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Discover Paolo Portoghesi’s Out of This World Buildings

Paolo Portoghesi is an Italian architect, theorist, historian, whose buildings merge a training in classical architecture with an attention to nature and a push towards modernism. His creations combine geometry with organic shapes to produce an incredible and unique type of structure. Join me in discovering his most incredible works.

Portoghesi’s activity took place in parallel on the sides of historical research and architectural design, aiming at the reintegration of collective memory in the tradition of modern architecture. The Mosque and Islamic Cultural Center in Rome (1984-95) and the Renaissance district in the Talenti Park in Rome (2001) are among his most famous architectural works.Portoghesi is a professor of architecture at the University La Sapienza in Rome. He is a former president of the architectural section of the Venice Biennale (1979–92), Editor-in-chief of the journal Controspazio (1969–83), and dean of the Faculty of Architecture at the Politecnico di Milano university (1968–78).

Portoghesi studied architecture at the Faculty of Architecture at the University of Rome, completing his studies in 1957. He began teaching the history of criticism at the same faculty in 1961. Portoghesi opened an architectural practice with architect-engineer Vittorio Gigliotti (born 1921) in Rome in 1964. He has specialized in teaching and researching Classical architecture, especially Baroque architecture, and in particular Borromini, but also Michelangelo. His interest in more contemporary architecture coincided largely with that of his colleague in Rome, Bruno Zevi, in championing a more organic form of modernism, evident in, for instance, the work of Victor Horta and Frank Lloyd Wright, and in Italy with neorealism and the Liberty style. This attitude has continued throughout Portoghesi’s career, and is clearly visible in his own architecture. It is also evident in his concern for the studies of nature, brought to the fore in his more recent book Nature and Architecture (2000).


Paolo Portoghesi’s Life and Career

Portoghesi studied architecture at the Faculty of Architecture at the University of Rome, completing his studies in 1957. He taught History of criticism (1962-66) at the University of Rome, from 1967 to 1977 he was prof. of history of architecture at the Polytechnic of Milan, of which he was dean from 1968 to 1976. Since 1995 he teaches design at the faculty of architecture of the Rome University. Portoghesi opened an architectural practice with architect-engineer Vittorio Gigliotti (born 1921) in Rome in 1964. He was president of the architectural section of the Venice Biennale from 1979 to 1992, editor of the magazine Controspazio from 1969 to 1983. In 1972 he was a participant in Documenta 5 in with a model made of wood, plexiglass, cardboard and steel and 30 drawings for the planning for the utopian city ​​DIKAIA: Dikaia, the city after the 3rd industrial revolution, developed together with Vittorio Gigliotti Kassel in the Department of Parallel Imagery: Utopia and Planning.

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Despite an architectural legacy that spans at least six decades – ranging from the radical, concrete curves of Casa Baldi (1959-61) on the outskirts of Rome to the elaborately sinuous interior of the Mosque of Rome (completed in 1994) – Portoghesi remains a contentious figure in modern Italian architecture. The country’s merciless theorists, often contemporaries, peers and collaborators of Portoghesi, were not always kind. In his History of Italian Architecture 1944-1985, Manfredo Tafuri asserted that Portoghesi’s work showed ‘a taste for excess but lacked any excitement’. A playful sense of irony defines Portoghesi’s work and best explains his role as a pioneer of Italy’s postmodernist movement. In 1980, he spearheaded the creation of the first Venice Architecture Biennale, entitled La Presenza del Passato (The Presence of the Past). The fair was centred around the ‘Strada Novissima’ exhibition, for which he wrangled submissions from some of the world’s most prominent architects, among them Frank Gehry, Rem Koolhaas, Arata Isozaki, Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown, and Ricardo Bofill. Portoghesi created a street lined with the contributions of each participant architect, and the exhibition is considered by many as a rallying point for the postmodernist movement and certainly one of its most intellectually rigorous manifestations.


