Viva La Arquitectura!

Roman Mars:
This is 99% invisible. I’m Roman Mars.

Roman Mars:
After the revolution in Cuba, the young Fidel Castro hired an official photographer by the name of Alberto Korda to chronicle his new life as a national leader. Korda followed Castro and Che Guevara, taking pictures of them as they met world leaders, went fishing, faced off in chess.

Avery Trufelman:
He even took that iconic image of Che, the one that’s on millions of t-shirts.

Roman Mars:
That’s comrade Trufelman.

Avery Trufelman:
But my favorite images that Korda captured, are of Che and Fidel playing golf. It was January 3rd, 1961 – two years after the revolution – when Che suggested they go play a round.

John Loomis:
You know, Fidel said, “Well, you know, I don’t play golf.” And Che did play golf, he was actually pretty good. He’d been a caddy back in Chile.

Avery Trufelman:
Helping us tell this story is John Loomis.

John Loomis:
I’m John Loomis. I’m an architect and an architectural historian.

Roman Mars:
So Che and Fidel drove out to what was the ritziest most elite country club in Havana.

John Loomis:
All the members of the club, they practically have all left the country, but still, here’s this amazing place. The people who work here are still keeping everything clean and neat and taking care of it.

Avery Trufelman:
And Che and Fidel romp around the bucolic green acres in full military khaki and combat boots.

Roman Mars:
Che’s still wearing the beret. And Castro was choking up on a golf club as if he’s never seen someone use a golf club before.

Avery Trufelman:
They’re just putting around and grinning, while Alberto Korda snapped publicity shots of them.

John Loomis:
And you know, you look at the photographs and they were like schoolboys, just having fun, and this was a lark and everybody thought this was, you know, a real hoot.

Avery Trufelman:
And the photos are actually beautiful, because Korda’s an incredible photographer, but also because the landscape is breathtaking. There’s a river running through all these gently undulating, perfectly manicured hills, bordered by this thick, lush forest of tropical plants. It’s kind of magical.

Roman Mars:
Che and Fidel were captivated by this place. And they looked around and wondered.

John Loomis:
What should we do with this? You know, this is a wonderful resource.

Roman Mars:
It wasn’t going to stay a golf course, that was for sure.

Avery Trufelman:
And some say it was Fidel’s idea, others say it was Che’s, but one of them turned to the other and explained his vision for the property.

Roman Mars:
There they would build an art school.

John Loomis:
An international school for the arts, that would draw students from all over the third world and bring them to Cuba and give them a first-class art education, in all the art disciplines free of charge.

Avery Trufelman:
And a beautiful vision, for a beautiful landscape, required a beautiful building. Che and Fidel decided they wanted to build the most gorgeous art schools in the world, something fitting with the newness and excitement of the fresh revolution.

Roman Mars:
Castro was recommended the young Cuban architect, Ricardo Porro.

John Loomis:
And he knew that, you know, Ricardo had very much supported the revolution, had risked his own life-

Avery Trufelman:
By housing rebels. Porro had never picked up a gun or anything. And in addition to his commitment to the revolution, he was also really talented.

John Loomis:
So he seemed like the obvious person to choose

Roman Mars:
Porro was told that if he wanted to design the schools, he would have to do it almost immediately.

Ricardo Porro:
“You have to end the project in two months to begin because the construction. I said, ‘That is impossible.'”

Roman Mars:
This is footage of Ricardo Porro in 2004. Porro passed away in 2014.

Avery Trufelman:
Porro was told, that’s it, two months for the designs.

Ricardo Porro:
“You take it or you leave it.”

John Loomis:
And I remember I asked him, I said, “Well so Ricardo, what did you say?” And he says, “Well, John, you’re an architect, you know, you say, ‘I take it.’

Ricardo Porro:
“I take it.”

Roman Mars:
Now, the art school wasn’t just one school, it was imagined as an entire campus with five separate schools for five distinct disciplines: ballet, modern dance, visual arts, music and theater.

