In 1998, architectural scholar John A. Loomis wrote Revolution of Forms: Cuba’s Forgotten Art Schools—the first English-language book to spotlight the revolutionary architecture of the National Art Schools in Havana.
In 2011, the documentary film Unfinished Spaces gave international audiences the first cinematic glimpse of these remarkable buildings—and their equally remarkable designers, architects Ricardo Porro (1925–2014), Roberto Gottardi (1927–2017), and Vittorio Garatti (1927–).
Last week, the Getty Foundation announced that Cuba’s National Art Schools—now part of the Instituto Superior de Artes, or ISA—were among the award-winning sites in its 2018 “Keeping It Modern” program.
“Keeping It Modern” is an international grant initiative for architectural conservation, focusing on important buildings of the 20th century. The program was begun in 2014. That first year, it supported the conservation of the Miami Marine Stadium, designed by Cuban-American architect Hilario Candela.
This year’s $195,000 grant for the National Art Schools was awarded to the Fondazione Politecnico di Milano—part of the largest engineering, architecture, and design university in Italy—which will act as the lead organizer in a consortium of conservation professionals.
Antoine Wilmering, a senior program officer at the Getty Foundation, wrote in the foundation’s blog, “The Iris”:
“This year we have awarded our first Keeping It Modern grant for a building in Cuba, which is home to an eclectic array of modern architecture.
“The grant will support research and planning for the preservation of the National Schools of Art of Havana, an educational complex—made of local brick, mortar, and ceramic tiles—that was designed to train Cuba’s young people in ‘the integration of art, architecture, and landscape in a spirit of equality, freedom, and intercultural exchange.’”
Vittorrio Garatti, the last surviving member of the original architectural team, will also participate in the research and planning.
In his blog post, Wilmering explained the project in detail. “With the Getty Foundation’s support,” he wrote, “an international team of conservation professionals from the Politecnico di Milano, Princeton University, and Universitá di Parma, together with one of the original architects, Vittorio Garatti, will collect and evaluate all historical documentation, conduct technical studies on materials, test technical solutions on small pilot sites, create computer models for flood risk assessment and mitigation, and study energy and environmental sustainability in order to develop a conservation management plan that includes adaptive reuse.”
Significantly, the project will also provide “training opportunities for Cuban conservation professionals, building local support and expertise.”
Awards for this year’s “Keeping It Modern” projects ranged from $100,000 to $225,000, with the National Art Schools grant among the highest. In addition to Cuba, four more of the 11 sites on the list are in first-time countries: Lebanon, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Ireland, and the country of Georgia.
In an interview with the Los Angeles Times, Wilmering said that “these countries are now demonstrating that they’re ready to embrace new approaches to the preservation or conservation of modern architecture.”
He noted that “many buildings are repaired on an ad-hoc basis—when the roof leaks or something—but we’re developing comprehensive management and policy documents to guide both short-term repairs and long-term care, rather than one ad hoc decision after another.” In countries where a project takes place, he said, “it has an impact beyond a single building.”
Begun with enthusiastic support in the early 1960s, the National Art Schools fell out of favor by the end of the decade, and some buildings were left unfinished. More than 50 years later, much of the concrete is flaking and the brick and mortar has been eroded by repeated flooding.
In 2000, 2002, and 2016, the World Monuments Fund placed the National Art Schools on its World Monuments Watch list—an international call to action for structures in jeopardy and/or ready for protection and conservation.
Asked to comment about the award, Revolution of Forms author John Loomis wrote: “Cuba’s National Art Schools have been embraced around the world as an important part of our shared cultural heritage. And the Politecnico di Milano is a highly distinguished institution with technical and humanist expertise in architecture, historic preservation, materials sciences and engineering, which will provide a solid foundation for a comprehensive conservation plan to serve as the road map for the future of the schools.
“In this complex endeavor they will collaborate and coordinate with other ongoing initiatives of the Italian government, the Università di Firenze, the Universidad Politécnica de Madrid, and hopefully various NGOs and private supporters.
“As Bonnie Burnham, former president of the World Monuments Fund, aptly stated a few years ago, ‘Now is the time for a integrated program to preserve and use all the National Art Schools in a manner worthy of their importance.’ The Politecnico di Milano is taking an important leading step in what I hope will be a truly successful international venture,» Loomis concluded.
“The art schools have been on the minds of heritage conservation professionals for decades,” Wilmering wrote in his blog post. “Having a team of international experts undertake the first crucial steps toward preserving the site is an exciting moment.”
The Milan publishing house Mimesis Edizioni and the Politecnico di Milano will issue an Italian-language edition of Revolution of Forms in 2019.