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Marshall Berg

Contemporary Museum Architecture/Farr


The Unique Time and Space, Which Presents the Portland Art Museum

Museums have taken a variety of architectural forms throughout history. Ancient

temples of the Gods housed the earliest of human artwork; highly worshiped, resplendent

representations of deities. These temples were grand and ornamental, the greatest feats of

early human architecture. They inspired neo-classical revival of their post and lentil

structures for centuries to follow.

In the late 15th century, the Medici family was becoming a force of power in

Renaissance Italy, through an expansive banking empire and the construction of the

Palazzo Medici, a family mansion in Florentine. They used this symmetrical stone goliath

designed by Michelozzo1 to display the massive collection of art they were constantly

acquiring and commissioning. In doing so the Medici family was able to gain reputation,

and political power.2 In the 18th century Museums started taking a form with the specific

purpose of displaying art.

The Louvre palace in Paris, France is notably the first museum, though first its

Grande Gallerie acted solely as a display room for aristocratic art under Louis XIV. Days

after the revolution it was decreed that the private palace would be turned into a public

gallery.3 The long barrel vaulted hallways of the Grande Galierie displayed Napoleon’s
spoils of war. The international collection was lit from grand skylights was displayed for

all of France to see. The Louvre was the first national museum; the British National

Gallery closely followed it in 1824.4

By the end of the 19th century, museums were emerging throughout the west. In

1873 the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, opened in a 5th Ave. dance

studio, and then quickly relocated to the Douglas Mansion, a two story brick building

with curving symmetrical staircases with a pair of narrow ionic columns in the center of

the façade. In 1902 the Met moved to its current location, and has been constantly

expanding. As of 2011 the conglomerate is made up of 27 different buildings and has a

yearly budget of 221 million dollars.

“No price is to high when talking about beautiful objects, especially when they are

renowned themselves” J.P. Morgan, Banker, President of the Metropolitan Museum of Art

The first museums in America were Neo-Classic “temples of the people.” The

museum was seen as tool of cultural progression, and a path to educational

enlightenment. The glorious temple facades of the Met, The Chicago Art Institute (1899),

The Boston Museum of Fine Arts (1909), The National Gallery in D.C. (1937), and The

Saint Louis Art Museum (1904) all were supported by a colonnade, and combined Greek

and Roman style. The Chicago Art institute included a replica of the Parthenon frieze.5

When building the St. Louis Museum, architect Cass Gilbert was inspired by the Baths of

Caracalla in Rome.6

Walter Groupis in Weimar, Germany was about to change the face of architecture

(and design) once again around 1919 with the Bauhaus. In 1925 the Bauhaus school of
fine arts and crafts opened in Dessau, Germany. This school is accredited to be the

birthplace of modernism, and “international style” of architecture. The model of this style

was the Bauhaus its self. An elegant four story building. The top three stories have

exterior walls of glass and iron. The façade of the building has a protruding rectilinear

grey shape with large windows cut out at each story.7

At the same time Grobis’s Bauhaus school was opening in 1925, a young Italian

architect by the name of Pietro Belluschi had just been hired at the well-respected firm

A.E. Doyle and associates in Portland, OR.

Belluschi was born in Anacona, Italy in August of 1899. He lived in Rome for

most of his youth and received a degree studying architectural engineering in Rome. He

then attended a graduate program at Cornell University, which brought him to America in

1923.8 He moved to Portland and enrolled in the Museum Art School.

A.E. Doyle had a prolific career. As owner of an early architecture firm in

Portland, and a man of vision, he designed 42 different buildings in the Portland and the

greater Pacific Northwest including. More notable buildings include the Portland Public

Library, Benson Hotel, the Wentz Cottage, Civic Stadium (PGE Park), and Reed College.

In 1928 his life was cut short. A following odd series of events9 put young Belluschi in

Doyle’s position of Head Architect of the firm.

Belluschi spent time with artist, teacher, and aesthetic philosopher Harry Wentz.

Wentz and Belluschi worked on developing a “northwestern regional style.” The first

architectural example being Went’s own cottage designed by A.E. Doyle.8

“The characteristics of this Northwest Regional style included wood-frame

construction and siding and roofs that were often of unfinished and unpainted wood.
House facades were asymmetrical, and an open floor plan was combined with a generous

use of windows and a low-slung silhouette that aimed to integrate the buildings with their

environment. The style was most frequently used in residential construction, and early

and popular Oregon practitioners included Belluschi, John Yeon, and Van Evera Bailey.

Belluschi also created some notable Oregon churches that demonstrated his gift for using

wood in dramatic ways.”10

The Doyle firm had been working with the Portland Art Association since 1907

when A.E. Doyle founded the Architectural club. The Portland Art Association is the

board in charge of the Portland Art Museum and (previously) the Museum Art School.

