Belluschi’s Churches


Among the 1,000 buildings that Pietro Belluschi designed in a long life that spanned almost the entire twentieth century are dozens of churches.  The most famous and largest of these is St. Mary’s Cathedral atop a San Francisco hill, a gleaming white structure that, soon after it took shape in 1971, was dubbed St. Mary Maytag by local wags. Thus baptized it is hard to suppress its resemblance to the agitator of washing machine.

Such moniker-making is a common tactic for coming to terms with monumental buildings that impose themselves on the skyline and therefore on the everyday lives of the people below, from Renzo Piano’s London Shard (a description first used by English Heritage in its attack on the design, but then quickly taken up by the building’s proponents), to the playful Gherkin across the Thames, that pickle-shaped high rise by Sir Norman Foster; or, in a more bucolic setting, the Singer Sewing Machine that is I. M. Pei’s concrete art museum guarding Cornell University’s northwestern flank in Ithaca, New York and perpetually threatening to stitch up the long tear of Lake Cayuga below. Nicknames like these also try—ineffectively, of course—to puncture the outsized egos such buildings represent.

Belluschi also collaborated with Bauhaus founder Walter Gropius on the Pan Am Building (Now MetLife) of 1963 that erupts at the Midtown end of Park Avenue in Manhattan and literally towers over Grand Central Station.  The brutal one-block-to-the-next juxtaposition of modernist sky-scraping excess and stately nineteenth-century terminal foretold later New York City despoilations by the likes of Trump.

An even more ominous assault on history is Belluschi’s dark skyscraper at One Boston Place. This creepy monolith buries the Old State House of 1713 in shadow from midday till the following dawn: it’s like a humongous vertical steel-and-glass coffin for the Enlightenment ideals of local government, the latter embodied by well-proportioned brick crowned by a gilded cupola with large windows welcoming the natural light now snuffed out by upward progress.

Completed in 1970, One Boston Place was slightly ahead of New York in erecting glowering boxes above its colonial architectural heritage. A few years later St. Paul’s Chapel in New York’s financial district was similarly engulfed by the World Trade Center. As in the MetLife building, Belluschi collaborated on One Boston Place with the New York firm of Emery Roth & Sons, which was also involved in the World Trade Center. In Boston Belluschi later designed the still-taller One Financial Center a few blocks away, finished in 1983 when the architect was eighty-four.

Aside from such enormous tributes to the gods of commerce and religion, Belluschi made many ecclesiastical buildings of a more human scale all across America. Many of these are Lutheran.  One is in Boston’s Back Bay, a district largely preserved from modern verticality. In spite of the inevitable Starbucks, kindred chains, and upscale shopping boutiques, these gracious blocks reclaimed from the Charles River in the nineteenth century and extending along tree-lined Commonwealth Avenue still feel gracious—and tremendously affluent.

Tucked into its Victorian surroundings just after a Beaux-Arts mansion on spacious grounds is Belluschi’s First Lutheran Church built 1954-7. Edging the Berkeley Street sidewalk, widely-spaced square brick pillars support a walkway’s flat roof on which wisteria rambles. These elements frame a spacious portal opening onto a square garden, a lovely courtyard formed by interior brick walls and the geometric grating that connects other brick pillars running along the sidewalk. This opening offers a transition from public sidewalk to church grounds that is a natural and welcoming, understated yet beautiful.

The effect is unexpected—dare I say it, almost miraculous—given the ostentatious reserve and privacy of the neighboring mansion and brownstones.

Gently surprised by this garden that seems public but can’t be, one notices that it belongs to a rectangular brick church. Your eyes follow the wall upward to a gently rounded metal roof above a band of plate glass that I believe architects call clerestory windows, even if these have about as much to do with a gothic cathedral’s top story as a climbing wall does to the North Face of the Eiger.

