Directed by Alysa Nahmias, Benjamin Murray. STC. 86 min. Screens July 6–8 at Bloor Hot Docs Cinema.
A documentary that’s primarily about a specific piece of architecture in Cuba, Unfinished Spaces is very much an allegory for the country itself. In the early days of post-revolution Cuba, Fidel Castro ordered that a massive National Arts School complex be constructed on a golf course in a western suburb of Havana. With only two months to design it, a handful of young architects worked around the clock to complete the plans for an ambitious and sprawling set of five organic buildings (one each for ballet, modern dance, music, theatre, and plastic arts) to house the institution. The architects hoped that the freedom they were given in creating the structures would foster the future artists of a country that was in the process of questioning its past—or, as one of the creators explains, the project was the romantic expression of the revolution.
Soon, however, the Soviet idea of prefabricated construction took over and the school’s architects—who valued beauty and good design—were dismissed as bourgeois. The architects were forced to work in construction, become government drones, or, in some cases, leave the country altogether. Naturally, things went downhill from there—although despite being incomplete, the school remained in use until the late ’80s.
It’s an interesting history lesson, for sure, and directors Alysa Nahmias and Benjamin Murray imbue Unfinished Spaces with the organic spirit that informed the creation of the buildings. The film has no narration, which leaves the struggle and heartbreak of such a tragically doomed endeavour largely in the voices of the architects, their supporters, and their critics. The only downside is that sometimes the details regarding timelines are a little fuzzy: The discussion becomes a bit too insular to give us a clear understanding of what’s happening at various points in Cuba’s history—at least until we arrive at the more recent efforts to restore the buildings. Otherwise, Unfinished Spaces makes for an engaging oral history, and a solid argument for including Cuba’s National Art Schools on your list of places to visit before you die.