Paolo Portoghesi’s Philosophy

Portoghesis and Gigliottis Casa Baldi in Rome from 1959 is considered an early example of postmodern architecture. At the Venice Biennale in 1980, Portoghesi organized an exhibition on postmodern architecture entitled: The Present of the Past. This exhibition, which after the dismantling still in Paris and San Franciscowas shown, managed to present a synthesis of the various currents of post-modern architecture that existed at the time. With more than 2000 visitors every day, the exhibition was a success for the public. Although the specialist discussion was controversial, the exhibition triggered a plethora of publications on the subject. It is considered the birth of a comprehensive theoretical preparation of postmodern architecture.

It is perhaps Portoghesi’s obsessive exploration of Italian, and specifically Roman, Baroque architecture that led to his isolation and categorisation as an adherent of historicism, a doctrine that was the very antithesis of 20th century architecture. Portoghesi was born and raised in central Rome, and the city’s monuments and their makers clearly cast a long shadow. He speaks of the precise moment when, as a young boy, he was struck by the cupola of Francesco Borromini’s 1642 church of Sant’Ivo alla Sapienza, which was near his school. ‘It was problematic for me, but I was enchanted,’ he says. Borromini’s manipulation of geometry and perspective was full of paradoxes, such as the harmony between sharp points and soft curves: ‘I saw that poetry is expressed through architecture.’

He has specialized in teaching and researching Classical architecture, especially Baroque architecture, and in particular Borromini, but also Michelangelo. His interest in more contemporary architecture coincided largely with that of his colleague in Rome, Bruno Zevi, in championing a more organic form of modernism, evident in, for instance, the work of Victor Horta and Frank Lloyd Wright, and in Italy with neorealism and the Liberty style. This attitude has continued throughout Portoghesi’s career, and is clearly visible in his own architecture. It is also evident in his concern for the studies of nature, brought to the fore in his more recent book Nature and Architecture (2000).During the 1980s, when postmodernism seized the architectural upper hand, he edited the ravishingly eclectic, large-format architectural quarterly magazine Eupalino. Looking inside any of the magazine’s 12 issues is a trip into the mind of the editor and a taste of the spirit of those times. ‘It was an era of optimism,’ he says. ‘Edonismo Reaganiano [Reagan-era hedonism].’ He felt relieved that the privations of modernism were gone. Le Corbusier, according to Portoghesi, managed to create astonishing works of art, but the modernism he spawned lacked expression and ultimately ruined the modern city. Indeed, ‘Strada Novissima’ offered a counter to Le Corbusier, who hated the closed-in ‘rue corridor’ and advocated endless, open streets stretching into the horizon. Portoghesi champions the opposite, saying, ‘It’s the very closing of the street that makes it beautiful. It’s how you create a gathering space.’

In his book Curious Technique, Paolo Portoghesi reflects on ‘the machine designed mentally before being built, even the machine only conceived and investigated abstractly as an idea’. In essence, overcoming the cognitive and cultural boundaries of paleo-technological societies, machines have ranged from tools as a simple extension of the body (such as a hoe or a spade), to something that ‘begins to impose itself as a direct projection of reasoning or as a fantastic stimulus linked to the mysterious sense of nature, to the desire to discover and celebrate the secrets of movement, strength and time together’.

Following Turing’s theory and artificial intelligence, Portoghesi discussed these issues with philosopher Vittorio Somenzi. They perceived by intuition that the machine can reproduce itself and is, therefore, able to collect the message of one generation and transmit it to the next one. The utopian project for the city of Dikaia, developed by Portoghesi in 1969, was born precisely from these reflections: an entirely mechanical city capable of reproducing itself and based on the systematic transmission of information, generation after generation. This fascination for machines ran parallel with Portoghesi’s obsession with the figure of Francesco Borromini. Born in Rome in via Monterone, a stone’s throw from Piazza Sant’Eustacchio, Portoghesi observed the dome of Sant’Ivo on his daily commute to school. That ‘strange’ building would haunt him for the rest of his life. Sant’Ivo alla Sapienza, built by Borromini between 1642 and 1660, together with the Oratorio dei Filippini which is located nearby the house of his grandparents in Piazza della Chiesa Nuova, exerted a charm that marked his entire career as an architect and an intellectual.


