Christ the King Church in Milwaukie bears some resemblance to two other Belluschi-designed churches in the Archdiocese of Portland: St. Joseph in Roseburg and Christ the Teacher in North Portland. (Courtesy Mark Scherzinger)
Christ the King Church in Milwaukie bears some resemblance to two other Belluschi-designed churches in the Archdiocese of Portland: St. Joseph in Roseburg and Christ the Teacher in North Portland. (Courtesy Mark Scherzinger)
A church, wrote Victor Hugo, is “a book in stone.”

Or rather, for many Catholics in the Pacific Northwest, a book in wood and light.

While the Archdiocese of Portland doesn’t have a gothic masterpiece like Notre-Dame de Paris — the church Hugo was referring to — there are beautiful churches throughout the archdiocese, including a number of possibly underappreciated midcentury marvels. These are churches designed and influenced by master architect Pietro Belluschi and others who embraced the Northwest and who gave the region a unique architecture, one that has been celebrated around the world.

According to the Pacific Coast Architecture Database, “Beginning in the late 1940s and into the 1950s, the churches of the Pacific Northwest began to be noticed by the national architectural media.”

In its December 1957 issue, the Architectural Record wrote, “Perhaps only in the Pacific Northwest has there developed anything approaching a concentration of church building distinctly superior to the national average. There the work of Pietro Belluschi and Paul Thiry has set high standards ... Their spaces are calm but intensely so. Scale is man-and-God related.’”

Architect Chris Di Loreto was just 28 when he met Belluschi. The aged architect was designing Christ the Teacher Chapel on the University of Portland campus.

Di Loreto, who has designed several churches in the archdiocese since then, still feels fortunate for that 1984 encounter — which came the same year that Belluschi told the Catholic Sentinel that “what makes a church a successful place of worship is strange and mysterious.”

Belluschi had not yet been awarded the National Medal of Arts for his lifetime work — that came in 1991, three years before his death. He was only the second architect to earn that award and the only Oregonian artist of any sort.

By 1984, however, the octogenarian’s work had been internationally influential for decades. In 1972, for instance, he had won the American Institute of Architects’ annual Gold Medal, joining Le Corbusier, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Frank Lloyd Wright, Buckminster Fuller and Eero Saarinen.

Belluschi, who had moved to the United States from Italy in 1922 to finish his university education, landed in Portland after graduating from Cornell. He left Portland in 1951 to become dean of the School of Architecture and Planning at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, but returned to Oregon in 1965.

Belluschi loved the Northwest, and infused the region’s essence into his designs.

Di Loreto strives for that as well. “Within the Catholic tradition there are many ways to build a church,” he said. “We would like for you to know you’re in Oregon when you go to church.”

Belluschi did that by using wood, exposing beams and columns, and flooding a sanctuary with natural light. “His design was about containing you in the space,” said Di Loreto. “And an honest use of native material to create an architecture of its place.”

The Northwest modern tradition, now 80 years old, is still strong. The award-winning St. Edward Church in Keizer, built in 2015 and designed by Di Loreto, is in the modern Northwest tradition — and definitely draws from midcentury influences. “I hope Belluschi would say, that’s something we would have done,” said Di Loreto.

St. Edward’s design won the prestigious international Faith & Forum award from the American Institute of Architects in 2016. Portland Monthly magazine described it as “luminous,” a church that “will restore your faith.”

Another genre of the Midcentury Modern style is “Atomic Age” design, which, according to writer and critic Brian Libby, sometimes refers to more “way-out 1960s architecture.”

Think of St. John the Baptist in Milwaukie, completed in 1964, with its eye-catching landmark spire.

Libby, who writes about architecture for The Wall Street Journal, Architectural Digest, Dwell, The New York Times and other publications from his Portland base, explained via email that the terms — Midcentury Modern, Northwest Modern, International style — are secondary. Modernism encompasses them all.

Before Modernism, he wrote, there were a bunch of historic styles: Gothic, Tudor, Victorian, and so on. Modernism changed everything. “Modernism is what streamlined all architecture beginning sometime maybe after World War I, taking inspiration from the Industrial Revolution and machines and the rise of democracy, and rejecting the use of ornament or historical styles because they were associated with a pre-democratic age,” he wrote.

That doesn’t mean that Belluschi and other midcentury architects didn’t draw from historic styles. Several of Belluschi’s churches — St. Joseph in Roseburg, Christ the King in Milwaukie and Christ the Teacher Chapel in Portland, resemble the exotic, rough-hewn Apalachee council dwellings of the Florida panhandle.

“His architecture often borrowed from classical architecture and that of different cultures,” wrote Libby.

It’s difficult to miss the feeling of being in a Roman basilica at St. Philip Neri in Southeast Portland, another Belluschi church.

Borrowing, however, is different than copying.

“You can’t recreate the past, or if you do, it risks winding up as something more like Disneyland: a caricature,” wrote Libby. “The best way to honor great old churches or great old houses is to not design 21st century stuff that apes them.”

Modernism — even from the best architects — isn’t universally admired.

Even the best, like Belluschi, didn’t get everything right. Over the decades, for instance, some of his churches have been criticized for being stark and dark — in definite contrast to his first church, St. Thomas More in Southwest Portland — and in contrast to the natural light that the Northwest Regional style is known for.

Msgr. John Cihak, pastor of Christ the King in Milwaukie, carefully parses his words regarding that church’s architecture. He’s troubled by the total lack of windows and images. “Whereas we want to draw upon our local sensibilities, we have to also combine that with our deeply felt Catholic sensibilities about statues, images and warmth.”

The poured concrete altar and ambo are a case in point — they strike him as cold and stark.

Msgr. Cihak came to Christ the King after spending 17 years total in Rome, many of those years serving as a papal master of ceremonies, at the side of popes in St. Peter’s Basilica — designed in part by Michelangelo and Bernini.

It’s a different look.

Architectural critic Andrew Ferguson wrote recently in The Atlantic that Modernist architects have “managed to build a very large number of unlovely buildings.”

Other critics go further. “Why you hate contemporary architecture” is the title of a 2017 article in Current Affairs. Its subtitle is prescriptive: “And if you don’t why you should.”

Most people aren’t as dogmatic, and, in the Northwest we’re fortunate to have a variety of Modernist buildings, including churches, that are beloved.

“I think everyone is pleased with the way it turned out,” says Father Gary Zerr of the new St. Edward Church. “We wanted something traditional and modern, with light and a lot of wood.”

Father Zerr, pastor of St. Edward, says the church was part of a couple tours of churches, one with participants mostly from the East Coast, the other group from Asia. He was pleasantly surprised to learn that St. Edward was the centerpiece of the tours.

Alyssa Starelli, a broker with Living Room Realty, loves the style. She gets especially excited talking about Portland architect Warren Weber. “His churches look as if God simply grabbed hold of the edge of roofline, twisted heaven-ward into a spire, and filled in the gaps with brilliant stained glass,” she enthuses.

Starelli is describing Clackamas United Christian Church in Milwaukie, built in 1963.

She also has a special affection for the St. Francis de Sales Mission in Hammond, which also features an upswept roof — and, inside, natural light through clear glass with plenty of wood.

So what did Di Loreto learn during his brief conversation with Belluschi in 1984?

The answer isn’t what cost-conscious pastors and administrators want to hear.

Di Loreto proudly told Belluschi that he too was designing a church.

“He asked me what my budget was,” Di Loreto recalled.

“He told me, ‘You can’t build a church for that.’”

Di Loreto gave a rueful laugh at the memory. “He was absolutely right.”