Directors: Alysa Nahmias & Benjamin Murray
Stars: Roberto Gottardi, Ricardo Porro and Vittorio Garratti
Unfinished Spaces tells the story about Cuba’s uncompleted National Arts School. In 1961 Fidel Castro & Che Guevara walked into the Havana Country Club and played a round of golf. At the end of which Fidel decided that the courses natural landscape would be an ideal setting for the world’s best school dedicated to the arts. He quickly commissioned three young architects to design and lead the construction of the different schools: Roberto Gottardi for the School of Theatre; Ricardo Porro for the School of Plastic Arts and the School of Modern Dance; and Vittorio Garratti for the School of Ballet and the School of Music. Gottardi and Garratti are two Italian Architects Ricardo Porro met and worked with in Venezuela while he was in exile from Cuba before Castro came to power. All three shared the early Revolution’s ideals and hope for change. All three would eventually suffer in different ways under that same revolution.
The documentary opens with the excitement, optimism and promise of the Revolution. This energy led to the creation of the National School of the Arts. Fidel not only commissions the architects, but he wants work to commence in two months. It is a tribute to the architects, construction workers and students that it does. As quickly as the architects create the plans, the workers build them and the students help. As spaces became available, classes began. The spirit of the 60s as we know them in the United States also existed in Cuba and especially at the School. But the spirit of the 60s was about freedom and individuality, and Cuba was moving towards the Soviet model of government. Ricardo Porro was the first to see this. He pushed the other architects to ignore the minute details and rush to finish. When the government cut its financing only his buildings were complete.
In the following years Porro left to Paris and had a successful career. Garratti worked in Urban Planning for the government until they suspected him of espionage. He was imprisoned and later deported to Italy. Gottardi remained on the island and worked for the Ministry of Construction and taught Architecture at the University. As for the Arts School they were in continual use but left to decay. Eventually in the late 90s the School was listed as an endangered world site; the only one where the Architects were still alive. Fidel, whether through guilt or nostalgia once again backed the project and in 1999 restoration work began. Porro’s two buildings were the first ones restored and completed since they required the least amount of work. As for the remaining structures, work began as well but was stopped after Cuba was hit with multiple hurricanes and the world financial crisis.
Nahmias & Murray display the architecture well, and do a good job integrating the archival footage into the main story. But where they shine is in bringing the personalities of the primary architects out, as well as other interviews. You feel for each man in different ways, but I felt most touched by Vittorio Garratti’s story. All he wanted in Cuba was to do the best he could possibly do. The reward for him taking work home with him was suspension and arrest. The interviews with former students show the importance the School had back in its heyday of the 60s, as well as throughout its continuous life. The thing that amazed me the most was how no matter how deteriorated the buildings became the students kept coming to learn. And the other thing that amazed me was how quickly the optimism of hope & change gave way to the reality of absolute power corrupting absolutely.
Grade = B+
NOTE 1: Both directors and Roberto Gottardi were at my screening for a Q & A. This film was a ten-year odyssey for all involved.
NOTE 2: The subject of the film, architecture, is close to my heart. My maternal grandfather was an Architect in Cuba and had many buildings to his credit. He was one generation older than the Architects in the documentary and passed away before the revolution. About ten years ago when my paternal grandmother came from Cuba she was able to bring his portfolio of projects with her. As for me, my day job is Construction Management and my education is Civil (Structural) Engineering.