BY BRIAN LIBBY
Last week I made an overdue trip to the Oregon Historical Society, to see the wonderfully evocative and informative exhibit on Pietro Belluschi, Portland's most celebrated and important architect. Curated by Anthony (his son) and Martha Belluschi, the exhibit brings alive the succession of journeys Pietro Belluschi made over the course of his life: from a young Italian soldier and WWI veteran to an American who helped guide the course of the nation's architecture, for example, or from an early modernist designing small Oregon houses to one responsible for some of the most prominent buildings in the world.
In a career that lasted some 70 years, Belluschi designed over one thousand buildings, most notably the circa-1947 Equitable Building in Portland (now known as the Commonwealth), credited as the first modern office building in the world for its now-commonplace aluminum and glass curtain wall; the Portland Art Museum, which was built in a modernist style in the early 1930s after successfully enlisting Frank Lloyd Wright to help sell the conservative museum trustees on the design; and a collaboration with Bauhaus founder Walter Gropius on New York's Pan-Am building.
One of my favorite parts of the Oregon Historical Society exhibit was the display of Belluschi'searly Portland Art Museum design iterations. The museum's trustees had wanted a Georgian-style building, like Central Library downtown, by Belluschi's boss, A. E. Doyle. But Belluschi knew he was on the right side of architectural history. "My dear Belluschi," Frank Lloyd Wright wrote in a letter to the Portland architect, "I think your plan simple and sensible and the exterior would mark an advance in culture for Portland." Wright made sure the museum got the word, too.
Belluschi would go on to be a major player in the design of the Northwest regional style of residential architeture (along with John Yeon and others), as well as that of the post-World War II American skyscraper. But it may be the succession of churches he designed throughout his career that are the most beloved among locals. Whether it's the St. Thomas More or St. Philip Neri churches in Portland, or the First Presbyterian in Cottage Grove, or St. Mary's Cathedral in San Francisco, Belluschi seemed to possess a preternatural sense of how to move ecclesiastical spaces in the United States out of the ornamentation of the past and into the simple elegance of modernity. Models of several of these spaces are included in the OHS exhibit, along with examples of Belluschi's own writing on design and the legacy he earned in the estimation of others.
"Today's need for economy makes us avoid pompously designed monuments," Belluschi wrote in 1950 in Liturgical Arts magazine (apparently shedding the excitable Italian culture of his birth for American pragmatism), "and in so doing we have found that much significance can be imparted to simple materials such as wood or brick, and much warmth and feeling may be achieved by the judicious use of such intangibles as space, light, texture and color." The proper solution, he added, "is to create an environment in which the average man may find spiritual shelter; a place where he may draw strength for his daily labors, and courage in his battle and temptations, a place where he may join others in worship and meditation."
Given how most of them would now be over a half-century old, it's inevitable that some of Belluschi's many local buidings have been or will be lost to history. I just didn't expect a Belluschi demolition to come within a few days of my attending this OHS exhibit honoring his legacy.
But on July 5, a Pietro Belluschi designed Catholic school in Lake Oswego, now known as Our Lady of the Lake Parish but originally called Sacred Heart, was leveled like a house of cards.
"Thursday, July 5th was bittersweet," Our Lady's website reads. "Demolition began on our tired but beloved school and the last phase of construction will continue throughout the summer. Many past and present students came by during the day to witness this long awaited event. As the saying goes, 'out with the old and in with the new,' well that's what we're doing, but it does bring a tear to the eye."
You can see the sense of conflict here. These are not conscience-free automatons without concern for culture and community.
To try and understand why the building was demolished, two calls were placed to Our Lady of the Lake, but the church declined to comment. Instead, I was called by one of the leaders of Group Mackenzie, the architecture firm designing the Our Lady school's replacement; this principal is also a longtime parishioner at Our Lady, and his children have attended the church's Belluschi-designed school. (So, client and architect, then?) He explained that the original school building, completed in 1948, was in too much disrepair to be renovated, and that it had been altered enough times since the original construction that to call it a Belluschi building was really only a half-truth.
Hearing the explanation, honestly I had mixed feelings.