Avery Trufelman:
Ricardo Porro was going to need some help. He recruited two architect friends, two Italians, Vittorio Garatti and Roberto Gottardi.

Roman Mars:
Oh, and in addition to the time crunch, there was the embargo.

John Loomis:
Already with the embargo, importing concrete and rebar was very expensive.

Avery Trufelman:
They had to use what they had. The three architects decided to build with locally made brick and terracotta tiles.

Roman Mars:
And with these tiles, they decided to make schools comprised of Catalan vault. A Catalan vault is essentially a dome made of layered tiles.

Avery Trufelman:
And it’s called a Catalan vault because it’s predominantly used in Catalonia, especially Barcelona.

John Loomis:
It was adopted particularly by Gaudi to do these very organic forms.

Roman Mars:
And so, with the unifying element of brick and unified style of Catalan vault, the three architects began to erect their separate designs around the edges of the golf course.

Avery Trufelman:
Okay, I’m going to throw journalistic impartiality to the wind here. These buildings are so beautiful. Each uses the vault in a completely different way, and they all roll over the landscape of a golf course and mixed with the plants and the palm trees, and they wind and they bend and they unfurl into these plazas and courtyards, and they’re curving rooftops with all those volts, make them look alive, like they’re dancing. And each school has a clear story to tell, with very intentional symbolism.

Roman Mars:
But Porro’s school of visual art was the most literal. He imagined the school of visual arts, or as they called it, the school of ‘plastic arts’, as a building that would nurture art and artists and help give rise to a uniquely post-revolution Cuban aesthetic. This school was going to give birth.

Ricardo Porro:
“So I tried to make the school of plastic art as the image of a goddess of fertility. So I put a lot of rest in the domes.”

Avery Trufelman:
No really, the vaulted domes have these nipples on them.

Roman Mars:
And there was a special fountain in the main piazza.

Ricardo Porro:
“And in the piazza, I placed a sculpture I did, just like a fruit called papaya, that in Cuba has this sexual feminine connotation.”

Avery Trufelman:
Some higher-ups found this pretty scandalous. Porro was told to turn the water in the fountain off.

John Loomis:
Yes, you have the breasts and here you have the papaya, which is a metaphor for what everybody knows in the Caribbean. But I think that it’s wrong to overemphasize that.

Avery Trufelman:
Because really, John Loomis says that the school is a commentary on Cuba’s past and future.

John Loomis:
As you’re walking down those curved passageways, you can’t see where you’ve been and you can’t see where you’re going. In a way, that was a metaphor for this new chapter in Cuba. You know, this was a new adventure, this new revolution.

Roman Mars:
The revolutionary spirit was the driving force of the design and the construction.

Avery Trufelman:
The Catalan vault required a lot of labor, so there was this massive crew of young Cuban workers on the golf course making these structures.

John Loomis:
All the workers felt a real buy-in because they felt that they were building the school that their children could potentially go to. Whereas previously they had no hope that their children would go to university or to an art school.

Avery Trufelman:
And this endeavor was so exciting that the schools basically opened while they were still being built.

John Loomis:
At some point when construction began, they said, well, let’s just use this space.

Avery Trufelman:
The country club was already there with its meeting rooms and ballrooms. And of course, they had those manicured grounds and the beautiful weather.

Roman Mars:
Ballerinas pirouetted on the putting green, painters set up their canvases in the shade, violinists practiced in the forest.

Avery Trufelman:
And students brought water and drinks and food for the construction workers and played drums to keep their spirits up. It was this beautiful, joyous undertaking, except when it wasn’t

Alysa Nahmias:
During that time, and still today it’s difficult to talk about the negative aspects of the revolution. So people really focused on the joyous part and the optimism, you know, because that’s what you hold onto, when you’re in this land of paradox.

Avery Trufelman:
Alysa Nahmias co-produced a documentary about the Cuban art schools.

