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Like a young man who still has much to say and do

· The eightieth birthday of Paolo Portoghesi ·

The eightieth birthday of architect Paolo Portoghesi will be celebrated at the Vatican on the occasion of the presentation of the prototypes of the newly re-furbished Salone Sistino (Sistine Salon), which will soon be re-opened to scholars of the Apostolic Library as a new room for study.

We asked him how he felt about presenting this project on such a significant anniversary. He told us that he had the feeling of going back in time, “to that winter morning made crystal clear by the north winds. It was 1952 and I had just turned 21 years old – the age at which I could obtain permission to enter the Vatican Library. I went with a letter of presentation from Rudolf Wittcower. I wanted to study two codex which Cardinal Ehrle had bought at Campo de’ Fiori, belonging to Virgilio Spada, which contained some twenty drawings by Borromini. So began my career as a scholar and architect. I was in my second year at university and my vocation to design and construction was born under the auspices of Borromini. Studying his drawings, it seemed as if he were with me, as a teacher and spiritual father, much closer than my university professors who were architects from the old regime and were rarely seen. Analyzing the two Vatican codex, I published a drawing for the first time, which I attributed to Villa Pamphili at San Pancrazio. It was one of the most talked about Borrominian drawings of the last few decades.”

For Portoghesi, his eightieth birthday is a beautiful threshold which he crosses with the allure of a young man who still has much to say and do. To summarize the man and artist in just a few lines, seems a titanic undertaking to us.

Like many authentic artists, Portoghesi has never ceased fighting for his ideas, which often create waves among the so-called experts of international architecture. He is responsible for the development of “geo-architecture,” a new school of thought which highlights the value of difference, convincing the archistar to respect and defend the genius loci of the places in which he is called to work. Portoghesi’s architecture is never self-referential, because it is based on a sense of responsibility as the aim of ethics.

A profound religious sense emanates from both his work and his writings. In 1992, he organized an exhibition at the Giudecca in Venice entitled, Architecture and Sacred Space in Modernity. It was his last show as President of the Biennale of Venice. On that occasion, Portoghesi cited Pascal’s tormented and unending dialogue with the sacred, “ You would not seek me if you had not found me ,” almost as a declaration of poetics.

Amongst Portoghesi’s objective merits, there is that of having always respected and valued his colleagues. A splendid example of this was the celebrated Via Novissima , at the Arsenale of Venice in 1979 which had been reduced to storehouse of war surplus from the First World War. Portoghesi cleaned it up and brought in workers from Cinecittà to construct twenty façades of buildings of a modern metropolis, signed by the most famous architects in the world. To be able to walk through and touch the life-size works not only made the project appeal to the public but gave it planetary success, as the exhibit subsequently traveled to Paris and San Francisco.

When it comes to speaking frankly about colleagues, however, Portoghesi does not hesitate. He said, “one of the strange things about Italy is that is manages to extract from architects of the ‘star system’ their worst works.” And on architecture, he says, “we need to de-throne the idea of architecture seen only as art, because it deprives it of its vital nutrients…That which I call ‘geo-architecture’ is a discipline which deals with indispensible elements: the need to be an ally of the earth, to dialogue and come to an agreement with nature, not just to save energy, but to realize the fullness of being.”

Before taking our leave, we wanted to ask him about his admiration for Benedict XVI. “I have read many of his books, written when he was Cardinal and Pope, and I always found a strength of certainty in his words. He is usually accused of being a conservative Pope, but I think, on the contrary, he is an innovator, because, preserving the energy of the faith from dispersion, he will allow Christianity to dialogue with modern culture and not passively accept its influence, but correct its course. I think what he says about the duty of Christians to protect creation and the invitation to turn the page of consumerism and waste are important. The teaching of Benedict XVI on ecology and respect for creation helps us to understand that a return to Christian roots could save the earth from the negative actions of man…”

And with this hope, we say goodbye to each other.

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St. Peter’s Square

Dec. 9, 2018

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