“At a time when recent political developments brought back the attention to the small towns of the American Midwest, the studio proposes to design a public building in provincial Ohio, trying to imagine how public space and collective buildings could contribute to shaping the future of a community, and so contribute to overcoming its current fragility.
The studio requires designing a Methodist church on a plot located at 225 N Main Street, in Clyde, Sandusky County, Ohio. Clyde has been the inspiration for Sherwood Anderson’s 1919 classic Winesburg, Ohio: A Group of Tales of Ohio Small-Town Life. As such, the town provides a prototypical place to observe the contemporary Midwest.” —Course Brief
To read more about the partnership and project, read the story and interview here.
Gustavo Antonio Casalduc Rivera
In Sandusky County, Clyde, a large massive building is positioned as the tallest structure in the center of the town, calling attention to itself through its monumentality. It creates a space for community gathering for the town while at the same time putting religious faith at the center. It is caught between being referential to its context and at the same time a relatively ambiguous object. There is a reinterpretation of vernacular elements, form and materials which are all too familiar, yet here rendered ambiguous. On the one hand it recalls a barn structure and on the other it conveys the presence of a mastaba, a tomb or a monumental structure. On the other, the homogeneous material, shingle clad exterior, is applied indiscriminately on the exterior surface, regardless if its on a wall or a roof, creating the illusion that the thing is a monolithic whole or perhaps a masonry building from a distance. In reality it is lightweight wood stud construction.
The gable of the building is aligned to city hall while the main facade turns its face towards the south of the town. There, a public plaza hosts large gatherings, wedding entries and town festivals. The entrance is low and wide highlighting the importance of the plaza as a community gathering space.
As one walks inside, the experience is compressed through the low entry to later be de-compressed as one enters the sanctuary space. The nave of the church is shifted perpendicularly as the window and the altar point east to take advantage of the light for the Sunday morning service.
The interior is a tall dark blue ceiling where the wooden structure is exposed, revealing that the massive building is a ubiquitous barn construction. The organization is expressed in the massing, having the religious program under the gable roof while the program which serves the community protrudes as a bar in the back of the building. This articulation clearly separates the space of the church from the space of the community services. Nonetheless the plan is simple, the project is about a formal expression and providing a back-drop for drama in everyday life.
The church resembles a sort of large barn, not so different from the many you would see on your drive to, from and through Clyde, Ohio. Formally it is a combination of three common roof types: the gable, the gambrel and the hip. This is a church that is both familiar and foreign.
In section, a gable roof is repeated four times to enclose a courtyard space; from the highest point of the four gables, a larger hip roof covers the courtyard. The four perimeter barns house all the secondary program of the church; within the void of the courtyard is the sanctuary. This is a simple church.
The project is situated directly across from Clyde’s Municipal Building and is aligned to the two edges of city hall as well as the edge of the buildings along Main Street, south of the site. Despite this alignment, the design remains relatively indifferent to its formal placement within the site. Because of the diffuse and abundant amount of parking within the town, one would not approach the church from a single point, but from all sides. Four equal entrances at each exterior corner emphasize this reading and challenges an axial approach to the church. This is not a processional church.
The exterior massing is expressed as a singular form of nearly identical elevations: The north and south façade have a kinked hip roof; only differentiated by a single window. The difference in pitches between the gable of the four barns and the hip of the sanctuary roof are unified by a sloped gambrel profile on the east and west facades; the east façade facing City Hall is blank without openings, while the west façade has a chimney-like dormer. This is a church of small differences.
The sanctuary interior has a repeated pattern of seemingly redundant double doors. The yellow metal doors, which match the exterior cladding, provide ornamentation to the otherwise blank, white interior. The doors produce a perception of sameness in each of the four barns beyond. But, in fact, each is distinct; one door leads to an exit; another to a storage closet; another to a prayer room. This is a church that is understood through custom, use and experience.
Finally, the central courtyard organization and corner entries allow for flexible use of the church. Because each barn can be accessed from the exterior, as well as through the sanctuary, every space can be used independently, regardless of the activities taking place in the surrounding rooms. During off hours the altar and seating can be stored away to convert the sanctuary into an open, courtyard-like room. Repetition serves to create an inversion of primary and secondary program. This is a flexible church, perhaps more blank than sacred.
In the end, this is a project about repetition and redundancy; about how these things can negotiate between a desire for familiarity on one hand and a reality of difference on the other. This is a Methodist church in Clyde, Ohio.
The new Methodist church differentiates itself from the other places of worship in Clyde Ohio with its monumentality and presence, while showing its self-awareness of its peculiar nature with a façade referencing Saul Steinberg’s small town monument drawings — something unexpected in a small Midwestern town. Inside, the building offers a peaceful, at times private, experience, which brings a welcome contrast to the typical evolution of the churches in the area; namely, the trend of attracting people with the loud and pompous services of mega-churches.