Alysa Nahmias:
In Cuba, at the same time for example, as artists were having drum parties to finish the buildings while the masons were working, and it was very beautiful and fun and joyous, there were other students who were sent to labor camps because they were homosexual-

Avery Trufelman:
Or religious or in other ways anti-revolutionary. And even before those agricultural labor camps opened in 1965, the anti-revolutionary students were expelled from the art schools. Ricardo Porro continued to give them classes in his home.

Roman Mars:
Porro could feel that the values of the revolution were shifting, as he says in the documentary.

Ricardo Porro:
“I used to tell the other architects, ‘Don’t lose your time making small details. Try to do things fast because perhaps one day it’s going to be stopped.'”

John Loomis:
After the missile crisis, after the Bay of Pigs, military defense was given a much higher priority than say, creating the most beautiful art schools in the world.

Avery Trufelman:
So there was the money issue, but also generally, Cuba was starting to imitate the Soviet Union in more and more ways.

Ricardo Porro:
“I made a very individual architecture and they wanted Soviet architecture.”

Roman Mars:
The Soviet architecture was blocky, functional, uniform, one size fits all. Completely the opposite of the sensuous organic vaults and curves of the art schools.

Alysa Nahmias:
There was an idea that the designs for the Cuban national art schools were extravagant for a socialist revolution that had to tighten its belt.

Roman Mars:
And one of the earliest proponents of that argument was Roberto Segre.

Avery Trufelman:
Roberto Segre was the architecture critic. Like really, he was the only one, he had tremendous influence.

Roman Mars:
Segre was not a fan of the breasts in the papaya fountain, as Segre himself says in the film.

Roberto Segre:
“No, I am not against the sex, I like the sex with women, not with architecture.”

Roman Mars:
These days, Segre admits that he was a bit harsh.

John Loomis:
Now, Segre will say that he really didn’t want to write those things, but he was under constraints by people higher up mostly Antonio Quintana.

Avery Trufelman:
Antonio Quintana was the last of a generation of established Cuban architects. All of his contemporaries had fled during the revolution and this left Quintana at the top of his field by default and he wanted it to stay that way.

Alysa Nahmias:
Quintana clearly had a personal desire not to see Ricardo Porro continue to thrive as an architect in Cuba.

Roman Mars:
The architect to Quintana and the critic Roberto Segre, helped turn favor against the schools.

John Loomis:
Workers were slowly reduced, the amount of workers. Porro’s buildings were far enough finished, so they were really able to be brought to the finish line or a very, very, very, close.

Avery Trufelman:
But the schools designed by the other two architects were not so lucky. The theater school was only 30% complete. The music school was also unfinished but had a few usable rooms. The most unfinished was the ballet school, which didn’t have floorboards or glass on the windows.

Alysa Nahmias:
All the materials were there and it could have been finished in like 15 days. And the lead of the Cuban ballet, Alicia Alonzo, who is a very famous Cuban ballerina, she visited the site.

Ricardo Porro:
“And she says, ‘I don’t like it. No more ballet here.'”

Alysa Nahmias:
And that was that.

Roman Mars:
The Cuban ballet opted for a much more centrally located studio.

Avery Trufelman:
And in July of 1965, the schools were just declared finished, in all their varying states completion.

John Loomis:
They had an opening, declared them open, and they were used in the state that they were.

Roman Mars:
Even the unfinished ballet school was used very briefly, as a Russian circus school.

Avery Trufelman:
The architects were scattered to different jobs within the ministry of construction. Ricardo Porro started working directly under Antonio Quintana, that last of the old guard architects, Porro’s nemesis.

John Loomis:
Quintana gave him very demeaning jobs. He gave him the job to design a cage for an eagle in the zoo.

Roman Mars:
Oh my God.

Ricardo Porro:
“I couldn’t work anymore on my architecture or I had to do awful things as they were doing and I decided to leave Cuba.”

Roman Mars:
In 1966 Porro left Cuba and moved to Paris.

Avery Trufelman:
And as for the schools themselves, the crazy thing is that they never closed. Even during some horrible spells in Cuba’s history when entire families were squatting in the rundown parts of the schools and ransacking them for materials. Classes have always continued.

