Self-portraits are no easy task !
I once said I was a poet who had never written a poem.
It’s no longer true; I do have a few.
I’m an architect, a painter, a sculptor and a poet but,
whatever my medium of expression, I feel I’m a poet.
Here I’ll speak as an architect.
An architect is a technician. Woe to him if he isn’t ! His projects will probably be rejected. If they’re accepted, woe to those who live in it! A building must be functional, well built and built to last. And then… there is that small matter of money; he must work within a budget. (Architects whose work is poor in spirit often use this constraint as an excuse.)
Yes indeed, architecture is difficult. As an architect, I’m an artist. But in fact, what is an artist?Every artist is a voyeur. Marcel Proust, Thomas Mann, Shakespeare and Cervantes, all looked through key-holes. They observed life with wonder before they wrote their masterpieces. They absorbed everything they lived and all they saw in the life of others and gave it back to us, each with his own, distinctive voice. Many hated them, yet they loved each and everyone; they couldn’t live without others. Thus, they made every man’s plight their own. In other words, a artist is a man of love.So am I, how could it be otherwise? Creating a frame for the life of others is an architect’s craft, and his art. Before beginning a project he must be familiar with the activities it will house, for he must conceive an architecture that respects, facilitates and dignifies the life of those who will live in it.When starting a project, my first concern is to find the best possible relation between functions. There often are several possibilities for the same site. I explore them and make a rough model of each to see the volumes it would generate.Only then can I broach the poetic aspect of the project. Man is homo sapiens, but he is also homo ludens (he who plays). I look for images related to the function since there must be an interplay, a dialogue, between them.For quite some time now, abstract architecture has prevailed. With very few exceptions meaning has been banished. But I’m not an abstract architect, my work is figurative. I define architecture as the creation of a poetic frame for human activity.

Dichter (he who says) is the German word for poet. I would like to be seen as a dichter since I believe art is language. An architect should speak, and his language should be poetic. Hölderlin says poetry is the transmutation of the world into words. Architecture is the transmutation of the world into living spaces. For Hegel art is the sensible expression of the Idea; I would say it is the sensible expression of man’s plight.

Every work of art is form and content. Form in my architecture isn’t classic, it is closer to baroque. It’s dynamic, a rhythm accompanies those who move around it. Space is unlimited, as in baroque architecture.

When I say ”unlimited” I’m referring to Wölfflin’s definition. He speaks of a space as limited when it is composed by an addition of volumes and its contour is clearly defined; surfaces are preeminent, the composition is closed, nothing can be added. Everything is evident and rational. When space is unlimited, contours are imprecise, everything is integrated; depth is emphasized and the composition is open. Space seems to grow organically. The whole creates an atmosphere of mystery. Space in Le Corbusier’s “Villa Savoye” is limited, in the temples of Kadjuraho, unlimited.

I would like my work to approach infinity as defined by Giordano Bruno, following on the steps of Nicolas of Cuse:

“a sphere whose center is everywhere and its circumference nowhere”.

I’ve said that a building should accompany the life of those who use it, but that is not enough. We should also be aware that it modifies its urban environment The spaces on the outside should favor contact between those who use them.

My stay in Venice as a student in a CIAM summer course influenced all that I have done since. Its beauty dazzled me. Later, as I studied the city, I realized how its structure favors contact between its citizens. There are small units, a few houses grouped around very small, intimate piazzas where the neighbors are constantly in contact with each other. These in turn are grouped around other, larger, spaces whose size corresponds to the activities common to this larger community (school, church …)The whole city is structured in this manner, up to the large piazzas at the city center whose dimensions also correspond to their use. The architecture, painting and sculpture in each express it’s function and its significance. Everything contributes to give its citizens the feeling of belonging to the same community and the same culture.

This has influenced my work in urbanism as well as my architecture. The structure of many of my buildings is that of a city.