Along the church’s courtyard walkway one gains access to the church, where I played a concert yesterday for the Boston Early Music Festival. The interior is much larger than you might have thought from the outside: the courtyard also has the masks the structures size, its rectangular footprint making maximum use of the lot. That is the genius of the garden entrance: none of the internal and external spaces feels crowded onto the grounds. One doesn’t sense an attempt to grab every inch of space from the city.

Inside, long sleek, minimalist wooden pews have none of the heaviness of those of the venerable Back Bay churches nearby. A chancel lamp that looks like two slender tear drops melded anticipates the space age; its elegant curves and those of the wooden baffles that make up the pulpit work in subtle counterpoint to the otherwise pervasive right angles. A climbing indoor plant roams over the wood, its leaves riffling in the air conditioning of which Belluschi was an early and ardent proponent.

One turns from the altar and looks at the large choir loft with its sparse rail and sees a baroque-style organ by the Richards & Fawkes Company, finished in 2000, just six years after Belluschi’s death. The instrument’s gleaming façade pipes are framed by ornate wooden scrollwork that hearkens back to a much early time, as do the sounds of those pipes when played. The case itself is rich with facets and moldings, a complexity that, in the abstract, might seem inimical to Belluschi’s modernist minimalism. Yet Belluschi’s interior welcomes this instrument just as the courtyard welcomes pedestrians.

When Belluschi designed the Boston church he was Dean of the School of Architecture and Planning at MIT just across the Charles River. He had taken up that prestigious post in 1951, when he left Portland (he returned in there in his retirement to take up residence in a house he had designed in 1948) Belluschi emigrated from his native Italy in 1923, coming first to Ithaca, New York to do a master’s degree in engineering at Cornell in 1925. Later that year, after a brief stint as a mining engineer in Idaho, he moved to the West Coast and began work as a draughtsman in A. E. Doyle’s Portland architecture firm, working for five dollars a day. Just six years later Belluschi had designed the Portland Art Museum and by 1942 had bought the entire firm.

Belluschi designed four other modernist brick Lutheran churches in the 1950s. These were on the West Coast, three in Oregon. The last of them from that decade was Central Lutheran in Eugene, finished in 1959, two years after the completion of his Back Bay project. Needless to say, Central Lutheran in Eugene (Belluschi also did Central Lutheran in Portland in 1951) is a box, with more wood than brick, the proportions of material reflecting the Northwest milieu in contrast to old and long-deforested Boston. In contrast to the unobtrusive Back Bay church, that in Eugene stands out on a rise among early suburban blocks. In comparison to its Boston predecessor, the 1959 church appears more ostentatiously modern amongst its own contemporaries—ranch houses with lawns facing wide streets.

At first it might seem an odd coincidence that the Eugene church also houses an organ in baroque style, dazzling to the ear and eye. It was finished in 1976 by the important American builder, John Brombaugh, like Belluschi, holder of a Cornell engineering degree. Retired from his craft for some years now, Brombaugh remains a pioneer in the rediscovery of organ construction techniques of the north European seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. His work inspired a subsequent generation of organ builders around the world interested in reviving the methods of earlier masters; this group includes Ralph Richards and Bruce Fawkes.

It is hardly surprising that Lutherans should want to reanimate a kind of organ sound similar to that heard by the great musicians of their confession’s past, among them Heinrich Schütz and Johann Sebastian Bach. But what the placement of these instruments in such modernist settings confirms that the revivalist project is not one of fusty antiquarianism, but its own manifestation of modernity fascinated by “purity” and “texture” of sound, by “authenticity” of the materials, and by the purported synthesis of form and content. For this reason these objects are simultaneously—and paradoxically—both harmonious and dissonant with Belluschi’s architecture. The sound of these organs in these spaces also confirm that Belluschi’s have a poised architectural grandeur far surpassing the menace of his skyscrapers.

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DAVID YEARSLEY is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His recording of J. S. Bach’s organ trio sonatas is available from Musica Omnia. He can be reached at  dgyearsley@gmail.com

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