Paolo Portoghesi’s 8 Most Out-of-this-world Buildings

1.Islamic Cultural Centre of Italy 

The Mosque of Rome (Italian: Moschea di Roma), situated in Parioli, Rome, Italy, is the largest mosque in the western world in terms of land area. It has an area of 30,000 m2 (320,000 sq ft) and can accommodate more than 12,000 people. The building is located in the Acqua Acetosa area, at the foot of the Monti Parioli, north of the city. This work, which enjoys wide acceptance today, has had a difficult genesis given by the understandable difficulty of large categories of representatives of the political, religious and public opinion world to break the taboo represented by the official access of the Islamic religion in the capital of Christianity. It might be a masterpiece of Portoghesi, as it represents a peculiar synthesis of different artistic traditions.The project, supported by the technical expertise of Vittorio Gigliotti, has as its foundation “listening to the place”, or the understanding of the cornerstones of Islamic architecture and their possibility of being inserted in the historical and environmental context of Rome. Moreover, one of the main characteristics of Islamic culture has always been the extraordinary ability to adapt and shape itself on existing realities, generating, as far as architecture is concerned, multiple local languages ​​linked to pre-existing materials and models. Portoghesi has made these premises his own, the relationship with the territory and the ideological theme, creating a complex of buildings in which there is a strong mediation between internal and external spaces, as in Persian architecture, but also in the Etruscan one, trying to create a real meeting point between Islam and Christianity.

In plan, the complex consists of two parts. The first is a rectangular prayer hall measuring about 60 x 40 m with the longer sides facing the qibla (the Southeast). The second part approximates the shape of an “H” and houses the remaining functions of the complex except for the ablution facilities, which are located beneath the prayer hall. A water channel runs along the longitudinal axis of the H-shaped mass and connects two pools, one located in the centre of the mass and another to the Northeast. The longest side of the H-shaped mass, which faces the Northwest, curves away from the complex and toward the city, while the other long side of the H-shaped mass curves toward the prayer hall. The minaret is located southwest of the prayer hall, close to where the H-shaped mass and the prayer hall meet. The prayer hall is raised 8 metres above ground level, with the ablution area occupying part of the volume underneath. The space of the prayer hall contains two symmetrically arranged gallery floors that run perpendicular to the qibla wall. Together, the galleries provide a space for female worshippers about a fourth of the size of the main prayer hall located below them. The prayer hall is articulated by a large central dome with a diameter of over 20 metres. 16 smaller domes surround the large central one. All of the domes are covered with lead and each is articulated with ribs meeting at its apex.

The design of the mosque is the result of a collaboration between architects Paolo Portoghesi, Sami Mousawi, and Makiya Associates. Makiya Associates submitted the winning entry to a competition for the mosque’s design held in 1976.


2. Casa Papanice

Casa Papanice, one of the most significant works by Paolo Portoghesi in the field of residential construction, was built between 1966 and 1970 in collaboration with the engineer Vittorio Gigliotti, on a commission received from the Apulian businessman Pasquale Papanice.

On a typological level, the building responds to the canons of the elegant villa on three levels, with accommodation on each floor and a small attic. The project demonstrates how the plastic articulation of the surfaces delimits the space, preparing itself for a formal research that has its roots in the Roman Baroque, which the architect often regards as an essential legacy. He also makes use of suggestions from the Secessions and Art Deco. In line with the trends of Baroque architecture, Portoghesi places the systematic use of the curved line on the modeling of the internal space through the inflection of the walls.

The curvature of the perimeter walls, which alternate between concave and convex, formally characterizes the composition. The exterior is covered with vertical majolica bands, differentiated by colors that recall natural elements; the balcony parapets are instead made of metal organ pipes. Inside, the walls are painted with colored bands that run horizontally, while a series of concentric cylinders originating from three different sets of poles define the ceilings of the living room. The transition between external and internal space identifies a type of opening called “dialectical window”, the result of different contrasts of inflected walls. The inflected wall, obtained through a curved surface that varies according to the position of the internal and external spaces, creates a perspective that allows you to model the space as if it were plastic. The technique that Portoghesi uses to bend the wall allows him to obtain a spatial extension, so much so that he defines the wall inflected as “the key element of the solution”. The combination of two curved walls is the result of the combination that arises from the relationship of architecture with nature and baroque plasticity, where the curved line becomes the right aesthetic compromise between nature, local culture and the artifact with its needs functional. The architectural experimentation invests the organic chromatism in which the Papanice house is wrapped. Portoghesi also engages in interior design, with furniture elements based on the same design grammar as the building.