Doyle became head of the gallery building committee in the early 20’s and president of

the Art Association in 1926. He wrote an essay at the end of his life, concerning the

Association’s new museum building. Anna Crocker the museums curator, and Hendrietta

Failing the founder of the museum added to the conversation, making the report a full

overview of what they needed from the structure. They discussed other museums, and

interior aspects. They focused on how the museum building would benefit and operate in

the city, as well as serve the art collection and school. They purposely left out any

exterior plans or forms. They were in a changing time in architecture and refused to be

naive of that fact. Crocker spoke of form following function, Doyle simply commented

on emerging modern trends.11 His opinion was impressively modest, unlike Groupis’

Bauhaus. Doyle stated, “Architects…do not believe they are capable of changing the drift

of civilization. They build for people and have always built what people want… if the

civilization in which they work wants skyscrapers and banks, architects cannot make that

civilization build cathedrals and museums.”12

In early 1931 the Doyle firm was assigned the project, Belluschi as the head

architect. Belluschi looked over the previous report and sent a memorandum to Anna

Crocker explaining his take on the project. In this statement he agrees with the original

opinion explaining, “As to the physical appearance of the building, it is our strong

opinion that a museum should be designed from the inside out and that no good interior

practical feature be sacrificed for a faked external apperence.”13 A site was purchased for

the building and only then did Belluschi start with the elevated design process.

In the months that followed Belluschi sent and received letters to Crocker, and

museum directors all over the country. They discussed at great length the necessary

aspects and measurements. What are other solutions to skylights? How tall should the

ceilings be? Which lighting most efficient in lighting art? Natural or artificial? Every

interior aspect was gone over in great detail. In late April Belluschi had a number of

separate elevation plans to show the museum board. These included a number of varying

facades, though the building structure remained somewhat uniform. The building spoke

to the proposed site and the floor plan, which had been slowly constructed during the

preliminary conversations discussing function. The head of the board of trustees was fond

of Georgian design, and was unfavorable of Belluschi’s more modern take. 14

Belluschi wrote to Frank Lloyd Wright, “There is really no argument against a

person’s taste. It seems almost impossible to be spiritually alive in the right sense. In this

country we are inevitably kicked between fashion and dead tradition.” Lloyd Wright

responded to Belluchi and sent an explanation to Adams, along with his notes on the

plans. He insisted Adams was “making a serious mistake” that the plans, “would mark an

advance in culture for Portland.” Belluschi worked on compromising plans until

December of 1931. The museum was built and opened to the public in November of the

following year.14

The Portland Art Museum under Belluschi’s design was elegant, with form

following function. It is northwest-modern, executed in a style which seems could have

only been made in the precise instant it was. Not one person, or another, more important

in the unique final product. The main façade faces west opening up to the SW Park

blocks, in the heart of Portland, OR. The exterior is recycled red brick which varies in

shade15 and white trim which appear to be the Georgian compromise.

Windows “were given their proper place and made a part of that subtle

relationship of masses and materials which constitutes or rather ought to constitute, the

basis of real architecture.”16 They solidify as horizontal rectangles, consciously placed

around the buildings. Belluschi solved the problem of the skylights with windows that

exist as triangles that protrude out from the roof, they face only toward the Masonic

temple on the north side of the building. Light comes in these windows like a periscope,

it bounces off the angular wall that protrudes from the roof and spills into the gallery

below. The building pays respects to the previously built Masonic temple by aligning

wall lines that seem to jump from one building to another. The Masonic temple exists

parallel to the Belluschi building, today, it now serves as a remodeled addition to the


Through the façade entrance, which consists of vertical counterparts of the white

window trim, the visitor enters into a massive room: the sculpture garden. White marble

covers the floors and supports the building. Galleries extend out and back on both sides.

The building is three stories including a basement. On the second floor the
galleries exist as enfilading rooms. Natural light flows into the open spaces, halls and

interior rooms are lit artificially over-head. The original plans call for the museums

collection to be housed on the north side of the building, while the art school functioned

in a symmetrical south end. In the basement was an auditorium that sat right below the

sculpture court.

In 1991 the Portland Art Association acquired the adjacent Masonic temple.

“There was discussion if they should tear it down and have a competition to bring in a

star architect”17 While the board decided; time had come to remodel and “modernize”

Belluschi’s building. A new entrance, outdoor sculpture garden, gift shop and new more

climate controlled entry way was built for the museum by Ann Beha and her Firm.18

Throughout this time the art school in the museum had been slowly growing out

of the building. In 1968 Belluschi designed a separate building for the college to house an

additional 200 studios for students. In 1981 the school changed its name to the Pacific

Northwest College of the Arts after receiving accreditation. In 1991 a governing board

was set up separate from the museum and in 1998 the school took flight and moved to its

current location on NW Johnson Street.

