Magazine article Screen International

Unfinished Spaces

Magazine article Screen International

Unfinished Spaces

Article excerpt

Dirs: Alysa Nahmias, Benjamin Murray. US. 2011. 86mins

The idea began on a whim. In 1961 Fidel Castro and Che Guevara were playing a round of golf on a course that had been, before the 1959 Revolution, part of a fancy country club in the swank western Havana suburb of Cubanacan. Then and there they decided to commission a group of national art schools (at first called Escuelas Nacionales de Arte, but later became known as the Instituto Superior de Arte) to be built on that turf. Castro later said he wanted the complex to be the most beautiful art school in the world.

Vaults, arches, and domes predominate, with the tropical light and intentionally dark spaces alternating for a nearly disorienting effect.

Over the next fifty years a unique convoluted epic of contrasts - official support versus denunciation, construction versus work stoppage, usage and abandonment - enveloped the five resulting buildings, each dedicated to a particular art form. Now rediscovered, they are major markers in the history of alternative architecture and the political climate of Cuba in the second half of the twentieth century.

The international response will be, and to some extent already has been in some territories, positive, with festivals (at some of which it has already been well-received), TV exposure (Latino Public Broadcasting selected it for PBS in the US), and some theatrical guaranteed, especially in venues where powerful, unusual docs by the likes of Michael Moore have found an audience.

Nahmias and Murray, both Americans, communicate in great detail in this extraordinary, fast-moving, and engagingly dense documentary the saga of the structures and the individuals and social conditions that have been instrumental in their construction as well as their perception. They eschew voiceover in favour of meaty interviews, vivid cinematography (by Murray), including graceful inserts of the project at various stages, appropriate supporting archival footage, and Vulcano's excellent non-stop soundtrack of salsa music, happy guitar, and melancholic violin. The combination is seductive.

The men were given carte blanche to hurriedly (in two months) design the schools: Here was an opportunity to fuse their shared revolutionary fervour with a concept of architecture that flew in the face of the modernism prevalent everywhere. Music and dance filled the construction site and office (also on the golf course), with enthusiastic student workers jazzed up by the optimistic political climate providing an ambience that certainly infected the outcome.

The material conditions restricting how the schools would be built (plastic arts, modern dance, dramatic arts, music, and ballet) were potentially limiting to the three "architects," the Cuban Ricardo Porro (the first appointee, an intellectual and an eccentric who brings tons of charisma to the screen) and the Italians Roberto Gottardi and Vittorio Garatti, even if their backgrounds were more in the visual arts). The US-led embargo, which had begun in 1960, made steel for reinforcing bars and Portland cement exorbitantly expensive.

By default, the structures were created from available clay, in the form of brick and terra cotta. They poured concrete continuously into formwork for the mostly curved sections to prevent it from drying prematurely. Without steel for reinforcing bars, they revived the old Catalonian vault, functioned without them but still allowed a wide span.

The young team decided to make physical the ideology of the new Cuba: not closed systems as in the past but an open, non-hierarchical architecture, all interrelated and with multiple entrances harmonising with the contours of the golf course and, in some cases, tapping into indigenous traditions. …

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