At the very end of December, 2015, my wife and I were on a tour bus in the western suburbs of Havana. Our bus was a half hour early for a scheduled appointment with an artist living in Miramar, so our guide directed the driver to make a quick detour into the adjoining district known as Cubanacán (sometimes called Havana’s Beverly Hills). We drove around the extensive gated and fenced-in periphery of what had once been the elite Havana Country Club. After the Revolution, Fidel Castro decided to convert its regulation, 18-hole golf course into the setting for the National Schools of Art.
The bus rather quickly drove past the first two schools–the School of Plastic Arts and the School of Modern Dance–only fragments of which we could see from the road. It then then turned steeply downhill to descend into a more densely-treed, overgrown area. Here I caught a glimpse of an unfinished vault made of thin tile, which I immediately recognized as an example of a timbrel, or Catalan, vault. I also happened to see a tiny, ripped section of the anchor wire fence that separated us from the Country Club grounds. Its hole was just wide enough for a person to squeeze through.
Turning to my wife, I said, “let’s abandon our morning itinerary tomorrow and come back here instead.” This we did. We hired a Coco Taxi the next morning to drive us here and wait outside. We squeezed through the fence. I took photographs while Andrea investigated on her own. We then rejoined our waiting driver, successfully avoiding discovery and possible arrest.
I’ll say more about those Catalan vaults below and at the end of this post. First, however, allow me to say something about Castro, the golf course, and the National Schools of Art.
This photograph, by Alberto Korda, documents a game of golf between Castro and Guevara that took place a month before the Bay of Pigs invasion. We see Che watching Fidel putt. Neither men were golfers, although Che had done some caddying as a youngster in Argentina. Word has it that the caddies for this event admitted (much later, I suspect) that Che won the round with a 127 while Fidel surpassed 150–this, on a par-70 course. But, then, the purpose for these revolutionaries was not to enjoy a game of golf; it was to create a bit of political theater for the Revolution and mock the United States, so many of whose politicians and presidents loved to play golf.
As to the course on which they played, it was not the Havana Country Club course in Cubanacán, as is so often assumed. Rather, it was the Collinas de Villareal golf course, located up Guanabo Beach in Eastern Havana. For the next thirty years after this golfing event of 1961, golf was pretty much a thing of the past in Cuba. Cubanacán was given over to art schools, Villareal to military barracks. In Havana, only the small, nine-hole Havana Golf Club (formerly Rovers Athletic Club) remained for the benefit of a few British diplomats and other foreigners.
The common mis-attribution of the golf course where Fidel and Che played is understandable, however, and this brings us to the National Schools of Art.
Golf courses are beautiful settings. To a revolutionary like Castro, such a setting shouldn’t be dedicated to the leisurely pursuits of a decadent bourgeoisie. Their beauty, instead, would better serve as inspiration for the artistic education of Cuban youth (and students from the rest of the “Third World”). What better propaganda could Cuba wish than to boast of a world-class school of art located a mere ninety miles from the United States?
To complement a high quality cultural education, the architecture of these schools must be worthy of and embody the utopian energy of a liberated Cuba. With this in mind, Castro and his new government approached a young Cuban architect, Ricardo Porro, and gave him two months to design the entire campus. It would house separate schools of Plastic Arts (painting, sculpture, and related visual arts), Modern Dance, Dramatic Arts, Music, and Ballet. Porro immediately enlisted two young Italian architects, Roberto Gottardi and Vittorio Garatti, both men conversant with and wedded to modernism. Porro designed the School of Plastic Arts and of Modern Dance. Garatti designed the School of Music and of Ballet. Gottardi designed the School of Dramatic Arts.
Tragically, construction was halted on the schools in 1965, when Cuba began to invest more in industry, agriculture, and the rest of the island to the exclusion of Havana. Also, as Belmont Freeeman writes in an article of 2012, once the Soviet Union became Cuba’s main patron, “Russian advisors steered the Cuban Ministry of Construction towards industrialized building production and standardization–a model to which the Art Schools represented the polar opposite.”
Porro’s schools were finished by 1965. but Music and Dramatic Arts were only half-finished. Garatti’s School of Ballet, though close to being finished, was never occupied because the director, Alicia Alonso, refused to move her activities to the western suburbs of Havana. As a result, the empty School of Ballet languished to become a convenient quarry for Cubans in search of building materials and a vulnerable complex with no defenses against the encroachments of nature.
