Think Out Loud

Pietro Belluschi’s architectural legacy lives on in Oregon

By Sage Van Wing (OPB)
May 15, 2024 11:06 p.m.

Broadcast: Thursday, May 16

You may not know it, but you’ve likely encountered a building designed by Pietro Belluschi before. The notable modernist architect designed over 30 public buildings in Portland and around Oregon, and numerous homes and churches. Belluschi was known as one of a group of architects creating a distinctive Northwest modernist style that matched his buildings to the landscape. Brian Libby, freelance architecture and design journalist, joins us to talk about Belluschi’s legacy which he recently wrote about in Oregon ArtsWatch.


Note: The following transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer.

Dave Miller: This is Think Out Loud on OPB. I’m Dave Miller. You may not know it, but you’ve probably walked by or been inside a building designed by Pietro Belluschi. The architect created over 30 public buildings in Portland and around Oregon, along with homes and churches. That is in addition to major works around the country. Belluschi was known as one of a group of architects who created a distinctive Northwest modernist style that matched buildings to their landscapes. Brian Libby is a freelance architecture and design journalist. He joins us now to talk about Belluschi’s legacy, which he recently wrote about in Oregon Arts Watch. Welcome back to the show.

Brian Libby: Thanks, Dave. Nice to be here.

Miller: Belluschi was an immigrant. He was born in Italy. What brought him to Oregon?

Libby: Well, he got his architecture degree at the University of Rome initially, and then he came to the United States to study at Cornell University for graduate school. Actually. he got his engineering degree in Rome initially and then studied architecture at Cornell, and he initially kind of wanted to make his way west just to see it before returning to Italy. He ended up working in a mine in Idaho, I believe. And then Mussolini was starting to gain power in Italy and his family actually advised him to stay in the United States.

He came to Portland with a letter of introduction to A. E. Doyle, who was really Portland’s most important early 20th century architect, designed things like the Central Library, Meier and Frank, Reed College. And so Belluschi was lucky to get a job with Portland’s top architect. And he really just kind of fell in love with the city and made it his home.

Miller: Do you see an immigrant’s story or an immigrant’s experience in the way Belluschi created buildings?

Libby: Absolutely. I think of that saying that sometimes it’s not the people who grew up in a church who are the most pious; it’s the people who are born again. And I think that outside perspective made him love the Pacific Northwest. He had grown up in Italy where it was mostly masonry buildings. And I think he was in awe of our forests and really keen to use wood as a construction and architectural material. And you see that in his architecture. It’s really a celebration of wood.

Miller: And then your theory could be partly because he was so enamored with what was new to him, what was different from what he was used to?

Libby: Absolutely. Here in the Pacific Northwest, even though Portland is a big city, we so much are dwarfed by the landscape here. I’ve heard it said that Portland’s greatest architectural icon of our skyline is actually Mount Hood. And I think that’s something that Belluschi would have agreed with. He really believed that nature, more than architecture, was what he revered.

Miller: When did he start to make a name for himself in Portland?

Libby: Well, he had been working for A. E. Doyle, like I said, the city’s most famous, acclaimed architect at the time, but it really starts with the Portland Art Museum, completed in 1932. Pietro really had to convince the museum’s trustees to give him a chance because he wasn’t a celebrated name himself. But he had been taking classes at the Museum Art School and had formed a relationship with Anna Belle Crocker and other people running the museum there. And he faced some moments of doubt. The trustees really wanted him to design a traditional style, a Georgian style building.

There was a famous story where Belluschi actually wrote a letter to Frank Lloyd Wright and shared the preliminary design of the Portland Art Museum with Frank Lloyd Wright, the very one that the trustees were in the process of rejecting. And Frank Lloyd Wright sent a letter back to Pietro, which was shared with the trustees, giving “a vote of confidence to my dear Belluschi” as he put it, and said that this design would mark an advancement of the culture of Portland. And that letter from Frank Lloyd Wright actually proved to be instrumental in convincing the trustees to give Pietro the commission and to let him design a modern building. And that was the early thirties, so that was pretty early for modernism. There wasn’t a lot of modernist architecture in the United States at the time.

Miller: But in other words, they trusted this great man, Frank Lloyd Wright, over their own earlier concerns. This letter of recommendation overrode their concerns?