On one hand, he endeavored in our conversation to express respect for Belluschi, and to convey that tearing down a Belluschi building had only come after due diligence had shown a renovation to be prohibitively expensive compared to tearing it down and starting over. The ceilings were low in the old schoolhouse, the basement occupied two disparate levels, and there were both asbestos and lead paint to be concerned about. What's more, Group Mackenzie is a leader when it comes to imaginatively restoring old buildings, such as the River East Center at the east edge of the Hawthorne Bridge, a former early-20th Century warehouse which the firm designed as a new headquarters for both itself and a local software company. I'd expect they'd have saved the building if they thought they could.
To be fair, historic preservation is not meant to save every building, and a not-for-profit in particurly must sometimes be pragmatic with the choices an they make about educational spaces for children. Our Lady has spent decades nurturing and providing quality education for students in Lake Oswego, underscored with the soulfulness and the lack of a profit motive that an ecclesiastical institution can bring.
It's also true that this was not one of the most important works of architecture in the large Belluschi portfolio. It was a humble little school building that Pietro himself might have been surprised to see standing for 63 years.
But even if Our Lady was not necessarily demolishing a spectacular architectural masterpiece so much as an old schoolhouse that a famous architect happened to have designed, in the broader context I still find the whole thing troubling. Our society is far too quick to tear down old buildings without considering the broader implication this has. The greatest cities are collections of architetural contributions from every generation. Tearing down an old building is like cutting down an old-growth tree. It may be justifiable, but even then it's sad.
What may be the combined lesson, I wonder, from seeing the Oregon Historical Society exhibit on Pietro Belluschi and learning of a Belluschi-building demolition within a short succession of days?
The first thought that comes to mind for me is that architecture, like all else, is ultimately transient. We see that a building, built well and then cared for over time, can stand for hundreds or even thousands of years. Yet that is overwhelmingly the exception to the rule. We look to the strength of concrete and steel, or the beauty of wood and glass, and see a firmness and durability our own bodies lack. We want to gaze up at landmarks like St. Paul's Cathedral in London, or The Acropolis in Athens, or the Forbidden City in Beijing, and imagine a continuity that connects the generations, if not a sense of outright immortality. But for every such landmark continuing over millennia, there are thousands more that succumb to the ravages of time and the misguided efforts of societies. Particularly in the United States, we are defined by our disposable culture more than that which we keep.
But the other lesson I took from the yin-yang of veneration and demolition for Belluschi this month was that historic preservation reminds me of something John F. Kennedy said in his speech announcing that America would go to the moon: we choose to go there not because it is easy, the president said, but because it is hard. Similarly, historic preservation is never going to be as easy as demolition and new construction. There will always be outdated building materials filling these structures. There will probably always be more upfront cost involved, and more headaches along the way. But going to the moon, as Kennedy knew, was more about just building a rocket that would get an Apollo crew there and back. It was about aspiration, and values. What kind of nation did the United States want to be in the 1960s: one with optimism and ambition, or one that took the easy route? I would ask the same to Our Lady of the Lake, both as architectural client and as educator of children: What kind of institution do you want to be?
For all I know, even as a Belluschi lover, they may be better for having a new school building instead of renovating the old one. But if the name Pietro Belluschi is lost from the collective memory of Our Lady and the teachings going on there, that's their ultimate loss. I would hope Our Lady feels all the more responsibility to educate its students about great architecture, and about Pietro Belluschi, given the choice it felt compelled to make. Were the students from Our Lady taken to the Belluschi exhibit before the school year ended? Do they know who Belluschi even was? The school he designed may be gone, but there's still a chance to learn from it, no matter whether one feels the demolition was the right move or an architectural sin, or both.
Meanwhile, get to the Oregon Historical Society while you still can, for the Pietro Belluschi exhibit will be on view for a limited time this summer, through September 9. I've never been a big fan of the OHS's museum space on the South Park Blocks. The building itself is the epitome of unwelcoming brutalism, a monolith with tinted windows that seems better suited for some Kafka-esque bureaucracy. And the exhibits can sometimes feel a bit hokey, such as the display of fake fruit in an old pickup truck currently on view, meant to evoke the state's agricultural traditions. On my visit to the Belluschi show, there was also an unannounced 45-minute delay to see the exhibit because they had closed it for photography in the middle of daytime viewing hours.
But Belluschi's son, Anthony, has, with his collaborators' help, created a fitting tribute to the architectural legacy of Portland's own favorite designing son. And with the help of Our Lady of the Lake, we have been reminded not to take such treasures for granted before they're gone.