passages

Ricardo Porro (1925–2014)

Ricardo Porro, 2007. Still from the film Unfinished Spaces by Alysa Nahmias and Benjamin Murray.

“One had of course to be a nationalist, while trying to be a vanguardist at the same time. . . . It was something of a tall order, since all nationalism is founded on the cult of tradition, whereas vanguardism, by definition, implies a severance from tradition”

Alejo Carpentier

THE “NORMALIZATION” OF US-CUBA DIPLOMATIC RELATIONS will undoubtedly lead to more architectural tourism, ending the ignorance of Cuban architectural culture that exists in the US and revealing key episodes in the Caribbean nation’s history to foreign architects and scholars for the first time. In the late 1950s, a debate prevailed among the very talented group of young Cuban architects around the question: Should Architecture express the cultural values of the nation or should Architecture express the universal values of an international civilization?

Mario Romañach, Max Borges Recio, and Frank Martínez stand out among the larger of the two groups, which was committed to the rationalist or universal thesis. The nationalist side was taken by Ricardo Porro, with his ideas of Cubanidad and the need to assume a new national identity based on the prevalent Afro-Cuban culture, in opposition to the dominant Spanish colonial urban legacy. Porro’s essay “El Sentido de la Tradición” argued for an architecture rooted in indigenous Cuban culture and history—“una arquitectura negra”—a position influenced by the architecture of his master Eugenio Batista and also the paintings of Wifredo Lam, a Chinese-Cuban artist whom Porro had befriended in Paris in 1950 while studying at the Sorbonne in the Institute d’Urbanisme (the pioneer of Venezuelan modern architecture, Carlos Raúl Villanueva, had studied there, in 1937). In Paris, Porro became a Marxist, and this epiphany furthered his ambition to express in architecture a poetic synthesis of Lo Tropical and Cubanidad. He wished his architecture to be tectonic syncretism. While teaching in Caracas at the new Facultad de Arquitectura designed by Villanueva in 1957, he met two Italian architects, Vittorio Garatti and Roberto Gottardi, who had studied in Milan with Ernesto Rogers and were influenced by the rural vernacular architecture built throughout Italy that Giò Ponti published in the magazine Domus during the war-torn ’40s.

Porro began his career during the booming economy of the ’40s and ’50s in Havana. He belonged to the second generation of modern architects there who had the opportunity to build as soon as they graduated, along with such peers as Clara Porset, Mario Romañach, Frank Martínez, Nicolás Quintana, Manuel Gutierrez, Rafael Portuondo, Gabriela Menéndez, Aquiles Capablanca, Max and Enrique Borges Recio, Jose Novoa, Pablo N. Perez, Mario González, and Hugo D’Acosta-Calheiros. At the same time, many foreign architects were practicing in Havana. Perhaps the most notorious building that emerged from a foreign practice during this era was the concrete-and-glass American Embassy, 1950–53, designed by Wallace Harrison and Max Abramovitz, architects of the CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia. In 1953, this embassy was exhibited in “Architecture for the State Department” at the Museum of Modern Art. It was one of the first of a string of commissions given by the State Department to the best American architects.

Against this kind of “official” architecture, in his early houses Porro used curvilinear walls referencing the “Mambo Modernism” [1] prevalent in Cuba during the ’50s by way of Morris Lapidus or Oscar Niemeyer. This popular circular motif became the norm in the late ’50s. Frank Martínez’s brilliant project for the National Aquarium in Sibarimar, 1959, and his circular supermarkets built on the outskirts of Havana are the best examples of this moment in the city.

Although he left in 1958 to teach in Caracas, Porro returned to Cuba in January 1959, when he was assured of the success of the revolution. His dream job, to help build architecture in the spirit of the new, socialist Cuba, began in 1961, when Fidel Castro put him in charge of the design of a new campus for the national art schools, to be built on the grounds of the Havana Country Club in the western suburb of Cubanacán. The five schools were conceived during this romantic phase of Castro’s long regime, when the impossible and the fantastic seemed to become real possibilities for his political disciples, goals to be pursued for the inspiration of the very poor. Porro immediately recruited his Caracas colleagues, the Venice-born Gottardi and Milan-born Garatti. The three architects undertook the design and construction of five separate buildings for the art faculties—note that a school for architecture is missing from the program. Porro’s two schools, the fine arts school and the school for modern dance, advanced the idea that vernacular construction, using traditional reinforced concrete, brick, arches, vaults, and domes, would create an arquitectura negra (Black Architecture) capable of expressing a poesy of light and space yet built by the common laborer without the use of imported technology.

Soon after the Seventh Congress of the International Association of Architects, held in Cuba in 1963, an emphasis on building low-cost housing using Soviet-style standardization threatened the poetic ideology of Porro’s Black Architecture that was so beautifully represented by the art schools. Architectural historian and critic Roberto Segre accused Porro of being an elitist, whose work exhibited a “narcissistic and egocentric bourgeois formation.” [2] The admittedly arrogant Porro had several enemies, and Antonio Quintana, in charge of architectural design for the new Ministry of Construction, saw his organic expressive forms as decadent. Quintana managed to convince Castro to abandon the project in 1965. Of the five schools, only two are still active; the others are overgrown by the abundant urban tropical plants natural to the fertile soil of the former golf course. In 1966, Porro and his family moved to Paris, where André Malraux helped him find shelter and work. Most of Porro’s French projects were built in banlieues of Paris and did not fulfill the promise exhibited by his radical schools of the arts in Havana. He taught architectural history and theory in Paris, Lille, and Strasbourg, and he never returned to live on his native soil.

NOTES

1. Eduardo Luis Rodriguez, The Havana Guide, Princeton Architectural Press, 2000, xxv.

2. John A. Loomis, “Obituary: Ricardo Porro, 1925-2014,” Architectural Record, December 29, 2014. archrecord.construction.com/news/2014/12/141229-Obituary-Ricardo-Porro-1925-2014.asp

Carlos Brillembourg is a principal of Carlos Brillembourg Architects, based in New York City, an editor-at-large for architecture at BOMB Magazine since 1992, and teaches in the Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation at Columbia University.

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