Pietro Belluschi, photo by Gjon Mill for Life Magazine, 1956
On Wednesday of this week (April 14), City Council took up the issue of Memorial Coliseum's redevelopment and the three finalists forwarded by the Mayor Adams-chaired Stakeholder Advisory Committee.
The Council wound up approving unanimously the three finalists forwarded by the SAC: the Trail Blazers' restoration of Memorial Coliseum as well as plans by the Memorial Athletic Recreation Complex (MARC) and Veterans Memorial Arts & Athletic Center (VMAAC) to demolish the National Register-listed landmark's interior.
The grassroots group that I belong to, Friends of Memorial Coliseum, worked to bring several citizens to testify about the importance of saving the building inside and out. But because Council's "time certain" hearing at 2:30pm was delayed by some three hours, many of the people we had lined up to testify had to leave before their chance at the microphone finally came.
Mike McCulloch, former head of the city's Design Commission, was one such testifier unable to pitch a tent in Council chambers who eventually had to leave. Another was Jeff Belluschi, grandson of Pietro Belluschi, the most renowned architect Portland has ever produced and designer of landmarks like the Portland Art Museum and the Equitable Building (the world's first modern office building) as well as the Pan-Am Building and Juilliard School in New York.
Memorial Coliseum, photo by Brian Libby
Because they didn't get to hear it, I'd like to present Jeff Belluschi's statement to City Council:
Mayor Adams and City Council members-
I’m Jeff Belluschi, a Portland businessman and the oldest grandchild of Portland architect Pietro Belluschi.
My grandfather apprenticed with the architect AE Doyle beginning in 1925. Doyle began his own apprenticeship in Portland in 1892. When he passed away in January 1928, The Oregonian labeled him the “designer of Portland’s skyline.” Doyle dreamed of a city wherein there would be no ugliness, no harshness of line, no incongruity of details.
Pietro bought out the other Doyle office partners in 1943 and the firm became Pietro Belluschi Architects. The success of Northwest regionalism and modernist works by Pietro brought national acclaim. In 1951, Pietro became Dean of Architecture at MIT and the firm became Belluschi & Skidmore Owings and Merrill or B/SOM until 1956 when SOM and Pietro parted. SOM was drawn to the Northwest after opening a San Francisco office, its first on the West Coast. At the time Belluschi Architects was the largest firm in the NW and SOM saw an opportunity in Portland to align with a prominent office not found in Seattle. SOM was the largest and most respected architectural firm in America. SOM Portland designed Memorial Coliseum.
I give this history lesson so that all here today are reminded of historical context and continuum. It all began with a vision by AE Doyle in 1906: “all new things built with the idea of preserving the beauty of the city and adding to it”.
The modern movement was very much a product of its times. There was a fascination with the promise of technology. Integral to the design ethos was the element of light and simplicity of design void of excess ornamentation so prevalent in the early 20th century. By the late fifties our country’s optimism and look to a fabulous future were unbridled. Memorial Coliseum is a stunning example of this mindset. Rockets, man on the moon, television: the world was in a flux of change for the good. Look to Seattle and the stunning remnant of the 1962 World’s Fair-the Seattle Center.
In 1982 Douglas Gantenbein wrote in NW Magazine, “Portland is perceived as a city that with few exceptions survived the vicissitudes of the 20th century urban growth through an enlightened political process, a conscientious design community and a general commitment to retain the qualities passed on by settlers who built for the long haul”. Memorial Coliseum was both designed and built for the “long haul”. Fifty years young Memorial Coliseum needs some care and respect as an architectural jewel.
Yesterday, I spoke with the architect Saul Zaik, who worked at SOM at the time Memorial Coliseum was designed. Shortly after its completion Portland hosted a national AIA convention at Memorial Coliseum. Architects from all over the country were amazed at it’s beauty and uniqueness. Saul laments that the jewel has been neglected and we are here today contemplating changes that would destroy the harmony of the classical bowl and glass box that is Memorial Coliseum.
Almost thirty years ago Saul and my grandfather sat in these chambers attempting to dissuade the city council from selecting Michael Graves’ design for the Portland Building. The renowned architect Moshe Safdie referred to the Portland Building in The Atlantic Monthly “a private joke in a public space”. Memorial Coliseum deserves careful thought and consideration going forward today.
In 1951 Pietro spoke at Reed College and imparted the following words of wisdom: It is important to “retain a respect for the symbols and forms of the past because people need them and live by them to a greater extent than is realized. They furnish a feeling of continuity which give them faith in their evolution.”
It is in this historical context of continuity that we must savor and allow Memorial Coliseum to remain intact as originally designed for future generations.
Thank you for listening Mayor Adams and City Council members.
The bottom line from Jeff, as his statement describes, is that there is a direct lineage between Pietro Belluschi, A.E. Doyle, and Memorial Coliseum. The greatest architects in Portland's history lead directly to that building. What's more, as Jeff also notes, Skidmore Owings & Merrill is perhaps America's most accomplished architecture firm of the 20th Century.