The Ismaili Centre, Lisbon recently served as a gateway for the public to learn about how the faith and values of a Muslim community can express themselves in the design of a building. Over the weekend of 11 – 12 October, the Ismaili Centre was one of 70 locations in the Portuguese capital to take part in Lisboa Open House, an annual event that is part of the worldwide Open House concept to raise awareness about spaces of architectural and cultural value.
Several hundred visitors dropped in over the weekend to discover the building and the community whose name it bears. Portuguese architect Frederico Valsassina, who worked with the Raj Rewal, the architect of the Centre was also present during the tours.
The Ismaili Centre is no stranger to visitors — thousands have toured the building since it’s inauguration in 1998. In addition to experiencing the architecture of the building, guests also have a chance to learn about a long-established Muslim community living in a predominantly Catholic Christian country.
For many, a visit to the Centre “is the first opportunity to hear about Islam, about the community and the institutions,” explains Zohora Pirbhai, a volunteer tour guide. In her tours, Pirbhai focuses “on the elements of diversity in Islam and of the interpretative communities, on the values of Islam, such as peace, respect and mutual assistance,” she says, noting that guests often arrive with stereotypes that are “important to deconstruct.”
The Ismaili Centre in Lisbon is part of a network of landmark buildings in London, Vancouver, Dubai, Dushanbe, and Toronto. In addition to marking the presence of Ismaili communities around the world, the Centres hold events to exchange ideas, contribute to knowledge and raise awareness about compelling world issues through public debate, dialogue and community engagement.
Visitors to the Open House learnt about the Ismaili community in Portugal and around the world, its Shia interpretation within the wider faith traditions of Islam, and how the ethics of that faith express themselves in the institutions and work of the Jamat and the Ismaili Imamat. Emphasis was placed on the relationship between the architecture of the building and the history and values of a Muslim community that has been in Portugal for decades.
Frederico Valsassina commented that the Ismaili Centre was designed as a place of gathering that would incorporate social, cultural and religious space, and reflect the community’s past and forward-looking objectives, which included contributing towards the country’s economic development.
“The biggest challenge for the architects of the Ismaili Centre,” says Valsassina, “was to understand the Islamic culture and how well integrated the Ismaili community is in Portugal.”
Judging by the reactions of Open House visitors, that challenge was successfully met.
“It’s a magnificent architectural masterpiece,” said one visitor after completing a tour of the complex. “It’s like a monument — a national monument within the city.”
“The Ismaili Centre is directly linked with a religion that I wasn’t very aware of,” said another Open House guest.
“I leave today much more informed and enriched.”