For Belluschi, designing churches was an act of worship

February 27, 1994|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,Sun Architecture Critic

Though some may remember Pietro Belluschi as the elder statesman of modern architecture, and a pioneer of the glass-and-metal office tower, the buildings that meant most to -- him were his churches, synagogues and other religious structures.

Of the more than 1,000 buildings the Italian-born architect designed or co-designed before his death this month at the age of 94, at least 50 were ecclesiastical.

Maryland is privileged to have one of his best in the Episcopal Church of the Redeemer, at Charles Street and Melrose Avenue in Baltimore. Others ranged from small and unpretentious rural churches, so simple that parishioners could help build them, to the massive St. Mary's Cathedral in San Francisco, with its swooping parabolic vaults enclosing one immense, column-free space.

During a career that spanned eight decades, Mr. Belluschi (pronounced bell-OO-ski) quite possibly designed more religious buildings than any other 20th-century architect. Because he kept working into his 90s, he was the Hank Aaron of church architecture, establishing a record of prodigiousness that may never be surpassed.

In the process, he also become a leading interpreter of mankind's spiritual dreams, collaborating equally well with Roman Catholics, Episcopalians, Presbyterians, Lutherans, Jews and Unitarians. Whatever denomination or faith they were for, the best of his works always had a certain refinement and understated elegance, an eloquent simplicity. As he grew older, he began to express the opinion that these buildings, as a whole, represented his greatest legacy.

"The design of a house of worship . . . comes closer to being pure art, defined as an expression of the human spirit, than almost any other field of architecture," he wrote in 1963.

"More and more, I find these works are closest to my heart," he said in an interview published two decades later.

What is all the more remarkable about Mr. Belluschi is that even though he designed so many churches, he was not a churchgoer.

Though raised as a Roman Catholic in Rome, he strayed from organized religion by the time he came to America to study engineering in 1923. Thereafter, he assiduously avoided association with institutionalized religion of any kind. When he died after a long illness at his home in Portland, Ore., on Feb. 14, his body was cremated and no religious services were held -- at his request.

It is a supreme irony that such a devoted servant of institutionalized religion should eschew it himself. It is not particularly uncommon in architecture, however. Frank Lloyd Wright, Louis Kahn and Le Corbusier, among others, were not regular churchgoers either, and they designed some of the best ecclesiastical architecture of the 20th century.

Yet none of them specialized in church design the way Mr. Belluschi did. In his mind, the church commissions "constituted his most important body of work" and brought him the most pleasure, according to Meredith Clausen, a University of Washington professor and author of a 1992 book titled "Spiritual Space: The Religious Architecture of Pietro Belluschi."

"Although these jobs rarely brought profit," she wrote, "they provided him an outlet for artistic expression; he relished them, as they offered relief from his more taxing projects and yielded far more personal satisfaction."

Early exposure

My first exposure to Pietro Belluschi's work came in the late 1960s, when my ninth-grade class took a field trip to see the 1958 Church of the Redeemer, which Mr. Belluschi designed with Baltimore architects Frank Taliaferro, Charles Lamb and Archibald Rogers.

It was unusual for a public-school system to send students to see a church, but our teachers regarded it as one of the finest examples of modern architecture in the area and believed we should see it. They showed us the way its modern lines echoed those of the 1858 chapel next door, without copying or upstaging it, and how it stood in harmony with the landscape. I remember our music teacher making special note of the unusual lavender carpet. "You'll never see anything like this again," she promised. And she was right. Twenty-five years later, that carpet has been removed.

In later years, I learned that Baltimore is a veritable museum of Belluschi buildings, typically designed in collaboration with others. The work includes Goucher College Center, Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, the IBM building and the Baltimore County Courthouse. He also co-designed an early redevelopment plan for the Inner Harbor and served on the city's Architectural Review Board from 1957 to 1972. With his thick Italian accent, blue eyes and shock of white hair, he was a commanding figure but never overbearing -- a gentle man in every sense of the term.

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