ARCHITECTURE

Norman Foster's plans for Cuba

The British architect has offered his services free of charge on a project to help finish a dance center that was started 50 years ago

Plans for the new arts center in Havana, designed by British architect Norman Foster.
Plans for the new arts center in Havana, designed by British architect Norman Foster.

Half a century ago, amid the euphoria that followed the Cuban Revolution, and during a time when anything still seemed possible, Fidel Castro came up with the idea of creating an international arts school that would bring together the best in modern architecture and education, while providing a home for the country's classical ballet school. The location would be Havana's Country Club, located in the wealthy suburb of Cubanacán - a potent symbol of the privilege that the Revolution was intent on sweeping away. It was so exclusive that it had even refused membership to the dictator of Cuba, Fulgencio Batista, on the grounds that it did not admit people of mixed race.

 The story goes that the idea came to Fidel after he played a few rounds in military fatigues with Che Guevara on the Country Club's golf course, a game that was captured by the Revolution's official photographer Korda. This was a stage-managed event for the benefit of the US media and Dwight Eisenhower, who had refused to see Castro during a visit in 1959, leaving town to play golf instead.

After the photo shoot, and looking round the golf course, Castro told an aide: "We are going to build the best arts school in the world, right here." Ricardo Porro, a Cuban architect teaching at the University of Caracas, was tasked with overseeing the project, and invited two Italians, Roberto Gottardi and Vittorio Garatti, to come up with a design.

The pair drew up a complex of five schools, the Cubanacán National Arts Schools, now considered among the best examples of modern Cuban architecture, But by 1965, the money had run out, and of them only two structures were completed: dance and art. Garatti's ballet and music schools, as well as Gottardi's drama school, were never finished.

The idea cane to Fidel after he played a few rounds of gold with Che Guevara

For the next 35 years, the shells of the three would-be schools were left exposed to the elements, until, in the year 2000, the government put together a plan to rescue the buildings, which by that point were in danger of falling down. But once again, a lack of funding put the project on hold.

Now, Cuban ballet dancer Carlos Acosta, one of the stars of London's Royal Ballet, wants to rescue the ballet school building, and has drafted in British architect Norman Foster and Chinese businessman and socialite David Tang to help him realize his dream.

Approaching retirement, Acosta says he wants to give something back to Cuba, and has set up a foundation to develop an arts and dance center on the island that would be run by him, and that would act as "a cultural bridge between Cuba and the rest of the world."

He says that he was unaware of the abandoned, unfinished structure in the Country Club.

The shells of the would-be schools were left to the elements for 35 years

"I had been looking all over Havana for somewhere, and when I saw it I was really struck by its design. It's in a terrible state, but I decided that it was worth fighting to save, and to convert it into the Center's new seat."

On the night of September 19, Acosta, Tang and Foster were due to host a gala fundraising event. "The idea is to raise 2.6 million euros to get the first phase of the project going," says Acosta.

Foster has publicly expressed his admiration for Garatti's designs, saying that "they are important expressions of the search for a style of architecture that symbolizes the values of Cuban identity at that time."

He has also made clear that he will not be charging for his work: "I want to be involved in this important social initiative, and at the same time rescue an architectural work of great value that at the moment is in ruins and faces the risk of being destroyed."

Foster has already visited the site and carried out a viability study, as well as producing a few preparatory sketches. He says that before any work could begin, the area around the Country Club would need to be protected from flooding by the nearby Quibú river. He has proposed converting what were to be classrooms into accommodation for students and teaching staff, and change part of the available space into a performance area.

The Cuban Ministry of Culture has given Foster's proposals the green light, but Vitorio Garatti, who has also met with Acosta in Havana, has written to Fidel and Raúl Castro saying that he does not agree with Foster's plan.

"As the designer of two of the five schools I would ask that I be allowed to put forward a proposal that would respect the overall integrity of the original idea for the Cubanacán National Art Schools," Garatti said in his letter.

"Any changes to the structure must be delicately done, and not compromise the original design," came Foster's reply. He says that he is prepared to continue helping Acosta if the project goes ahead.

"I want to think about this in positive terms. The only thing I want to do is to help save this important piece of architectural heritage. I could simply find a new location and that would be the end of it. But I'm not going to do that," says Acosta.