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Unfinished Spaces

Castro’s ‘Unfinished’ business

“Unfinished Spaces’’ looks at the plan to build five schools devoted to the arts in Cuba. “Unfinished Spaces’’ looks at the plan to build five schools devoted to the arts in Cuba. (ALYSA NAHMIAS AND BENJAMIN MURRAY)
By Mark Feeney
Globe Staff / December 15, 2011
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If the story were any more implausible it could be a Cold War fairy tale. Soon after Fidel Castro took power, he decided to go golfing at Havana’s ritziest country club. Who better for a partner than Che Guevara? The New York Times ran a front-page story about their links excursion. The beauty of the setting so impressed Castro that he announced a few hours later that “the best art schools that will be built in the world’’ should go on the site of the course.

In all, there would be five schools: one each devoted to theater, ballet, modern dance, painting and sculpture, and music. The schools were the product of a special historical moment when, as Vittorio Garatti recalls, “there was still a great guerrilla spirit for adventure, and all the possibilities of the Revolution were open.’’

Garatti was the architect of the schools of music and ballet. Ricardo Porro designed the schools of modern dance and art, and Roberto Gottardi’s design was used for the school of theater arts. Charming and spry, all three men figure prominently in “Unfinished Spaces,’’ Alysa Nahmias and Benjamin Murray’s fine, clear-eyed documentary about the art schools’ fate.

The storybook elements continued. The architects had just two months to come up with their designs - a preposterously limited amount of time. But revolutionary times demand revolutionary responses. The architects met their deadline. The designs were curved, domed organic structures and very much of their time. When building commenced, drummers accompanied the construction workers as they went about their labors.

Soon enough “the romantical moment of the revolution,’’ as Porro calls it, had passed. Soviet-style building methods were imposed. Guevara published an article attacking the schools’ “freedom.’’ The projects were classified as “non-productive construction.’’

When building was officially stopped, on July 26, 1965, only the schools of modern dance and art had been finished. Even though the ballet school was just three weeks from completion, work on it ceased. “It’s just like a process in Kafka,’’ Porro says.

The story, still implausible, grew darker. Porro fled to Paris. Garatti, who’d given up architecture for city planning, was convicted on trumped-up espionage charges and forced to leave the country. Only Gottardi remained in Cuba.

A military-like discipline was imposed on the art students, and gays were expelled. The ballet school was used for circuses and as the set of a futuristic TV show. All five buildings began to crumble, and vegetation began to take over the unfinished ones.

The story took its next turn in 1999, when the schools drew international attention after the World Monuments Fund added them to its list of endangered works of architecture. Later that year, at a conference of the Cuban writers and artists union, an alumnus publicly asked Castro about the schools’ status. Clearly taken aback, he said he’d been told they didn’t need any more work! Could Castro have been that gullible (then) or this disingenuous (now)? Nahmias and Murray show footage of his response, so viewers can judge for themselves. Either way, he was contrite, or as contrite as Castro can be. He loved the buildings, he said, and now that he knew better whatever needed doing would be done.

In 2008, restoration of the art school was finished and the ballet school was finally completed. The world economic crisis and hurricane damage have set back work on the other schools. So the art-schools’ story remains unfinished, but still with the possibility of a fairy-tale ending.

Mark Feeney can be reached at

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Directed by: Alysa Nahmias and Benjamin Murray

Running time: 86 minutes

At: Museum of Fine Arts, today and various dates through next Thursday

In Spanish and English, with English subtitles


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