BY ANISA KHANMOHAMED
Cuba’s “Instituto Superior de Arte” is a multifaceted art institute founded by Fidel Castro and Ernesto “Che” Guevara in 1961, on the site of a former country club in the formerly affluent Cubanacán suburb of Havana. It is also one of the most incredibly forward-thinking architectural results of the early post-Revolution fervor that took hold of the island in the 1960s. While this complex of Cuban National Art Schools (including the School of Modern Dance, School of Plastic Arts, School of Dramatic Arts, School of Music, and School of Ballet) remains internationally recognized as an educational resource that encourages the development of creative talent, in reality, the ISA has never been used even nearly to its full potential as an arts institution.
Although the very origins of the ISA are tied to early cultural ideals of the Cuban Revolution, and its architectural design was initially meant to reflect the innovative, well-rounded essence of Che Guevara’s communist “hombre nuevo” (“new man”), as soon as 1965 it began to fall under attack by the government that had sponsored it. The designers of the ISA, Cuban-born Ricardo Porro and Italian architects Roberto Gottardi and Vittorio Garatti, had conceived of the school’s aesthetic as one which would subvert the capitalistic nature of the dominant International Style, and include the influence of Hispanic and Latin American identity instead. Despite the lack of attention that has been paid to the upkeep of its buildings, the ISA’s original, unforgettable architecture strongly reflects its anti-status quo inspirations to this day.
However, once the Cuban economy began to suffer immensely following from the imposition of the U.S. embargo in 1960 and from the many sudden, radical measures taken by the nation’s new dictatorship, the nation quickly shifted to extreme economic dependence on the former Soviet Union. Unfortunately, official sentiment towards the design of the Art Schools shifted with it. The ISA was then framed as overly extravagant and out of touch with the reality of Cuba’s situation. The architects themselves even came under fire for supposedly being bourgeois elitists, when they had been hired by the same group of people attacking them to perform the design work they had done only a few years prior. The fact that this bipolar transformation in the Cuban state’s view of the ISA took place in a matter of less than five years reflects just how volatile and contradictory the island’s new leadership was in its early years. Finally, the project of constructing the five schools was abandoned in July of 1965, though the schools continued to operate.
Through the 1980s and 1990s, both Cuban and American citizens took up the cause of the neglected ISA project and were relatively successful in bringing international attention to the tragic status of the schools’ buildings. In the late 1990s, the Cuban government itself finally re-recognized the schools’ architectural value and gave it the status of “protective zone”. Since the early 2000s, the ISA has been added to the World Monuments Fund’s “watch list.” Since 2003, the site has been patiently, yet unsuccessfully, awaiting aid through its position on the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO)’s “Tentative List.”
Despite having gained such positive publicity in recent decades, formal recognition of the ISA’s importance from the Cuban government—which lacks the funds to actually restore, improve and complete the ISA’s construction—and the near-awarding of formal titles to the schools by international but heavily bureaucratic organizations like the WMF and UNESCO have been fruitless. Anyone who visits the ISA today can observe that it remains in dismal conditions, though its awe-inspiring beauty and the avant-garde nature of its architectural design are still appreciable.
Moreover, the sad story of the under-appreciation of the ISA raises the question of why an architectural gem located so close to an economic force like the U.S. is still not being cared for. In this particular case, the answer almost certainly lies in the outdated political divide between these nations’ governments; however, the question could also then extend to why other wealthy nations and organizations have not attempted to salvage what is left of these art schools.
Worldwide, how many other cases of unused potential like that of the ISA exist currently? Perhaps the fundamental issue to be considered in the context of this discussion is a global poverty of awareness, appreciation and constructive action for the betterment of art and design. It may seem like a non sequitur to tie a figure like Kanye West into a conversation about art schools that were founded under the leadership of the Cuban Revolution, but West made some highly relevant points during his talk at the Harvard Graduate School of Design last November—maybe the world really can be “saved through design,” and maybe his view of “everything” as “architected” should be considered more.