3. Chiesa della Sacra Famiglia

The Sacra Famiglia church, built in 1971-1974, is the first religious building made entirely of reinforced concrete. The architect, Paolo Portoghesi, wanted to create a building that would express Christians concepts such as unity and centrality of the divine through the choice of curved shapes. The different colours of the windows symbolize the dialogue between the human nature and the divine nature. The tubular structures can be assimilated to lit flames that orient visitors upwards, where the circular openings invite direct contact with God. The project for the church of the Holy Family in Salerno is undoubtedly the most mature and successful example of this corpus of works as the exploration of the fields fully extends into the third dimension.

While in Casa Baldi or in Casa Andreis, the project emerges as a direct extrusion from the two-dimensional diagram, in the project for the church in Salerno the field includes all three dimensions. The idea of ​​designing through a ‘soft’ control process on the project gave Portoghesi the opportunity to articulate open compositions in which architecture leaves room to life.

Although Portoghesi continued to design copiously throughout the eighties and nineties, this period undoubtedly remains one of the happiest moments of his architectural production. This attempt to theorise the formal logic in architecture will remain unfinished. Portoghesi went on to join the cause of Postmodernism, propelling his career on the International stage. However, this body of works leaves a memorably bright trace in the history of late-Modernism and an all too often forgotten milestone in the development of proto-algorithmic models for architecture.


4. The garden and library of Calcata 

Located in Calcata (VT), this garden overlooks the Treja valley and the homonymous hamlet. It was built in 1990 by architect and scholar Paolo Portoghesi – also specialized in Baroque architecture – and his wife Giovanna Massobrio. Named “the most beautiful park” of 2017, it extends over 7 acres. Portoghesi conceived it as a repository of memories, giving Mother Nature the last word about its actual design. The huge egg at the entrance – which symbolizes life and its cosmic renewal – precedes a thicket of centenary olive and ancient fruit trees, shrubs, and flowering perennials. About a hundred lecterns scattered around, display literary and philosophical texts. In the center, there is a circular temple, surrounded by a canal and a small holm oak forest. It’s also worth noticing the presence of the Biblioteca dell’Angelo (Angel’s Library), inside a typical house from Calcata (VT), with precious volumes and souvenirs from around the world.

Many endangered animal species are also present, including water birds, rare species of ducks, Hawaiian geese, and even two pelicans near the pond. Then, there are flamingos, ibis, storks, parrots, cranes – housed in large cages – a domesticated owl, and some 700 birds. Not to mention goats, llamas, and donkeys – including Amiatini and Asinara species. Hadn’t it been for Mrs. Giovanna, all these animals would have perished miserably. The Portoghesi garden is part of a tourist development project, which includes many itineraries to archaeological, historical, gastronomic, and natural beauties.

5. The Politeama Theatre, Catanzaro 

The Politeama Theater of Catanzaro is a theater inaugurated on November 29, 2002. The theater is part of the ancient city theatrical tradition that began with the Teatro Comunale, formerly Teatro Real Francesco, opened in 1830 and demolished in 1938. It stands in the historic center of the area of the Politeama Italia cinema-theater. The theater is the work of the architect Paolo Portoghesi. The central room in the shape of a horseshoe, around which the building is divided, takes up the tradition of classic Italian theater. The audience can accommodate 380 spectators while the five tiers of boxes can hold 550. While, in my opinion, this is not one of Paolo’s most beautiful designs, it does achieve a certain grandiose effect: a truly postmodern building. 

