“To achieve equilibrium between human existence and the absolute, and therefore to attend to both spiritual and physical needs.” This statement made by the Aga Khan is perfectly reciprocated by Indian architect Raj Rewal in his design of The Lisbon Ismaili Center. The centre was built as a central landmark for the local Ismaili community to gather and contemplate and propagate principles of social harmony.
Architecture and Islam always aim to attain a state of equilibrium, and this building is the perfect example.
Ismaili centres are landmarks that act as a central gathering spot for the Ismaili community. They act as a cultural safe zone that helps reflect the spiritual values of this distinct Islamic community. These sites usually include quiet and peaceful spots, where people might gather and engage in contemplation and thought, to promote a feeling of social harmony and peace. Their design usually includes large congregational halls and gardens that present a strong connection to the history of the community.
Raj Rewal, while designing the Ismaili Center in Lisbon, along with Portuguese architect Frederico Valsassina, focused on recreating traditional Islamic architecture from India, with great emphasis given to the principles, elements, and embellishments of Indian Islamic architecture, the Iberian Peninsula, and the local Portuguese scene as well.
Rewal translated the rich, geometric formwork and spatial arrangements of the traditional models into a more modern design that reflected the time’s technological advancement, adding in his trademark design features as well. Specifically, the design uses Lisbon’s Monastery of the Hieronymites, India’s Fatehpur Sikri, and Spain’s Alhambra as main inspiration points to further reflect on the great cultural connection.
Raj Rewal created the design based on the concept of the Char Bagh, a design basis that is seen largely in the Mughal Architecture of India (which offers a continuous inspiration point for Rewal). He designed the main building using an arrangement of basic geometric modules and placed it within this concept of “four parts”—a replica of the ancient Persian and Indian gardens. With its built forms, courtyards, and gardens, the entire area is designed to provide a sense of spiritual tranquillity.
The main building consists of religious halls, social halls, classrooms, an amphitheater, and an exhibition gallery. The Aga Khan Development Panel, which works through the Aga Khan Foundation, has its main office in the center. This foundation deals with the organization in various parts of the area’s religious, educational, and health aspects, especially in pre-school education.
The center houses two Jamatkhanas, one which consists of a large courtyard covered by 35 domes, that acts as a gathering spot for the community on special occasions, and a smaller one for a smaller group of people.
The walls of the reception, the main entry point, are decorated with tiling on which is written the 98 names of Allah. The tiling with the Islamic inscriptions showcased a blend of the Islamic and the local Portuguese culture, as tiling is an age-old tradition in the country. Many other building elements, such as the walls, windows, etc., are also covered with various forms of geometric Islamic designs. It uses a combination of textures and patterns throughout the interiors, with shades and forms that further enhance the tranquil nature of the space.
In terms of construction, Raj Rewal had a great initial focus on the engineering constraints of the project and worked in consultation with Peter Rice. He assured that the project incorporates various architectural elements of the traditional models, provides great visual interest, and also remains completely functional. The building is covered with a façade of Pink Granite and Steel, with a very geometric Islamic design.
This façade further connects the design to the past Islamic culture but does so with a more modern language in terms of modern tools and technology. The structural latticework, contributing a great amount visually, offers great support and strength to the building as well, in an otherwise Earthquake-prone zone. Due to this probable problem, the structure, predominantly made of Lioz stone and glass, holds domes that are all supported on prestressed cables.
Raj Rewal gave great attention to the surrounding garden area as well and kept the ancient Persian gardens as his main inspiration point. He featured geometric landscape elements, directive water fountains, and a wide variety of Mediterranean flora, as seen in the orange groves and more traditional Portuguese species of flowering plants all around the garden.
The garden radiates calmness and tranquillity, and was made to offer peaceful solace from the noisy outer environment, a kind of passage between the internal and the external world.
The Lisbon Ismailli center is a perfect extension of Raj Rewal’s string of accomplished projects and is seen to be a great continuation of his trademark style and design. He designed a structure that was a perfect combination of the diverse cultures present in the region and helped translate traditional design elements and principles of these cultures into a more modern design, using the innovative techniques of the time. He created a space that reflected the main principles of the Ismailli community—offering a space of peace and serenity—where one could learn and reflect on a final social and cultural harmony.