BY BRIAN LIBBY
For all the accolades we give to the creative people in our society — the artists and architects, the musicians and novelists — perhaps we don't often enough pay tribute to the men and women who support and embolden those efforts: the enthusiasts and caretakers of those creative acts. But with the sudden, unexpected and tragically early passing of Jeff Belluschi last week, I have found myself wanting to show appreciation.
Jeff was of course the grandson of Portland's greatest architect, Pietro Belluschi, who made an indelible mark on the city and on the built environment far beyond our borders. Part of a generation of great European creative minds who immigrated to America in the early 20th century, he was a giant on a variety of architectural fronts. In the 1930s, he would come to define, along with John Yeon and others, regional Northwest modernism in residential architecture, which fused the International Style with local ranch house and farmhouse vernaculars. He designed the city's most significant cultural institution, the Portland Art Museum, forging a bond with Frank Lloyd Wright to convince the museum's conservative trustees to abandon their desire for a retro-Georgian building and instead make the leap into modern. In the 1940s, he designed the world's first modern curtain-walled office tower, the Equitable Building. In the 1950s, Belluschi began a 15-year stint heading the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's architecture school, which also brought a string of commissions in other cities, most notably the Pan Am building in New York City in 1963 and San Francisco's Cathedral of Saint Mary of the Assumption in 1971 (each a collaboration with a fellow master, Walter Gropious in NYC and Pier Luigi Nervi in SF). Throughout, he also designed some of Portland's most notable churches.
Born in 1961, Jeff Belluschi spent nearly all of his life in Portland, and though he had a prosperous career as a property manager, I think his true life's work was as a caretaker of his grandfather's legacy. It must have been well over a decade ago that he first sought me out, after I began writing from time to time about Pietro. Jeff never had any correctives or criticisms. That wasn't his way. Instead, he had an infections joy. He was proud of his grandfather, but it clearly wasn't just pride that drove him: it was a passion for beauty. Jeff could talk endlessly about Porsches and other vintage sports cars, and other great architects of the past and today.
"Without being directly in the field Jeff was as perceptive and discriminating as any curator or critic I know," architect and former Portland Design Commission chair Mike McCulloch told me by email. "My hope is that we all can keep Jeff’s enthusiasm and integrity alive."
When Veterans Memorial Coliseum became threatened with demolition in 2009 and a group of us came together to protest, Jeff was among the first to encourage us and take action. He knew that while Skidmore, Owings and Merrill had designed the Coliseum, the firm's Portland office responsible for the design had previously all worked for Pietro, who sold his firm to SOM when he left for MIT. In a 2010 letter to then-mayor Sam Adams, Jeff wrote:
"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'. But at 50 years young Memorial Coliseum needs some care and respect as an architectural jewel."
It was just one letter, but like the testimony of certain other esteemed citizens, be it Governor Victor Atiyeh or musician Thomas Lauderdale, it communicated to Mayor Adams and City Council that the city was not behind a Coliseum demolition. Soon after, Adams abandoned the demolition plan.
Today we're lucky to have Pietro Belluschi's son, Anthony Belluschi, acting as a good caretaker of Pietro's legacy along with his wife Marti. But until a few years ago, Anthony and Marti were based in Chicago, as Anthony pursued his own path as an architect. During those years, particularly in the 2000s, Jeff was the family's champion of Pietro's legacy.
In the ensuing years, I heard from Jeff often, as did many of his friends, as Jeff loved to share his passions: for his ancestral homeland of Italy (he was a longtime member of the Portland-Bologna Sister City Association), for his family, and for the great works of art and design that have the power to carry us through the dark times.
As I write this, what was once unthinkable and unfathomable has happened: the narcissistically psychopathic bigot Donald Trump has tragically and horrifically duped enough of the American people to become president. It is perhaps the darkest day for America in our lifetimes. To get through these new Dark Ages, we will need not just fortitude and strength, but also doses of joy and inspiration. That is the legacy that Jeff Belluschi leaves with me: the vital importance of wonder. Jeff was proud of his grandfather, but his joy extended far beyond the familial, with a smile and a sense of delight in the inspiring works that people at their best are capable of.
May Jeff Belluschi rest in peace, and may his passions continue to be an inspiration.