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Migration and Architecture: interview with Paolo Portoghesi

One of the most significant phenomena that is identifying this first part of the century, is certainly that of migration. The migratory phenomenon, a recurring condition in history, has seen in recent years, in Italy, a sort of clash and confrontation between ethnic groups with radically different cultures and lifestyles. This condition recalls the need for a greater commitment in the architectural field. A commitment aimed at welcoming and assimilating new cultures, in order to produce a new type of architecture that is more democratic and suitable for today’s social condition.
In this context, the architect Paolo Portoghesi was interviewed who, in the 70s of the last century, carried out the project for the Great Mosque of Rome. Today, this monumental work represents a meeting point between Arab and Western culture and tells us how an architectural dialogue between these two worlds was possible.

1 – Why a mosque in Rome?

The first request for a mosque in Rome by the Islamic world came from Saudi Arabia, from a monarch who addressed Mussolini through the Ambassador Quaroni. Mussolini, at that time, rejected the request because he was in the middle of the reconciliation period in Rome. This need reappeared much later, when among other things the Islamic community in Rome had already become very rich. The Islamic community has ancient origins as it is linked to Italian colonialism. Many Eritreans and Somalis were already present even before the empire conquered by Mussolini, and these people were subsequently settled, within Rome, in the area around Piazza Bologna. An important migratory flow then occurred after the Second World War. These circumstances created the conditions for there to be a real social need. This need was also realized by the rulers, so much so that when the President of the Republic Giovanni Leone went to ask for oil to Saudi Arabia, also with the aim of having more opportunities to receive a positive response, he made the offer to make possible the construction of a mosque in Rome. Almost simultaneously, the Municipality of Rome designated an area and gave it as a tribute in order to realize this project. The mosque of Rome was born in such an atmosphere.

An institution was founded, the Islamic Cultural Centre, directed by the ambassadors of the Islamic countries both to the Italian Government and to the Holy See, and this determined the process of the mosque. At first it was decided to proceed without launching a competition, entrusting the project to a Tunisian architect, then there was the request, I think from the Municipality of Rome, to make a competition. A lot of people took part. I was among the winners, then there was a further selection. That’s how the mosque was born. Today, the Islamic population has increased considerably, so it is no longer the only mosque in Rome. What I designed is the monumental one, that very well meets the overall needs, but not those of the small communities located elsewhere.

In any case, the Mosque was initially rather badly received. I remember that both I and Mayor Argan and Gigliotti were threatened with death. The competition took place in 1975 and in 1984 the construction site was opened for the first time, but it was immediately stopped. In fact, the fence that had been built around the ground was destroyed, after which a certain reaction came from the newspapers which brought to light the fact that to legitimately carry out the construction it would have been necessary to first draw up a detailed plan. This was, perhaps, not necessarily essential, but at the time it was done to delay the work. Andreotti, who was the dominus of this operation, did everything to postpone and at the same time help the project that finally were carried out. In 1985 the prayer room worked, but only in 1995 did the official inauguration arrive.
That is the story.

2 – How did you manage to make the roman christian culture dialogue with the islamic one?

I was born as an architect but also as a historian of architecture. In a way, I started with the easiest operation: history. I began to deal with history at a very young age and when I was 18-19 I read some books on Islamic history. Then when I started teaching, in ’67 – ’68, some Palestinian students asked me to give some lessons on Islamic architecture. This greatly strengthened my knowledge. Then I started going to Jordan and Sudan where I had the opportunity to better understand the meaning of the mosques, which after all represent something very different from our churches. They are prayer and meeting places. They still have a function that perhaps cathedrals had in the Middle Ages. Today, however, in churches this function has been somewhat lost. It was this function that made me understand the architectural problem of such a building. In fact, mosques are never isolated, only in recent times they assumed this connotation. They are usually connected with school and justice, therefore they have a strong link with other characteristics of society.

When the competition for the mosque in Rome was announced, I felt the need to test myself on a theme that I was so passionate about and on which I had several important experiences. I threw myself completely into this job.

The first project has characteristics quite different from the one actually built. What we see today is in fact the result of a fusion between my project and that of Sami Mousawi, an Iraqi architect with an English background. The genesis of the merger of the two projects occurred when, at the time of the choice of two winning groups, it was decided to have the two works evaluated by experts from Cairo. They especially appreciated the interior of my project, which in fact remained similar to the built project, but they also appreciated the project of Mousawi, which was accessible from the street. This road was supposed to remain, in a sense, a public road, however in the climate in which the mosque was built it was immediately decided to surround the lot with an “iron wall”. Initially we had thought of a small road that would join the two elements of which the mosque is constituted. It was Mousawi’s contribution that made it bigger and more monumental. Mousawi first contributed to the elaboration of the project, but then quarreled with the Islamic center, so that the work was basically carried out by me and Gigliotti.

