Ricardo Porro: no man is a prophet in his own land?

The important Cuban architect passes away in Paris.

I’ve reviewed the list of prizes awarded to Cuban architect Ricardo Porro, born in Camagüey in 1925 and who passed away in Paris last December 24, and I was surprised at the amount and importance of the international recognitions he obtained throughout his career, fundamentally carried out outside Cuba. When he died, Porro was a member of the Order of French Architects and for the whole of his work developed in France that country awarded him the titles of Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres, Chevalier de la Légion d’Honneur and Commandeur des Arts et des Lettres. In 1994 he was nominated to the Pritzker Architecture Prize, the most prestigious architecture award granted annually, considered a sort of Nobel Prize for Architecture. And barely two years ago, Porro received from Italian President Giorgio Napolitano in person the 2012 Vittorio De Sica Prize for Architecture for the project of the Havana Schools of Art, in which he worked together with Italians Roberto Gottardi and Vittorio Garatti, who were also prize winners. But what was most curious for me was to discover that in that entire list there isn’t a single recognition granted by Cuba, which was not only the country of origin of Porro but also the place where the work of greatest transcendence for his career and for the island’s construction heritage is located.

Unfortunately that circumstance in which the work of a Cuban artist or creator has been more valued in other spheres than in their land has been too frequently repeated since the triumph of the Revolution in 1959 irreparably polarised Cuban society due to political and ideological reasons. In the 1970s it got to the point – with the process known as parameterisation – of separating from their profession a group of intellectuals who, as is the case of José Lezama Lima or Virgilio Piñeira, are among the most famous writers of the last Cuban century. For them, the vindication and recognition of their contemporaries came too late, though for the consolation of many, according to the old Spanish saying, better late than never.

In the case of Ricardo Porro there was a bit more luck and though his departure from the island seemed to mark a definitive rupture – and in fact it was -, changes in the course of the Cuban cultural policy favoured the reencounter of the architect with his country and with former colleagues, a circumstance that also allowed him to approach the new generations of professionals, and later be involved in the recovery of the unfinished project of the five Cubanacán National Art Schools.

Compared to a notable number of architects and other professionals, which in the early days of the Revolution went into exile because they openly disagreed with the changes occurring in the country, Porro returned from his stay in Venezuela where he was a professor of urban planning and architecture in the Faculty of Architecture and Urban Planning of the University of Caracas, precisely to join the process and contribute to the announced changes.

Ricardo Porro had studied in the School of Architecture of Havana and had consolidated his formation in scholarships obtained in diverse European countries. He attended the Sorbonne, enrolled in the Paris Institute of Urban Planning and received the influence emanated from the different International Congresses of Modern Architecture, which since their first call in 1928 and until their last meeting held in 1956 had marked in one way or another the principal tendencies of world architecture.

After his return from Europe, Porro was given diverse projects for private residences, among them especially the house of Timothy James Ennis, in Nuevo Vedado, and which appears in the book La Arquitectura del Movimiento Moderno (The Architecture of the Modern Movement; Unión publishers, 2011), which is a selection of works included in the National Registry of the Cuban Committee for the Documentation and Conservation of buildings, sites and barrios of the Modern Movement (Docomomo Cuba). But it was the new revolutionary government that put in his hands a task whose complexity and magnitude would demand all his effort and the greatest dedication of his talent. It was the general coordination of the project of the National Art Schools, of which he created the project for the schools of modern dance and of visual arts. To support him in this work, Porro invited Italian architects Vittorio Garatti and Roberto Gottardi, who he had met in Caracas.

Ever since their beginning in 1961 and their paralysation in 1965, the Art Schools were the cause of criticism or admiration in and outside Cuba, and that was one of the factors that perhaps contributed to their realisation to always be marked by controversy. Other factors, even more decisive in the later fate of the project and also of Porro, were the critical considerations about the cost of the work, and the increasingly more accentuated ideological confrontation that characterised those years. For his staunchest critics, that work was not representative of the Revolution’s architecture, and was even described as individualist, elitist, bourgeois architecture. That condemnation, and the real lack of a budget to finish the work, decided its paralysation, though this did not prevent a part of its installations to function for what they were originally conceived. The National Art School has been there since 1963 and when the Higher Institute of Art (ISA) was created in 1976, it also formed part of the usable spaces, though the neglect, lack of maintenance, the irruption of nature and vandalism caused great damage to a great deal of the buildings.

The later vindication of the Art Schools and the decision to recover the project almost 40 years after its construction was halted, was the result of a long process in which the assessment of architects and specialists, in and outside the country, played an important role. While the World Monument Fund included the work in the list of the 100 most important monuments in the world in danger of destruction, the National Commission of Monuments of Cuba declared it Protection Zone. Meanwhile, the book Revolution of Forms. Cuba’s Forgotten Art Schools came out in late 1990, by architecture historian John Loomis, which also contributed to changing the perception of the group of works making up the schools.

Porro made his first trip to Cuba in 1996, after 30 years of absence. In an interview he subsequently gave he referred to how the fact that the Schools were “dying” had had an impact on him. On that occasion he gave a series of lectures at the José Antonio Echeverría Higher Polytechnic Institute (ISPJAE), titled “Five Sessions of Architecture”. In 2008 he gave the Urban Planning of Communication Workshop and lectures for students of the Faculty of Architecture.

During the 1999 UNEAC National Council, the appropriateness of concluding the National Art Schools was widely debated and the decision was finally made to retake the project, for which its original authors were summoned, Ricardo Porro, Vittorio Garatti and Roberto Gottardi. They all heeded the new call, leaving behind possible grudges or frustrations, to retake a work that again demanded of its authors a great dose of creativity and professionalism. For Ricardo Porro it was also the opportunity of meeting again with his own work, adapting it to a certain extent to the new conditions, and trying to save it from disaster. And though a great deal of the unfinished or semi-ruined structures was able to be recovered and preserved, again the economic factor, aggravated by the interest of associating the programme of the Schools to that of the Higher Institute of Art, which logically implied a high cost because of its complex programme, has made it impossible to conclude the work.

Finally, the Cubanacán schools were declared in 2010 a National Monument, since they constituted “one of the most outstanding examples of Cuban architecture of the Modern Movement and a landmark of the Revolution’s architecture,” according to the Declaration that accredits that condition. But even then Ricardo Porro was denied the official recognition owed to him and which he deserved as creator and to a great extent responsible for the most emblematic and outstanding architectural group of buildings built in Cuba after 1959. (2015)

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