Cuba, Memory, and the National Art Schools

After some time away from away from Cuba, I have returned.  In spirit, that is.  You see, in recent weeks I have poured myself into my work on the World Film Locations: Havana book.  Together with my research advisor- and editor, fellow author- I have been writing, compiling essays, and designing our literary tribute to Cuban cinema. In doing so, my mind has been transported back to the bright and bustling island.  One year ago, I visited Cuba for the first time, and since then it has left a searing, warm impression on my psyche.  Its sounds, its people, its throbbing pace of life- and, indeed, its arts- are never far from my mind.  It is thus fitting to devote this blog post to the theme of memory and reminiscence as they apply to film in Cuba.


World Film Locations: Havana will feature a series of “scene descriptions” of films that capture iconic Havana locales.  These essays will explore the way in which each film portrays the different locations, offering a “tour” of Havana via its cinematic depictions.  My scene description details Cuba’s National Art Schools (located on the grounds of what used to be Havana’s Country Club Park) as filmed in the 2011 American documentary Unfinished Spaces (Alysa Nahmias and Benjamin Murray).  My piece is devoted in large part to the film’s representation of these amazing architectural structures, but the story-teller in me can’t help but include details of the schools’ historical narrative, which- naturally, and without any work of my own- unfolds with the intrigue and tumultuousness of a Graham Greene novel.  The following is a draft of my tribute to the National Art Schools via Unfinished Spaces:


‘There were many years that no one mentioned the school. After many years the schools were practically forgotten.’  So announces the voice of architect Roberto Gottardi in the opening scene of Unfinished Spaces (2011).  With this inaugural pronouncement, Unfinished Spaces establishes memory and oblivion as the lens through which it presents Cuba’s National Art Schools.  Constructed between 1961 and 1965, the schools embodied student freedom and liberated artistic expression, typifying the exuberant spirit of the 1959 Revolution.  As the Revolution changed, though, the schools- and their architecture- were proclaimed a threat to Cuba’s new revolutionary order.  Construction was halted and the architects were relegated to oblivion.  The schools’ subsequent history parallels the ebb and flow of revolution in Cuba, drifting between periods of innovation and squalid disregard.  Unfinished Spaces explores this chronology and offers a very personal glimpse at Cuba’s National Art Schools.

                  Unfinished Spaces opens with Fidel Castro’s jubilant victory parades throughout Havana in January 1959.  As the nation swiftly forged ahead into its socialist future, a few bastions of Cuba’s imperialist past endured, namely Havana’s Country Club Park, a popular retreat for wealthy American visitors and Habanero elite.  One sunny day in March 1959, Fidel Castro and Che Guevara visited the Country Club for a game of golf. Amidst the grumblings of horrified Havana aristocrats, Fidel uttered a fantastic idea: ‘Imagine if we could put hundreds of students of art in this magnificent landscape!’

                  With the final swing of his golf club, fantasy became reality.  Two months later, architects Ricardo Porro, Vitorrio Garatti, and Roberto Gottardi had designed five sprawling, modern configurations that would comprise Cuba’s National Art Schools: the School of Modern Dance, the School of Plastic Arts, the School of Ballet, the School of Music, and the School of Dramatic Arts.

                  Architecturally, the National Art Schools were like nothing else in Havana. They were modern, elegant, and fluid. Their designs evoked freedom.  As the course of Revolution changed in Cuba, though, officials began to question the role of freedom and elegance in a communist state.  Under the increasingly rigid regime, free artistic expression became regulated.  So, too, did the construction of infrastructure and edifices to support the arts.  Suddenly, the fresh, individualized architecture of the National Art Schools was deemed counter-revolutionary.  The government abandoned such designs for pre-fabricated structures, and with that, funding to build the National Art Schools disappeared.  Construction officially ended on July 26, 1965.

                  For the next 43 years, Cuba’s National Art Schools fell into disrepair.  The unfinished brick structures became entangled in webs of weeds and ivy.  Summer rains would flood the neighboring river and inundate the schools.  It appeared that lack of funding and encroaching nature would soon erase the schools from public memory.  Yet, throughout those years, the students never left.  Young artists continued to regard the structures as their intellectual home, and against all odds, the arts continued to flourish.  One official justification for abandoning construction had been the schools’ lack of ‘practical’ usage.  But in following decades, the schools would serve myriad practical functions, from circus venue to television program set, and later, as shelter for hundreds of homeless families during Cuba’s turbulent Special Period.  Officially, the National Art Schools faded into oblivion, but unofficially, the schools led a far more vibrant existence.

                  Amidst mounting international pressure to preserve the National Art Schools, the Cuban government recently engineered a campaign to repair the unfinished buildings. By 2008, the schools of Modern Dance and Plastic Arts were fully restored and conditions were improving with such haste that Cuba’s Instituto Superior del Arte began to offer classes in the schools.  But history would soon repeat itself.  In 2009, following two ferocious hurricanes and global financial meltdown, the Cuban government dissolved funding for “non-productive architecture projects,” including the National Art Schools.   

                  This development has perpetuated the cyclical exchange between official neglect for the schools and public engagement with them. Nevertheless, they continue to inspire young Cuban artists.  By tracing this cycle, Unfinished Spaces reminds viewers that, though physically incomplete, Cuba’s National Art Schools will forever occupy a very full, very robust space within Cuba’s artistic and social landscapes.


What leaves the deepest impression on me after studying and writing about the National Art Schools is their presence and accessibility even in the face of official disregard.  I believe that what has allowed them to endure with such popular reverence is the indelible nature of their form and function.  Their designs were, are, and will always be beautiful and mesmerizing; their goal was, is, and will always be laudable.  And so, they live on in Cuba’s collective memory, a memento of the best of Cuban society.  Having gained my own mementos of Cuba’s splendor last summer, this underlying theme of remembrance endeared me to Unfinished Spaces and its portrayal of the National Art Schools.  I am honored to write about them for World Film Locations: Havana.


For your enjoyment, a few shots of Cuba’s National Art Schools from Unfinished Spaces


unfinished spaces, kids playing

unfinished spaces, art school