Belluschi Pavilion, Marylhurst University (photo by Brian Libby)
BY BRIAN LIBBY
When architect Pietro Belluschi was approached by newlyweds Arthur and Lucy Griffith in 1949 about design them a home in suburban Lake Oswego, his career was at a crossroads.
Two years earlier, Belluschi had seen completion of what may be his most acclaimed building, the Equitable, in downtown Portland, which was celebrated as the first curtain-wall structure in the United States - the nation's first modern office building. That same year, 1947, Life magazine had featured one of his modest home designs as prototype housing for the thousands of soldiers returning home from World War II. When the Griffiths called, Belluschi was also at work on one of his most celebrated ecclesiastical designs, for Zion Lutheran Church in Portland.
But his days here were also numbered. By 1951, Belluschi would leave Portland to become the dean of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's School of Architecture and Planning. President Truman would also appoint Belluschi to the National Committee of the Arts in 1950. He had bigger fish to fry.
By the time of the Griffiths commission, Belluschi thus could easily have eschewed such a small commission. But the couple had once worked in the same building as the architect, back when he was part of celebrated Central Library and Benson Hotel (and Benson Bubbler) architect AE Doyle's office. And Belluschi realized that the couple's desire for a modest starter home could bring an opportunity to make his small (one bedroom) but expandable Life design a real-world reality. The house cost just $7,000 to build (minus the cost of the lot) in 1949, which in today's dollars would only be about $70,000.
The Griffiths wound up staying in their modest but handsome 911-square-foot, Belluschi-designed residence for some 60 years, eschewing the additions that existed in the Life design. But a few years ago after Lucy Griffin died and Arthur moved to a retirement facility, the house was sold. And the new owner wasted little time in filing for a demolition permit, in order to build something much larger and more banal.
Luckily builder Tim Mather was on the case. Recognizing the value of Lake Oswego's only Belluschi-designed building, he convinced the new owner to let him dismantle and move the house. In 2007 his company, MCM Construction, broke down the structure into some 2,000 pieces, which were stored until Mather and like-minded partners could secure a new site and funding for the house. The City of Lake Oswego expressed interest, but didn't know exactly what to do with or where to put it. Then local a savior emerged: Marylhurst University.
Today the rebuilt Griffith residence, now known as the Belluschi Pavilion, sits at the southern end of the Marylhurst campus, just across from the building that houses the popular Art Gym gallery, providing a bookend to a quad of buildings. The plan is to use the building for special events, classes and meetings. But, as Mather said on a recent visit, "It's a teaching tool. Today people covet midcentury-modern design, and the university wants this to be a cultural outpost for Lake Oswego."
Given how small the house is, when anticipating my visit to the Pavilion I wondered if seeing it prominently placed more or less on a pedestal might seem a bit silly, as if the prestige of the Pietro Belluschi who designed the Portland Art Museum, the Equitable Building and other landmarks like New York's Pan-Am Building (with Walter Gropius) or San Francisco's Cathedral of St. Mary's was being grafted onto an otherwise forgettable little square building. But quickly the little cottage began to reveal itself as a hallmark of Belluschi's gifts, as well as a testament to the idea that exceptional architecture needn't be reserved for the wealthy or for those seeking vast amounts of square footage.
Viewed from outside, the house is a simple square, but in keeping with the regional Northwest modernism embodied by the work of Belluschi, John Yeon, Van Evera Bailey, Saul Zaik and other local architects of the time, its overhangs (extending 5'3" to the west and east, 2'6" to the north and south) emphasize horizontality and inside-out connections, with the Douglas fir ceiling of the interior continuing as an exterior underhand of the roof.
The roof is also slanted from east to west, something I haven't seen in a lot of Belluschi houses (compared to flat and pitched roofs), but longtime Belluschi scholar Libby Dawson Farr persuasively argues that the architect may have been influenced by another famous designer's plan for simple postwar housing, that of Hungarian and former Bauhaus member architect Marcel Breuer, who was commissioned by the Museum of Modern Art to design a "House in the Museum Garden" that was displayed on site in 1949. It had a similarly boxy form and a slanted roof (unlike the Minimum house for Life, which had a pitched roof but was otherwise similar).
Inside, the house feels quintessentially Northwest modern and recognizably Belluschi. One feels enveloped in a wood cocoon with Hemlock walls and a Douglas fir ceiling and beams. There are also details like a crenelated brick pattern on a portion of the fireplace, and a window wall with patterned wood and semi-transparent glass at the front of the house, similar to designs in some of Belluschi's churches, which brings light into the dining room while maintaining privacy.
There are many other Pietro Belluschi-designed houses with more impressive overall architecture. Gems like the Sutor House from 1938 and the circa-1948 Burkes House (now occupied by the architect's son, Anthony Belluschi) are bigger and more ambitious and impressive. Yet those are ultimately still private residences, which means the Belluschi Pavilion can occupy its own unique role in the community as the only house by the architect consistently open to the public.
Like the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Gordon house near Silverton, which similarly was moved from its original location along the Willamette near Wilsonville and re-assembled at the Oregon Garden several miles to the south in order to prevent demolition, the Belluschi Pavilion can be inspiring and educational despite being a modest example of the architect's work.
And besides, what's wrong with modest? We live in a time of increasingly extreme income disparity on a national level, and locally we're seeing every Portland neighborhood within five miles of the city center gentrify at a rapid clip, with all but the affluent threatened with exile outward.
With this house we have a case of an architect who has already gained international notoriety for his work (more than any Portland architect has in the 65 years since) taking the time to design something very modest. It makes one wonder what Belluschi might be designing if he were in practice today. Maybe he'd be doing some innovative tower downtown or in the Pearl District, but maybe he'd also take the time to do a tiny house.