Furthermore, I see every building as a ‘mise-en-scene’, a grand performance. This I learnt from Borromini’s Sant’Ivo alla Sapienza and San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane. as well as from Bernini’s Sant’Andrea al Quirinale where the space of the church follows the succession of moments in the life of the saint, culminating in his ascent to heaven. In another church near-by, Bernini placed a group of gentlemen sitting in a box, as in the theater, frankly staring at the sculpture of Saint Theresa of Avila in mystic-erotic ecstasy. As we leave Sant’Agnese in piazza Navona, the sculpture of a Pope above the door bids us good-by.

I consider myself a Romantic architect; I identify with Novalis when he says,
“Giving an elevated meaning to what is common, a mysterious aspect to the banal, the dignity of the unknown to what is known, a halo of infinity to the finite, I romanticize”

I strive to exalt human dignity in all my work. Even low-cost buildings should have the dignity of a palace. When I built a school in a working-class neighborhood I knew the students came from low income families and many were the children of immigrants, subject to social prejudice. For them, I built “Elsa Triolet” where they can feel like counts, earls or…why not princesses and princes? All that I have built in France are community buildings commissioned by local authorities, yet I aristocratize.

There is something Godlike in every creator. Man is His magnificent self-portrait. All art is a form of ecstasy. Nietzsche told us that.

“Everything that surrounds a hero becomes tragedy, around a demi-god everything is satiric. And around God? Maybe WORLD”

For Heidegger a work of art is World and Earth. His conception of World is illuminating.

“To be a work [of art ] means to set up a world”. “World is the ever non-objective to which we are subject as long as the paths of birth and death, blessing and curse keep up transported into Being. Wherever those utterly essential decisions of our history are made, are taken up and abandoned by us, go unrecognized and are rediscovered by new inquiry, the world worlds”.

I give Earth a different meaning. I see it as the spirit of the place where a work of art is produced, what Frobenius calls paiedeuma, “a supra-individual element that captures the spirit of a people”. It is a country’s tradition. A building is conceived for a specific place which has its own culture. I want my architecture to be rooted in the cultural environment where it belongs. That I did in Cuba, the country where I was born, in the many countries where I have worked, Venezuela, Spain, Lichtenstein, Croatia, Iran and in France, my country by adoption where I live. I let the erdgeist of the place where I work possess me. World and Earth are indeed fundamental in all works of art.

I have long been fascinated by content in works of art. Sometime during my first years in the school of architecture I happened upon Paul Valery’s “Eupalinos or the Architect” The following lines were a revelation:

“Listen, Phedre, (he said) that small temple I built for Hermes not far from here, if you only knew what ir means to me! Where the passerby only sees an elegant chapel – there’s not much to it, four columns and a very simple style – I placed the memory of a luminous day of my life. Oh sweet metamorphosis! That delicate temple, no one knows it, is the image of a girl from Corinth I fortunately loved. It faithfully reproduces her particular proportions. For me, it is alive! It renders me all that I gave it!”

I understood that there is a world of meanings in every work of art. Many years later, when I thought I had forgotten it, I reread it and realized it had always been with me.

Form and content are inseparable in a work of art.
Art can express the themes that define a specific moment of history.

Let us take the themes that marked the 20th century as an example.

The industrial revolution began in the 19th century but reached its full development in the 20th. It saw the triumph of technology. We find it reflected in Leger’s painting and in Le Corbusier, when he speaks of a house as ‘a machine for living’. The “Villa Savoye” and Mies van der Rohe’s Illinois Institute of Technology give us the image of an object produced in an assembly line.

Einstein’s theory of relativity, space-time (the fourth dimension) changed our vision of the universe and produced Cubism and Futurism. We also feel it’s influence in Joyce’s “Ulysses” and in Wright’s “Fallingwater”. Freud and Jung explore the structure of the human soul. The power of the unconscious is present in German Expressionism as well as in Surrealism and in Gaudi’s architecture.

But art can also express the eternal problems of humanity: Eros and Thanatos, the equilibrium of opposites, violence, war, good and evil, joy and grief, belief or negation of God, among others.

As an artist, each work has its own meaning. In architecture, buildings have different purposes and require different forms and different images. Besides, I let myself be influenced by the world in which I live.

Here I’ll present two examples of my work.

