Can Foster and Acosta rescue Cuba’s lost temple to ballet?

Half a century after building was halted, Norman Foster has joined forces with Cuba’s most famous dancer, Carlos Acosta, in a plan to resurrect a remarkable arts centre, as Rowan Moore reports in this article for London’s Guardian.

It looks like an outrageous case of looking a gift horse in the mouth. The great ballet dancer Carlos Acosta wants to give something back both to his art form and to his native Cuba, so offers his own money and the fundraising power of his energy and his name, to create a new centre for dance and culture on the edge of Havana. In the process, he will give a new future to one of the most remarkable buildings of the 20th century, in Cuba or anywhere else. The eminent Lord Foster has helped him with a feasibility study, free of charge, yet the plan has provoked uproar.

Acosta has been accused of “privatising” a national asset. The building in question is the School of Ballet, a work of the heady early years of the Cuban revolution, and Cuban architects are questioning whether a powerful international practice, Foster’s, will best reflect its spirit. The school’s original architect, Vittorio Garatti, has written to Fidel Castro in protest.

The current debate is the latest episode in a story so dramatic and colourful it could inspire a book, a feature film or an opera. As, indeed, it has – all three. The ballet school is part of a complex called the National Schools of Art, about which architect and educator John Loomis has written a book, Revolution of Forms, which has been made into a movie (called Unfinished Spaces) now doing the rounds of film festivals, and is the basis of an opera directed by Robert Wilson.

The story started in 1961, when Fidel Castro and Che Guevara played a round of golf at the Havana Country Club. This had been so exclusive that not even the pre-revolutionary dictator, Fulgencio Batista, had been entitled to enter, on the grounds that he was of mixed race. Castro decided that its beautiful landscape could be opened up to the people and five schools of art – of drama, plastic arts, music, modern dance and ballet – would be built there.

A young Cuban architect, Ricardo Porro, was entrusted with the job, along with two Italians with whom he had been working in Venezuela, Roberto Gottardi and Garatti. Each designed different elements of the project, within an overall idea. “The aspirations,” says Garatti now, “were to create a project that would reflect the revolution in all in its dynamic aspects. No dogmas were imposed, there was a total freedom.

“It was perfect,” he continues. “Working in a park, we were immediately reminded of garden architecture: of love pavilions, of the 1,001 Nights, of English greenhouses, of the gardens of the Alhambra.” Garatti and his colleagues were opposed to the prevailing rationalism of modernist architecture of the time – they wanted to respond to the “cultural context” of Cuba, of music, writing and painting. “We realised that dancers in a ‘rational’ space were blocked in their movements; they seemed to bang their heads on ceilings and bounce off the walls.” So the new buildings would be curved.

Due to the trade embargo imposed by the United States, Cuba had almost no steel or concrete, but it did have bricks, which the architects decided to make into vaults and domes. They chanced upon a workman whose father had worked on Antoni Gaudí’s buildings in Barcelona and knew the techniques. They got him to train 80 more workers, who built the complex at high speed, with the architects drawing it by night and spending the day on site. “The revolution had to run if it wanted to succeed,” says Garatti.

Then it turned out to be too perfect to last. Political ideology changed in favour of more functionalist buildings and the architects were condemned as “elitists” and “cultural aristocrats”. It was decided that other building projects needed resources more urgently. The ballet school was left incomplete, though Garatti has said it would only have taken 15 more days to finish the job. He later returned to Italy, after being arrested on charges of espionage, and threatened with execution – the Cuban government later acknowledged that he was innocent. Vegetation and damp engulfed his building and its materials were pillaged. Despite its damaged state, however, it has recently served as a venue for Havana’s art biennale and a show by Spanish choreographer Miguel Rubio.

Given the current impoverishment of the Cuban state, the funds Acosta aims to raise should be welcome. Norman Foster, meanwhile, is at pains to stress his respect for “this remarkable collection of buildings”. So what possible reasons could there be for not embracing the offer wholeheartedly? For Garatti, it’s partly the importance of retaining “the spirit of integration between the different artistic disciplines” in the five schools of art. It hasn’t helped either that, although Acosta has met Garatti in person (at the architect’s request), Foster has not.

But it’s also a question of casting. Foster is primarily in the tradition of international modernism, against which the architects of the schools of art were reacting. Foster says: “Everything we design is a response to the specific climate and culture of a particular place” and I’m sure he means it. But it’s hard to imagine him immersing himself in the culture of Cuba – from its music to the Gaudí-influenced vault builder – in the way that Garatti and Co did.

If you wanted to come up with an architect most likely to work in the spirit of the original, the answer would not be Foster (nor for that matter Zaha Hadid or Herzog and De Meuron or Richard Rogers or any other famous name). One answer might be the architects who designed the schools in the first place. Another might be one of many from Latin America, a region with rich and distinctive traditions of modern architecture, who share their attitudes.

Foster generously says he would stand down, if requested, having already helped “to realise Carlos’s dream” with his work to date. What matters most is respect for the original buildings, for their aspirations and for their architects.

For the original report go to

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