6. The Sala Portoghesi, at the Terme Tettuccio spa

Montecatini Terme is located between Florence and the Versilian coast; being close to the mountains of Pistoia, it enjoys great weather conditions, especially in Winter, as it is sheltered from the cold north wind. Montecatini is also blessed with the presence of unique thermal water springs, thanks to these benefits we can understand why Montecatini became a protagonist of luxury life from the end of the IX century until the 1960’s.
With regards to the history of Montecatini, in the XIX century it was transformed, thanks to the decisions of Grand Duke Leopold II of Lorena, into a welcoming and cosy thermal city, with splendid boulervards and hotel facilities able to host thousands of tourists, attracted by the good weather conditions, the delicious food and SPA treatments.
Since the second half of the 1800’s, Montecatini has enjoyed the presence of many VIPs, amongst whom the famous worldwide composers, Giuseppe Verdi (the city dedicated him the bronze statue in the picture), Pietro Mascagni, Ruggero Leoncavallo, Gioacchino Rossini, and writers Luigi Pirandello (Nobel Prize in 1934) and Trilussa, a famous stinging satirist. At the end of the Verdi boulevard, standing majestically, is Terme Tettuccio, it has a gorgeous neoclassical facade. Its name is probably due to the fact that in ancient times the salt here was extracted from a water spring covered with a canopy. The building, with the neoclassical facade mixed with portoghesi’s  unique wooden pillars is a pastiche of styles. Rebuilt in XVIII century by architect Gaspero Maria Paoletti, it was renovated by thearchitect Ugo Giovannozzi in the years between 1920 and 1930. The interior has wide covered and open spaces, with huge colonnades made of travertine which were mined from the nearby Monsummano quarries. Situated on the right side as we enter, is the famous Fontana della Sorgente, an artwork by Sirio Tofanari, which overlooks a wonderful circular water pool surrounded by a colonnade.
Heading inside, the galleries, halls and spaces are adorned with decorations, coloured glass walls and artworks by masters Galileo Chini, Ezio Giovanozzi, Giulio Bargellini, Alessandro Del Soldato and Giuseppe Moroni. The Portoghesi Room (Sala Portoghesi) another jewel of art and architecture, takes its name from the designer who built it in 1986, it’s unique for its wooden columns and multi-coloured marble.

7. Casa Baldi

Baldi House can be considered, as explained in modern architecture Inhibitions, the manifesto of the “listening poetic” by Paolo Portoghesi. Next to the house are the remains of a Roman tomb, which over the centuries had made similar to a “trunk surrounded by a giant plant roots”. Baldi house originates from the inverted architecture process that leads to ruin. House Baldi walls are opened under the pressure of the wind, creating a deflected geometry and windows become agreement between the surfaces, through which we grasp the landscape. One of the most significant works of Italian architecture since the Second World War, the unique residential building designed by Paolo Portoghesi has been redeveloped to house the third Casalgrande Padana  hub of creativity, culture and architectural design. Built between 1959 and 1961 for Gian Vittorio Baldi, the prolific director and producer who worked on a number of films by Pier Paolo Pasolini, among others.
In spite of its small size, the work was of great architectural importance in the early post-war period, stimulating much debate and even getting a mention in the New York Times. “A problematic building,” was how Bruno Zevi described it in L’architettura Cronaca e storia magazine in December 1962.More recently, Paolo Portoghesi defined Casa Baldi as “a new concept of architecture, linked to places and history but a participant of the Modern Movement at the same time”. It ushered in a new style and inspired a seemingly endless string of cultural and material references, showing how architecture can make history by adopting an innovative approach to construction. It was, in essence, a very important piece of work.

8. Casa Bevilacqua a Fontania

This house is perhaps Paolo Portoghesi’s most forgotten. It is built into the cliffside of the ocean, with tiered columns made from reinforced concrete. Part of the building is done in brick, part in bare concrete, and some in concrete painted white. The textural and colour mix is natural and blends into the landscape, while the form is both organic and futuristic. Repeating patterns are variations on a theme, either rounded or squared, to create a formal precision that evokes the symmetrical and detailed work of ancient greek and roman cathedrals. It culminates in a simple spire pointing into the sky, giving it the sense of a spaceship, or craft that’s ready to take off, or perhaps just receive information from outer space. It’s hard to tell what the inside would look or feel like, as there are no readily available images online, but I can only imagine the view is quite stunning. 

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