Libby: Yeah. I mean, here they are in Portland and they’re getting basically a contact from the world’s most famous architect of the time saying give this kid a chance.

Miller: So how did that lead to more work for Belluschi?

Libby: Well, it was slow, but over the 1930s and ‘40s, he started to build a name for himself and he worked in a variety of scales, as you mentioned, at the outset. He really was instrumental in residential style and houses in what’s called the Northwest style, kind of our own brand of modernism. There had been this international modernism developing in the 1930s, but it had certain aspects that weren’t really practical for our rainy climate – flat roofs, for example – so Pietro Belluschi is one of the principal authors of our own kind of adapted modern style, along with architect John Yeon.

They did things like give the houses pitched roofs and they were made out of wood instead of glass and steel. And they really took inspiration from some of our own vernacular, like old barns here. They really took an influence from Japanese architecture as well. They had these kind of large overhanging roofs and glass walls so they could bring in a lot of light but keep you sheltered from the rain as well.

So it happened on a residential scale, and then, as I wrote about recently in this article that you mentioned, he really got involved in designing churches as well, maybe starting in 1940 with the St. Thomas More Catholic Church. Then truly flourishing in the 1950s with Zion Lutheran Church in 1950, Central Lutheran Church in 1951, and a few others.

Miller: I want to hear more about the churches and your experience in them. But to go back to the residential designs, what is just one of them that stands out to you? And what’s it like inside?

Libby: My favorite is probably the Sutor House, which I believe was completed in 1938. It really is a twin of sorts with a house by the architect John Yeon, called the Watzek House. And when you go inside these houses, they too, were a celebration of wood. My favorite thing at a couple of the Belluschi houses that I’ve been to is that they have these woven wood ceilings and it almost seems like a kind of fabric tapestry, only it’s actually pieces of wood that are woven together.

At the Sutor House, you really see the influence of Japanese architecture as well. It looks like a little Buddhist temple, almost. Pietro was able to work with a significant Japanese landscape architect who he befriended when he was speaking at the University of Oregon. So you really see that Japanese influence throughout and it’s got many different types of wood in it as well. I think in the Sutor House, which I wrote about for Dwell magazine a few years ago, there’s also a Zebrawood wall in it. I barely even heard of Zebrawood to be honest. But you see wide open spaces that are part of all kinds of modern houses, regardless of whether they’re in the Northwest or not. So they really kind of prefigured some of the ways we would consider just a normal part of a house today, like the living room and the dining room were all kind of one space.


Miller: As opposed to fully parceled out, small Victorian chambers.

Libby: Exactamundo.

Miller: So, let’s turn to his churches. You say that it may be, in some ways, his best work, the various churches he did. Can you describe one that he built in San Francisco?

Libby: Yes, it’s called Cathedral of Saint Mary of the Assumption. And it just might be my favorite Pietro Belluschi building, to be honest. It sometimes has been nicknamed “the washing machine,” but it has this shape, I think it’s called a hyperbolic paraboloid. It’s really this work of soaring geometry and it’s not wood at all. It’s all about concrete. He worked with this Italian engineer named Pier Luigi Nervi, who was kind of a master of concrete and built some of the first concrete dome stadiums and arenas in Italy. And it is really this soaring large-scale work that would dwarf the churches that he did here in Portland in size. So it goes to show that he wasn’t only the wood guy, but it sort of towers above its neighborhood in a way that feels like it’s one of his crowning achievements, and the chance to work at a really massive scale.

The only thing I can think of from his own portfolio that would be that big would be the Pan Am Building in New York City, obviously a big prominent skyscraper.

Miller: It’s a 60-story building.

Libby: Yes. But the Cathedral of Saint Mary, I happened to visit it for the first time in 2019, and was just absolutely blown away. Inside and out, it must be about maybe 10 stories on the inside. And it looks almost like an abstract sculpture of a building. But it’s just really incredible.

Miller: The Central Lutheran Church in Portland’s Irvington neighborhood is on a much smaller scale than you’ve just described. But you wrote about it really lovingly in your recent essay for Oregon Art Watch. Can you describe that building?