The new methodist church sits across the street from Clyde town hall, complementing its character with its monumentality. The north side of the church — along with an assortment of trees in front of it — serves as a background for the war memorial of the town, which greets people entering the city centre from the north. The south side of the church features a monumental entrance courtyard with trees placed in a grid and a symmetrical passage to an intimate inner courtyard. The entrance sequence continues through this calming, space, which not only separates visitors from their mundane environment but also functions as a leisure area with benches and trees.
Upon entering the church, visitors arrive in a dim, wide corridor, which opens up and grows into a great, light-filled hall. This space has two large windows, which give light to both the corridor and the rooms bordering it: some of the rooms have no ceilings, allowing their occupants and those of the corridor to sense the unity of the space — the roof of the great hall forms a mutual backdrop for all. This condition creates a tension between the rooms of the church, as one can always feel the entirety of presence within the hall. The feeling serves as a metaphor for faith: the presence of God and those of all people form a continuous whole even when distanced from each other. The fact that the large windows of the hall are separated from the beholder when standing in the entrance corridor — together with their elevated position — highlights this effect.
The second part of the hall can be accessed through three different doors, each leading to a different room: the double doors of the corridor open to the sanctuary, while the two others offer passage to the choir practice room and the prayer room. Entering any one of these happens through the only wall high enough to split the hall into two parts, creating a powerful entrance by way of threshold. The second part of the great hall offers a playful, yet calming surprise to those entering it: the red brick of the previous spaces changes to a cool blue. The sanctuary has another set of large windows which mirror the effects of those in the corridor. The two smaller rooms within are separated once again by walls but not by ceilings. This time however, the ensemble comes together to strengthen the atmosphere of the sanctuary with an intensely symmetrical geometry.
The rooms at the south side of the building serve the practical functions of the church staff and visitors. These include office spaces and a kitchen, together with a group of toilets. The two classrooms in the first part of the great hall can either stay separate or form a single large room with the use of the partition wall in the middle of the space. This has the capacity to make the room a great venue for the communal dinners of the congregation. The two sliding doors that form the entrances to the space further help such a function: these can be left open and thus join the classrooms with the main corridor, creating an even larger place of celebration.
If you talk to enough pastors in Ohio, you’ll quickly tire of the refrain, ‘we just can’t compete with those Big Box Churches down the road’. This reflects a migration of younger Christians to unaffiliated or evangelical churches which forgo the traditions, ceremonial and architectural, of the Mainline denominations such as Methodist, Presbyterian, or Baptist. These start-up churches occupy storefronts, gymnasiums, theaters, warehouses, nightclubs. Such a trend might represent a schism between spiritual practice and architectural typology. So what is it about this Big Box anyway? The Clyde Methodist Church inherits the Big Box as an architectural vocabulary for projecting a contemporary state of Methodism and a contemporary State of Ohio.
The church is a square in plan, across from city hall and on axis with its entrance, rotated 45 degrees, as if to deflect any traditional correspondence between the two buildings. The building is clad in a reflective corrugated aluminum, reflecting the sky and city hall and lend a familiar, if not industrial, materiality to the abstract form.
The organization of the ground floor is rational and relatively spartan, dividing between small, medium, and extra-large spaces. The overhead armature is the inverse – generous cylindrical chambers of light, dissociated with the economical logic of the plan. These two realms, profane and the sacred, the accessible and the inaccessible, are disjointed by the ceiling plane at 9 feet above finish floor.
The two overhead chambers delineate two distinct spaces not through partitions or visual separation but rather with overhead space and different qualities of light. The bifurcation of the main sanctuary reflects the reality of weekly service in Clyde, Ohio being rather small, with only the occasional service expanding to take over the whole sanctuary floor. The north chamber is the ritual space – a tall and bright space over the altar and choir along with fixed pews. The south chamber has movable chairs, a lower ceiling, and a north-facing clerestory, providing flexible space for more community oriented events.
The box is crowned by two tower-slabs. The north tower-slab is mostly hollow, rather, full of light and empty space, above the altar, side chapel, and prayer room. The south tower slab is packed with public programs – classrooms, a dining hall, a library, rehearsal space, prayer rooms, etc. The tower-slabs establish vertical civic surfaces, upon which banners are hung, movies may be projected, a serrated image of life in Clyde reflects back at itself. The tower-slabs position themselves to establish a traditional sense of monumentality, proclaiming significance through size and presence.
