At the Oregon Historical Society's exhibit, the Architecture and Legacy of Pietro Belluschi, Anthony Belluschi stands in front of a model of his father's Belluschi House, Portland, Oregon.
A Summer to Celebrate Jewels in Oregon’s Crown
On May 17
th, 2012 the Oregon Historical Society’s History Museum opened the exhibit, The Architecture and Legacy of Pietro Bellusch i, a collection showcasing the work and life of Oregon architect, Pietro Belluschi, FAIA. Belluschi is known as one of the most important architects to have lived and worked in Oregon, his designs and aesthetic influencing the emergence and development of Pacific Northwest Regionalism. The exhibit brings to OHS an overview of Belluschi’s architectural contributions and tells a story through the display of personal mementos, an actual wood “room within the room” constructed in the museum gallery, and eight architectural models of Belluschi buildings in Oregon. One of the most crucial components of the exhibit is the models. As Oregon Historical Society Director of Museum Services Marsha Matthews explains,
Any exhibit is enhanced by 3-dimensional objects. In the case of architectural exhibits it is extremely useful as it renders a 2-dimensional plan or photograph into a “real” building. It is difficult for many to see the building in their mind’s eye when they look at a plan. Seeing a model can inspire a visitor to go see the real building, become interested in learning more about Pietro Belluschi or Northwest Style architecture.
The exhibit is a careful and thoughtful collection designed, curated, and collaborated on by Belluschi family members. Pietro Belluschi’s son, architect
Anthony Belluschi, FAIA, and his wife, Martha Belluschi worked together to present an exhibit that would “showcase [Pietro’s] architecture, life and legacy,” commented Anthony Belluschi. He continued, “My father would be very proud of what we have done to honor his legacy….I have often said that I think he left me all of his archives because he would want us to do something like this on his behalf.” Pietro Belluschi was an architect for over 60 years and practiced in 25 states and a number of countries overseas. He is lauded as one of the foremost definers of and contributors to Northwest Regionalism in the 1930s and 1940s. He was a respected design consultant and was also involved in educating, lecturing, and writing in the field of architecture spanning the years from 1950-1990. He not only worked in and operated his own 25-person firm in Portland (1950) but progressed to hold the appointment of Dean of Architecture and Planning at MIT. In a 1963 essay written by Pietro Belluschi, the architect commented on his design philosophy and his preference for “those simple qualities that are the basis or at the basis of all enduring architecture”— architecture he commented that “imparts a serene quality, a simplicity that avoids dullness, and an architecture that requires humility on the part of the architect.” [ Oral history interview with Pietro Belluschi, 1983 Aug. 22-Sept. 4, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.]
In the fall of 2011, OHS had approached the Belluschis and advised them of a plan to exhibit Pietro Belluschi’s work in the spring of 2012. To begin the process of putting together the exhibit,
Anthony Belluschi embarked upon a search to find any existing suitable models of his father’s architecture that could be included in the show. Pietro Belluschi’s son realized that the success of an exhibit of his father’s work would reside, in large part, in the display of accurate and beautifully rendered models . According to Anthony Belluschi, he approached the Portland AIA (an exhibit of Belluschi’s work had been displayed here in 1993) for previously exhibited models but found little he felt was appropriate, except two models that were in need of repair. A subsequent request to the architecture department at Portland State University also yielded nothing suitable. Anthony next ventured down to the UO campus in Eugene to see if the Pietro Belluschi collection would have anything appropriate to include. He even inquired with a former colleague of his father’s, Joachim Grube. All to no avail. It seemed as if there were very limited existing, exhibit-quality models of Pietro Belluschi’s architecture.