Garatti’s School of Ballet is the complex that I saw as our bus descended and that I photographed once we squeezed through the ripped fencing.
Garatti’s School of Ballet consists of a series of seven domed spaces of varying heights and diameters. These spaces are connected by vaulted corridors and passageways, also varying in size. He arranged the complex in an organic, undulating manner to enhance surprise and unpredictability. His arrangement also created open courtyards that convey a sense of interiority, even though totally open to the sky. Lindsey Roberts, also writing about the Art Schools in 2012, informs us that Garatti designed the School of Ballet “so that dancers can perform on the rooftop,” even as “the building folds down into the landscape…[and] rises up into these domes that stand 30 meters.”
I can just imagine why an old-school prima ballerina would be a bit leery of moving her school into such a complex, the design of which would likely challenge every tradition of the craft she had perfected.
This photograph and the following thirteen reveal some of the amazingly light and airy features of Garatti’s domes and vaults of thin tile (more on these later), its curving walls of brick, and some of those room-like courtyards.
Although the main materials are the much more affordable and accessible tile and brick, in this photograph we see a beam of reinforced concrete that defines the square room under the dome.
Here I wish to point out the scupper in the center of this photograph, angling down from the top of the brick wall. Garatti’s scuppers are wonderfully expressive devices. I would have loved to see them in action, channeling rain water from the roof into a trough at the bottom of the wall.
Each of the domes in the six above photographs are what are termed pendentive domes (as contrasted to a dome on pendentives). The difference is subtle. The pendentive itself is that curving triangle form you see clearly in the photograph immediately above, and four of these connect to create a circle which supports the ribbed dome rising above. However, the radius of the pendentives here is the same as that of the dome. Or, put another way, the pendentives and the dome create one, continuous curve, a single plane. This, therefore, is a pendentive dome. In contrast, were these domes on pendentives, as in such famous buildings as Hagia Sophia in Istanbul or St. Paul’s in London, the curvature of the pendentives would be quite different from that of the dome.
The pendentive dome, it would seem to me, is the logical form for a domical structure built with thin tiles using the system of Catalan vaulting.
The photograph below reveals a sense of lightness so different from the heavier and thicker stone domes and vaults that we are used to seeing.
I will use this photograph to introduce the timbrel, or Catalan, vault. On the soffit or underside of these vaults you can see the thin tile which forms them. It was one of these exposed vault edges that I saw from the bus and instantly knew what it had to be. It looks as if each of these vault sections consists of seven (possibly eight) sandwiched layers of tile. Even so, the depth of the vault is quite thin for the distance it spans. Moreover, the rise in height of the vault, from its springing to its crown, is shallow: very small in comparison to the width of its span. Even if one knows little or nothing about the forces at play in a particular structural form, one’s intuition should kick in to ask: “Why doesn’t the vault fall inwards or collapse?” Were the vault to rise up more sharply, the forces acting on it would be more vertical, less horizontal, and so it would be more stable; but that’s not the case here.
This seeming visual defiance of gravity is precisely the beauty of the Catalan vault. The tile is thin. It is laid so the tile above or below overlaps the joints of its neighbor. Often, as well, (but not here), the tile is laid in a herringbone pattern, all of which gives it extra rigidity and strength. Then, there is the mortar. It is quite soupy and also cures (hardens) very quickly. This enables the mason (usually standing below but in some cases working from above) to slather a tile with the soupy, quick-drying mortar, tamp it in place, and continue on with the same process on the next tile. The fairly-porous tile quickly absorbs the excess liquid in the mortar and adheres to the tiles already in place directly above and adjacent to it. The tile is light enough so that no support is required from below to hold it in place.
A major asset of this system, then, besides the gestural beauty of its shallow springing, is that no wooden centering is needed. You don’t have to support the entire structure of the vault with wooden forms, as would be needed were you building a vault or dome using heavy stone. Watch this video (2:30) of the building of a simple, much smaller vault out of brick; or, better, open this article on the Catalan vault by David Frane, in which a longer video (12:59) shows a similar vault of brick being built in Querétaro, Mexico; this video allows you to see the mason tamp in the last brick at the crown of the vault–the keystone–which secures the structure permanently.
Here, in one of those courtyards, we see three more of Garatti’s expressive scuppers, only arranged at three different levels on the curving wall.
