" Nobody goes into the valley of death. That’s why they call it the valley of death. "
— Grant Heslov, The Scorpion King

MRQE Top Critic

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Soon after the Cuban revolution was won, Fidel Castro commissioned five new schools. They were to be the best art schools in all the world.

The three architects who would design the five buildings were energized. The excitement of the revolution was in the air, and they saw themselves unleashed, challenged to build something important and monumental.

One of Cuba's Unfinished Spaces
One of Cuba’s Unfinished Spaces

They came up with five different plans. Looking at them, I saw similarities — snaking lines fitted into the landscape, organic nodules along the lines of the structures, lots of outdoor spaces defined by walls and classrooms. But each has its definite character. The dramatic arts building had labyrinthine corridors meant as an initiation to those arriving. The plastic arts building was meant to look like a fertility goddess, with rounded, suggestive shapes.

Even before the buildings were completed, they were occupied and used by students, who helped in their construction.

But before any of the buildings were completed, the Communist culture of Cuba changed. It became much more Soviet. Anything not prefabricated or functional was scorned as elitist and bourgeois. The architects scattered and the schools sat in semi-ruin. The more complete buildings were used by students, then later by a circus, and still later by a TV series about aliens. But they stand, mostly, as unused spaces.

If this documentary were a building, it would be a brick house. It’s functional and well built, but it doesn’t break any new ground. The film cuts between talking heads, archival footage, and footage of the site today. The archival footage is very good, and some of the photos of the site — when it was nearest completion — are striking and inspiring. The documentary tells its story in mostly linear fashion, saving only a few surprises for the very end. One of the film’s few creative sparks is the music. Organic instrumentals are just unique enough to catch your attention. There’s a hint of Cuban jazz, but nothing that reeks of a Cuban cliché.

The “talking heads” are primarily the three architects — Vittorio Garatti, Roberto Gottardi and Ricardo Porro — along with bit players in the story of the schools. An architecture writer from the period, Roberto Segre, goes on camera, as does the architect first approached by Fidel to run the schools, Selma Díaz. John Loomis wrote a book in the 1990s about the project called “Revolution of Forms,” and he’s here too.

I enjoyed Unfinished Spaces as I might any decent PBS documentary. It’s not great cinema, but if the subject matter appeals to you, it’s a good way to spend 90 minutes.