Upon hearing of the need for models, the head of the UO AAA Department of Architecture, Christine Theodoropoulos quickly stepped forward, and generously offered to create a special course to make models that would have the specific intent of display in the Oregon Historical Society History Museum exhibit. Anthony Belluschi, a part-time resident of Portland, requested that, if at all possible, the models be built at the University of Oregon in Portland at the White Stag Block; keeping a Portland connection seemed logical as Belluschi planned on taking an integral role in production of the models and participating in the class itself. The University contacted Dave Collins, a professional model-maker and owner of
Architectural Prototypes. Collins was available to work with the students and, consequently, became the instructor who would lead this venture. The new course emerged early in 2012 and offered to students in Portland a chance to work with the designs of a Northwest architectural icon.
Thus also began the collaborative approach to the exhibit that would involve the partnership between students in the University of Oregon Department of Architecture program in Portland and the Oregon Historical Society under the guidance of the Belluschis and Dave Collins. Matthews comments on the collaboration:
All exhibits are a collaborative effort. Tony Belluschi facilitated the collaboration between OHS, himself, and the university to offer the model-making course. The OHS library provided plans from which the students were able to develop the plans for the models, Tony provided insight and inspiration regarding Pietro Belluschi’s designs, Dave Collins needs to be commended for teaching the course and providing his model-making expertise to the students – this joining of resources and talent is a good example of the kind of collaborative effort that it takes to create exhibits.
The beginning of the course introduced Pacific Northwest Regionalism to the students with Anthony Belluschi, himself, providing lectures about his father’s life and work, and conducting tours of the Sutor House and the Belluschi House to the students. Belluschi fondly recalls the excitement he felt translated from the students, most, but not all, of them newly exposed to his father’s architecture: “I felt that the students were quite impressed with mid-century architecture and they found it very enlightening to discover Pietro’s work. I noted that, with their building of the models for the OHS exhibit, they would all then become part of the Belluschi legacy.”
Student Scott Kosmecki offered his opinion on working with Anthony Belluschi,
It has been a great pleasure to work with Anthony. His ability to coalesce the parts of the exhibition into an orchestrated and unified whole was wonderful to be a part of. He directed the work on the models at many of the Saturday morning meetings and really brought a sense of purposefulness to the exhibit. Because of his personal involvement, the projects felt as if they were important work and more than just a modeling class.
The process to get to a complete exhibit with exceptional models that would accurately inform and educate a public audience many of whom might not yet be aware of Pietro Belluschi nor of architectural terms like mid-century modern, Pacific Northwest Regionalism, or International Style became the goal of both the students, their instructor Dave Collins, Anthony and Martha Belluschi and the Oregon Historical Society. The exhibit certainly illustrates and provides an introduction to Pietro Belluschi’s simple elegance in design and his ability to integrate art, science, and culture in his buildings. As a representation of Belluschi’s built legacy, the models in the exhibit beautifully exemplify Belluschi’s design intelligence both visibly and tangibly on a diminutive scale bringing the realities of the buildings indoors and to an approachable scale. Details such as the presentation of the models is well-thoughtout adding to the overall experience of the exhibit and aiding in the chronological explanation of Pietro Belluschi’s legacy. One very intriguing placement is of the Equitable Building. Anthony and Martha Belluschi carefully situated the model of the Equitable Building in front of a large west-facing, light-filled window within clear site of the Portland Art Museum building, (another of Pietro Belluschi’s designs). It is perhaps intentional how the
model of the Equitable Building, with all that glass (and at the time of its actual 1948 completion, quite innovative), captures the essence of the architect’s own words referring to the original building as bouncing, reflecting and reacting to changes in the light and sky outside:
… the first thing that came on the Equitable Building with all that glass, new use of glass, we found how the sky was reflecting. The clouds moving through the sky– you could see it, and the building looked like it was moving, because the clouds were moving….It’s very exciting….[
Oral history interview with Pietro Belluschi, 1983 Aug. 22-Sept. 4, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.]
