Channeling a Better Cuba

Channeling a Better Cuba

Utopía Posible: Felipe Dulzaides
The Graham Foundation
Madlener House
4 West Burton Place, Chicago
Through July 17

While Utopía Posible, a show assembled by the artist and filmmaker Felipe Dulzaides at the Graham Foundation, has many of the trappings of a standard architecture exhibition—plans, photos, models, CAD images—it’s anything but conventional. On its surface, the show documents the saga of Cuba’s famously unfinished National Schools of the Arts, which the Castro government envisioned as a city of arts built on the site of the old Havana Country Club that would reflect the revolutionary fervor of the times. Two films by Dulzaides add a personal dimension to the show, illuminating the role that the schools played in the country’s artistic development and in its ideological aspirations.

Italian architect Roberto Gottardi designed the Dramatic Arts School. Ricardo Porro designed the Ballet and Dance schools, and Vittorio Garatti designed the schools of Music and Plastic (i.e. visual) Arts; both are Cuban. Planning began in 1961 and together, the architects selected a unifying vocabulary of locally produced brick (motivated by the inability to acquire concrete, due to ongoing U.S. embargoes) and Catalan structural arches. By 1965, the dance and visual arts schools had been completed, and the theater, ballet, and music schools were underway when the government abruptly halted construction. In the ensuing decades, the campus was used, but the incomplete structures decayed in the jungle environment.

By the 1990s, largely through the work of the architectural historian John Loomis, the schools had attracted recognition as lost masterpieces, testament to a brief, brilliant period of modernist innovation far removed from the Mies/Corbu orthodoxy that prevailed in much of the world at the time, and before the Soviet-influenced cell-block aesthetic took hold in Cuba. Around 1998, the government began to show an interest in completing the complex.

Dulzaides, born in Cuba in 1965, had studied at the visual arts school in the 1980s, but fled Cuba and eventually became an American citizen. In 1999 he visited the campus, where he discovered that the ballet school site had been reclaimed from the jungle overgrowth. While there, he took it upon himself to clean out the clogged series of stepped drainage channels that span the building’s rooftop, an act which ultimately motivated the entire project.

Central to the show are two 30-minute films. Utopía Posible documents the last decade of Gottardi’s progress—or lack thereof—in trying to complete the Drama School complex. Since 2004, he’s developed four additional concepts for the project; unlike Porro and Garatti, Gottardi redesigned his building numerous times because he felt it had to be a building of today rather than that of half a century ago. (All three architects, now in their 80s, are still active.) In addition to offering a close look at the beauty of the architecture, including footage of Dulzaides cleaning out the drainage channels, the film serves as a cautionary tale of the too-often torturous process of design and construction common to every building project.

Next Time It Rains is less a documentary than Dulzaides’ very personal rumination on the beauty of the National Schools campus, focusing on the School of Ballet and really providing the essence of the exhibition. Sequences of Porro discussing the work with Dulzaides are spliced with those of a ballet dancer improvising in the unfinished building, teenagers clambering over the rooftops, and images of water coursing through the channels.

If there’s any deficiency to the show, it’s that you have to do a fair amount of digging to find the full context for the films. There is one introductory wall text in the outer lobby of Madlener House, but the wall cards in the exhibit itself offer little more than the titles and dates of the work. That said, numerous background materials are available, and you’d be well advised to look at them to appreciate the show fully.

Utopía Posible isn’t a show to breeze through quickly. It takes time and contemplation. If you give it that, the image of a place—and of a lost future—comes briefly into view.

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