Roman Mars:
Well, except for the ballet school where the class is never quite started. But the other four art schools continued to be among the finest in the world, although they are not as big as they were meant to be, and they’re pretty rundown in some parts.

Alysa Nahmias:
It floods, like the first time I went there, there was a guy playing drums, but I think there was like a foot of water in the building.

Avery Trufelman:
Today the schools are known as I-S-A. ISA.

John Loomis:
ISA, what it’s called now, the Instituto Superiore de Arte.

Avery Trufelman:
“So no one’s going to come yell at us?”

Felipe Dulzaide:
“Especially under rain, nobody’s going to come.”

Roman Mars:
The schools with students have guards of course, but Felipe Dulzaide showed Avery the abandoned ballet school.

Felipe Dulzaide:
“I come many times, I haven’t seen any security guards. Which is a problem, because now there is graffiti and things happening there that shouldn’t be happening. Sometimes you wonder, it’s a good idea to be there?”

Avery Trufelman:
“Yeah.”

Roman Mars:
Felipe is a multimedia artist, who wants to study at the theater school. Back then and the unfinished ballet school was a mysterious rumor.

Felipe Dulzaide:
“Because when I studied here in the eighties, the whole thing here was a jungle.”

Roman Mars:
Students would go there and party and stuff-

Felipe Dulzaide:
“To hang out or if you have a girlfriend or a date, it was a great place to come.”

Roman Mars:
He didn’t know the story of the buildings, no one really did.

Felipe Dulzaide:
“The story of this school was somehow like a taboo. It wasn’t never spoken, never discussed. It was, there was like a secrecy about.”

Avery Trufelman:
But then John Loomis, who we’ve been talking to throughout this episode, published his book about the schools called ‘Revolution of Forms’.

John Loomis:
‘Revolution of Forms’ came out in March of 1999.

Avery Trufelman:
And through ‘Revolution of Forms’, Felipe finally learned the story of this place where he had studied for five years.

Felipe Dulzaide:
“This is really shameful that they are not taking care of the things. This is something that was done with a lot of love and with a lot of care, and it’s something that only belonged to Cuba, you know, it belongs to human culture, you know, to our culture.”

Avery Trufelman:
And Felipe wasn’t the only person inspired by Loomis’s book.

Fidel Castro:
(speaks in Spanish)

Roman Mars:
That is Fidel Castro in 1999, saying, “This school will get done. This national arts school that we imagined will get built.”

Avery Trufelman:
Okay, we can’t say that John Loomis single-handedly convinced Fidel Castro to take action on the art schools, but the year ‘Revolution of Forms’ came out, Fidel Castro publicly committed to restoring them.

Roman Mars:
All three architects reunited in Havana and met with high-level government officials to plan the restoration, but this project was abandoned in the wake of the financial crisis in 2000.

Avery Trufelman:
For now, the schools remain in various states of completion, but even in their current disrepair, the architecture speaks for itself.

Felipe Dulzaide:
“This view is-”

Avery Trufelman:
“Something else.”

Felipe Dulzaide:
“It’s something else. Look, look at my skin.”

Avery Trufelman:
“Goosebumps.”

Felipe Dulzaide:
“Yeah, this is your fault to look at something.”

Roman Mars:
The schools of ISA don’t look like any other buildings in the world. They are Cuban, they are the product, victim and symbol of a revolution.

Roman Mars:
To really understand the majesty of these schools, including some fascinating parts of the story that just don’t translate to radio, watch the beautiful documentary, ‘Unfinished Spaces’ by Alysa Nahmias and Ben Murray. It’s rentable on iTunes but you can find out all about at unfinishedspaces.com. You’ve also been listening to the film soundtrack throughout this episode, which was composed by Giancarlo Vulcano.

Roman Mars:
Special thanks of course, to John Loomis, author of ‘Revolution of Forms’.

