"Felipe Dulzaides: Utopía Posible"
Fidel Castro and Che Guevara were playing golf at the former Havana Country Club in January 1961 (the story goes) when they decided the verdant site would be perfect for a new system of National Art Schools. They envisioned free institutions that would open dance, visual art, music and theater to all the people, rather than limiting the arts to a bourgeois elite.
The schools were designed by Cuban architect Ricardo Porro and two Italian-born colleagues whom he recommended: Vittorio Garatti and Roberto Gottardi. Though restricted to bricks due to materials shortages, the architects otherwise worked in “complete freedom,” Gottardi recently recalled. They began constructing a breathtaking campus of brick buildings inspired by Catalan vaults, their innovative forms reflecting the schools’ (literally) revolutionary mission.
Then, in 1965, the Cuban government halted the entire project. Garatti’s near-complete School of Ballet was abandoned to the jungle. Gottardi’s half-finished School of Dramatic Arts was used only from 1983–88, when artist Felipe Dulzaides studied there.
Dulzaides revisits the National Art Schools in “Utopía Posible,” which is on view at the Graham Foundation through July 17. Dulzaides began investigating the neglected landmarks after their story developed a hopeful twist. In the late 1990s, American architectural historian John Loomis’s book about the National Art Schools found its way to Castro. In 1999, the Cuban government pledged to restore the campus and wrapped up construction on Porro’s Schools of Modern Dance and Plastic Arts. Garatti’s and Gottardi’s buildings remain in limbo, however. They’re the subjects of Dulzaides’s videos, slide shows, models and photographs, which capture the structures’ alien beauty in a way the few images available online cannot. And there are no substitutes for the artist’s lively interviews with the two architects, both in their mid-80s, who remain determined to finish their projects.
We recommend starting on the second floor of the Graham Foundation, where the poignant video Next Time It Rains (pictured, 1999–2010) and related photos depict Garatti’s School of Ballet. Dulzaides recently filmed a young man dancing under one of the school’s Pantheon-like domed pavilions and pouring water into the gutter that Garatti incorporated into the top of a long, curving wall as a functional fountain. The water moves slowly, evoking the project’s glacial pace, but it’s come a long way from Dulzaides’s 1999 footage, when the gutter was choked by vegetation. The artist’s narration explains that he helped to clear it, thinking, “Next time it rains, the water will run.” Such optimism prevents Dulzaides’s images of the schools’ picturesque decay from descending into ruin porn.
As the artist questions Garatti and Gottardi, a few fascinating theories emerge about why their projects have languished. The architects suggest the government—which never gave them a budget—ran out of money and was distracted by worsening relations with the United States. But domestic politics played a role as well. “We were accused of being individualists and capitalists,” Gottardi says in Utopía Posible (2004–08), a video about the three revisions he’s made to his School of Dramatic Arts design to meet its contemporary requirements. As Soviet influence grew in Cuba, prefab concrete boxes evidently seemed more appropriate to the revolution than avant-garde architecture. Dulzaides’s two-channel video Broken Glass (2010) quotes an essay by Cuban architectural historian Roberto Segre, who criticizes the National Art Schools for encouraging artists to be egotists who hide from the real world. Paired with Dulzaides’s photos of Havana’s ugly, boring modern buildings, Segre’s statements come off as ridiculous, but the piece prompts us to consider what an artist’s role in society—and in a revolution—should be.
Garatti and Gottardi didn’t just try to reflect the revolution in their forward-looking designs; they also sought to respect the landscape and, most importantly, meet the students’ needs. “Architecture is judged on its practical function, but it must appeal to the emotions,” Gottardi tells Dulzaides. We left “Utopía Posible” deeply moved.