In the 1983 oral history interview with Pietro Belluschi referenced above, he had observed aspects of his philosophy on style, aspects that the students who were involved in the model making experienced themselves while working on the models:
I still believe that style comes from understanding all the elements of a problem: space, access, view, sun, scale, intimacy, even love. And if you are a poet or an artist, then architecture will have real style in an authentic not artificial way. Not try to introduce a gable or other features because they are fashionable and have no bearing with the experience of living. To be an architect, you have to study, study, and live with a problem, suffer with it, and lay awake at night. If you’re aesthetically oriented, aesthetics will come out, not by preconceived things or something you have seen or by copying some kind of feature which may have caught your eye. [
Oral history interview with Pietro Belluschi, 1983 Aug. 22-Sept. 4, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.]
The Belluschis visualized the exhibit as an opportunity to introduce and celebrate Pietro Belluschi’s contribution to Northwest Regionalism and Modernism to both young emerging designers, such as students studying architecture, as well as to the larger, metropolitan audience of museum visitors. Citing that “since [Pietro Belluschi] died over 18 years ago, many [young students of architecture] had never heard of him,” Belluschi sought to provide an exhibit that displayed “information about [Pietro’s] career and his numerous buildings in Oregon and around the country, particularly in his early career.” Anthony relates “there is a better appreciation of who he was and what he did, especially locally, because of this exhibit. [Martha] and I chose the title carefully to give the public a new awareness of Pietro.” To accomplish this, the models of the buildings that were of significant importance to explain the life and work of Belluschi had to be included. It became the opportunity of the group of University of Oregon students to make these models that would epitomize Pietro Belluschi’s most significant works.
The course was an incredible learning experience in model making. We were given free-rein over how we were going to construct our models, which allowed us to experiment with different materials, joints, and adhesives. With every mistake [model-making partner Alice Peterson] and I made we were able to better understand how everything would fit together and where we messed up. We were taught many different techniques that would have never crossed my mind before. I am extremely proud of our work and the work of everyone else in the course.” –Kate Fehrenbacher, a student in the studio commented on her experience.
The six models that were ultimately created by University of Oregon in Portland Department of Architecture students under the guidance of UO adjunct instructor, Dave Collins and Anthony and Martha Belluschi are currently on display at OHS. The models of Pietro Belluschi’s buildings crafted by the UO students are: Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco by Brett Santhuff and Scott Kosmecki; the First Presbyterian Church, Jacob Spence and Liz Manser; the Sutor House, Alice Peterson and Kate Fehrenbacher; the Belluschi House, Dan Scofield; the Zion Lutheran Church, Alex Jackson and Sitabha (Mimi) Songsermsawas; and the Equitable Building, Ryan Tyni and Greg Swift. Photos of the models may be viewed on the
University of Oregon: School of Architecture and Allied Arts Facebook page.
The models will all remain part of the OHS permanent collection. The success of the students’ work to showcase Pietro Belluschi’s design genius is evident as the students were meticulous and observantly aware of the architect’s design philosophy. Matthews speaks to the models’ exceptional craft and creativity:
These models are extremely well-done – they are sited in a landscape approximating the terrain and plantings, they provide clean lines without the coloration of building materials so that the design is what is the most apparent allowing a better understanding of Northwest Style. The models are beautiful and the skill with which they were made enhances the rendering of the architectural design of the buildings themselves. A visitor can imagine that they’ve seen the building by looking at the models because of the skill with which they were made. They are all very impressive works of art.
After the exhibit closes in September at the Oregon Historical Society, Belluschi and his wife are optimistic that all or part of the collection, including the models, will travel to other locations. Belluschi has made contact with the University of Oregon Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art, Syracuse University Department of Architecture, MIT Department of Architecture and Planning and the University of Bologna, Italy. All institutions have expressed a keen interest in hosting the exhibit. Belluschi will remain involved with coordinating the exhibit and the move of the models on behalf of Oregon Historical Society. Taking the exhibit for display internationally will provide “an opportunity to educate [on a global scale] about the significance of Pacific Northwest Regional Modernism,” says Belluschi.