As far as the choice of forms is concerned, obviously the idea of dialogue had a great influence on the project. Islamic and Western culture are not two separate entities. They are two entities that have crossed a lot over time and the impact of Islamic architecture on western architecture is an undeniable fact. Already in the Romanesque, but especially in the Gothic, there is an overwhelming Islamic influence, even if the result is different. I was very interested in this aspect. I studied Guarini, who was the first to be influenced by Islam, and through him I understood that the idea of crossing arches had already been adopted in Romanesque times. It is not excluded that Guarini was inspired by the church of Sant’Evasio in Casale Monferrato, which is perhaps one of the first undoubted Italian examples in which Islamic influence is strong. It is precisely in the Islamic world that the ribs, which were once inside the body of the vault in Roman architecture, become an independent element that even frees itself in space.
For the mosque in Rome, I chose elements that could strengthen this relationship that had existed in different historical periods. Therefore, the choice fell on these intertwined arches.
Also in relation to this logic, another typically Roman idea adopted also by Islam has been taken into consideration, that is, the use of the porticoes.

A further element used as a dialogue tool is given by the conception of concentric circles, which among other things is a bit at the basis of my architectural theory of magnetic fields, according to which the architectural space can be compared to the latter. Therefore, I used these concentric circles to represent, in a certain sense, the multiplicity in unity. The concentric circles, which are then part of the cosmic conception of Islam given by the 7 skies that Mohammed crossed, are precisely at the base of the circle of the dome. As for the general distribution of the volumes, the curvature of these is due, on the one hand, to the magnetic field of the city and on the other hand to the magnetic field typical of Islam, that is, the reference to Mecca. The curvatures in this case are very dampened because the terrain was limited but the concept is the one mentioned above. Physics theorizes the effect from a distance. Similarly, architecture has its own nature that creates an effect a remote distance.
The columns in the project also have a symbolic meaning. These refer to the palm trees in the garden of Muhammad’s house and, at the same time, they want to resume the position of the arms and hands that is taken during the prayer act.
Therefore, I looked for a symbolic dialogue with the means that architecture gives us.

3 – What were the religious, political, architectural and Genius loci issues you had to deal with? What was the spirit of that place and how did you respond to it?

The discourse of dialogue is also valid in this case because, obviously there is a reference to Islamic culture and its relations with the western side but there are also explicit references to the Roman tradition. This idea of intertwined arches had already been used by Borromini for the Chapel of the Tre Magi, probably with the intention of referring to the East. So, for a Borromini scholar like me it seemed almost an obligation to start from there.

Let’s say that there was general approval from the Islamic community, with the exception, however, of some. Those who did not agree were because they wanted a traditional mosque, which had nothing modern, while after all this opening to the new had a weight because since then the tradition of mosques has been greatly enriched and modernized. This was one of the first examples. There was a previous example in London that started from the idea of simplification. In this case, a traditional mosque without decorations was built, enhancing the relationship between the interior space and that of the dome. The genesis of my project, unlike the London one, is much more complex and, perhaps, it is this that has determined a certain critical success.

From the point of view of approval by the Church, it started positively from the beginning. We were immediately after the Council and the latter had been very clear about considering the dialogue between religions as an aspect of evangelization. In this respect, the mosque started without any problems.

A key figure for the success of the operation was the Mayor of that time: Giulio Carlo Argan. In such a violent campaign, where it was thought that everyone was against, for one reason or another, Argan had the strength to impose himself. If there was a political and cultural character who can be considered as the basis of the success of the operation, it was Argan himself.

4 – How and why should architecture respond to the phenomenon of migration?

I do not believe in integration at all; integration is a worse invention than colonialism. Integration means eliminating differences, trying to assimilate those who arrive also from a cultural and religious point of view. And this is really worse than colonialism, because at least colonialism left these gentlemen the homeland, the relationship with the land. Today, however, migrants, in addition to being deprived of their land, are also deprived of those links with their culture of origin. Now, if all this happened spontaneously, within a century this phenomenon would become an inevitable and acceptable thing. Instead, there is a tendency to inculturate and thus deprive these people of their autonomy and identity, which in my opinion is wrong.
It is essential to be able to host these people, leaving them the opportunity to live according to their way of life, allowing them to transform the latter according to their desire and according to the generational instances. Because each generation has its own spirit.