Beha remodeled the school studios into additional galleries, and in 2000 and was

awarded the task of remodeling the Masonic temple (completed in 2008), which the

board had decided to keep. The Masonic temple now houses the museums modern and

contemporary wing, board rooms, staff offices, library and large ball rooms.18

The Portland Art Museum proudly resides in the same building today. Belluschi’s

design is unique and could only have been made in the time and place it was. Built at the

birth of modernism, though more appropriate for the Pacific Northwest. This building
would have never taken this form if it weren’t for the (sometimes coincidental)

collaboration and history of A.E. Doyle, Anna Crocker and members of the Art

Association board, Belluschi, Lloyd Wright, Grobis, the Medici and Michaelozzo.

“The museum is in a deep sense a mirror of the civilization which built it, yet it

must lead it in helping to find its realization and its understanding. It must be animated by

perpetual motion and feel the creative pulse of the city and the nation and the world. To

create a culture not forgetful of the past but more concerned with the present; to create a

culture more deeply concerned with life, is the purpose of museums.”-Pietro Belluschi

1. “Palazzo Medici Riccardi: Dialogo tra rinascimento e contemporaneo” Palazzo
Medici Official Website,*
2. The Medici family used art to acquire power in two ways. Simply displaying a
massive collection of universally desired objects and constantly acquiring
additions allowed the Medici’s to be envied and respected. More importantly, the
Medici’s understood “the gaze.” They would commission famous artists to make
work that acted as Medici propaganda. Thus, they became the curators of
knowledge, which started in Florence and spread throughout western culture of
the time. (Personal notes from Pg 22 Dissertation, FARR, Libby)
3. Schubert, Karsten “Paris and London 1760-1870”The Curator’s Egg: The
Evolution of the Museum Concept from the French Revolution to the Present
(One-Off Press, 2000) pg. 18-23
4. Farr, Libby Art Museums as brides across time: Four American collegiate art
museums of the 1980s “The Evolution of the Museum” (University of Oregon
doctorate dissertation, University Microfilms International Printing, Ana Arbor,
MI, June, 1994) pg. 26
5. Farr, Libby “Museums in the US” (Lecture given for Contemporary Museum
Archetecture course, PNCA, Portland, OR, Feb. 14, 2011)
6. Overby, Osmond Saint Louis Art Museum, An Architectural History (1987), p. 8
7. “General Idea” Bauhaus Dessau Foundation Official Website*
8. Stubblebine, Jo (ed.) “About Belluschi Himself” The Northwest Architecture of
Pietro Belluschi (F.W. Dodge Corp. 19??) pg 1-2
9. For more information see: Niles, Phillip Beauty of the City: A.E. Doyle,
Portland’s Architect (Oregon State Press, 2008)
10. Engeman, Richard “International Style, Northwest Style, Cryptic Style: 1940-
Present: International Style, Northwest Regional Style” The Oregon History
Project presented by The Oregon Historical Society
11. Clausen, Meredith “Portland Art Museum, 1931-32” Pietro Belluschi: Modern
American Architect” (MIT Press 1994) pg 54-55
12. Clausen, Meredith “Portland Art Museum, 1931-32” Pietro Belluschi: Modern
American Architect” (MIT Press 1994) pg 55-56
13. Belluschi, Peitro “Memorandum for the Portland Musuem of Art” (letter to Anna
Crocker) 3.26.1931
14. Clausen, Meredith “Portland Art Museum, 1931-32” Pietro Belluschi: Modern
American Architect” (MIT Press 1994) pg 57-61
15. Urquart, Donald personal notes from “Introduction Lecture to the Portland Art
Museum” (Lecture given privately to Libby Farr’s visiting class, Portland Art
Museum, Portland, OR, Feb. 28, 2011)
16. Belluschi, Pietro Summery of Proposal for the Portland Art Museum building
17. Farr, Libby “Museums in the US” (Lecture given for Contemporary Museum
Archetecture course, PNCA, Portland, OR, Feb. 14, 2011)
18. Beha, Ann Flyer “Northwest Expansion: The Portland Art
Museum by Ann Beha Architects and SERA Architects” Aug 1, 2006*
19. Belluschi, Pietro “The Role of the Modern Museum in Our New Civilization”
(Lecture, Portland Art Museum, 1935)
20. “PNCA: A Historical Vision” Pacific Northwest College of Art Website*
*All websites are as of 3.11.11