Picture this. It is 1961 and Fidel Castro and Che Guevara are in the bar after playing a round of golf at Havana’s elite Country Club. Inspired by the beauty of the place, their conversation turns to its future. What to do with it? Over the next hour, an idea crystallises: the grounds of the club should become something that is symbolic of the power of the revolution, bringing education to the people. It would house an art school reflecting the new socialist Cuba, one that would compete creatively with the best in the world.
The location and event are real, and what emerged was the most individual piece of Cuban revolutionary architecture: the extraordinary Escuelas Nacionales de Arte (National Art Schools).
Designed by three architects, one Cuban and two Italian, the new schools were constructed in flamboyant, sinuous forms deliberately reflecting the local landscape. Built in brick and terracotta as a pragmatic response to the US embargo of imported steel and utilising the Catalan vault throughout, these were a confident repudiation of Western-style International Modernism. But of the five original schools in the complex, only two were completed, as the deepening relationship with the USSR prompted disdain for such exotic forms over Soviet functionalism. Castro’s initial enthusiasm waned. Soon the architects fell out of favour and the schools were abandoned to vandalism and nature, overgrown by trees and falling into crumbling ruination.
More recently, there has been a revival of interest in the project, with the Cuban ministry of culture restoring the schools of modern dance and plastic arts, and declaring the whole site a national monument in 2011. But the threat of neglect and the absence of a single unifying vision continues to overshadow the complex. In 2000, the World Monuments Fund (WMF) helped to draw attention to the global significance of the National Art Schools by placing them on the World Monuments Watch for endangered sites. The watch listing was repeated this year as a further prompt to find a long-term solution.
The plight of the National Art Schools epitomises the twin challenges that used to face Cuba’s heritage: decay and neglect resulting from economic forces, or ideological opposition. Curiously, the same forces have also resulted in the survival of much of the colonial-era charm of places such as Habana Vieja, or Old Havana. An absence of money to restore old heritage has also meant an absence of resources to replace it.
To these old challenges, however, must be added a new threat resulting from an unforeseen consequence of the thawing relationship between the US and Cuban governments. With the re-establishment of diplomatic relations between the US and Cuba in 2014, punctuated by Barack Obama’s historic visit to Cuba in March this year, a sea change in tourism and inward investment is under way.
What might this mean for Cuba’s architectural heritage? Immediately to the west of Old Havana is the central business district of El Vedado. The sugar boom years of the 1890s and early 20th century brought US investment and burgeoning Cuban affluence that led to some of the best 20th-century architecture in the country. Such is the importance of the area that several buildings are protected, but this may not be enough in the face of the demands of new inward investment. A thousand small changes, compounded by weak planning legislation, threaten to erode the special character of this unique area.
The unprecedented scale and pressure of new investment in Cuba could speed up such a process—not just in El Vedado, but across the island. In so doing, it would serve to destroy some of the very things that make Cuba so extraordinary. Fortunately, Cuban heritage professionals and planners are acutely aware of the risks and are open to alternative solutions. They have the successful experience of the restoration in Old Havana and international support from organisations such as the WMF, which is organising a conference in Havana on heritage and planning in December.
The challenge is to ensure that inward investment is coupled with a conservation-led approach that seeks to preserve those special qualities. Retrospective? Backward-looking? Or, given Fidel Castro’s recent 90th birthday speech, a choice between the past or the future? No, because conservation is best described as the careful management of change for the future. Viva the old Cuba; viva the new Cuba.
• John Darlington is the executive director of World Monuments Fund Britain