From this point of view, the experience of Strasbourg (the city where Paolo Portoghesi built a second mosque n.d.r.) was very important to me. There is a community that has largely been present for three generations. In France, where there is a similar rootedness, there is a formidable literary and philosophical production, there is this European Islam that evolves according to his desires and not on the basis of an idea of integration of society that leads to eliminate differences until they extinguish. From this point of view, architecture is very important, because it allows immigrants to maintain a link, not so much physical as cultural, with their homeland. It’s a very delicate thing. Islamic culture is experiencing a period of impoverishment. If we compare it to the Islamic culture of 2-3 centuries ago there is no comparison. Just think of the philosophical production that today is almost nothing. Architecture should, in my opinion, not so much experiment with completely new paths, but rather cultivate this operation that I have tried to do, that is to confirm certain aspects of this identity, but at the same time acknowledge that obviously there is another place from which these gentlemen have arrived and that in turn is home to the community that is present there.
A critical confrontation arises from both sides, however if architecture succeeds in confirming this identity, any kind of alliance and assimilation will be possible in the future.

In Italy there is a lot of confusion. The left wing is fully committed to the integration of migrants without realizing its risks, while the right wing only wants to get rid of them under the illusion that this is possible. What nobody can grasp, however, is that these migrations will be increasingly strong in the future, mainly due to the climate changes that will make part of the planet uninhabitable. I do not know how sensitive the new generations are to this issue, but for me it is a fundamental problem that should be tackled by taking the bull by the horns However, today we limit ourselves to observing. Italy is becoming tropical, but the consequences of topicalization are almost unimaginable. Almost nothing is being done to eradicate this problem. Occasionally there is an international meeting which, however, leads to short-range decisions. We do not realize that nature has a force in front of which that of man is ridiculous.

5 – What role does the city of Rome play in the hospitality process?

In my opinion, everything is in this curve, generated by the magnetic field, which represents the city. The city is a reality and whoever arrives, from anywhere in the world, cannot help but feel its influence. Influence, of course, must make freedom possible and to achieve this, the city’s magnetic field must operate without violence and without overwhelming. It is evident that the influence of the city is important, in fact I have always tried to take it into account in my work. I have always researched those traditional aspects of the city, both from the current historical period and from the past. For example, the arcade is almost a forgotten element in the city, is a question mark, why?

That ancient Rome, in which being together was so important, could be something that reappears. The building must, in some sense, record reality and, on the other hand, be prophetic looking towards the future. It must keep something provocative, innovative. This is somewhat the task of architecture, that of making the magnetic field of the city strongly felt without reflecting it passively, but trying to interpret it according to a logic.
Architecture is always a bit of a prophecy, so that’s what I think should be cultivated. Now, the new generations must make their own choices. I have tried to persuade my colleagues to follow this direction, but I have not succeeded. Basically, my operation remains isolated to this day.

6 – What was the link between architecture and politics during the construction of the mosque?

I have witnessed a sort of cancellation of this dimension at the political level. When I was young, political commitment was a fundamental requirement and above all it became so with the generation of my first students, those of ’68. Obviously, my parable, is a parable that has gone through several situations.

At first there was the hope of revolution. When I was a teenager, I realized it was necessary to change the way of life. Obviously the path was that of revolution. I joined the Socialist Party in ’61, when half of the party was made up of anarchists. The life of the Section allowed me to get in touch with people from another social class and above all with a strong desire for liberation. The difference from the communists was that on the one hand we were looking for a rule while on the other we were looking for a climate, not without rules, but of continuous interpretation of the rules. Which was convenient to me at the time.

In 1971 I took part in the attempt to reform the university, which ended with the occupation of the faculty. In the ’80s, back in Rome, I met Craxi. He seemed to me a person who had clear ideas on how to change the way of life and therefore I accepted this desire for a critical reformism which of course was conditioned by the climate in which we found ourselves.
All in all, in the early years of this attempt there was a certain liveliness, there was a wealth of positions. In my opinion, it was undoubtedly one of the few periods of Italian cultural life in which politics was able to combine with culture.

