Ricardo Porro, building the utopia

More about a master of Cuban architecture.

Cuban architect Ricardo Porro passed away last December 25 in Paris. The news was not highlighted too much in the information sphere of the island, despite the fact that the intellectual had been the coordinator of the singular project of the Cubanacán Art Schools and the author of monumental domes designed for teaching visual arts, authentic icons of Cuban post-revolutionary architecture. He had been born in Camagüey. He resided in Paris since 1966.

Porro demonstrated a particular interest in receiving a rigorous professional training. For him it did not suffice to get his architecture diploma from the University of Havana. He would make complementary studies in the Sorbonne and in the Paris Institute of Urban Planning before going to the CIAM School in Italy where important theoreticians of the modern movement taught, like architect and art critic Bruno Zevi (1918-2000) , a promoter in the Latin nation of the precepts of Frank Lloyd Wright, as well as builder, restorer and designer Franco Albini (1905-1977), whose personal interpretation of rationalism in the remodelling of the Genoa Rosso Palace, starting 1945, had considerable influence on his Cuban disciple.

When Ricardo returned to Havana in 1950, the city was beginning a decade of urban growth. Especially after Fulgencio Batista’s coup d’état in 1952, an extensive plan of public works was undertaken: ministries, office buildings, hotels, emerged in a short period of time. The modern city threatened to make the old colonial and republican constructions disappear. Simultaneously, a prosperous bourgeoisie began building residences in new urbanisations and investing in monumental apartment buildings in El Vedado. The demand for architects is important but the competition is extremely strong. The public orders are taken by traditional firms like Govantes y Cabarrocas or Moenck y Quintana, with several decades of accomplishments, followed by other newer ones like the voracious building contractor Albarrán y Bibal S.A., led by university professor Eugenio Albarrán Varela, very powerful thanks to his links with the government. On the other hand, several talented young men, like Frank Martínez and Nicolás Quintana, were aiming to open way for their new conceptions.

Despite all the obstacles, in a short period of time Porro was able to get official contracts, though not juicy they were orders for private residences. He, who dreamed with a contribution similar to Wright’s “house of cascade,” was able to leave his imprint in more modest projects but with a stamp of originality like Villa Ennis (1953) and Casa Abad-Villegas (1954).

However, in mid-decade, this man born in Camagüey decided to move to Caracas, whose Faculty of Architecture, inaugurated in 1954, accepted him as professor. Venezuela was taking advantage of the dividends of the oil boom, the capital was especially living in the midst of an irrational urbanising fever, almost everything old is demolished to build plazas and monumental buildings to satisfy the egomania of dictator Pérez Jiménez and the tastes of an climbing bourgeoisie. Thanks to his friendship with Carlos Raúl Villanueva (1900-1975), the most important of the Venezuelan architects of the 20th century, whom he had met during his days as a student in Paris, he was able to follow closely the works of the University City, in which Cuban painter Wifredo Lam was making one of the murals.

In 1959, like many compatriots who had immigrated to Caracas, the architect returned to Cuba. A project for which he would be definitively remembered in Cuban culture awaited him: the Cubanacán Art Schools. The revolutionary movement had confiscated the Country Club, a society that grouped together in its ranks powerful sugar, finance and real estate magnates and U.S. businesspeople. In addition to the club house, it had an extensive and well-cared-for golf course. The decision of the new authorities was to devote the property to the teaching of art.

In charge of coordinating the project, Porro made Italian architects Vittorio Garatti and Roberto Gottardi come from Caracas. The way in which those works were carried out is astonishing today because, more than a rational conception they had something of magic realism. Porro achieved that he be given absolute freedom to carry out what he conceived, with an unlimited budget and each architect was even authorised to choose the exact place where they wanted to construct the building that corresponded to them. Thus, while Garatti was in charge of the Dance School and Gottardi undertook his vast Academy of Dramatic Arts, Porro reserved for himself the School of Visual Arts: the monumental domes he sets over the golf course will be the admiration of some and the outrage of others.