John Loomis:
I was accused in Cuba of being an employee of the CIA and writing this book to embarrass Cuba, and that’s … I don’t think it embarrasses Cuba. I hope not.

Roman Mars:
Along with Jacob Reams, Jill Hamberg, Albert Lopez, Dorothea Trufelman and Charles Koppelman.

Charles Koppelman:
I am the producer and librettist of ‘Cubanacán’, the new Cuban opera.

Roman Mars:
The opera about the Cuban art schools just premiered at the art schools.

Charles Koppelman:
As far as we know, the last full Cuban opera written in Cuba and performed in Cuba was over 50 years ago.

Roman Mars:
It sounds like this.

(Sound clip from ‘Cubanacán’)

  1. Travis Swenson

    This episode pays lipservice to the brutality of the Castro regime and glamorizes the murderous thug Che Guevara. But we’re talking about Oakland hipsters, so…

    1. Gene Dieken

      Cold War’s been over for a quarter century. Cubano-Americans and their American conservative friends didn’t get the memo apparently.

  2. Adam O'Neill

    Such a great story, 99PI, you did it again. This is right up there with Structural Integrity and I’m sure that a new rabbit hole has been dug. Thanks!

  3. Al

    how does it glamorize the Castro regime? Did you listen to it? Also: hipsters? really? Get out more Travis.

  4. Inogami

    Hey Travis, maybe because this is a design podcast rather than a political one? Yeah they can get hispter-ish at times but dammit if not all their episodes are interesting.

  5. Ross Manson

    Travis you are brainwashed! So just you keep working for the man and living in fear of not having as much as you want.

  6. We were lucky enough to spend a day here during the Bienal de La Habana in 2012. The School of Fine Arts was alive with bright young artists and the city filled with more.

  7. Eduardo

    As a kid, I recall visiting La Escuela de Artes Plasticas, meandering through the colonnades, wondering at the papaya fountain. I don’t recall moss on the brick, but light, bright light cubana blasting through the arches, the skylights. Later, in architecture school here, el norte, I’d doodle culebras on yellow trace paper, from memory, spaces I’d always have, even now, so much time since.

  8. Alec

    I know it’s ultimately subjective, but I really strongly dislike the design of these buildings, they just don’t look good.

  9. I spent a lot of time hanging out at ISA on one of my trips to Havana so this episode brought a huge smile to my face! I remembered all the boob-domes and the papaya-fountain!
    It’s a truly beautiful and inspirational place, what this episode failed to mention is that ALL of the current generation of Cuban musicians graduated from ISA. The amount of talent all over the campus is unfathomable!

  10. olmedo

    I think this story is over-glamorized as many tales from the cuban revolution. I really doubt that the failure of the art school was because the jealousy and confrontation between an architect of the old and new school of architecture. There is a compelling and down to earth reason why this art school project failed: how the hell were the students supposed to travel there in and out, every day and how on earth were they going to give performances to the public located in the middle of a golf course far away from the city center in a country where public transportation is scarce and private next to imposible???. That makes much more sense to me.

    1. Ashura Bayyan

      Olmedo

      If you have visited the facility you do not show so in your comment. There is an entire neighborhood around isa, housing on the same street as the entrance and it’s not far at all from other parts of havana. even if the students lived in old havana it would not be much trouble to make it over to ISA, I dont know how often students would have to travel back and forth but I do know the cab system works very well for the locals. There are two worlds of cab fares one for locals and another for tourist. Public transportation is reliable, crowded, and predictable. 3 buses drop you off on the same street as the school in the middle of the barrio next to the studio of famed cuban artist KCHO. Also bus far is about the equivalent of 5 U.S. cents and I’m being very very generous with that estimate, when I would board the ticketed would always ask if it was only me riding be cause I had given her too much. If you have experienced Cuba beyond the tourist destinations I’m sure you have found the same. Don’t be upset, but this story makes more sense than your assumptive reasoning.

    2. Ashura Bayyan

      I’ve left you a reply below. Please don’t be offended.

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