Every single thing in this country is an homage to everything in the world, even the things that haven’t happened yet.
Roberto Bolaño, 2666
Vittorio Garatti died on January 12, 2023. He was that Italian architect who in the 60s came to Havana from Milan to design and build the Ballet School of the National Art Schools in Cubanacán. For a moment, imagine 1959. Imagine the euphoria of launching a Revolution. Imagine Fidel, who has just tasted his triumph, next to Che Guevara, who feels he is History; all in green, triumphant, playing golf and posing for the BBC cameras. Imagine the upper class golf courses of the Havana Country Club –with its beautifully trimmed gardens, its recently pruned fake mountains and its flowers imported from Europe– witnessing, with sad anger, the last match to take place there.
Imagine Fidel putting the ball in the hole, looking at the camera and saying with sadistic satisfaction: “You know what? Here I am going to build the most beautiful art schools in the world”. Imagine that moment in history, when, no matter what you say, your words are already everybody’s words. Very Hollywood.
Fleeing from his death announced by Fulgencio Batista, Cuban architect Ricardo Porro was in exile in Caracas working with Villanueva when the revolution triumphed. In order to respond to Fidel’s words, he returned to Cuba, accompanied by two other radical left-wing Italian architects: Roberto Gotardi and Vittorio Garatti. Thus, they arrive in the new Cuba carrying the burden of building the most beautiful art schools in the world. To make a Revolution is an act of genius and arrogance, but, when you are asked to make one, there is little left of humanity and of self-awareness. You are already one of the others. In this text I will only talk about the Ballet School, which is the most sublime piece of architecture in Cuba, and perhaps the Americas.
The construction of the schools, loaded with limitations, began at the height of the revolutionary effervescence and delirium. It seemed as though everything had become possible. Turning every setback into victory was the drug of this generation of hallucinated young people. In the face of the impossibility of importing steel from the US, it was decided to use Catalan vaults and to produce bricks on site. In the face of the strict European tradition of Fine Arts education, it was decided to break with what had been learned and create a new space for teaching. In the face of the indoctrinated Cuban modern movement of the 50s, the emphasis was on freedom of form and the beauty of useless things. Given the smallness of the island and the immensity of its pretensions, the Latin American right to originality was adopted as a principle.
This radical design, in search of its own revolution, needed to be eccentric; it needed to turn on its own axis and never give up. For this purpose, it was important to deny the world and its possibilities. It was important to find the hard and arrogant path of difference, and to possess a level of efficiency that only youth and inexperience can achieve. Because there is no better moral trophy than having someone like Alicia Alonso telling you that everything is wrong, Antonio Quintana becoming your enemy, the bureaucrats in the Ministry of Construction opposing your project, and the faculty professors, lovers of prefabrication and the death of ideas, portraying you as the Antichrist. When these things happen, it means that something you did makes sense. It is very difficult to know how to disappoint. Garatti knew how to do it.
The Ballet School was from the beginning an honest and unrealizable dream. Garatti lived that beautiful motivational fracture of the 60s where no model seemed to be the right one. His quest for beauty was not to build a building, but to draw a delirium of clay that becomes landscape. An expensive building made of cheap materials. The delirium is nothing more than the gaze that constructs its own landscape: it reconstructs reality to make it look like its expectations. This project was not designed to solve everyday problems, but to create new problems for “the new man” to think about. It is the fruit of the patient work done over the years by an impatient man. It invites us to a continuous discussion with our rituals, our routes, our echoes; to a discussion with nature and with ourselves. Because no one can listen to the voice of a dead architect anymore. The ruins are architectural projects taken to the degree zero of form and function. Without the traces of humanity projected by a socket on a freshly painted wall, a lit lamp on the ceiling, or the handle of a newly opened door, the spatial experience is reduced to a sculptural experience. Today we do not see the Ballet School in its original project. Time has already removed everything that was originally superfluous. Without details, this timeless project disappears a little bit every day, and contains much more beauty than in Garatti’s initial ideas. One can caress its decay, and stare at it for hours on end, but trying to approach it in search of a new utility could only be the result of anxiety and poverty complex. Perhaps turning it into the Observatory of Our Destruction, and doing nothing, would be the museographic gesture that this city needs and does not have.