The work of those architects still amazes us today. It must be pointed out that the club’s central house had been conceived by a famous Cuban architect, Eugenio Batista, in the so-called neo-colonial style, which joined modern functionality with elements taken from colonial architecture: the use of quarry stone, portals and small windows to illuminate the interiors, tiled roofs. The result had been notable and that building would be used as the centre of the new teaching institution. The rational thing would have been that the new buildings be integrated to that style that had demonstrated its efficacy in the Cuban geography or, at least, harmonised with it.

Precisely the contrary was done: they all ignored that referent or perhaps they treated it as a symbol of the abolished past and each one of them preferred to place the building of their dreams in the piece of landscape they chose, even though the whole was definitively inharmonious. Porro’s domes, a sort of synthesis of Wright, Zevi and Albini, were heralds of the construction of an utopia, just like that House of Culture of Velazco that around those same years Walter Betancourt, from the U.S., had started to build in eastern Cuba: neither commitments with the past, nor limitations for the delirium, the idea was to make dreams come true. And those buildings with circular floors and brick in plain view, with interior labyrinths like alien ships in a prairie, are still there.

But the freedom with which the works were begun in 1961 was not the same five years later. The budget flows became irregular and ended almost being extinguished. In 1965 there were already those who were against those interminable works. For some it was something like a bourgeois whim, for others they were an artistic aberration, while the architecture of the European socialist camp, based on aesthetic theories still marked by Stalinism, seemed to be radically ignored in these works.

The architect suffered in person the gradual narrowing of the artistic freedoms that had flourished in the early 1960s. The cultural leadership started being marked by dogmatisms and very provincial attitudes. There is a photo in which Porro appears at a party in the home of poet José Lezama Lima, in which he can be identified next to Virgilio Piñera, Antón Arrufat, José Triana. Very soon they would all suffer the ravages of a policy that saw the principal creators as suspicious. A certain cultural elite decided to shut themselves in their homes or to leave the country and Ricardo opted for the second. In 1966 he returned to Paris, where he definitively established himself. The Cubanacán projects were abandoned for decades and their author was considered for a similar period of time as an ideological enemy; it was even affirmed that he had taken out of the country the plans for the works to damage the government, until, a decade later, they were found, mislaid in a closet.

On his arrival in Europe, different French architecture schools demanded his services before his teaching work extended to Berlin, New York and even Tel Aviv, but what’s most important is that Porro the creator was not deterred by the setbacks nor did he become a conservative. Editor, collector and patron Robert Altmann, who had resided in Cuba in the 1940s and was a friend of Lezama, helped him get a notable order, the construction of L’Or du Rhin centre in Vaduz, capital of Liechtenstein. Other orders would come from diverse parts of the world, from Yugoslavia to the exotic Iran, where he executed the Garden of Eden villa in 1975.

The tragic death of his 16-year-old son around those days, victim of leukaemia, seriously affected him but did not stop his creative career. In France his name is increasingly recognised and he had access to orders from the School of Dance of the Paris Opera in 1983 and two years later the expansion of the Hotel de Ville in Saint Denis. Starting 1985 he had his own architecture agency in Paris.

With the new century, Ricardo Porro would be an extensively established figure and full of recognitions. He was awarded the Legion of Honour and would be Commander of the Order of Arts and Letters. More than 20 projects carried out in France bear his signature, but the history of the art schools continued being a legend, to the point that U.S. stage director, playwright and set designer Robert Wilson, author of the minimalist opera Einstein on the Beach, decided to recall his initial vocation of architect to conceive in 2009 another opera whose plot showed Porro in the midst of the contradictions to build the Cubanacán schools. Still more, at such a close date as 2012, the President of the Republic of Italy granted the Cuban the Vittorio de Sica Prize for Architecture…for his work with Gottardi and Garatti. He would also return to the island and would receive official tributes. In 2007 a project was undertaken for the restoration of those legendary buildings even though they would remain definitively unfinished.

At the time of his death, Ricardo Porro was already one of the Cuban architects with the most extensive career and recognition outside his homeland. What he carried out as well as what he dreamed of places him more in the field of art than in that of the pragmatic builders. His work continues being a challenge. (2015)

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