Story of a postmodern Italian architect

On 30 May 2023, the world bade farewell to Paolo Portoghesi, a visionary architect who died at the age of 91 in his home in Calcata, Lazio. He left an indelible mark on the world of architecture and architectural history

Born in Rome in 1931, Paolo Portoghesi grew up amid the Italian capital’s architectural marvels, sparking in the young Portoghesi a lifelong passion for architecture that set him on a path to pioneer Italian postmodern architecture. Portoghesi’s career was characterized by his exploration of the Italian Baroque, which he sought to revive in an innovative, modern style with influences from modern architects like Victor Horta and Frank Lloyd Wright.

One of Portoghesi’s most celebrated architectural masterpieces is Casa Baldi, a residential gem located in Rome. Built between 1959 and 1961, according to Portoghesi’s architectural manifesto, this unique residence embodied the innovative zeitgeist of its time, igniting a spirited debate within the design community with articles appearing in architectural digests all over the world and even in the New York Times.

The rooftop terrace of Casa Baldi with commanding views of Rome

The house is a harmonious fusion of curves and overhangs, taking inspiration from Borromini’s style and the surrounding landscape. The use of tufa stone, a material sourced from a local quarry, connects the building with its natural setting, blending seamlessly with the hilly terrain. Casa Baldi stands as a testament to Portoghesi’s philosophy of incorporating elements of nature, history, and tradition into his designs.

My family bought the house from the cinematographer Gian Vittorio Baldi in the 1970s. I was privileged to spend the majority of my childhood there, and its impact on my work is inestimable. I admired the detailed metalwork and how it gracefully merged with the overall design. The intricate use of bricks formed a connection with the interior elements, such as the vault at the entrance or the red brick fireplace and the exterior finishes. The terrace boasted a vista of the Tiber, the course of which seamlessly harmonizes with the exterior walls’ meandering curves. This marvelous design experiment epitomizes the connection between architecture and nature that was so innovative at the time the house was built.

Celebrating light and shadows through clever design

The garden surrounding the house is particularly captivating, providing ever-changing and breathtaking views that could be enjoyed from the rooms in the house. A large window in the main living space allows natural light to flood the interior, creating a warm and welcoming atmosphere amplified by a beautiful fireplace.

In 1966, Portoghesi founded Controspazio, an architectural journal of which he remained editor until 1983. He subsequently spent six years editing the influential larger format magazine Eupalino, through which he was able to communicate his ideas to a wider audience.

A view of the garden from Casa Baldi

As director of the inaugural Venice Architecture Biennale in 1980, Portoghesi devised a project called The Presence of the Past. He brought together around twenty international architects to design facades for the 70-meter-long Strada Novissimainside the Corderie of the Arsenale. With an attendance of over 2,000 visitors a day, the exhibition was an enormous success and went on to be shown in Paris and San Francisco.

As a result, Portoghesi was invited to curate the second International Architecture Exhibition of the Venice Biennale, titled Architecture in Islamic Countries, which in his own words, represented “a spirit of cultural dialogue.” In 1984 Portoghesi completed arguably the most important work of his career: the Islamic Cultural Centre of Italy and Grand Mosque of Rome. It remains the largest mosque in Europe by area at an impressive 30,000 m2 and is able to accommodate more than 12,000 worshippers.

The red brick vaulted staircase of Casa Baldi and its distinctive metalwork railings

Ever the visionary, he was responsible for the 2019 renovation of Casa Baldi after it was bought from my family. His final work enshrined his legacy and brought his career full circle as the house now serves as a creative center for Casalgrande Padana, open to the public as a showroom and events space.

Cover: Interior of Casa Baldi showing off its distinct geometric pink terracotta tiles
Photography by Elena Rajani