While the headlines this week are about the USA and Cuba improving relations, an international project has quietly been under development in Havana: the creation of a new ballet school in the derelict Cuban National Art School complex.
The brainchild of the international ballet dancer Carlos Acosta who is currently directing, producing, and dancing in Don Quixote at the Royal Opera House in London, the Carlos Acosta Centre for Dance has the support of both the Cuban and the UK governments and is designed by Norman Foster around the unique architecture of the art school complex, designed 50 years ago by Ricardo Porro, a young Cuban professor of architecture at Caracas University, assisted by two Italians, Roberto Gottardi and Vittorio Garatti. The original vision to create a new arts campus was conceived by Fidel Castro and Che Guevara during a game of golf at the abandoned Havana Country Club in 1961, where the schools were then to be located. Their vision to create an international centre for the arts was never completed due to external circumstances. The 1962 Cuban missile crisis and US naval blockade changed government priorities and then in 1965 the art schools fell out of favour of the new Soviet-inspired functionalism. Only two of the proposed five buildings were completed and these have decayed over the last 50 years, though their architectural importance has now become recognized and in 2010, the Cuban Government officially recognised the National Art Schools as national monuments. If all goes well, in 2018 the vision for an international centre will be realized by the Carlos Acosta Centre for Dance.
There has been some controversy at the choice of Norman Foster, a modernist architect whose ideals may contrast with those of the original architects and also that Garatti was not involved in the project. Norman Foster’s proposals respect the original design, will revitalise these unique buildings and enable Cuba to continue its strong history of excellence in ballet. The project is supported by the Cuban government and Carlos Acosta’s vision is that it will be a centre where people from all over the world will be enthused and learn a variety of different styles of dance, from ballet to tango, with workshops, master-classes and short courses. The Carlos Acosta Foundation is restoring the Dance Centre in ten phases, to be complete in 2018 at a cost of $3.5 million. The necessary licenses, legal agreements and architectural designs are complete work has started to complete the flood defences around the nearby River Quibu and to undertake all the groundwork on the site.
Norman Foster’s love of Cuba has inspired a recent book written by Mauricio Vicent, based on Foster’s trips to Havana and his fascination with the architecture and classic cars.
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“According to Foster, the Cuban architecture of the 40s and 50s is a reflection of the desire to live in that society, which contributes to the identity of today’s society, as evidenced by the resurgence of the architecture of that time and the greatest interest in it. Foster has the opinion that happen the same with vehicles.
“This is unique, does not exist anywhere in the world,” Norman Foster noted, fascinated by the spectacle that still offer those antiquated cars that populate the Cuban capital, restored again and again “because there is no alternative” and recycled to get to pretend they are not.
According to Vincent, there are in Cuba more than 200,000 cars, a third of which are old. The “amazing” ingenuity of Cubans arriving in craft manufacture parts in lathes, allowed to keep and even provided that in these hard times of the crisis the country continue to function, as they served as public transport.” One advantage of cars that always need repair is that garages in Havana are open 24 hours a day. How many other cities can claim such service?
As the relationship between Cuba and the USA improves, there will be more investment in Cuba. Both the USA and Russia built some awful buildings in the past. Havana has a unique heritage and there are many architects carrying out sensitive infill developments that respect the character of the city. Hopefully, the same care that Norman Foster is showing for these old buildings will be shown elsewhere in other developments. It would be terrible if modern resort architecture started to nibble away and, over time, destroy the essence of Havana.