The importance of the models to this exhibit cannot be underestimated. Early in its inception when OHS asked to discuss the exhibit with the Belluschis, the question arose as to how the exhibit should begin. It was at the suggestion of
Anthony Belluschi, himself an architect for over 40 years, that the need for architectural models was imperative. The models once made, quickly became the “jewels” of the exhibit literally making, as Belluschi says, “the exhibit complete….[the students’] hard work and dedication creating the highest quality models.” The models effectively contribute to the “exhibit [as] a beautiful, serene space” says Marsha Matthews. “The ‘room-within-a-room’ along with the models provide insights into Pietro Belluschi’s architectural genius that could not be as easily conveyed otherwise.” It is the models, however, Matthews points to as “evok[ing] an emotional response to the use of space and the space that buildings occupy….;” Matthews continues, and in a most complimentary comment sums up her thoughts, “[and] that to me is the purpose of architecture.”
The presentation of this University of Oregon, Oregon Historical Society and Belluschi family collaboration and the celebration of Pietro Belluschi’s architecture comes at a time when there is a renewed interest in and revival of mid-century architecture. It is perhaps fitting that this is also the summer we are celebrating another Northwest great, John Yeon. And while the models that the students created for the Belluschi exhibit are, undoubtedly, as Anthony Belluschi says, “jewels,” the work of both Pietro Belluschi and
John Yeon embellishes the Northwest as indisputable “jewels in the crown” of our built environment.
Much has been written on both Belluschi and Yeon by scholars, critics, and those simply enamored with regionally-inspired architecture. Helping to awaken a more public awareness of regionally significant design was the recent attention given to the Aubrey Watzek House. In 2011, John Yeon’s
Aubrey Watzek House (1937, Portland, Oregon) was approved for historic landmark status thus becoming Oregon’s 17 th site and only the seventh building to receive this national honor. Credited with the design of several other Portland-located and architecturally important buildings, Yeon had also been the visionary behind his glorious Columbia Gorge property, The Shire, a unique picturesque designed landscape.
This summer you have a chance to immerse yourself in the life and legacy of Pietro Belluschi and to enjoy and learn about his contribution to architecture and design by visiting the OHS exhibit. The season is also an opportunity to experience more of the Northwest’s exquisite built and designed environment, perhaps at its splendiferous best during mid-summer,
by taking a tour or joining an exclusive dinner experience at The Shire. Come rain or shine, The Shire picnic promises to be enlightening with two key leaders, experts in landscape design and the study and critique of Northwest architecture: Robert Melnick (Director of the John Yeon Center) and Randy Gragg (editor-in-chief of Portland Monthly and longstanding champion of Yeon’s place in Northwest history). Melnick and Gragg will welcome you to the en plein air garden folly and natural grandeur of The Shire’s mid-summer glory. The Shire events are a collaboration between the UO John Yeon Preserve for Landscape Studies and Portland Monthly magazine, both joining forces to help promote the vitality of the John Yeon Center at the University of Oregon.
Whether you chose to wander the cool and shaded exhibit at the Oregon Historical Society or relish the shimmering summer sunlight at The Shire, the options to appreciate and educate one’s self in the ways of designing for Northwest environment and to discover the genius of two of our region’s iconic masters of design and fundamental pioneers in sustainability rest at our doorstep. The sun is high, the days are long, proving an ideal time to languish in the greatness that is the legacy of Pietro Belluschi and John Yeon. We hope you join us in celebrating our collaborations this summer.
[The author wishes to thank both Anthony and Martha Belluschi for their time and comments for this article as well as Marsha Matthews of Oregon Historical Society for taking the time to so generously comment on the exhibit and this collaboration.]
Author’s Note: There exists another University of Oregon School of Architecture and Allied Arts connection to Pietro Belluschi, the The Pietro Belluschi Distinguished Visiting Professorship in Architectural Design. This is a Distinguished Visiting Professorship created at the University of Oregon School of Architecture and Allied Arts in 1993 as a perpetually endowed fund to foster and promote education in architectural design. The endowment supports a short-term appointment for a prominent architect to teach and lecture. You may read about the two most recent recipients of this position on our blog,
Johnpaul Jones, FAIA and Edward Ford.