The renowned Cuban architect Ricardo Porro died on December 25 in Paris, the city that he had made his home since 1966. He was 89 years old. With his passing the world loses a singular artistic genius, and for Cuba, its greatest living architect, albeit an expatriate.
Ricardo Porro Hidalgo was born into upper middle class comfort in Camagüey, a gracious old city in the middle of the island that many Cubans consider to the be the most romantic and quintessentially Cuban of towns. He studied architecture at the University of Havana, where he acquired a reputation as a troublemaker, participating in the notorious “burning of Viñola,” in which a group of students ritually incinerated the library’s copies of the classical treatise to protest the paucity of modernist theory taught at the school. After graduating in 1949 he spent two years in Paris studying at the Institute of Urbanism at the Sorbonne, traveling in Scandinavia and Italy, and in Venice participating in a series of CIAM programs.
Returning to Cuba in 1950, Porro dove into architectural practice, designing a series of private houses that brought him early recognition. Porro’s work—such as the Abad Villegas (1953) and Timothy Ennis (1954) houses—displayed an organic expressionism that set his work apart from that of his rationalist contemporaries, such as Mario Romañach and Frank Martínez. In an essay that he published in 1957, El sentido de la tradición, Porro argued for an architecture rooted in indigenous Cuban culture and history—"una arquitectura negra"—a position influenced by the work of Wifredo Lam, the avant-garde Afro-Cuban painter whom Porro had befriended in Paris. Porro’s concurrent activities in support of the insurgency against the repressive government of Fulgencio Batista compelled him to flee Cuba and, in 1958, he went to Venezuela, where he secured a teaching position at the University of Caracas and work with the Venezuelan modernist Carlos Raúl Villanueva.
After the success of the revolution in January 1959, Porro returned to Cuba. His opportunity to contribute his talent to the construction of the new socialist Cuba came when, in 1961, Fidel Castro (on the advice of Castro’s confidante and Porro’s friend, the architect Selma Díaz) 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. For this monumental task Porro recruited his Caracas colleagues, the Italian communists Roberto Gottardi and Vittorio Garatti. The three architects, with an army of young designers and students, undertook a heroic effort to design and construct five separate buildings for the art faculties on an impossibly accelerated schedule. Politics, economics (the effects of the punitive U.S. embargo on Cuba having kicked in after 1961), professional rivalries, and evolving dogma that favored Soviet-style standardization over the individualistic design that the Art Schools represented, brought a halt to the work in 1964. Porro, being the most sensitive to shifting political winds, had managed to complete his Schools of Plastic Arts (or Fine Arts) and Modern Dance, while Gottardi’s School of Drama and Garatti’s Schools of Music and Classical Dance remained unfinished. Even in their incomplete state, the Escuelas Nacionales de Arte are today considered to be the most important work of modern architecture in Cuba and the architectural emblem of the Cuban revolution. Porro’s School of Plastic Arts, in particular, is celebrated for its Catalan vaults and tactile brickwork, Afro-Cuban iconography, and overt references to female human anatomy.
Disaffected by the authoritarian turn of the revolution and convinced that his type of architecture had no future on the island, Ricardo Porro and his wife, Elena Freyre de Andrade, left Cuba for France in 1966. He taught architectural history and theory in Paris, Lille, and Strasbourg, and he entered competitions that yielded a variety of awards. Porro’s first significant built work in Europe was the L’Or du Rhin Arts Center in Vaduz, Liechtenstein. A life-long socialist, Porro eschewed (or, as he once told me a bit plaintively, never cultivated the connections to tap) the lucrative market for private commissions, choosing instead to pursue work that he deemed socially responsible. Porro’s many successfully realized projects (since 1986 done in partnership with the younger French architect Renaud de la Noue) include low-cost housing, schools, cultural centers, and medical facilities, mostly on the outskirts of Paris and in provincial cities. One of Porro’s last built projects was an art school in Le Puy-en-Velay, in the Haute-Loire, and I know that it gave him satisfaction that his career should return him to the building type that established his initial fame. Of his peers in the great Cuban modernist generation of the 1950s—figures like Mario Romañach, Frank Martínez, Nicolás Quintana, and Max Borges, all of whom chose exile in the United States—Porro was the one who best succeeded in rebuilding an artistically fertile career outside of Cuba.
While esteemed for decades in France and Cuba—he was named both a Chevalier de la Légion d’Honneur and a Commandeur de l’Ordre des Arts et Lettres—Porro’s international profile soared with the growing appreciation of his work at the Escuelas Nacionales de Arte. John Loomis’s 1999 book about the campus, Revolution of Forms: Cuba’s Forgotten Art Schools, was for many non-Cubans their first acquaintance with Porro’s work. The 2011 documentary film “Unfinished Spaces” by Alicia Nahmias and Benjamin Murray, in which Porro is a charismatic on-screen presence, only magnified his reputation. And now there is an opera called “Cubanacán” based on the dramatic saga of the design, construction, and demise of the National Art Schools, in which the character of the architect is the lead tenor role (to be debuted in May at the Habana Bienale de Arte). Ricardo Porro, who was a man of outsized personality and no small ego, was delighted by his impending apotheosis on the opera stage. It is a pity that he did not live to see a staged production.