School of Modern Dance in Havana

dance2-180pxThe program was very simple: four large dancing studios with dressing rooms for each two, a small theater for choreography, schoolrooms for academic studies, library, café and administration. As in the School of Fine Arts, built on the same site, I conceived it as a city with piazzas, streets and porches.

Here I wanted to express two very intense feelings produced by this first, romantic stage of the Cuban revolution: exaltation, emotional explosion on the one hand and anxiety on the other. The result was a permanent agonic tension (agonic in its original meaning: struggle, combat)

The entrance and the dance studios are the image of exaltation. The studios are covered by fragmented vaults, as sails inflated by an expanding space. White walls all around the rooms serve as a background, so the movements of the dancers can be clearly seen. Above them a series of receding trellised wall reinforce the impression of an expanding space.

In contrast, the pillars that lead to the central piazza and surround it point in different directions and induce an uneasy feeling as we feared some unknown danger. The shape of the fountain at the entrance and of the whole building (seen from the top of the theater’s stage) have the shape of a glass shattered by a fist. I see it as an image of that stage of the revolution.

Thus the building is an expression of a moment in history: the first years of the Cuban revolution.At that time I thought I was a Marxist. I later realized I am a Mannist (for Thomas Mann).

Art Center in Liechtenstein

lichtenstein-180pxMy first buiding in Europe is in Liechtenstein, a small principality on the Rhine, a river associated with old myths about gold. My client, a highly cultivated financier, wanted a building for his office, rooms for exhibiting his excellent collection of 20th century painting and a few offices for rent. It was built on the same lot as his house, on the slope of a mountain with the Alps as a backdrop.

Coming from a socialist country, I was struck by the powerful and invisible presence of the new financial capitalism which had turned this small country into a XXth century “El Dorado”, a world completely opposite to the one where I built the School of Modern Dance. While working on the project, I was also thinking of the day I strolled along the banks of the Rhine with Guerasim Luca, the poet, talking about the Nibelungen.

How could I give an image of financial capitalism (a moment in history) and the mythical gold of the Nibelungen? ( an eternal problem for humanity). I decided to work on the image of three fingers of a giant trying to grasp a golden energy. This produced two opposed formal systems. The volumes of the fingers (the owner’s office) are solid and well defined. Everything in the exhibition rooms is light and golden: vertical elements in golden aluminum, tinted glass panes that, seen from outside, look like golden mirrors. And, outside the prism, a decorative element, all in the same metal, a beam holding a succession of blades that could be moved by the wind. Everything contributes to the illusion of immaterial gold.

In my mind, the fingers belong to the giant coming down the mountain in “Thus spoke Zarathustra”, my homage to Nietzsche who also worked near the Rhine.

When presenting my two buildings, I‘ve explained what I intended to express in each. It’s the view of the creator. But my readers may legitimately ask how much of all this has been transmitted to those who see the building. The author of a work can give no answer because each person will have his own view. Furthermore, someone may see something the author expressed unintentionally.

Walt Whitman said:
“The greatest poet is not he who has done the best but he who suggests the most, he not all of whose meaning is at first obvious, but he who lets you much to believe, much to think, much to complete in your turn.”


Born in Camagüey, Cuba in 1925. After graduating from the School of Architecture in Havana, he studied in France, Italy and Sweden. Back in Havana, he built several private homes and participated in the resistance movement during the Batista regime. Exiled in Caracas for two years, he worked on projects for housing units for the “Banco Obrero” and taught at the School of Architecture. He returned to Havana shortly after the Revolution where he built the Schools of Fine Arts and Modern Dance. He lives and works in Paris since 1966. Except a building in Lichtenstein, all his architecture in Europe is in France in association with Renaud de la Noue. They are all community buildings (housing, schools, hospitals).

Professor at Schools of Architecture in Caracas, Havana, Paris, Strasbourg and Lille.
Guest professor in Graz, Venice and New York


France: Chevalier de la Légion d’Honneur, Commandeur de l’ Ordre des Arts et des Lettres
Italy: Premio Architecttura “Vittorio de Sica”

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