Architecture & Film: Unfinished Spaces (Cuba, 2011)

Before my friends and significant other bailed on me at the last minute right before the 2nd and 3rd day of the Architecture & Design Film Festival that took place in Chicago almost two months ago, I managed to watch the opening film, the Cuban documentary Unfinished Spaces.

If seen from a completely apolitical perspective, the film accomplishes two things. First, it introduces us to a group of charming and eloquent personalities, most of whom are architects that, at some point in their lives, shared the dream to complete a huge educational complex for the arts in the very young Cuban Revolution. Secondly, the film manages to craft a story about lost opportunities and nostalgia for a special time in the history of a troubled Caribbean island where hope and dreams seemed to be welcome.

Though it tries to not emit any general judgements about the Castro regime, the film is inexorably informed by it, a consequence of its early yet short-lived accomplishments and the long string of failures that determined the faith of the island for decades to come. The lost opportunities surrounding the never finished construction of the grand complex of the arts in La Havana is a story within a story that reflects the tribulations and hardships the people of Cuba have had to endure before and during the Revolution, showcasing a country full of good people who have been victims of a politicized and self-aware government that has been generally more concerned about its power grip on the island than on the welfare of its citizens.

Unfinished Spaces also provides the kind of imagery that an architect with discerning taste cherishes. Though we may not all agree on the merits of the architecture presented, this is the kind of freedom most professionals could only dream of. The project, conceived directly by Fidel Castro as soon as the Revolution was taking its first steps, gave a group of young architects the possibility of constructing a grand vision from a blank canvas, without much of a concern for profit, costs or any of the realities that inform, and some may say, constrain architecture from reaching its full potential. What was available in Cuba was a once in a lifetime chance for architects, not to be missed, whether you supported the Revolution or not. This was an opportunity for a handful of dreamers to live their dreams and create.

The imagery of present-day Cuba is usually is a bit more special and unique than the memories of the past shown in the film. The entirety of the complex for the arts, due to abandonment, suffered the passage of time and the effects of weather, slowly becoming a sort of vestige of a past civilization that has become one with nature. The gallery of shots of empty rotundas invaded by untended vegetation provide the perfect backdrop for the nostalgia embedded in the film, as well as a record of the failures of the Revolution.

From an architectural point of view, one can argue that the project was never finished due to its pompous scale, one that is obviously an impressive aesthetic statement but that did not reflect the realities of the Cuban economy. It bears to ask the question of whether a young political process of so much promise could have really afforded to spend so many resources on making such a lavish dream a reality. This is not a question on whether or not education should be invested on, but on how it is done. The project was authoritatively conceived by Castro and, as a result, it gave way to his unbridled desire to move Cuba in a different direction to dictate the magnitude of the project.

Ultimately, Unfinished Spaces manages to transport us to a magical place that fell pray to the political, economical and ideological circumstances of its time. In doing so, the film suffers from a lack of focus, often not knowing what to talk about, centering on the details of the lost adventure a bit too much and disregarding other aspects that could have been more interesting to explore. After a while, the story loses its grip on the audience, feeling a bit too long and without the necessary depth to keep us captivated for the entirety of its running time.

Rating: 3/5 (above average)

4 thoughts on “Architecture & Film: Unfinished Spaces (Cuba, 2011)

  1. Bummer to hear you weren’t able to see more of the architecture film festival, Niels. This sounds like an interesting film, or at least an interesting premise. It’s not often that we are able to get glimpses of Cuba here in the U.S., and I never would have thought to focus on the country’s architecture. Sounds like it would have been an exciting time for architects, at least at first. Thanks for sharing your review!

  2. Sounds like a beautifully-shot film. I enjoy architecture on film so I might check this out when it’s out on rental. Too bad you couldn’t go to the entire festival, Niels, what a bummer.

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