When I first learned about timbrel vaults from Kris de Decker's Low Tech Magazine a few years ago, I had trouble believing that they could actually exist. I couldn't imagine that one could laminate thin tiles together with a bit of mortar and build these amazingly strong vaults. One of the most recent ones shown in his post was the School of Ballet (and other art schools) built in Cuba after the revolution. It was never finished; now, via BDonline and Inhabitat, we learn that Norman Foster is going to be restoring it, for use as a new arts complex for the Cuban ballet star Carlos Acosta.
According to Belmont Freeman in the Design Observer, one reason they chose timbrel (or Catalan) vaults because of the American embargo; they couldn't get reinforcing bar or portland cement, necessary for concrete construction. But they had lots of local labour.
The task of designing the school was assigned to Ricardo Porro, a young Cuban architect who had produced a number of distinctive houses in Havana in the 1950s but had spent the last years of the decade in exile due to his run-ins with the Batista government, returning only after the revolution. Porro enlisted as collaborators two Italian architects whom he had met when working in Caracas: Vittorio Garatti and Roberto Gottardi. With Porro as lead planner, the trio and their clients in the Ministry of Culture decided that the five faculties of the academy would be housed in separate structures. Porro elected to design the buildings for the schools of fine arts and modern dance, Garatti the schools of music and ballet, and Gottardi the school of drama.
Fidel looked at the plans and called it “the most beautiful academy of arts in the whole world”. But this changed; according to Wikipedia,
Many in the Ministry of Construction did not trust the Catalan vault as a structural system. There was also a certain amount of envy on the part of many of the ministry bureaucrats toward the comparatively privileged conditions under which Porro, Gottardi, and Garrati were working. These tensions would prove to escalate.
As Cuba’s political environment evolved from one of utopian optimism into an evermore doctrinaire structure, following models provided by the Soviet Union, the National Art Schools found themselves as subjects of repudiation. The schools were criticized for ideological errors. The architects themselves were accused of being "elitists" and "cultural aristocrats," with "egocentric" bourgeois formations. The constructive system, the Catalan vault, was now criticized as a "primitive" technology that represented "backward" values of the capitalist past.
Now it is to be renovated, turned into a school of dance. According to the Sunday Times, quoted in WAN,
Foster explains his connection to the project: “Carlos is a great dancer, who is inspiring the regeneration of an iconic ruin of early modernism outside Havana.”
Some are not pleased. One commenter on BDonline wrote:
We can't permit to another architect to put his hands on the National Schools of Arts. ...The original architect is Vittorio Garatti and he is alive and well, he should be the one at the helm of any design or development at this site. He is the father of his project and no one should be allowed to redevelop the original building without his approval.
Norman Foster has done some pretty impressive renovations, including the Reichstag in Berlin. But I hope he gives the original architect a call.