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For Belluschi, designing churches was an act of worship


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.

The more I learned about Mr. Belluschi, the more I wondered about his ecclesiastical buildings and his own beliefs. How could he design buildings of such beauty and not be a religious man? Was his detachment from institutionalized religion a way of maintaining perspective? Or was he simply so weary of designing churches during the week that he avoided them on the Sabbath?

In 1987, I got to ask him about this seeming conflict. While researching an article about his work, I traveled to Portland and ,, spent a few days with Mr. Belluschi and his wife, Marjorie.

Each day, Mrs. Belluschi would pick me up at my downtown hotel, and we would drive to their home in the West Hills high above Portland, where Mr. Belluschi, then 87, was waiting. In the morning, he would sit in his studio and talk about his work. In the afternoon, he and I would go for a brisk walk in Forest Park, a wooded area several blocks from their home.

Taking a walk was an afternoon ritual for Mr. Belluschi, and he clearly looked forward to it. Forest Park was an idyllic spot in November, when I visited, and the autumn leaves made a golden carpet for us to follow. Walking stick in hand, Mr. Belluschi would lead the way, sidestepping rocks and fallen branches that he spotted, but never venturing off the winding path.

For several mornings, Mr. Belluschi had shown me drawings and models of many of his churches, but our discussions remained focused on architectural issues. On the day before I was scheduled to fly back to Baltimore, as Mr. Belluschi and I neared the end of our last walk together, I summoned up the courage to ask him: "Do you believe in God?"

Hard of hearing, he paused in midstep and turned around to face me, to make sure he understood my question. Then he took his walking stick and waved it like a wand at the earth, the sky and the rays of sunlight filtering through the trees.

"This," he said, "is my religion.

"Although I take this walk every day, I always get a wonderful feeling, like the average person going to church," he continued. "It's a release and, psychologically, very healthy."

We walked back to the house in silence.

Pietro Belluschi was not an agnostic or an atheist. To the contrary, he was one of the most religious and spiritual men I have ever met. Perhaps because his feelings about the divine were so deep and so powerful, he never found an institutionalized religion that could capture the way he felt spiritually.

The Rev. Richard Rutherford, at the University of Portland, got to know Mr. Belluschi well when he designed a chapel there in the 1980s.

"He had a real sense of the holy, almost a classic sense of the holy," Father Rutherford says. "Beauty. Order. Harmony. He could see God in those things. But I just don't think he found in structured religion an adequate rendering of his own experience. He came at the divine, if you will, more from a philosophical perspective than a religious perspective. I think he was able to take a kind of aesthetic distance."

Mr. Belluschi's lack of church affiliation was not a liability with clients. If anything, it may have been his key to creating timeless buildings with such universal appeal.

"It helped in many ways," says Warren Peterson, a Baltimore architect who worked with Mr. Belluschi in the 1950s and 1960s. "Because he didn't have any affiliation, he could go from denomination to denomination without people feeling he wasn't considering their point of view. He may have been an outsider, but they trusted him."

One finds an aesthetic of "humility, simplicity and discipline," Architectural Record magazine stated in a 1959 survey of his work. "There is no hint of subjective isolation, or unrelated self-expression; Belluschi's discipline and objectivity are complete, his involvement absolute."

Act of worship

It is often said that the Lord works in mysterious ways. Pietro Belluschi did the Lord's work, without a lot of mystery. To him, religion was a search for spiritual fulfillment. And designing religious buildings was itself an act of worship.

"We all search for the divine in different ways," Father Rutherford says. "He found it in design. He created sacred spaces that became a common meeting ground where others could go about more structured ways of expressing their belief."

XTC In 1983, for the 25th anniversary of the Church of the Redeemer, Mr. Belluschi drafted a telling statement about his design philosophy.

"In our youthful optimism," he said in part, "we believed, as we still believe, that all buildings with a claim to architecture are not copies but, in a profound sense, genuine inventions, always alive to contemporary problems, forever struggling between sky and earth, spirit and matter, logic and emotion, aesthetic and morality.

"An architect soon finds out that there are no perfect answers," Mr. Belluschi went on to say.

For nearly 70 years, he showed there can be rich rewards simply in launching an earnest quest. "He touched the sky with his feet on the Earth," the architect Eduardo Catalano said recently. For God's own angel of architecture, there was no higher calling.

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