No matter the type of government one lives under, ultimately the fine arts will suffer at some point thanks to a variety of reasons. Misunderstandings, funding, backwards technology, any number of things can go wrong in the life of an artist, and the architects and students that helped to construct Havana, Cuba’s National Arts Schools know these sad facts of life all too well. In the equally poignant and informative documentary Unfinished Spaces from directors Alysa Nahmias and Benjamin Murray the audience gets a look at a truly ambitious project cut down by politics and a grand vision that was almost too huge and ambitious to ever fully work.
Commissioned directly by Fidel Castro and Che Guevera just after Cuba’s revolution and independence in 1961, the school was designed to become a home for all things artistic with architects from around Cuba and the world coming together to design centres for ballet, physical arts, drama, and music. Rushed into construction on a reclaimed golf course over a two month period where many times primary sketches would get turned into blueprints immediately, attitudes towards the school changed as rapidly as the political climate as the half finished school stopped being built when Castro deemed all “unnecessary” structures (meaning not of a basic stylistic function and prefabricated) stop being constructed and the profession of being an architect was seen as being bourgeois.
A great look into the artistic mind of architects, who very rarely get the credit they deserve in the documentary world, Nahmias and Murray have come upon an extremely unique case of art, culture, commerce, and politics mixing into an inescapable quagmire of miscommunication and hurt feelings. Working over a ten year period, the directors make great use of rare archival footage and heartfelt interviews from the main architects and instructors involved as they are invited back to actually work on the schools (deemed one of the most endangered architectural monuments in the world in the late 90s) for the first time in almost 40 years.
Nahimas and Murray do a great job of documenting the shame and disappointment these artisans felt after being told the sky was the limit before having the rug pulled out from beneath them. There’s also an interesting undercurrent of jealousy among architects as the state appointed minister of construction at the time seemed to have free reign over his projects while stepping all over the work of others. Looking at the contrasting buildings, there’s very little doubt that there was an immense sense on inadequacy felt by officials who didn’t fully understand the scope of these projects.
While there is some elements that come across as slightly repetitive, there’s an interesting twist that the film happens upon in the final thirty minutes even if it does go on a bit long. It’s also hard not to wish that the filmmakers had spent more time with the current and past students of the school who have had to constantly watch its bare bones get looted or used by squatters during operational hours, but the main story here undoubtedly rests with the work of art on the outside than the one on the inside. From sweeping hallways unknowingly designed as a uterus to a spiral staircase to the stars in the middle of a giant dome, even in its weakened condition the National Arts Schools are massive technical and artistic achievements that Nahimas and Murray do proud.