Clearly, besides serving as a source of building materials to be stripped from it by the locals, the School of Ballet also served as a meeting place for trysts. Here we read: “Daddy, I waited here for you many times, but you never showed up.”
At the far edge of the School of Ballet, beyond a stream that runs through the grounds, one sees the School of Music. It is also by Garatti, but quite different in layout. Its arrangement is linear and low. It conforms to the gentle slope of the ground, and it undulates, serpentine-like, as if to echo the path of the stream. All five schools, by the way, make use of the same materials–brick walls and tiled Catalan vaults and domes. This not only provided a unifying aesthetic to the five schools, but also enabled the architects to overcome the material shortage of steel and concrete in Cuba due to the U.S. embargo.
This aerial perspective offers some sense of the poetry of Garatti’s design. How unfortunate that the School of Ballet was allowed to deteriorate. Had it been able to serve its intended purpose and then been properly maintained, I suspect that it would today be recognized as one of the world’s major monuments of modern architecture. It was nominated for the World Monuments Fund Watch List in 2000 (as one of the world’s 100 most endangered monuments), and a decade later the entire complex of five schools was–finally–recognized by the Cuban Government as national monuments. But, as the saying goes, “that and a few dollars will get you a cup of coffee.”
What I experienced in walking through Garatti’s School of Ballet was a design of unusual flexibility and openness, a design which piqued and rewarded curiosity, a design that offered something for everyone, even in its ruinous state. Garatti (and I suspect his two compatriots as well) fully understand the active role played by architectural design on human experience. To quote Sarah Williams Goldhagen from her book, Welcome to Your World. How the Built Environment Shapes Our Lives: The built environment (for good and bad) “affects our moods and emotions, our sense of our bodies in space and in motion. It profoundly shapes the narratives we tell ourselves and construct of our daily lives….our cognitions, emotions, and actions, and even…our well-being.”
Listen to the designers of these Schools of Art. Vittorio Garatti tells us that “The story of this space is that it was a socialist school which was open in all directions. It was a place that you would pass through, like a garden.”
Roberto Gottardi gives us the context for the schools: “The architecture of the schools was born at a particular moment….there was a new society being projected which was different, better. There was something in the air we breathed that I think was reflected in the architecture.”
Ricardo Porro, in reference to the design of his School of Plastic Arts, stated: “I am convinced that the school environment favored the work of the professors and stimulated the imagination of the students. It is not the same thing to teach or to learn how to paint or to sculpt in an atmosphere dominated by classic lines, sandwiched in the middle of a conventional architecture, than to be placed in an environment that is itself an inducement of creativity. The provocative atmosphere generates more provocation….constructive freedom is what I tried to capture in this school.”
I encourage anyone who visits Cuba to find a tour that will allow you to visit all five of these schools (if such a thing is possible). But, especially, find some way to visit the Schools of Ballet, Music and Dramatic Arts–the ones left unused, ignored, incomplete and unfinished. In the words of Norma Barbacci, an architect at the World Monuments Fund, “Each year the site becomes a bit less architecture and a bit more romantic ruin, until at some point there will be nothing to preserve.”
Coda: Guastavino and the Catalan Vault in New York City
In the last decades of the nineteenth-century and through the first half of the twentieth-century, American architects often called for Catalan vaults in some of the more public spaces of their more important urban buildings. The photograph above shows some of the thirty-six domed vaults, their tiles laid in a herringbone pattern, underneath the automobile approach ramp of the Queensboro Bridge. This space was originally a farmer’s market, open on its sides. Enclosing walls were added later, and it has served several different functions over the past century.
Bridgemarket’s vaulting, and nearly every other example of Catalan vaulting in America, was contracted to the firm of Rafael Guastavino. He had emigrated to the United States from Barcelona in 1881, and his patented “Tile Arch System” can be found in New York City–alone–in many major buildings, from Grand Central to Carnegie Hall, to the south arcade of the Municipal Building, to the American Museum of Natural History, to the Great Hall at Ellis Island, to the dome over the crossing of the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine. These elegant vaults enhanced the design of a more conservative, Beaux-Arts or historical revival architectural idiom. Yet they apply the same structural principles as the Catalan vaults of the much more modern and idiosyncratic School of Ballet, or equally, of the very primitive, indigenous examples you saw on the two video links.