Sunday February 1, 2015

Looking Back: An Interview with Ricardo Porro, Part 1

A long-ago conversation evokes the late architect’s wide-ranging intellect and wit

Ricardo Porro in an undated photo


In 2000, Jorge Fernández—currently director of the Wifredo Lam Center and the upcoming 12th Bienal de La Habana—sat down with Ricardo Porro, the lead architect of the National Art Schools (now ISA). The conversation spanned two days. In memory of Porro, here is the first of two excerpts from that interview, which originally appeared in the Cuban magazine Revolución y Cultura in honor of Porro’s 80th birthday.

What was the significance for you of the late 1940s and early 1950s? Tell us about people like Frank Martínez and Nicolás Quintana, and the students’ push to renew and change the cultural context around them.

The reality is that Frank Martínez, Nicolás Quintana and I were very close friends, and we wanted to turn the world upside down ... And of course we did crazy things, like burning "Viñolas" in the School of Architecture library—for me a Nazi act, completely horrible. Young people do terrible things, that’s for sure, but we wanted to turn the world upside down. There was a close relationship between us and we wanted to change things. So we started a revolt in college, we brought in Gropius, who knows ... We wanted to transform the School of Architecture, to make it no longer academic. It was a logical thing for young people. The young have to be rebellious, and we were rebellious.

At that time, in the 1950s, Hugo Consuegra, one of the emblematic artists of the group Los Once, very linked to your work, defined you as the great polemist—the man who thought the Cuban architecture of the time had fallen into emptiness, in a lethargy, and that this country needed changes, to be modernized from the philosophical and artistic points of view. What can you tell me? How would you assess these events, seen over time?

Look, I think there’s an essential problem: the notion of changing the world. The young man with no desire to change the world—he’s not young. For that reason, in many cases we supported trends that today we consider horrific: the trend for a modern, aggressive architecture, which seen over time strikes me as very bad. In the 1940s and 1950s there were a few of us who outlined a fresh look at culture and architecture: Mario Romañach, Emilio del Junco, Eugenio Batista, Nicolás Quintana, and Frank Martinez. The architectural work of the 1950s was very bad. This was the decade for the "cocalization" of Cuba, and it bothers me a lot: everything done in La Rampa, on Linea Street, was pure Coca Cola. Hugo Consuegra speaks of precisely the spirit of revolt I had, it’s true.

Were you closer to writers and artists, in terms of the avant-garde, that to the architects of the time?

Yes, absolutely. I had influences in my life far above Le Corbusier. For example, Thomas Mann, who to me represented the great humanism of the 20th century. Without a doubt, the humanist attitude has always stirred my passions—the technicist attitude seemed like something repulsive. I never liked it. I wanted an attitude that valued the human being, and that was what I found in the contact with writers—the contact with Lezama [the poet José Lezama Lima], whom I knew very well, and whom I valued as an exceptional discovery in my life. Lezama gave me his gook La expresión americana (The American Expression), with the dedication: “To Ricardo Porro, who brings together the cloister, the rain barrel, and the ogive [a pointed architectural arch].” That phrase, pure lezamiana, encapsulates the world that interested me. I also had the opportunity to meet Picasso, who received me when I was a young student in Paris, and he taught me more than many architects did. Really, my great learning experiences were my conversations with one of the artists who single-handedly changed 20th-century art.  

So do you think that modernism contributed more in the visual arts than in architecture? I’m also interested in hearing about your first contact with the great rationalists of the era.

I wanted to work with Le Corbusier, so I met him and he said, “All right, work with me.” Then he asked how long I wanted to stay. I told him a year, and he said: Not a year, five years or nothing. I accepted, but then I started to see what his students did. They more or less copied the teacher, they talked and made elaborate sketches . . . And my spirit of revolt, the need to be myself, my individualism, took me out of there. I decided never to return to his office and to train myself. My preparation was the Sorbonne—the study of philosophy, of the humanities in general. That interested me much more than working in an architect’s office where I would learn only how to be like the maestro. I preferred other things. And Europe gave me a different vision, a different training. Perhaps my contact with the old continent made it so that, when I returned to Cuba, I immersed myself in what to me was the essence of Cuba, as opposed to the aristocratic world. I wanted the essence of blackness, the Afro-Cuban influence. I had already experienced this to some extent with my friend [artist Wifredo] Lam. This, then, inspired the creation of my art schools.

