Revolution of Forms, Exclusive Interview with John Loomis

Fidel Castro and John Loomis

Revolution of Forms, Cuba’s Forgotten Art Schools (Princeton Architectural Press, 2011) tells the story of the most outstanding architectural achievement of the Cuban Revolution, which for many years stood neglected in the western suburbs of Havana. The Escuelas Nacionales de Arte (National Art Schools) were conceived and initiated by Fidel Castro and Che Guevara soon after the Revolution’s victory, in a burst of utopian optimism. The schools represent an attempt on the part of their three architects: Ricardo Porro, Roberto Gottardi , and Vittorio Garatti to reinvent architecture, just as the Revolution hoped to reinvent society. Moreover, the architects sought to integrate issues of culture, ethnicity, and place into a revolutionary formal composition hitherto unknown in architecture.

But in a short time the art schools and their architects fell out of favor and were subjected to attacks that resulted in the schools’ subsequent “disappearance”, and the departure of two of the three architects. Today, the organic complex of brick and terra–cotta Catalan vaulted structures lies in various stages of use and abandonment, some parts until recently literally overgrown by the jungle. They are a testament to a unique moment in a utopian dream that succumbed to dystopian reality. Ultimately, redemption came, and the National Art Schools are now officially recognized by the Cuban government as national treasures.

John Loomis, the author of the book answered exclusively for the visitors of Design Stories about the book and its fascinating story

What fascinated you in order to write “Revolution of forms” more than a decade ago, especially in times were relations with Cuba were more tensed than today?

I was in Havana for the Bienial of 1990 where I was introduced to Roberto Gottardi. I made a comment which professed my ignorance about the schools, and Gottardi kindly offered to pick me up the next day and guide me through the site with the five art schools that were created by himself and Ricardo Porro and Vittorio Garatti. What I received was not only a tour through the most unexpected and remarkable works of architecture I had ever seen, and in a state of exquisite Piranesian ruin. I also learned the story of three young idealistic architects with passion and ambition to contribute the the building of a social and cultural utopia. And that their dreams were dashed in a very cruel and perfidious manner. The schools seemed to stand as an eloquent metaphor for those beautiful dreams. I felt compelled to tell the story and hence, Revolution of Forms.

What is in the revised version?

The fate of the schools was still in doubt at the time of the publication of the first edition. But Revolution of Forms, Cuba’s Forgotten Art Schools had the surprising and unexpected consequence of being the catalyst which encouraged the Cuban government, after decades of neglect, to commit to the preservation of the five art schools. Less than a year ago they were declared national monuments and also have a UNESCO designation. Moreover the book inspired a series of art installations by internationally renowned Cuban artist Felipe Dulzaides, a documentary film (Unfinished Spaces) that may be nominated for an Oscar, and an opera which will be directed by Robert Wilson. The book brings these events up to date and provides the proverbial – happy ending.

How often is Architecture a story of betrayal?

Well, we architects all have our stories of betrayal, no? At the hands of clients, contractors, government officials, public ignorance… But the Revolution of Forms story was something bigger. Ricardo Porro said that at that time they were all young and very much in love with the Cuban Revolution. And it was with the passion that a young person brings to their very first love, only to have that lover betray them with unbearable crushing cruelty.

Is Architecture a way of social engineering or the outcome of unknown functions within societies?

In this case architecture was very much the expression of ideals and aspirations for creating a future of equality social justice, and a vibrant cultural flowering.

Today many Architects receive the fame of a rock star. Architects are no longer confined within their offices and the construction sites, but tour the world while their work mainly because of the Internet gets widely known and praised even when it is still on the conceptual level. Do you see a danger in this?

In reality, most of us are still confined within our offices and work as a part of a creative team of collaborators. Ricardo Porro, Roberto Gottardi, and Vittorio Garatti, because of Revolution of Forms and the attention it has belatedly brought to them, have become more or less rock stars themselves, and they are in their late 80s. So I think the rock star attention they are getting late in life is well deserved. It make me very happy to see them so very happy – finally.

Variaciones from John Loomis on Vimeo.

Unfinished Spaces (release date: 2011) was produced by Alysa Nahmias and Benjamin Murray, young filmmakers who became obsessed with the story of the schools’ rise and downfall. The film received several important grants[ and had its World Premiere at the Los Angeles Film Festival in June of 2011. The film was favorably reviewed in Hollywood Reporter and LA Weekly.

John Loomis is an architect, educator, and author of, Revolution of Forms: Cuba’s Forgotten Art Schools, published by Princeton Architectural Press, 2011. The book examines the convergence and collision of architecture, ideology, and culture in 1960s Cuba through the design for the Escuelas Nacionales de Arte (National Art Schools). The attention that this book brought to these works of architecture encouraged the Cuban government to commit to their preservation. The book played an important part in the creation of, Unfinished Spaces, a documentary film by Alysa Nahmias. It also inspired a series of installations by Cuban artist Felipe Dulzaides, most notably Utopía Posible, as well as “Next Time It Rains,” and “Broken Glass.” Revolution of Forms has also become the basis for an opera being created by producer Charles Koppelman with Robert Wilson as director.

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