7 – Today we are often uncertain and insecure. We don’t have any point of reference or great ideal to hold on to. We wonder if we don’t need a new style in architecture: style intended as a container of values, concepts, ideals and above all a direction in which to go. Does it make sense today to talk about architectural style?

It makes a lot of sense if we talk about lifestyle which can then translate very well into architecture. The new generation could take on the problem of the environment and, on this basis, try to save humanity from the many risks. Risks such as that of survival, and then move on to saving what is the strongest legacy of the last revolutions: freedom. In my opinion, these two elements would be enough. I continue to teach even though I’m 87 years old. I should perhaps stop pretending to teach, but I persevere because I see a certain heeling but also a certain willingness to engage in the young people I meet.

8 – Making a comparison with the last century, during which the ideological battle between architects belonging to different currents and styles was very strong, today it can be said that there is no longer a stance. There is no longer the same activism that characterized the history of the 20th century architecture. What do you think of it?

I wouldn’t worry so much about this problem. Each generation lives the world differently, the important thing is to live it having the chance to transform it. There is no doubt that the great ideological systems have disappointed. Today we should ask ourselves what’s left of it. We still have the culture, the history, the concrete relationship with things. It is also necessary to know how to identify those aspects of life that require a precise commitment from people. These aspects exist and one cannot escape them.

Undoubtedly the important thing is to work to choose and understand what the problems are to face and tackle them using all the tools offered by yesterday’s world. This is because yesterday’s world is so rich in proposals and tools that we cannot consider ourselves so poor. We are actually rich, also in terms of architecture.

I think there has been a deterioration in the quality of the architecture. There was very little interest in cities. Today, perhaps, thanks also to China, this problem is re-emerging. If you consider that in the 19th century in Europe were built wonderful cities that still work perfectly, today we make the figure of the heatsinks in comparison. We no longer know how to deal with the “problem” of cities.

9 – What is your definition of Architecture?

Let’s say that the purpose of architecture is very clear to me, and at certain times in history this purpose has been achieved: to improve the lives of men. Of course, it’s very generic. Going into a more detailed definition, we can say that architecture is a means that allows man to protect himself from the atmosphere and that allows him, at the same time, to cultivate his social vocation. These are the two basic things. On the one hand, to protect oneself from the atmosphere, on the other, to improve the life of man, helping him to live according to his vocations, which differ from country to country and from climate to climate. In fact, the man managed to do these things, especially at the beginning. At the beginning the small aggregations of people, who know each other and have many elements in common, are almost always very happy as are the architectural forms. I really like African architecture, especially that of the tribes who have achieved this condition of happiness.

Another interesting thing is given by the fact that on one hand there is a tendency to identify the sacred place and on the other a tendency to put the sacred place in the house. All this represents two different degrees of sociality that are achieved through architecture.
Of course, architecture has become a profession. It has become so a bit like politics and like politics we often forget that we have been delegated to do what men did on their own.

10 – How, when and why did you decide that Architecture would be your way?

This happened very early, my father was an engineer, so we often talked about construction at home. Then I was thunderstruck by love for Borromini. When I was still a child, I remember seeing the dome of Sant’Ivo going to school, which for me represented a message. It was something that upset me in a way. An object unlike any other that created a problem. And the fact that architecture could create problems immediately fascinated me.

I was also very interested in literature, but in the end I chose architecture because also dealing with history meant working on several dimensions. Dimensions like that of matter and therefore of forming.

11 – What advice would you like to give to future architects and future architecture professors?

I would tell them to fight for a change of lifestyle. In what direction I don’t know, you have to choose freely discovering it within yourself. A sensational mistake that is normally made is to think that architecture is done by copying what is already there, looking at magazines, etc. … Indeed, we must first give internal answers and then try to make Architecture become thought.

To become professors, instead, a vocation is needed. A vocation to transmit ideas and try to understand how this transmission process can take place in substance. Normally people do not know how to teach, teaching is actually an art based on identification. The teacher must be able to enter the student’s head and understand how this message can be assimilated. Everyone can become a professor, but one must be gifted. Let’s say that the student normally misunderstands, but that’s the beauty of it. After all, thought generates thought, not only mimesis and imitation. That’s the great thing about teaching.

Translated into English by Marco Grattarola.

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Duccio Prassoli Administrator
Graduated at the Department of Architecture in Genoa, he is currently pursuing his Master’s degree at the Polytechnic of Milan. He is interested in the architecture of the 20th century and the influence that this is having on society and contemporary architectural thought.
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