Libby: Yeah. I felt like I was in this cocoon of natural wood stained maple. And I think a lot of modernism originally was associated with making this utterly clean break from the past and from tradition. But there, you feel like a kind of modernism that is a continuation. I think there was a speech Belluschi made to that congregation that I even quoted in the article where he said, “I’m not trying to break with tradition. I love gothic churches, for example. But the problem is we’re not living in a gothic time.” And so he saw what he was doing as a continuation of traditional architecture and a traditional church architecture. And you see little hints of that, like the exposed wood ceiling beams have this little hint of a gothic arch, but everything is kind of reduced. It’s like if you’re a chef doing a kind of wine reduction that just only intensifies the flavor there. So you get a really beautiful sense of the material itself.

Then there are just these clean lines and you see the actual kind of structural engineering expressed, like all the ceiling beams are visible. And it’s just this kind of simple poetry of wood on the inside. From the outside, it’s clad in brick and wood. So it’s more recalling maybe some of the buildings that he would have grown up with in Italy. But I just felt this poetry on the inside and felt really moved.

I had this incredible experience where I was leaving at the end of the day and I think I was the last visitor of the day and they told me to let the staff know when I was leaving so they could lock up. And this pastor there happened to be the last person at the church with me. We got talking about the acoustics and she said, “Well, have you ever heard music there?” And I said no. And she said, “Well, you got to come with me.” So we go into the sanctuary and she pulls out her hymn book and starts singing this hymn of “Of the Father’s Love Begotten,” I believe it was called, and sings acapella, this beautiful hymn for me. And wood has great acoustics as well, and I’m sure that was on Belluschi’s mind. It’s a practical material, as well as a beautiful one.

So it was just kind of handed me on a silver platter in terms of being a writer, something beautiful to write about. But I have such a vivid memory. I told her, I’d remember it for many years beyond this article, just this experience of this pastor singing to me. And I haven’t been to church myself in a real long time, Dave. But I felt like I had an almost religious experience without going to church.

Miller: What’s happening with this particular building right now?

Libby: Well, it’s for sale and that’s a little bit of a vulnerable moment for the church. Their congregation unfortunately has dwindled over the years and they’ve been really good caretakers of this building. So it’s with great reluctance that they put it up for sale, but its future is a little bit uncertain. It could be another congregation that takes it over. There were some representatives of a Jewish synagogue that were there, looking at the church as a possibility to purchase it. And we got talking with them as well and I was really intrigued by the possibility of it becoming a synagogue, and think it would be probably pretty adaptable to that. The Gothic Arch is notwithstanding, but technically, something else could happen entirely. It could become a performance base. That would actually be kind of neat in a way. I remember seeing a lot of that when I visited Europe, for example, arts and performance spaces from old deconsecrated churches.

Miller: Or even in Portland, in Northeast Portland there, that’s already happened in some places.

Libby: Absolutely.

Miller: Alberta Abbey comes to mind.

Libby: Yeah, I’ve been to concerts there. That’s great too and I think it’s less likely that would be torn down, but not impossible. It’s near the Northeast Broadway, just a block off of Northeast Broadway. And God forbid, I guess it could become a strip mall or something.

Miller: So it’s not protected in any way? It’s not on the National Register of Historic Places, for example?

Libby: I think it is on the National Register, but that is something surmountable if you’re a developer and you buy the land and the building, and you want it gone. In most cases, the National Register is not going to be the ultimate defense.

Miller: Where would you put Pietro Belluschi now, in terms of the history of Oregon architecture? What is his place?

Libby: Well, if I was to do something as kind of tried and simplistic as making a top five, he would probably still be number one. I’ve called him the patron saint of Portland architecture and in the mid 20th century, he would have been considered what you might today call a “starchitect” along with people like Eero Saarinen or, or Richard Neutra or, or other famous architects of that time. And maybe today he’s not as much of a household name to people nationally and internationally. But there are still a fair amount of Pietro Belluschi buildings in Portland that are of great significance. And certainly, we have had architects in our own time who have been significant in one way or another. An architect named Brad Cloepfil is someone who comes to mind who has really established a great career, and there are a number of others. But I think most architecture people would rank Belluschi as the most significant architect that has been associated with Portland.

Miller: Brian, thanks very much for coming in.

Libby: Thank you so much.

Miller: Brian Libby is a freelance architecture and design journalist. You can read his recent article about Pietro Belluschi, in particular Belluschi’s work in churches at Oregon Arts Watch.

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