Pietro Belluschi (1899-1994) - November 10, 1994
The below was written by Paul Rudolph and read at the Academy Dinner Meeting of the American Academy of Arts and Letters. The text was reproduced in Proceedings - Second Series - Number Forty-Five.
[Note: in transcribing this text, we have retained most of the grammar, spelling, capitalization, and construction.]
Pietro Belluschi 1899-1994
By Paul Rudolph
Pietro Belluschi was born at Ancona, Italy, in 1899, one year before our century began, and died ninety-four years later. This symmetry of his life span with the twentieth century allowed him to address with great vigor all of its major opportunities and problems, making contributions which few could equal. Le Corbusier, Mies van der Rohe, and Frank Lloyd Wright were of sufficient architectural stature to assume such historical responsibility.
In Rome, Belluschi studied structural engineering rather than architecture. He came to America in 1923 as an exchange student to study architecture at Cornell University and later settled in Portland, Oregon. There he built residences and churches in wood that paved the way for a northwest, regional architecture which fortunately still flourishes today. In 1947 he designed and built The Equitable (now Commonwealth) Glass and Aluminum Office Building in Portland, Oregon, which many would say is his masterwork. These works established Pietro Belluschi as a national and indeed international architect.
His force of character, poise, and intellect, together with the excellence of his own first buildings, led him into unknown paths for an architect. In short, he became an “Ambassador Architect” acting as a liaison between the architecture and business establishments and the federal government. While acting as architecture liaison, Belluschi reinforced the cultural ambitions of our country after World War II. For instance he served for several years as the chairman of a selection committee of architects for the State Department’s Foreign Building Program. He reached out to the avant-garde of the architectural world, often recommending young and promising architects. Pietro Belluschi was willing to take chances; his hunches were often very successful. In this way he extended his influence into many areas that otherwise would not have benefited from his insights and architectural wisdom.
He lectured, wrote, and served as the Dean of Architecture and Planning at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology from 1951 to 1965. In addition, he often designed, with other architects like Skidmore, Owings and Merrill, Nervi, etc., some of the largest and most important projects located across the land. Approximately one thousand projects carried his “fine Italian hand.” The second half of the twentieth century was a time of tremendous expansion worldwide, and it called for teamwork, many, many consultants and unprecedented organization. He was perfectly suited to his ambassadorial role, always defending artistic integrity, always supporting a solid but creative architecture. It was understood that if Belluschi was involved, excellence was the goal. Indeed, his reputation was so compelling that his advice was sought on many large and very important projects.
Unfortunately, the period of his greatest activity coincided with a watershed in architectural thought in relationship to society’s demands. Prior to World War II, society and professionals could fall back on five thousand years of effort for viable solutions to urban concerns. After World War II it was clear that sheer bulk rendered necessary by a population explosion, plus the necessary expansion of transportation systems (especially the car) called for a new understanding of architectural scale. Action outstripped theory. An architectural ant is different from an architectural elephant. The search for scale continues today. Twentieth-century demands required a revolutionary concept of architectural scale. No matter what the historical conditions, all architecture must be scaled to the human body and to an optimistic human mind. It is sad to report that the “DNA” of architecture- site, scale, space, structure, and spirit has been ignored, and that the humanization of our cities has suffered, especially because of their chaotic increase in size without the humanizing understanding of scale.
Pietro Belluschi’s role as an architectural ambassador to his chosen country will be remembered. It was a contribution unexcelled by anyone, but he paid a price. For this organizational role inevitably overshadowed his personal intensity as an architect. Our hearts and minds return to those simple wood houses and churches in Oregon and his fourteen-story-high glass and aluminum Equitable Building shimmering in the light of Portland, where his spirit still shines through most eloquently. At the same time he knew that he must unearth unknown combinations of team members, and grapple with the truly new problems emerging from twentieth century society, and discovery truly new solutions to architectural problems. Where he could not do this alone, he always took a more noble road and sought out the most promising in others.
After his many contributions across the land he too returned to Portland. Many people sought his advice until the end. His second wife Marjorie, two sons, and many grand children and great-grandchildren survive him. Pietro Belluschi needs no monument, for we will find it simply by looking around. He is responsible for much that is good in our country.