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David Bigelman

Symbol and Concept in the work of Ricardo Porro

Wifredo Lam, Femme assise, 1940, collection prive

Wifredo Lam, Femme assise, 1940, collection prive


The author analyses the symbolic and conceptual dimension of the architecture of Ricardo Porro, and above all of the Schools of Art of Havana. Contents derived from the iconographic analysis by E. Panofsky which inspired Porro himself in his courses, conferences and publications.


The notion of content in architectural works is a theme that Ricardo Porro himself had already widely developed in the past during numerous courses, conferences and publications. In my contribution, I would like to bring an outside vision of this issue, limiting myself to the symbolic and conceptual level of his production, particularly at his Art Schools in Havana.

In one of his essays, Porro hierarchically lists(1) the various levels of content in works of art, beginning from the immediate meaning, followed by others, which are persuasion, tradition, superimposed image and mediated or indirect meaning.

In part, Porro was taking up the levels proposed by Panofsky in his masterly essay on Iconography(2). However, he distanced himself from these when, in his second level, persuasion, he analysed the desire of the artist to convince spectators of a particular subject, which might be explicit or implicit, in order to attract them, in the best of cases, towards his or her own point of view(3). Meanwhile, the third level, tradition, requires an understanding of the particular characteristics implied by a culture or a precise era in history. The fourteen hundreds in Florence, French rationalism, Roman Baroque are some well-known examples(4). In our case, Porro writes in a chapter of his essay on the superimposed image: “architecture concerns the constructive process but it has the right to seem something else that is not a building”(5) and for him this 'something else' can be described in the form of a symbol or a figurative image.

In one of its meanings the symbol is described as an: “Object or natural occurrence rich in image that evokes, because of its form or nature, an association of 'natural' ideas with something abstract or absent about it.” The abstract aspects of the symbols in architecture such as the circle, square, pyramid, had often been studied in the past by Hautecoeur(6) and others, and are recurrent in all traditional construction forms from the beginnings to our own times. According to Porro, the abstract nature of symbols is to be found, for instance, in the circular shape of the ideal city of Arc-et-Senans near the Forest of Chaux, which Ledoux himself developed in his book(7) or, still more surprisingly, in the symbolic repetition of the numbers four or six in the IIT school of architecture of Mies van der Rohe(8).

On the other hand, his vision of the superimposed image (non-abstract) is more original, albeit less frequently used in architecture, compared to the content of the other visual arts.

These figurative images are linked to the collective subconscious in the Jungian sense of the word.

They are clearly analogous to archetypical architectural forms such as the stairway, the door, the house, the labyrinth, the tower, and the primitive hut. Moreover, other fairly numerous architectural images distance themselves somewhat from the architectural vocabulary, for example: the mountain, the wood, the grotto, the bird, the snake, the human body. Consequently, the number of possible images becomes infinite. Architects who are interested in this potential of architectural language are rare in our own times; Porro cites Bernini's desire to impose on the Basilica of San Pietro, with its colonnaded piazza, the image of a “mere church, like a giant human being, capable of welcoming the whole world.”(9) Bernini himself, cited by Wittkower, explains the sense of this work: “considering that Saint Peter’s is almost the matrix of all the churches, its portico had to give an open-armed, maternal welcome to all Catholics, confirming their faith; to heretics, reconciling them with the Church; and to the infidels, enlightening them about the true faith”(10).

However, this latter aspect could be seen from the viewpoint of the second level proposed by Porro, namely, persuasion. In another example cited in his essay, the Beth Shalom Synagogue in Elkins Park, Philadelphia, by F. Ll. Wright, the superimposed image is the 'shining mountain' that resembles the geometrization of the mountain among the Egyptians, in a less abstract sense(11). Nonetheless, even more images can be added to these: the seven-armed candelabra, the burning bush of Mount Sinai, the Ark of the Covenant…..

These two ways of formalizing symbols, abstract via geometry or proportions, and figurative via the use of archetypal images, at the end of the day are merely vehicles to transmit a more profound message, which Porro goes on to examine in the last level of meaning: the mediated or indirect content(12).

In this sense, for Porro, the form (symbolic or symbolizing) must necessarily express the content (symbolized). This content expresses a critical contemporary moment in creating the work (a political revolution, for example) or an aspect of a universal characteristic of humanity: the creative fecundity of Eros, the anxiety of death (Thanatos), wisdom, simultaneity in the passing of time, evil, violence. Once again, according to Wittkower, in the Humanist theories of art, an understanding of the inherent content of a work, the concept, is strictly linked to a poetic theme(13). It is from this perspective that Porro's creative method should be understood, along with his desire to produce architecture that could be defined 'speaking'. This method comes out of a long artistic tradition theorized since Alberti's time, which inspired Michelangelo, Palladio, Philibert de l’Orme, and many others. The use of a concept is particularly obvious among the masters of the Roman Baroque.

At the beginning of the 20th century, the works of Gaudì and, closer to Porro's world, the production, albeit fairly different from his, of architects such as Gunnar Asplund or Jože Plecnik, would carry on this trend.

Porro loved to claim that spontaneous production does not exist in artistic creation. Each creator has a predecessor; each work has a precedent. This means that to understand Porro's works it is also necessary to know his background and his weltanschauung.


Porro was born in 1925 in the city of Camagüey, to the east of the island of Cuba, into a family of major landowners from Lombardy, who had settled in that region since the 18th Century. Fascinated during his youth by a visit to the Universal Exhibition in New York of 1939, he decided to begin studying architecture at the University of Havana. Despite the mediocre level of teaching at the faculty, a certain effervescence animated a small group of students around Porro. They rebelled against the retrograde academic syllabus and invited Gropius, amongst others, to hold conferences and offer criticisms of their projects. Together with the most senior among them, the architect Eugenio Batista (no relation to the dictator), they undertook to create a critical vision of international Functionalist architecture, similar to that of their Italian or Scandinavian contemporaries, or that of Barragan in Mexico. And so the basis was laid for a modern style of architecture adapted to the particular conditions of the island and its culture, while around the construction of some private residences an original local architectural language began to be formulated.

It is important to observe how these young architects (as well as Ricardo Porro we should mention Emilio del Junco, Frank Martinez, and Mario Romañach) worked in a context of intellectual emulation, given that the island was experiencing a moment of relative prosperity in these times of war, welcoming numerous intellectuals who had fled there from Europe. Their presence, together with the appearance of the magazine Origines, founded by the poet Lezama Lima, was to produce a great impact on the country's cultural milieux.

At the beginning of the Fifties, Porro left for Paris and Europe on a post-graduate scholarship. On courses at the Institute of Urban Planning, he assimilated the acerbic criticisms that Gaston Bardet put up against Le Corbusier's theories, despite the great admiration he harboured towards the master's late works. Above all, his contact with post-war Italy, the wonderful urban examples of Venice and the other historical cities, marked him profoundly along with the possibility, in that privileged period, of being able to frequent personalities that would prove so important for his development: Ernesto Rogers, Franco Albini, Ignazio Gardella, and Carlo Scarpa with whom he was able to swap ideas and discuss ideas and theories of development.

On his return to Havana some years later, Porro rediscovered the intrinsic character of Cuban culture through the production of his great friend, the painter Wilfredo Lam. For them Cuban culture was the consequence of the syncretism of two traditions: on the one hand Spanish culture with its tragic sense of life, partially tempered by the tropical climate, and the Arabian-Andalusian influence. The curved sensual shapes of colonial baroque with its system of patios and gardens and its spaces lit by the veiled light of blinds and windows are a part of this same tradition. On the other hand, there were strong traces of the African cultures that had reached the island in the period of slavery. Without bringing anything precise to the visual arts, and even less to architecture, their world was marked by the sensual excess of an overabundant and exalted nature, richly accompanied by music, dancing and popular poetry.

With his first works, residences for a modern and enlightened bourgeoisie, Porro tried to experiment with a new language(14). At the same time, he was collaborating with Franco Albini in his project to extend Havana to the east of the bay, recorded in the regulatory plan drawn up by J. L. Sert and L. Wiener. Thanks to involvement in subversive activities against the dictator Fulgencio Batista, Porro was forced into exile in Venezuela where he taught for a while.

The Art Schools in Havana

After the fall of the dictatorship in 1959, Porro, like numerous other Cubans, returned to his country full of high hopes and creative energy. It was at this point that he dedicated himself to teaching at the Faculty of Architecture and in his courses outlined the basis of his new theoretical positions. In 1961, the government asked him to design some art schools in the grounds of the old Country Club to the west of Havana.

Aware of the enormity of his task, Porro invited two young architects he had met during his exile in Venezuela, Vittorio Garatti from Milan, and Roberto Gottardi from Venice, to share in his work and in the various teaching programmes. Of the five schools situated around the irregularly shaped golf course that was also crossed by a stream, Gottardi dealt with the School of Dramatic Arts, Garatti with the School of Ballet and the School of Music, while Porro took on the School of Plastic Arts and the School of Modern Dance.

The two schools designed by Porro, together with those designed by Gottardi and Garatti, expressed by mutual agreement the desire to create an urban microcosm whose classrooms would form an interweaving of 'city blocks' concentrated around 'piazzas' surrounded by porticoes, while some extraordinary elements like the library, the theatre, the museum, and the refectory would go beyond the 'domestic' scale, to become its 'monuments'.

After the start of this group, for financial reasons, the architects decided, while the work was in progress, to replace the construction in reinforced concrete with traditional brickwork and terracotta vaults, techniques imported into the island by Catalan builders in the early 20th century. The School of Plastic Arts, probably the best-known and most famous of the group, opened its entrance in full regalia by flaunting three conical horns in the form of a triumphal arch over a slightly sunken 'vestibule'. Penetrating the cool penumbra of this reception space from a dazzling sizzling exterior, whoever enters is comforted and experiences a sort of return to the womb. Staring from here, the curved porticoes vaulted over and given an incessant rhythm by pillars topped by gargoyles accompany visitors towards the central piazza whose diamond point is represented by the famous fountain with a fruit in the shape of a vagina, a key symbol of the whole school. Like the 'Origin of the World', the canvas by Courbet, this opera offended the philistines of the time for the audacity of its revelation. As the fecund source of all living beings, it seems to majestically free itself from beneath a moving sun and, like an archaic divinity, admires its reflection in the surface filled with water. This superimposed image is further accentuated by the oval domes that cover the classrooms, which for Porro, with their pointed skylights, are similar to the breasts of a giant woman. In this species of 'city that becomes Eros'(15), the sensuality of the group of constructions in brick with the patinated ochre of their curved surfaces, in contrast with the intense green of the vegetation placed inside the interstices, recalls and celebrates the half-caste Spanish and African character of Cuban culture, proclaimed for the first time in the world of architecture, too.

In his successive works, the architect would often develop this anthropomorphic vein, as in the project for the artists' village at Vela Luka on the island of Korçula in the Adriatic Sea (1969), or the Arts Centre in Vaduz, Liechtenstein (1970).

Similar to the grand lines of the School of Plastic Arts, its sister, dedicated to Modern Dance, is at the opposite end of the spectrum in its form and symbolic content. In fact, unlike the former, all gentle curves and velvety colours, this school, with its strident shapes and its glaring white, seems to have emerged from a Promethean cataclysm. A certain effect of exaltation in the entrance space is induced by the vaults, whose expansion seems held back by imposing pillars positioned in an apparently random way; but already in the middle of this area, a basin in the shape of a crevasse recalls the image of a broken, exploded glass.

With this poetic discourse, the architect is suggesting the atmosphere of these years of euphoria in which virtually unknown creators felt themselves on the brink of an abyss. A zigzag line of pillars in the porticoes leads to the dance studios whose triple confines with concentric gratings and swelling vaults amplify the space and exalt the centrifugal moves of the choreography. However, it is starting from the tower of the last order of boxes that the architect wished the overview of the school to be seen from. In this bird's eye view, the vaults of the dance studios, the spider's web of ribbing originally full of bougainvillea of an intense purple that irradiated the Byzantine skylights make up a totally original vista: the mirage of a city belonging to an unknown civilization, swallowed up by an earthquake.

The chaotic universe discovered in the School of Dance was to be almost immediately adapted to his project for the Kursaal in San Sébastien (1963) which, with the violence of its peak, prefaced his later projects such as Gendarme School in Plaisir (1991), the Police Commissariat in Vélizy (2004), and even the works of some current 'deconstructionist' architects….

Long before the schools were finished, the regime's red tape process had assumed proportions that meant that these works had become totally incomprehensible to the financial backers, and their very existence even grew scandalous to their eyes. After being mistreated by the official critics, who accused him of being the scum of a decadent bourgeois culture, Porro was obliged to leave both the building site and the teaching of architecture and to definitively abandon the country in 1966. Later, after settling in Paris, he continued until our own times to teach and build, maturing the architectural language that he had sketched out in Cuba in numerous projects and essays. Thanks to their growing international fame, the art schools of Havana and their architects have recently been reinstated, however, the process of reflecting on the causes of this unsuccessful Utopia has not yet begun.

David Bigelman. Architecte DPLG (Diplômé Par Le Gouvernement), from 1972 to 2008 he was a professor at the Ecole d'Architecture de Paris Belleville.


1 R. Porro, Les cinq aspects du contenu, Paris, 1990.

2 E. Panofsky, Studies in Iconology, London, 1939.

3 R. Porro, op. cit., pp. 60-64.

4 Ibid, pp. 70-94.

5 Ibid, pp. 96.

6 L. Hautecoeur, Mystique et Architecture, symbolisme du cercle et de la coupole, Paris, 1954. Il simbolismo del cerchio e della cupola, Bollati Boringhieri, Turin 2006).

7 C-N. Ledoux, L’architecture considérée sous le rapport de l art, des moeurs et de la législation, Paris, 1804.

8 R. Porro, op. cit., p. 110. In private, Porro emphasized that his interpretation is subjective, and that Mies probably may have been totally unaware of this possibility, to then go on to add that all great works of art really are full of meanings and some of these can actually be independent of their creator's will.

9 Ibid, p. 112.

10 R. Wittkower, A counter-project for Bernini’s Piazza San Pietro, Journal of the Warburg Institute, III, N° 1-2, London, 1939-40.

11 R. Porro, op. cit. p. 112.

12 Ibid, pp. 122-154.

13 R. Wittkower, Art and Architecture in Italy 1600 to 1750, London, 1958. 1600-1750, Einaudi, Turin 1958).

14 K. Bastlund, José Luis Sert, architecture, city planning, urban design, Zurich 1967.

15 R. Porro, Oeuvres, Paris 1990, p. 24.

Registered Architect (DPLG), co-director and lecturer (from 1972 to 2008) at the École d'Architecture de Paris Belleville

Colonial House, La Habana, XIX century

Colonial House, La Habana, XIX century