But their inauguration was also a death sentence; construction would never resume.

A lot had changed in four years. Porro’s conviction, expressed years later to the architecture scholar John A. Loomis, that ‘architecture must add a poetic dimension to everyday life’, no longer fitted the prevailing ideology. Castro began to lean towards a Soviet model. The art schools’ ecstatic organicism suddenly reeked of heresy. Their design, possessed as it was by revolution, was accused of being ‘insufficiently revolutionary’. Gottardi repeated the phrase with a tired shrug.

In the end only Porro’s buildings were substantially completed; Garatti’s music school was not even half done. Although most of the classrooms were finished, the theatre at the centre of Gottardi’s drama school would never be built. Its winding corridors converged on empty space. The metaphors are impossible to resist: as the years passed, Castro’s revolution grew more stultified, and the art schools languished. Roots and vines ate at the mortar and cracked the terracotta tiles. Looters took what they could. The revolution’s bright dream was pilfered and abandoned.

Porro left Cuba for Paris in 1966. Garatti was briefly gaoled in 1974, accused of espionage. He returned to Italy. Gottardi stayed on. He has remained humbly faithful to the revolution, although it has not always repaid his loyalty with kindness. ‘He was marginalized,’ one acquaintance of Gottardi’s later told me. ‘He won’t talk about it, but it really broke his spirit for a little while.’

Not long after the publication in 1999 of Revolution of Forms, Loomis’ monograph about the art schools, Castro attended a conference on Cuban architecture. One architect present bravely reminded the President of the art schools’ shameful state. Two days later Gottardi, Porro and Garatti were informed that construction would resume – the schools would finally be finished. The three architects ‘were like schoolboys’, Loomis recalled. They were ‘bouncing off the walls’.

Workers began cleaning the site, uprooting plants to forestall further decay. A guard was posted to discourage looters, but nothing else happened for years. The art schools made the World Monuments Fund’s list of the world’s most endangered treasures in 2000 and in 2002. They had been nominated in 1996, along with the Taj Mahal and Angkor Wat, but no one in the Cuban government was willing to sign off on the application, and the nomination was dropped.

In recent months the momentum had picked up again. ‘Next week we will finally break ground.’ He was still waiting for his plans to be approved, Gottardi said, clearing the books from his desk. The officials supervising the project had wanted to proceed as though nothing had changed, but the architect had refused. We lifted the wooden maquette from its place behind the partition and laid it out on the corner of the desk. His new design was harsher and less organic than the original. Angled metal roofs would replace the vaulted brickwork. It was also more flexible – the roofs could be adjusted by hand to accommodate the movement of the sun. ‘I am not the same man I was when I was 30,’ Gottardi observed with a smile that was at once sad and triumphant. ‘And Cuba is not the same country.’

The second half of this story is set in another Havana – not the city of two million inhabitants in which I met Gottardi, but a place more ethereal, more blurred, and perhaps even more decayed by age. This half is set in Havana as it is remembered and as it is imagined. It takes place, therefore, in the Miami suburb of Kendall, in a drab, stucco subdivision of low-slung townhouses, ample parking, leaning palms. ‘This is not a city,’ the architect Nicolás Quintana told me, dismissing the world outside his home with an impatient wave of his bandaged arm.

Quintana, who is 82, has not been back to Cuba since 8 January 1960. He had just been released from hospital – he had fallen a few days earlier, and the back of his head was still bandaged, as were both of his wrists. He was unable to stand, and remained seated for the length of our conversation, swivelling about his office on the castors of his chair. His injuries did not appear to have depleted him. ‘My foundations are weak, but my roof doesn’t leak – yet,’ he joked with good cheer that was only slightly forced.

An air-conditioner hummed somewhere. The room was bright, its walls lined with glossy colour photos of Quintana’s grandchildren, a faded diploma from the University of Havana, several framed architectural drawings – a hotel in Rio de Janeiro, the master plan for the Cuban beach city of Varadero, the National Bank building in Havana.

A few months before he left Cuba for good, Quintana met Guevara. Quintana had been commissioned to design a new National Bank, and the raffish guerrillero had been appointed as the bank’s president. He had his boots off, Quintana remembered, and his toes protruded from the holes in his socks. He asked Quintana if he was a petit bourgeois. Quintana answered that he was not. ‘Then you’re a revolutionary’, Guevara said. Quintana demurred. ‘Look, Comandante’, he responded, ‘the man who tends my storerooms is a bourgeois. I am a gran bourgeois.’

Quintana was the son of one of the most successful builders in Cuba. He was also part of a generation of young architects (including Porro) determined to throw off the shackles of Beaux-Arts convention in favour of a distinctly Cuban brand of Modernism. ‘We formed a bloc in everything and against everything,’ Porro would later write of his friendship with Quintana and Frank Martínez, another of their classmates. ‘We were three Quixotes ready to organize a crusade against the infidels. We were the most revolutionary, the most surprising.’ Despite their political differences and the distance between them, Quintana still phones Porro, he told me, ‘every time I have a chance’. (Quintana spoke admiringly of the National Art Schools, although he saw them not as an abandoned beginning but as an end, ‘the swan song of Cuban Modernism’ after which ‘Cuban architecture as a movement was totally destroyed’.)

While still students, Quintana and Porro symbolized their break with the canon by staging a public burning of the texts of Giacomo Barozzi da Vignola in the plaza at the University of Havana. ‘The thing got out of control’, Quintana laughed, slightly embarrassed at the memory. He spent three days in gaol. ‘My father didn’t want to get me out.’ Quintana père had, after all, designed the Beaux-Arts building in which the School of Architecture was housed.

