(originally the Equitable Building)
Architect: Pietro Belluschi, 1948
"A masterpiece in
aesthetics, technology, and engineering." Frank Gehry
Portland's most important building, the Commonwealth was the first completely sealed and air-conditioned building of its size in the U.S. It was also the nation's first truly "modern" structure from a design standpoint. It was a trailblazer in its use of double-glazed windows, giving it a handsome and distinctive green look. And while commercial skyscrapers with regular, geometric outlines did exist, the Commonwealth was wrapped entirely in glass and aluminum with a curtain-wall (that is, the exterior wall is not load bearing). Put it all together, and nobody had ever seen anything like this building before.
In the early 1940s, Pietro Belluschi learned of the huge surplus of aluminum that would be left over from the war effort. He grew interested in using the material for a project, and when his firm got its first big post-war commission, he was ready for it. Belluschi took advantage of a new formula of reinforced concrete for this building's design, allowing for a thinner frame and more room for glass and sills of dark green aluminum, which made a nice contrast with the metal's silver sheen elsewhere. The incredible smooth appearance of the building is no deception; nothing protruding more than seven-eighths of an inch from the surface was permitted.
Pietro Belluschi was also prepared to use aluminum in the structure of the building itself until the idea was rejected by local fire marshals because of the metal's low melting temperature. Belluschi wrote without much prescience in the May 1943 Architectural Forum that "fire-resistant aluminum alloys will do away with concrete fireproofing as now used in steel structures."
* The Commonwealth was the first building to be entirely clad in aluminum and glass, with New York's United Nations building following on its heels " er, rivets.
Once built (at its original height of twelve floors), the Commonwealth was almost at the city's building code height limit. (It has had another floor added since.) Combined with its slender width, the Commonwealth seems entirely balanced in composition. (Subsequent imitators of its style ignored this important element of the building's appeal.) The Commonwealth is widely heralded as a landmark architectural work, and has often been acknowledged as one of the best U.S. buildings of the 20th century.
The original mural in the lobby of the building was designed by Belluschi and executed by house painters for $50. (The client had rejected a modern work of art estimated at $10,000.) The Commonwealth's lobby was redesigned in the 1970s, but Belluschi disliked it so much, he avoided visits to the building until he worked with Soderstrom Architects to re-do the area in 1987. After that restoration, Belluschi signed his name to the lobby's renovated mural.
Belluschi's pioneering work served as a powerful modernistic influence on downtown's future. The success of the building also dramatically affected Belluschi's career; he was awarded the high honor of being elected as a Fellow of the American Institute of Architects (AIA) after the building's completion. In the boom years between 1945 and 1950, Belluschi's office employed twenty-eight people and completed nearly two hundred jobs. In 1950, Belluschi accepted the post of dean of architecture at MIT. In 1972, he was awarded the highest honor an architect can aspire to, the AIA Gold Medal. (This award was controversial, as concerns swirled around Belluschi's serving as an "architectural consultant" on a number of projects. The Gold Medal was not given out again for a number of years afterwards.)
* In the mid-1950s, a "bell-style" music system was installed in the Commonwealth and connected to public address speakers atop the building. Nearby office workers have been complaining about the schmaltzy tunes emanating from them ever since. "But how many times a day can you hear the bells peal â€˜Sunrise, Sunset' before wanting to run screaming from the tintinnabulation?" asked Oregonian columnist Margie BoulÃ©. (Correct answer: Twice.)Less Text