Cuban achitecture that moves you

Lara Platman

Fidel Castro once wrote 'Cuba has no need for monuments'. One important and symbolic transformation however, has been the renovation of two of the Modern Schools of Art in Havana's Miramar district.

Story has it that the concept was initiated whilst Fidel Castro and Ernesto Che Guevara were playing golf one day on the abandoned former country golf club. They commissioned Ricardo Porro as chief architect, along with a pair of idealistic Italians Roberto Gottardi and Vittorio Garatti.

In addition to his responsibility for the whole site, Porro also designed the School of Plastic Arts and the School of Modern Dance. Although there is huge variety within the work, high barrel vaulted pavilions, medieval vennels, and organic texture appear throughout the site.  'My schools have finally been renovated but they have fences around them,' says Porro now.

This is not how he envisaged his two schools or would like any of his buildings to be shrouded.  'I aristocratise architecture' he says proudly. Porro's influence comes from Venice, where building, piazza and street join without barricade. To allow everyone to utilise the building is Porro's vision. A topic of much controversy over the past 40 years, the two schools designed by Porro have finally been returned to their former glory.

Castro has recently declared the schools to be,  'the greatest architectural achievement of the Cuban Revolution'. However this was not always the case. Indeed almost from the moment that Porro's schools were complete, Castro deemed the architectural profession suspect, moving control of it from the Ministry of Culture to the Ministry of Construction in 1965.

Porro had been close to Castro but ultimately he became disillusioned with the programme of the revolution.  'After the first romantic moment of the revolution, I realised that it had little to do with what I had imagined and hoped it would be and I left Cuba," says Porro. Surprisingly he has been allowed to return to the country of his birth to oversee the restoration work and still hopes to return longer term.

Porro and I first met six years ago, after I visited the school to photograph the dancers within. I went to Havana with thinking I would witness some of the best dancers in the world. What I saw in fact has been described as the most poetic architecture that has come from a revolution.  'The school of modern dance is the moment of civilisation, the feeling at the romantic moment of revolution" says Porro.

The separated modular rooms are divided by open corridors. Working with concrete and indigenous materials, including clay the schools represent the traditions of Cuba glimpsed through the emotion of revolution.  'The explosion of that moment, was like a force coming to earth, allowing shafts of light to pass through and engage with the surface,' he says.

Porro's dance school was built at the top of the hill with Garrati's incomplete and now completely derelict Ballet school at the bottom.  'I was always interested in music, ballet and dance as a boy. It was easy for me to imagine how the jump of a dancer would have on the repercussion in that space.'  'When you go into a dance studio you have the sensation what it is that goes with the dancer, that it blows with the dancer and at the same time you have the emotional explosion of the revolution.

Porro and his team began to build with brick, aided by the students they were teaching on site. In 1963 however, Soviet premier Khrushchev declared the brick to be  "retrogressive" and construction was moved to concrete. Later, the heavy sexual imagery used in the site met with official disapproval. A vaginal fountain in a courtyard by Gottardi was particularly criticised.

However, Cuba entered a siege mentality after the Bay of Pigs and the international background of the architects, not to mention their use of an African village as the model for the site plan were at odds with the climate. The building was stopped and Porro left soon after. Today he is more optimistic.  'They assure me that they will return the buildings to my initial designs,' he says. Porro is a long way from the revolutionary Cuban, as he climbs to the top floor apartment in Paris.  'This is what keeps me alive you know,' he gasps with a break on the first landing,'

Walking these steps everyday ascending to the heavens, to the angels.' Ostensibly he's part of the French establishment, having been honoured with the Chevalier de la Légion d'Honneur and Commandeur de l'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres for his achievement to the arts. Yet his collection of art works and sculptures adorning his floor and walls have a recurring theme of alienation.

He and his wife have made most of the furniture in his apartment.  'This chair reminds me of my grandmother", he says.  'It has her hands to welcome me and at the back, there is ribbon as she would wear around her skirt.' Made from formed white plastic, he paid a student at College de Beaux Arts around the late 60's to mould the chair from the wax cast. Porro, was born in Camagüey, Cuba's third city, in 1925.

He moved to Paris in 1966 almost immediately after completing the two schools. He then worked as a professor in Architecture and began designs with his partner Renaud de la Noue. This language in Porro's architectural vocabulary is certainly developed within his college buildings Elsa Triolet in Saint Denis Paris and Fabien in Montreuil, built in 1990 and 1993 respectively.

Although designed 30 years later these two dynamic and fluid designs for educational institutions have the same vocabulary as the Cuban project albeit without the revolution and passion for direct change. Indeed Porro's unique career path makes him hard to contextualise. Comparing his career with Roberto Gottardi who designed the School of Theatre and Vittorio Garatti who created the Schools of Ballet and Music is indicative. He met Gottardi and Garatti when they were studying in Venezuela under the architect of the Universidad Central de Venezuela, Carlos Villanueva.

While Gottardi went to ground in Havana after the Modern School of Arts collapsed, Garatti was arrested as a spy and then returned to Italy to teach at the Milan Polytechnic. Porro cites his influences as Frank Lloyd Wright, Erik Gunnar Asplund and Gaudi.  'Frank Lloyd Wright for the use of space and symbolism, Asplund for the meaning of the building and Gaudi could be my grandfather in the rhythm of the building,' he says.

It is fascinating to compare recent works by Porro and his partner Renaud de la Noue with the Schools. Porro and de la Noue completed barracks for the Republican Security Force, the reserves of the French national police, in Velizy in Paris in 2003. The designs are clearly more urbanistic, more pragmatic compared to the meandering plan of the Cuban school complex. In the rhythm of the protruding ceiling joists and the use of lyrical, almost baroque roof forms, they demonstrate the quintessential language of Porro.  'This is a building for people who defend their place and their sense of place.

Riots happen with very young people: people who set out to destroy enormously. This is the tragic part of my work. I took the painting of The Battle of San Romano as my basis,' he says. Although his police station in Plaisir, completed in 2006, is a built on a defensive plinth, the extended structural steel and the canopy over the main entrance reaches out playfully.

Porro has a great deal to be proud of, his two schools have finally been recognised for their intelligent and pinnacle design in 20th century architecture and the Theatre Director Robert Wilson is to make an Opera based on his life story.  'It's funny, no? I am to have a tenor voice, Bob says that Placido Domingo will play my part.' Written by his good friend Alma Guillermoprieto, who danced in his school for many years, the opera begins with one of Porro's early memories.

 'I am told it will begin with me playing as a child with my toys when a tarantula walked straight across my arm' he says. The opera will continue with the Fidel Castro playing golf with Che Guevara at the country club. It is even the most surreal of his recent accolades. Last year Porro was awarded a lifetime achievement award by the Cintas Foundation a US-based organisation which awards fellowships to creative artists of Cuban lineage who are currently residing outside of Cuba.

This is despite the fact that Porro was a leading vanguard of Cuba's short-lived modernism and his groundbreaking schools were made in the full heat of revolutionary fervour.  'Very funny you know,' he begins,  'It is the Cubans in Miami who gave this Award to me. When I stayed in Cuba I was a traitor. And then now, I am no more a traitor.' He smiles.  'I was a traitor to my class, I have been a traitor all my life'.