In today's Oregonian, Tom Hallman reports on a horrible situation regarding one of the great Pietro Belluschi's most important works that I and the rest of the architectural community should have been on top of awhile ago.
Belluschi, as most readers know, is by far the most significant architect Portland has ever produced. His Equitable Building downtown was the world's first modern glass-and-aluminum clad office building. His Portland Art Museum design counted Frank Lloyd Wright among its biggest fans. He also co-designed New York's Julliard School at Lincoln Center and, with the legendary Walter Gropius, the landmark Pan-Am building.
Local churches are, along with single-family homes, some of Belluschi's most important local landmarks. And no other Portland church is more significant architecturally than Central Lutheran. Of particular note was its distinctive bell tower, a series crisscrossing wood stacked boxes that celebrates the natural materials of the Northwest and incorporates simple, elegant modernism into an ecclesiastical context with exceptional visual, sculptural poetry. Belluschi made a beautiful modern temple to God.
And in 2005, fearing the bell tower's deferred maintenance (dry rot had set in) might cause it to fall down, Central Lutheran's leaders actually defied historic preservation laws and demolished the tower.
Granted, it's mostly a financial issue. The church had spent over a million dollars renovating when they realized the tower needed fixing or replacing. They were told it would cost at least $150,000 to do so. And meanwhile, historic preservation laws were in place to prevent them from tearing down this important piece of architecture.
So you know what they did? They ignored the law that said, "Thou shall not desecrate a hugely important work of architecture by Portland's greatest architect of all time," and just did it anyway.
I would be less angry and more sympathetic towards Central Lutheran if not for this: In Hallman's article today, the church leaders actually complained that their structure is bound by historic preservation laws. "What were they going to do," one church member said to Hallman, "fine a church?"
Well, what other alternative does the city have? Should we let religious institutions get away with spitting in the face of local architecture and then telling us we're wrong for caring about preserving the city's most important landmarks?
I'm so frustrated that a church, a place that is supossed to be a community gathering place that represents the best in all of us -- our greatest good will and humility and the enduring bonds between us -- would be so unbelievably self centered. Don't they realize that their church will still be there, and will still be important to Portland, long after every single member of that congregation is gone? That's a responsibility they're not only denying, but complaining that we should hold them to.
This is the second time in a year that a local church has shown an absolutely appalling lack of concern for the architecture entrusted to their care. Last year First Christian Church bulldozed the historic Rosefriend Apartments downtown so they could build a ginormous half-block condo with acres of underground parking. Their leadership was actually quoted as saying they were in the business of saving souls, not buildings. Well, even though I believe in God, I would never, ever set foot in any church that displays that kind of attitude about the historic buildings in its community, especially the very architecture they've been entrusted with watching over. Talk about robbing Peter to pay Paul!
Ultimately, of course, we shouldn't scold Central Lutheran Church but help them instead. Two years ago, back when this architectural catastrophe first happened, we in the architecture and design community should have gotten actively involved with the church trying to raise money to restore the Belluschi-designed tower.
Considering the millions of dollars being invested in condos and offices all over Portland, or $100 million being donated for a basketball arena (although it is for my beloved Ducks), we as a community should be able to help Central Lutheran come up with $150,000 to fix the tower.
Because it's our tower as much as Central Lutheran's.
And with respect to the media, it's very unfortunate that I and so many others are only reading about this when there's the controversy of the church potentially being fined by the city. Why can't we in the media be out in front of these stories, warning about a fire about to start instead of just reporting on the flames?
Whether it's the American Institute of Architects (a sponsor of this site), the Architectural Foundation of Oregon, or a grassroots effort, we need to get to work on fixing Belluschi's tower at the church Central Lutheran inhabits. And while I am certainly a sinner myself, like virtually anyone, the leadership of Central Lutheran needs to get down on their knees, asking God and Pietro Belluschi up in architects' heaven for forgiveness.