Rationalism had nothing to do with me. Although I started being a rationalist. . .  I remember that I made a house—I designed the project when I was still a student, and then I built it. This work retained the influence of major modernist architects of the time. Then I went to Europe to study. I remember showing it to my teacher, Franco Albini, in Milan. He waited until there were a lot of people around and then made his criticism—"Too pretty"—in English.

It was a shock, but he did me a great favor. He said: "You act like an old man. You make no mistakes, you don’t try for mistakes. You reach for accuracy, for precision. Make some mistakes!" And that thing he said—that “Make some mistakes!”—was a sort of permission he gave me to go a little crazy. That was fundamental for my life. More than ever I did what I had previously censured. I changed. I decided to try making other sorts of things, to throw myself into works that were a lot less perfect but more creative. That’s how I started—a start that I consider really healthy, really good. It made me modify my admiration for Mies van der Rohe, who was quite in fashion at the time, or Le Corbusier in his early work. All that changed immediately, and I began to try, desperately, to be myself.

Ricardo Porro in Caracas, Venezuela, 1958. Photo: Paolo Gasparini, as seen in the 2011 documentary Unfinished Spaces

Courtesy Alysa Nahmias and Benjamin Murray, Unfinished Spaces

When did you start being yourself?

Something happened that for me was fundamental. I had to go to Venezuela, where I was a professor, and where I was deeply immersed in teaching, but the Revolution triumphed and I wanted to return to Cuba. And then  there was the shock of the romantic moment in this process. That was my mortal leap, like in the circus, and I made two schools, which were very helpful for understanding, a little, what architecture means: one, an architecture that speaks of eternal human problems, and the other that expresses a certain moment in civilization.

The one that speaks of the eternal problems of humanity is the School of Visual Arts. What is the School of Visual Arts? I tried to express something that didn’t reflect my own origins, but was something counter to my origins. 

in this romantic process, it was my somersault, as do the circus, and made two schools, which were helpful to understand a bit how it mean in architecture: one speaking of human eternal problems, and the other expressing a moment of civilization. The speaker of human eternal problems is the School of Visual Arts. What else is the School of Visual Arts? I tried to express what was not my own origin, ie to reveal against my origin.

The architecture that existed in Cuba then, and that people were trying to make, was a continuation of an aristocratic architecture. And I realized that the Revolution implied a radical change; the aristocracy was not what artists should express. How could an artist reflect the culture of a part of the population that never had its own language in architecture because they were not allowed to? I refer, of course, the black heritage of this country. Then I started thinking about a fertility goddess, a goddess of the dawn of civilization; I thought of Ochún, an Aphrodite or Gaea.

And my school is something of that. If you like, it’s a sculpture that I’ve always loved, which is the Artemis of Ephesus, a goddess with many overlapping breasts. I tried to make a feminine building, but also (because I had been influenced by the urban planning of Venice) a city—but a city that became Eros, a city that meant love. So how did I interpret it? By making it so that all the classrooms, all the different workshop spaces were like a theater arena. In turn the theater arena was like an egg, or a breast—the egg that is the origin of the world, the origin of life. And the breast too has to do with that initiation into the world, the breastfeeding at birth. I realized that by doing this, I had conceived, in a pure, simple form, humanity’s eternal problem: Eros.

With you National Art Schools project, how were you able to reconcile the relationship between utopia and aesthetic vanguard in the 1960s?

I think a utopia stops being a utopia in the moment it becomes a reality. Utopia is when you want to do something and it doesn’t succeed. Undeniably, I was given the facilities to create what could have been a untopia. I was given such a wonderful opportunity, and I was able to realize it. So it’s not a utopia, it’s a reality—a reality that is inserted into, that gets inside the country. I think that it’s rooted in the essence of lo cubano.

Next: Porro on the thinking behind his School of Modern Dance, and his first return to Cuba decades later.

Ricardo Porro in an undated photo


Jorge A. Fernández Torres graduated in Art History from Havana University in 1992. He is the curator and director of the Wifredo Lam Center of Contemporary Art and director of the Havana Biennial, and a professor at the Instituto Superior de Arte (ISA).