14ymedio, Luz Escobar, Havana, 20 October 2018 — After passing by the Quibú River and in the middle of the growth of the out of control grass, reddish vaults emerge that look like the ruins of a lost city. They are part of the National Art Schools of Cuba that the Getty Foundation, of the United States, wants to rescue with a donation of $195,000, after decades of deterioration.
The group of buildings that today make up the University of the Arts, conceived at the beginning of the 60s as the Cubanacán Arts Schools have gone more than half a century with hardly any repairs or investments. In that time some specific repairs have been made, but the lack of a budget forced the closing of several sites.
The School of Visual Arts is in better condition, but in the rest of the buildings mold and vegetation grow on the walls and domes, a situation made worse by bats and vandalism. Walking through the corridors of the school seems more like a trip to an archaeological dig than a complex less than six decades old.
Despite the deterioration, the place still evokes that era of pharaonic projects in which the government planned to place Cuba at the head of the countries of the region and even the world. Imbued with that competitive spirit, Fidel Castro decided to build the “most beautiful Art Schools of the World” on the old grounds of the Country Club.
Castro’s enthusiasm did not last long and in 1965 the works were left without government support. Thus were born some of the first “modern ruins” of Havana. An unfinished complex that the Getty Foundation wants to aid, although much more is needed than the amount donated to repair the damage done by time and carelessness.
With its Catalan vaults, its bricks and terracotta tiles, the buildings have been severely affected by the floods of the Quibú River. Plants have done the same. In 2014, the architect José Mosquera suggested the “cutting and elimination of the plants that thrive in the vaults and galleries” but the weeds continue to grow on several roofs.
It is common to hear students say things like “be careful don’t step in there” or “don’t go in that place, the roof may fall”. All of them seek accommodation in the still functional parts of the buildings conceived by the Cuban architect Ricardo Porro with the Italians Roberto Gottardi and Vittorio Garatti.
Some years ago, the students themselves cleared rubble and vegetation from the areas of the School of Ballet, where the circus school was later located. With the aid of machetes, sticks and screwdrivers, they cleaned up the galleries. “We were reluctant to let those spaces die,” says Rey, who was a student at the center and now works as a professor.
The young man feels relieved that at least in the building destined for dance, repairs are currently being made and “new boards have been installed and painted”. Behind that process, he points out, “are the students, the professors and also the State.”
Other students have not been as lucky and study several subjects in the area of the dorms, buildings of Soviet architecture that contrast with the original facilities. “The spaces are different, the energy of the space is different, the square is not a very inspiring place,” says Rey.
The announcement of the donation to repair some areas has aroused certain expectations that sites that have become unserviceable over the years will be rehabilitated. “The teachers tell me how this place used to be, but now it does not resemble it much,” says a young woman who began studying dance in September.
“Not only do they have to repair roofs and walls, but the school needs to modernize because even finding an electrical outlet that works now is complicated,” she complains. With the emergence of new technologies it’s the rare student that does not have a phone, a speaker or a laptop that needs to be charged every once in a while.
“It’s a very beautiful place but it has to become a functional place, which right now it is not,” says the young woman. Among her colleagues, the most common opinion is that it is necessary to “reenvision the school, place it in the 21st century”, but “that is not solved only with a budget, it takes will”.
The complex, which was considered a National Monument in 2013, is a magnet for photographers and video clip makers, because of that mixture of beauty and decadence that surrounds everything. For those who sneak in to take pictures without permission, a strict security guard threatens to call the police if they do not leave as soon as possible.
But, despite the controls and deterioration, the site remains an island within the city, a kind of artistic retreat. “The school is a space of inspiration”, Rey says emotionally, “because these open areas, with trees, these materials that are close to an appearance of little elaboration, connect one with the essence of nature”.
Translated by Wilfredo Díaz Echevarria
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