BY BRIAN LIBBY AND JEFF JAHN
There's no doubt that many if not most of famed architect Pietro Belluschi's most prominent and compelling buildings lie within Portland city limits, from the Portland Art Museum and the Equitable Building downtown to a host of churches and single family houses sprinkled throughout the city. Yet for much of the mid-20th Century, of course, Belluschi was gone from his adopted hometown, running the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's architecture school and designing big projects in New York, Boston and San Francisco.
Among these outside-Portland projects, the Pan Am Building (with Walter Gropius) and the Julliard School in New York are probably the best known. But Belluschi's design for the Cathedral of St. Mary of the Assumption in San Francisco is equally compelling and arguably, even more beautiful.
Recently Portland art critic/editor/artist/curator Jeff Jahn, perhaps best known for his PORT blog but a committed and talented architectural photographer as well, visited San Francisco and stopped to photograph Belluschi's St. Mary's. The cathedral was designed in collaboration with Italian engineer-architect Pier Luigi Nervi, the latter of whom was an innovator in the use of reinforced concrete. Belluschi's works from the 1960s and '70s feature a lot of the material, and it was put to no better use than on this project.
"The Belluschi/Nervi cathedral turned out to be one of the highlights of the trip," Jahn wrote by email. "I'm pretty supsicious of collaborations but Nervi/Belluschi was that rare perfect combination. Belluschi is great with light and rich surfaces that highlight that aspect. Nervi is Mr. heavy reinforced concrete and triangles... the two together are like heaven and earth... what a great commission."
St. Mary's was commissioned when its prior cathedral was destroyed by arson in 1962. This was just as Vatican II was convening in Rome; this allowed the Archdiocese of San Francisco to plan boldly in the building of its new cathedral. That resulted in the modern design of the present structure.
The cathedral is particularly distinctive for its saddle roof, which is composed of hyperbolic paraboloids in a manner reminiscent of St. Mary's Cathedral in Tokyo, built earlier that same decade. Some San Franciscans felt it looked like a large washing machine agitator, resulting in its nickname: "Our Lady of Maytag". More positively in its favor, the building was selected in 2007 by the local chapter of the American Institute of Architects for a list of San Francisco's top 25 buildings.
St. Mary's also represents a departure that both Belluschi and modern architects in general seemed to make in the early to mid-1960s. As Meredith Clausen writes in Pietro Belluschi: Modern American Architect, "By the early 1960s interest in white classical temples, expressive thin-shell concrete forms, and decorative structure, which had resulted in a plethora of screens, grilles, brise-soleils, and other shading devices of the latter 1950s, subsided, and design-oriented architects turned toward more muscular, heavy, sculptured buildings inspired by Le Corbusier and Louis Kahn...Instead of a practical means to an end, architecture was embraced as an end in itself, a matter of intellectual, formal, theoretical discourse. This resulted in a split between theory and practice, thinkers and doers, those who talked about architecture and those who built."
Indeed, one can see in St. Mary's the "muscular" materials that Belluschi would also favor in later-career projects like the Oregonian building and the Federal Reserve building, both in downtown Portland. If the '60s construction of St. Mary's also came at a time when theory and practice were breaking apart, Belluschi would see this divergence played out dramatically a decade later with Michael Graves' Portland Building, which Pietro Belluschi vehemently opposed, and a work of architecture that Graves - a quintessential theorist - only really designed the exterior for.
Even though Belluschi's later period favoring these heavy buildings is, in my mind at least, inferior to his earlier period favoring wood, glass and steel, there is unmistakable beauty in St. Mary's that does indeed recall masterworks like Le Corbusier's Church of Saint-Pierre de Firminy in France, which famously evoked a nun's habit (her headwear). Belluschi's design seems to take the curving concrete of Saint-Pierre and combine it sculpturally with the linearity of the cross itself. It took time for San Franciscans to get used to this being a Catholic church, and to abandon their washing-machine references. But now stands a landmark that arguably holds a special title: the best church design from a man for whom churches were arguably his most inspired commissions.