Quintana’s progressivism did not end with aesthetics. In 1958 he passed topographical maps of the Escambray mountains, where Guevara was still fighting, to Castro’s 26th of July Movement. ‘I wasn’t supporting the Movement’, he clarified. ‘I was supporting getting rid of Batista. You could call it a mistake.’ Within a year the architect had joined a group of professionals who were clandestinely conspiring against the new socialist government. Guevara found him out. At their final meeting he gave the architect three choices: exile, prison or the firing squad. Quintana fled to Caracas, taking with him his family, his art collection, his books and his cars. He arrived one year before Gottardi made the opposite migration. The National Bank was never built as he’d designed it. In fact, in the end it was constructed not as a bank but as the towering Hermanos Ameijeiras Hospital, which became a symbol of Cuba’s greatest revolutionary pride, its healthcare system. Quintana disowned the building, which he has called ‘a faithful physical representation of the concept ofthe absurd’.

In Venezuela, Quintana raced Porsches for a while. He moved to Puerto Rico, then back to Caracas before settling in Miami, which he called ‘the cemetery of the elephants’. He laid out the master plans for several Latin American cities, designed hotels, condominiums, a sports arena. But it was his latest project that he referred to as ‘the most sweeping and cherished of my entire life’. Called ‘Havana and Its Landscapes: A City towards the Future’, it was at the same time an attempt, Quintana told me, to re-conquer the past. ‘They have stolen history from us,’ he said.

The assumption behind the project was the same one that had fuelled Miami politics for a generation: at some point Castro would die, the market would triumph, the exiles would be free to return. (Never mind that Castro had already ceded power and that his government appeared more stable than ever: these were articles of faith.) Investors would step in to rebuild Havana, or so the credo went, and Quintana’s project was meant to provide a template for the new city that would emerge.

So for the past three years, with the help of his students at Florida International University and substantial funding from the American housing giants Century and Lennar Homes (to American investors Cuba is a vast blank slate, an untapped market conveniently close to home; when the rush starts, no one wants to be left behind) Quintana has been revisiting the city of his birth – without, of course, setting foot on the island. His plans are ambitious: he would like to see the city return to its population density in 1959, which means that overcrowded sections of the old downtown would have to be emptied and rebuilt. The most dilapidated buildings would be replaced with parks. Satellite imaging has made things easier. ‘We can identify the buildings that are in bad shape without actually going there,’ Quintana enthused. ‘We can tell how many people are living in the buildings.’

Quintana whirled over to the computer and with a few clicks of the mouse opened a 3-D animation of the ‘satellite cities’ he envisioned for Havana’s periphery: clusters of sleek, interconnected towers bridged by pedestrian walkways. Instead of suburban shopping centres, Quintana planned ‘urban activity centres’ that would combine housing, office space and entertainment. ‘A new thing will emerge.’ The city would be reoriented towards its now-industrial bay. Port facilities would be relocated to Mariel, about 40 kilometres west of the capital. Shopping centres would overlook the water. ‘The Bay of Havana will become the most important tourist bay in the Americas.’

The architect was about to turn his attention to the Malecón, the city’s seafront boulevard. Aided by satellite images and digital photos sent by friends in Cuba, his students would construct a 12-foot model – one of 28 maquettes they planned to build replicating every single building along the Malecón’s miles-long expanse. Among them, inevitably, would be Quintana’s Hermanos Ameijeiras Hospital. Ironically, it was the Cuban government’s infrastructural neglect, which Quintana decried at every opportunity, that made his project possible. Physically, at least, Havana had remained largely unchanged. In one paper Quintana referred to it not as a living city but as ‘the archive of our history that speaks to us of the past’.

And – more irony – his greatest concern was not the ongoing decay caused by salt, humidity and time but the more active assaults of capitalism. ‘If massive investment comes into Havana, it could simply turn into something else’, Quintana worried. And that something else, the sort of subdivided overdevelopment that has transformed the American landscape over the last few decades (with the eager assistance of Quintana’s corporate sponsors), was anathema to the architect’s mid-century Modernist vision of urbanism. He has called suburbanization ‘anti-Cuban … anti-historic, anti-economic, antisocial and absolutely stupid’. Only Havana, he told me, ‘hasn’t been lost yet’.

Before I left Quintana, I asked him whether it was discouraging that his plans remained in the realm of the imaginary. ‘The guy will die,’ he answered with a shrug, referring, of course, to Castro. But Quintana is one year older than the former Cuban president. I asked him if he expected to see the changes he had been waiting for since 1960. He didn’t hesitate. ‘I don’t think it will take more than two more years.’ Gottardi and Quintana met once, it turns out, a few years ago, on Gottardi’s last visit to the USA. (The Bush administration has since made cultural exchange visas nearly impossible for Cubans to obtain.) Gottardi went to Miami, and the two architects spent a day together. They got along quite well, it seems. Quintana remembered the day fondly. ‘We think differently about politics,’ he said. ‘That’s all.’

I emailed Gottardi to ask him what he remembered of the meeting. He didn’t write back, but I didn’t worry too much about it. Internet communication is difficult in Cuba and tightly controlled. Months after I left Havana, though, I heard through a friend that he was doing well, and busy. He was still waiting to hear if his plans had been approved. Construction had not yet begun.

Ben Ehrenreich’s novel The Suitors is published by Harcourt (2006). He lives in Los Angeles.