Written by Kevin Daniels
During the morning visit to the Institute (former Havana Country Club site) we met with one of the three original architects, Roberto Gattardi, to discuss his thoughts on a project that was halted over 40 years ago and is now slowly coming back to life. Two the three building projects on campus are nearly complete, yet his vision remains as a partially completed shell. For more information on the actual struggles encountered by the architects please see this article.
During our discussion with the architect the question was raised how he felt about seeing his vision nearing completion after almost half a century of planning and expectation. He calmly noted that the project has changed because he isn’t the man he was back then, but even though the final product won’t be the exact vision he had in his mind so long ago, it would be better.
I found his thoughts to be enlightening in that here was a man that had dedicated his entire professional career to a project only to be disappointed over and over again by political whims. While cautiously optimistic this time was the final time, his comment that he has changed over the last 40 years so the project would change as a result carries an important lesson. And it’s not about patience. Rather it’s about the life of a building in its many stages, and for the building to continue to be used and relevant it must reflect the times it is being used within. And times do change, so should the building. Other than museum quality architectural gems and historic special places, we as preservationists need to understand that lesson and apply it in a practical manner. I’m not advocating for the wholesale changes to existing buildings, but I am advocating that flexibility is critical to assure the building serves a useful purpose in the times it is trying to be relevant within.
Side note - The story or legend behind the decision to convert the former country club land to an arts school is said to based upon a round a golf in 1960, when Fidel Castro asked Che Guevara want they should do with the land, and the dream of a national arts school was born. Now nearly 50 years later, the dream of three young and inexperienced architects is closer to reality than ever before. It’s a sign of an undefeatable spirit that Mr. Gattardi continues to come to the site every day to work and is still waiting for the day that funding will be available to complete his dream. I hope his patience is rewarded.
The Havana home of Ernest Hemingway actually has a strong National Trust flavor as they have been providing expertise in its recent restoration. And what a beautiful job has been completed to date. The lesson that should be learned from this effort by the Trust is that with a certain amount of patience and understanding, even an issue as intractable as the seemingly insurmountable political relationship between two countries can be overcome, and a true and important national heritage site can be preserved even when it’s not within our country’s border. My hat is off to all of those who worked on this project over the last few years and the resulting success story. Most of the time the National Trust staff doesn’t get the recognition for the magnificent work they do. This is one of those cases.
My own personal wish would be to broaden the current National Trust involvement in Cuba when allowed by the current political situation, and to spread the extensive expertise of our members throughout Cuba to the sites where it is desired by the Cuban people. I personally would love to see the completion of one of the most unique modernism projects in the Western hemisphere at the National School for the Arts, and a Trust-sponsored plan to maintain the three schools.
Kevin Daniels is a preservationist and developer in Seattle, Washington. He currently serves on the National Trust’s Board of Trustees as vice chair of the Preservation Committee.
Read more from Kevin's trip to Cuba: