Ricardo Porro, architect and master of the Catalan vault, dead at 89

Ricardo Porro in Cuba
Screen capture from "Unfinished Spaces" by Alysa Nahmias and Benjamin Murray

After the Cuban revolution, the country was cut off from sources of building materials like reinforcing steel and portland cement, the fundamental materials of modern concrete construction. Castro had nationalized the golf clubs and wanted to create a campus of art schools on the site, and gave the job to a young architect, Ricardo Porro. He didn't have a lot of building materials but did have access to labor, so the schools were designed with timbrel vaults, also known as Catalan vaults and in America, where they are used in Grand Central Station's Oyster bar and the Boston Public Library, Guastavin vaults, after the family business that mastered them.

It is an incredibly efficient and green technology using very little material; Kris De Decker noted in a wonderful article that "The timbrel vault allowed for structures that today no architect would dare to build without steel reinforcements. The technique was cheap, fast, ecological and durable."

Porro, with his collaborators Vittorio Garatti and Roberto Gottardi, designed glorious curvy swooping structures out of them. From the New York Times obit:

"In Cuba, Porro took the Catalan vault and made it dance,” said Warren James, a New York architect. “He painted and sculpted with it. In a Caribbean context, with a tropical exuberant landscape, his architecture remains revolutionary.”

Alas, it soon was considered counter-revolutionary and the buildings were never finished. According to an obituary by John Loomis, he lost a battle against modernism:

Porro was particularly singled out for abuse by architectural critic Roberto Segre who with inflated Marxist jargon, accused Porro of being an elitist cultural aristocrat, whose work exhibited a “narcissistic and egocentric bourgeois formation”. But ideology was only a smokescreen. Porro had an enemy in Antonio Quintana, the architect in charge of architectural design for the new Ministry of Construction. Quintana was an unreconstructed modernist who saw the organic expressive forms rising from the country club landscape as unforgiveable architectural heresy and threat. The attacks by Quintana and his subordinates brought construction to a halt in 1965 and the five Catalan vaulted schools lay in various stages of use and abandonment, and until recently with some parts literally overgrown by the jungle.

Porro went into exile in France, where he died on Christmas Day at the age of 89. I wrote in 2012 that the buildings were being restored by Norman Foster, but have no word on whether this has happened.

Ricardo Porro, architect and master of the Catalan vault, dead at 89
It is one of the greenest forms of construction, and fitting for a revolution.

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