The Ballerina and the Worm

My guy in Havana knows my taste in photography well, so when he suggested in December 2019 we take dancers to isa (rhymes with Lisa), I agreed. Cuba has loads of architecture, from grand colonial era stone structures to drab Soviet era slab sided apartment buildings. But here was something I never imagined existed in Cuba: sensuously curving walls, domed roofs like breasts pointed skyward, and a building snaking across the landscape like a worm. Nowhere was there a flat roof or slab wall. Where did this place come from? And why was it fenced and guarded like a military installation? The answer to the first question is tied to the Cuban Revolution; the second will be addressed later.

In the heady months after the 1959 Cuban Revolution money was plentiful—the wealthy had fled, leaving their assets behind for confiscation—and Fidel Castro had unlimited authority. After a golf game at Cuba’s most elite country club he ordered it turned into an art school for Cuban and international students. Thirty-five year old Cuban architect Ricardo Porro was given the commission. After examining the 150 acre hilly site he chose two friends, both Italian architects, to help, and they set to work in 1961.

Five independent art schools were placed on the ISA campus.

After consulting with the elite of art and education in Havana he quickly concluded he could never design one structure to satisfy them all, so he settled on four independent schools—music, drama, plastic arts (sculpture, for example), and dance. Further, Alicia Alonso—already respected in ballet—insisted she could not coexist with modern dance, so that school was split into two. The five schools were divided among the three architects. Then magic happened.

Practice rooms of the School of Music overlook undulating roofs toward lawns and forests of the original golf course. Marcos Mendez and Kamila Capote.

Each architect was given design freedom and virtually unlimited resources, but not unlimited time. They worked fast, each architect enlisting other architects and students to draw plans. Construction proceeded in parallel with planning. Each architect had his own ideas and each school different requirements, but there were commonalities. Scarcity of cement led to extensive use of brick and tile, giving the whole place a very warm, red-orange feel. An elderly mason was discovered who was skilled in the construction of domed “Catalan vaults,” resulting in all those skyward facing breasts.

Passageways are sensuously curved with generous lighting, such as here by skylights and openings outdoors. Designs are unique, not leveraged in other schools on the campus. Patricia Santamarina.

The multiple buildings of each school were tailored to the needs of their own art and to their site, whether hilly or flat, wooded or manicured. Music needed symphony and opera halls (though never built), while plastic arts needed large studios and an elegant display space. The dance schools needed generous rehearsal space and very large performance halls (and showers!). Acoustics mattered for drama, lighting for sculpture. The architects were friends of the same age and so had similar ideas of architecture. Even so, each school and every building is unique. This was any architect’s dream assignment.

Construction continued for some two years before things started to fall apart. The government had morphed from a collection of camo-clad guerillas toward the centrally planned communist bureaucracy it would become, with close ties to the Soviet Union. Criticism was furious that ISA was “elitist.” Indeed it was. Its construction consumed resources better spent to benefit the agrarian working class, for whom the revolution, after all, had been fought. By 1964 the bureaucracy gained sufficient authority to divert resources from ISA and by the following year to end the project, declaring it “complete,” even though it was not. Some buildings were useable and continue to be today. Others, including all of the ballet school, were totally abandoned. The architects were declared “counter-revolutionary.” Porro and one Italian architect were exiled from Cuba and the third marginalized for decades.

The ballet theater is a non conventional circular shape, which may explain Alicia Alonso’s refusal to use it. Light fixtures have disappeared but the huge circular skylight provides a moving array of spots. Patricia Santamarina and Mónica Viquiera.

Entering ISA is like entering a wonderland. The ballet school is spooky. Enormous domes enclose dark interiors with muddy floors, but light in thin crescents or spotted arrays march across interior surfaces as the sun moves. It looks ready for the arrival of circus tigers, not ballerinas. Stairways are never straight and utilitarian but swoop elegantly or, at the drama school, spiral gracefully upward to unfinished stubs of iron rebar. Even roofs, which are accessible, were designed with artistic flair. Rain water shoots down sinuous gutters in the ballet school or cascades over successive arches in the music school.

Entrance to the School of Plastic Arts is through three subtly erotic white arches into a dark interior which eventually opens onto an explicitly erotic plaza and fountain. You’ll never think of papaya the same way again.

Foreigners, like myself, generally move freely around Cuba, including to other schools, like the University of Havana. This school is an exception. Otto, my fixer, started seeking my permission two months earlier and doubtless cashed in favors owed him to make it happen. We carried written permission from the Ministry of Culture and from the director of the school and were accompanied by at all times by another trusted guide in addition to Otto. We entered through a guarded gate and surrendered our identification papers there. We were restricted to two weekend days when the campus was mostly deserted, yet I was allowed to bring two dancers and Otto’s wife Ani as assistant, and to photograph anything anywhere.

Spiral staircase to nowhere at the drama school.

So why all the security? Students are allowed to come and go with only their student ID, but foreigners—at least those bringing dancers, lights, and a camera with long lenses—need high level approval and an escort. One reason is the school’s location on what was once the most exclusive country club in the nation, adjacent to El Laguito, the most exclusive residential area and home to high officials, diplomats, and guests of the state.

Another reason, which is only my own speculation, is that the school is insufficiently revolutionary (in the communist sense). The expensive, individualistic nature of the architecture was described as elitist, bourgeois and counterrevolutionary and the designers before their banishment were called narcissistic, bourgeois and extravagant. This, plus its sorry state of decay, makes it an unwelcome symbol of revolutionary Cuba.

The mouth of the School of Plastic Arts.

Today the architects and their students have been rehabilitated, though only Vittorio Garatti, designer of the music and ballet schools, is still living. In 1999 Fidel Castro apologized for halting construction and pledged to finish the project. The Ministry of Culture in 2010 declared ISA a national monument and likewise pledged to restore it. It is listed by the World Monuments Fund and is on the tentative list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Famed Cuban dancer Carlos Acosta returned from London with money and international support to restore the ballet school but was denied permission in 2015. The school seems to defy all efforts to save it.

Norma Barbacci of the World Monuments Fund sums it up: “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.”

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