They say that during the Cuban Missile Crisis, to show their unconcern, Fidel Castro and Che Guevara went golfing for the cameras at the Havana Golf Club. There and then, they decided to turn the course into an art school, featuring schools of theatre, dance, and visual art. The architects planned a revolution of forms (the name of John Loomis’ great book about the experiment

The Schools’ forms were sinuous, organic, sexy, based on Afro-Carribean villages, winding passageways and Catalan vaults.

But as the Soviets took more control there was a clampdown: the design was too idiosyncratic and not International in style.

In a speech in 1954, called “Remove Shortcomings in Design, Improve Work of Architects”, Nikita Khrushchev had laid it out:

“We have tolerated shortcomings in training architects. Many young architects who have barely crossed the thresholds of the institute and have not yet got properly on their feet follow the example of masters of architecture and wish to design only buildings of an individual character, are in a hurry to build monuments to themselves. Many architects want to create monuments to themselves ‘wrought by human hands’ in the form of buildings built according to individualized designs” [Laughter, applause]

The architects of the Art Schools, Roberto Gotardi (from Venice), Ricardo Porro (Cuban), and Vittorio Garrati (Italian) had made “errors”. They were accused of

  • “individualism”,
  • “monumentalism”,
  • “historicism”,
  • “utopianism”,
  • “formalism”,
  • “grandiloquence”,
  • and being driven by “aesthetic criteria” rather than “socialist rigor”.
  • They were “elitists” and “cultural aristocrats” whose work exhibited their “narcissistic and bourgeois” formation.

    [These and the Khrushchev quotes are from Loomis’ terrific book, Revolution of Forms.]

Work on the schools was halted in 1965. The dance school was 90% complete.

Porro was purged from the Ministry of Construction – “like the removal of certain individuals from photographs”, he said – and he and his family left for Paris.

Garatti was imprisoned for three weeks on charges of espionage and expelled from Cuba.

Only Gotardi remained.

Gotardi says, “We were accused of being individualists and capitalists.” He was pretty much tarred and feathered, stomped on for his architecture. Since his work on the school, he has taught and designed Soviet-style pre-fabricated apartment blocks.

As an Italian he could have left Cuba at any time. But he stayed.

Why would he do that? He had to choose between his love of architecture and his love of the revolution. Or maybe his love of his Cuban wife or of the laid back Caribbean life. Maybe the answer is best expressed in an opera. There’s one in progress, by Robert Wilson. Here’s a clip:

He said that when he graduated from architecture school he realized that he couldn’t survive in the Capitalist environment. He refused to answer when asked how the Cuban system had worked out for him.

This model is at the Graham Foundation, a mansion in Chicago’s Gold Coast. It shows how the completed school would look.

Felipe Dulzaides’ show there, Utopia Posible, tells the story. Here’s a review from Time Out Chicago:

When Felipe and I visited the school in 1999, talking our way past the guard, the jungle had taken over. Here are some pictures I took at the time:

The buildings got more and more rundown until Loomis’ book came to Castro’s attention and the World Heritage Fund took notice. Planning work has started up again – and stopped again. Something about not enough bricks.

If you know a lot of architects you probably know a lot of unemployed architects. Maybe this is a bigger problem in San Francisco than elsewhere because so many architects want to live here. Or maybe it’s worse in other places because there’s even less work. And even the ones with jobs don’t seem that happy: having to please clients and planners and neighbors all the time. Compromising.

I guess, though, that there is some comfort in knowing that the charges that killed the careers in Cuba of Gotardi, Porro and Garratti: individualism, monumentalism, aesthetics, are what make careers here. And we’ve got plenty of bricks.