F12 Long Studio to Cuba :: Day 5


By John Pilling, Havana Long Studio Instructor

Monday, 09/24/2012
When the guard let our bus through the gates of ISA (Instituto Superior de Arte) I was relieved that the six months of planning for our visit had paid off. It was only two days before the trip started that we’d received permission for our visit to ISA - all thanks to Merri and Tony at Common Ground as well as intercession with the decision makers by a number of my Cuban friends.  

During the BAC trip last spring, we didn’t have as much luck as we’re having this time.  Mostly we looked at the schools from outside. Norberto’s persuasion with the guard at the School of Modern Dance netted us a brief stop there, and the well-known hole in the fence near the School of Ballet gave us some time to look briefly at portions of it. This Fall, this trip, we arrived as guests of Professor Raul Navarro, Dean of the School of Plastic Arts.  

The story of ISA has now been documented very well. First by John Loomis in “Revolution of Forms” and, most recently, by the brilliant film, “Unfinished Spaces,” by Alysa Nahmias and Benjamin Murray. Luis and I had screened the film in the studio before the trip. Now each Longstudiero could see the campus firsthand. They’d have not hours, but days, to study these remarkable works.

Professor Navarro was waiting under the signature, arched entrance to the School of Plastic Arts to welcome us. He was joined by two of his students, Orlando, a sculptor and Aylen, a painter, whom he’d invited to join us for our time at the schools. Professor Navarro offered to guide us through each of the schools during our two mornings, and we’d be free to study them in detail independently in the afternoons. Monday would be devoted to the school of Plastic Arts and the School of Dramatic Arts, Tuesday would be the Schools of Ballet and Music. As we began our tour walking down the portales of the Plastic Arts School, Professor Navarro told me, as an aside, that he’d called Maestro Gottardi, architect of the School of Dramatic Arts. Gottardi would join us today.

Professor Navarro’s comprehensive tour of the schools began in one of the painting galleries, where we saw some of Aylen’s work. Her topics are architectural and her technique goes well beyond simple ‘impasto.’ From there, we went to the ceramics studio, where we were joined my Maestro Gottardi. While we were exploring every corner, space and closet of the school, Orlando, the sculptor, was filling page after page with sketches of us.

Maestro Gottardi was kind enough to give us a tour of his project, the School of Dramatic Arts. Gottardi is the only one of the three architects of the schools who lives and works in Cuba. He began with a talk about his design process in general, and his thoughts on how he’d designed the school in the 60’s and what he will do now to complete the project. Both Luis and I were pleased that the Maestro recommended designing first with pencil and paper and hand-made models before finalizing the design using computers (Gottardi and his assistants do employ computer aided design). We also discussed contemporary building techniques in Cuba. Gottardi said he will not be using Catalan Vaults for contemporary work on the school, because they are now too expensive to make. Instead, he recommended metal trusses supporting composite panels with thermal and acoustic insulation for roofing.  Brick is still the preferred material for vertical elements, and copper, abundant in Cuba is a good material for the roof enclosure. The Maestro walked us through the existing portions of the school, describing his idea that each of the program components of the dramatic arts be barely visible to each other, only coming together in the performance space itself. He also said that his current design for the School is different from the original one. People and programs change over time, a piece of architecture cannot be static. We concluded our remarkable tour of the School by thanking Gottardi for his help and guidance. It’s not every day that you get to speak with the mind that’s behind the masterpiece.  

It had been quite a dense morning, and our stomachs were telling us it was time for lunch. Norberto told us the best place for us to get something to each was at the ‘Kioskos’ just down the hill from the Schools. What a place. What was great about being in Havana was that the kiosks themselves, and the food cooked and delivered, was related to the ones on the beach at Luquillo in Puerto Rico. Good food, good prices, good fun. Topping everything off here, at 120th and ‘Fifth Avenue F,’ was that it is a transportation hub. Cubans get around their country by way of officially sanctioned hitch hiking. The place around these kiosks is one of these jumping off spots. While you’re ordering your pizza or medianoche or plato fuerte there are people walking up and down the street announcing the departure of a vehicle bound for places all over the Province of Havana: San Antonio, Mariel, where ever. The announcements for these departures are just barely understandable to someone with my tin ear.  

We had the entire afternoon to pick a spot in either the School of Plastic Arts or the School of Drama to do a more in-depth design study. I joined Jimena and Anne at a spot that had a good view of the studios in the School of Plastic Arts. Each of us did a thoughtful drawing before getting back to the bus to clean up before dinner.

Luis and I had arranged for the Longstudieros to invite Professor Navarro, Maestro Gottardi, Orlando, and Aylen to be our guests at ‘El Aljibe,’  an eating place in the west of Havana well known for its savory chicken, beans, and rice. It’s well loved by Cuban students, because it’s an open secret that no request for another helping of their delicious food will be denied. Sr. Gottardi was not able to join us, but Prof. Navarro and his students were our guests. Luis, Norberto, and I dined at one end of the family-style table while the Longstudieros had a great time with Orlando and Aylen.