Rem Koolhaas was one of the few architects who in the 1990s opposed the reconstruction of Mies van der Rohe’s famous 1927 Barcelona Pavilion, arguing that, for such an important building, the myth provoked by its black and white photos will always be much more productive than the live experience. To materialize such an experience would ruin its powerful imaginary in pursuit of tourism. Witnessing the last days of the Ballet School while corrosion and rain do their work is also a fascinating spatial experience. Watching things die is one of the last romantic luxuries we can afford in this city today. With an anti-sentimental and remorseless attitude, we could celebrate the destructive work of time, which is also its seduction.
But what is destroyed? Malevich had the idea of burning all Rembrandt’s paintings because he was sure that something would be reborn from its ashes. He believed in the indestructibility of art. Architecture also dwells in our mind, in our memory, in our conversation. Its narratives are the diagram that lets us in, and which convince us of its indestructible character. Destruction and seduction are two attributes of space and time.
Gabriel Orozco and Felipe Dulzaides think as I do, that nothing should be done with the building, just clean it and allow the public to enter. The National Art Schools are an accurate monument of the sentimental landscape of the Revolution. A building larger than itself. The immensity of its eccentricity contradicts its fragility and ruin. Once, while visiting it with master Alberto Kalach, he told me that he would like to see it flooded and converted into a Turkish bath, its coliseum domes protecting its bathers from the sun. A new red landscape of reflections and shadows that I also fantasize about. To see each of the futures that are not, that remains the most sublime project. But, once in front of it, under the burden of all its history, it appears to bystanders in silence. Its biography does not define its form, because the form always forgets where it comes from.
The last time Garatti visited Havana, he gave a public talk. I, still a student, asked him from my seat: “Do you think that, if your work had not been a victim of politics, it would be so recognized today?” My question came too late: Garatti was no longer there, as he was not in the battered body that stopped beating a few months ago. His senile dementia is not related to his passion, only to his age. Although such a project can only be born of insane passion.
During the brief period when I was allowed to teach Theory of Architecture at the Faculty of Architecture in Havana, one of the exercises I did with the students was to plan the total demolition of the building and return it to its initial state as a golf course. I forced the students to take the blame and write the last words of Garatti’s building. I asked them, very calmly, to design the 18th hole where the building stands today. Some complied with the order with a certain strangeness, others understood that, in life, if you don’t do it, someone else will. My favorites were those who hated me the most, those whose ethics (or passion) made them oppose their teacher and an infamous order. When a building does something like that, it already belongs to everyone, because it is anchored to the feeling of a nation. The story of Garatti and his project is that of a stubborn virtuoso who witnessed firsthand the inevitable failure of human efforts in the face of the limits of the world. The most beautiful stories have always been those of the vanquished.
In 2010 Junya Ishigami was invited to represent Japan at the Venice Architecture Biennale. On this occasion, he titled his exhibition with a simple explanation “Architecture as Air: Study for Château La Coste”. Ishigami used 7-millimeter carbon fiber tubes to set in the room the contours, in almost real scale, of one of his projects. There, one could imagine the absent space drawn with these thin, delicate white lines, which almost disappeared in the eye. Just on the day of the inauguration, when the first visitors were entering the Arsenale, a cat tripped over the piece and the whole installation collapsed. The following days, as you entered the Japanese pavilion, you were greeted by a hand-drawn sign by Ishigami saying, with the sincerity of a thousand-year-old haiku, “Iʼm sorry / Itʼs broken.” That year the jury of the Venice Biennale awarded the Golden Lion to this piece. Making architecture is also a way of not being alone.