This time of year with spring arriving, sunny and rainy skies can alternate several times a day. And recently I was reminded how important the right light can be for a shot – even in the age of Photoshop.
The other day I happened to be stopping briefly at the University of Portland, so I brought my camera to photograph the beautiful Pietro Belluschi-designed church there. I’d visited the church last summer on a sunny evening, and it looked magnificent. The church is draped in wood, with intricate carvings on the door and front columns made of carved timber. But unfortunately that evening, I didn’t have my camera. When I came back the other day, it was overcast and my pictures turned out pretty lousy.
Trust me, though: this church is a wonder. It’s small, with just a little sky-lit foyer dominated by a baptismal pool that gives way to a square-shaped sanctuary. In that space, a vaulted ceiling culminates in the middle with another sky light. The architecture itself seems to harmonize the secular worship of nature that developed in the 19th & 20th centuries with traditional Christianity—even Catholicism. It’s very Oregon, somehow. And the subtle light inside is enough to make an atheist believe.
When I visited the Belluschi church at UP last summer, it was part of a tour and talk led by architect Joachim Grube, FAIA, of Yost Grube Hall, who worked with Belluschi on the six churches the latter architect designed after returning to Portland from MIT, where Belluschi had been longtime dean of the architecture school. Here are some of Grube’s comments from my notes:
This was the third of Belluschi’s last six churches. Of the six, five have been built. This one here was kind of closest to his heart. It was an accumulation of his wisdom of designing churches over a 50-year period.
This church was a big challenge. Belluschi had his own ambition designing sequences of spaces. This space would serve as a church, but also for events and discussion. From the very beginning, there was a question of where the alter goes. So it’s composed of movable pieces.
Pietro was always obsessed with light. There couldn’t be too much light, and there couldn’t be too little light. The combination of daylight coming through the top and through the lattice at the roof edge, and some of it through the skylight over the fountain, is really the only daylight source. As you would see with the lighting on some of his other churches, he tried to scale down the light source, where you are not that much aware of the features.
It is space that is simple. Pietro had the gift of designing spaces for reflection, spaces that make you contemplate. That is something that you almost cannot learn. It’s all about proportion and the holy emptiness that frees your mind. In this chapel he totally achieved it.
There is no embellishment, except for the screens and the Stations of the Cross. The rest is just the power of structure. What’s so special here is how you move through the succession of public spaces and you’re hardly even aware of the incidental spaces. Every square foot was planned out.
The university gave him all the freedom he wanted, but he was in a constant dialogue about what is the current state of worship. The reaction of designing the baptismal font in the front came out of that. He was published in architectural magazines as far back as the ‘30s writing about church design. He was not only a pragmatist as far as site and surroundings and how to adjust, but he designed with his heart and his head.
As it happens, though, I wound up getting better pictures a few days before visiting the Belluschi church—simply because the light was so much better. Last Sunday afternoon, I happened to see this amazing winter sunset beginning outside, so I ran out and snapped a few shots. A chimp could have taken good shots in this light! It reminds me of those cosmetic surgery ads where the person is scowling in the ‘before’ picture and smiling in the ‘after’ one. Buildings smile in the sun, an obvious dictum admittedly, but one to re-learn every time you go outside.