Designing a Methodist church in Clyde, Ohio inevitably evokes the question of what it means to build a monument for the community. Even smaller than my hometown in northern Germany, Clyde currently has the population of around 6000. The town is best known as the model for the fictional town in Sherwood Anderson’s short story collection “Winesburg, Ohio”, published in 1919. In these stories, nothing of big importance ever happens, but that is not the point. Based on his memories, Anderson narrates the stories from the perspective of the grotesque characters.
The sense of community found in a small town setting needs to be rediscovered, in the different context of today. Is it possible for a church project, although it being just a building, to capture the authenticity of a place and its people, with the sensibilities of a novel? The church for the people of Clyde shall be less of an icon of grandiosity, and more of a house for the community. Its central position next to the town hall naturally allows it to form the first impression on people arriving from the highway, intensifying the town’s identity.
The architecture consists of two houses, that overlap each other at an angle. Inspired by Giorgio Morandi’s still life paintings, with the quiet depiction of unsophisticated subject matter, the focus lays on the space between objects. On the exterior, this connection creates a front yard space on the north side and a plaza on the south side. On the interior, this separates the programs for religious practice, such as the main sanctuary, sacristy and choir room, and programs for the community, such as the church library, kitchen and classrooms. The overlap of the two houses allows the church to operate on a domestic scale. Conceptually, it creates a new axis at an oblique angle from the entrance on the east side, through the library and the sanctuary.
A church is a place, where people come to pray, confess and reflect in privacy. It is also a place to sing, eat and to hear the new gossip around town. In short, the church provides a space for public and private life, religious and social life to come together. With every year’s events Easter, Christmas, baptisms, weddings and funerals, people’s lives unfold and perish in and around the church… It is a cultural phenomenon that deserves more attention.
What is the small-town monument? It shall be both singular and relational. Singular at large as in the identity of the overlooked Americans, that made their voices heard with their republican vote in 2016. And relational at the scale of the fascinating bits of stories and gossip whispered at the Sunday mass, between two neighbors – in Clyde, Ohio.
In his review of Michael Cimino’s 1978 film “The Deer Hunter,” Vincent Canby of the New York Times writes that the movie’s principal concern is “what happens to Americans when their rituals have become only quaint reminders of the past rather than life-ordering rules of the present.” The film takes place in Clairton, Pennsylvania, an archetypal small factory town not so different than Clyde, Ohio. Canby argues that “The Deer Hunter” provides “an update on the national dream, long after World War II when America’s self-confidence peaked, after the Marshall Plan, after Korea, dealing with people who’ve grown up in the television age and matured in the decade of assassinations and disbelief.” Today, in the social media era that has witnessed the election of Donald Trump carried by working class towns throughout the midwest, forces of unrest seem to have only intensified. In these small factory towns, new modes of living come into conflict with the nostalgia of the “Make America Great Again” movement. Therefore, a church designed for Clyde in 2019 must address both notions of tradition and expectations of contemporary life.
The majority of churches in Clyde focus primarily on these notions of tradition, at the expense of realities of usage. Pushing their front entrance directly up against the sidewalk, these churches stuff parking to the side or the back of their lots. Through the use of a vocabulary of vernacular forms, these churches establish their frontality along the street, but do not acknowledge the fact that most parishioners arrive by car. This type of design pays homage to the history of Christian architecture in pedestrian cities of Europe, but fails to address the automobile culture of contemporary American towns. Like the other churches of Clyde, this church is equally interested in the image-making of architectural iconography within the picturesque small town. Sited along Main Street directly opposite City Hall, the eastern face of the church maintains its frontality with an unobstructed, monumental facade, accompanied by green, open spaces on either side. However, this leaves only the west side of the lot for parking, meaning that the majority of people arriving to the site by car will enter at the back of the lot. However, instead of allowing visitors to enter through an understated back door, or drawing them around the perimeter to the street facing entry, this church duplicates its front facade on its back facade. In doing so, the building eliminates any hierarchy between street-facing and parking-facing frontage, establishing an equilibrium between the tradition of church-building and the realities of contemporary mobility.
Two concrete towers clad in wood – one on each side of the church – are the main signals of these competing facades. Understood as adaptations of the traditional steeple of midwestern Protestant architecture, the towers contain two stairwells and an elevator shaft, providing two means of egress from the second floor. These vertical circulation routes run between two worlds – one in brick and one in wood. The brick box houses the entry halls, sanctuary, sacristy, choir, and bathrooms – all of the spaces needed for weekly services. All of the additional supporting programs, including classrooms, offices, and a prayer room, occupy one half of the wooden gable, leaving the other half empty. The structural systems of these two worlds are independent, as the brick box rests on the ground while an A frame of glulam members supports the wooden gable above.
At the points where these systems meet, precast concrete sleeves set into the brick walls allow the continuous glulam members to transfer their loads directly into footings on the ground without contributing any load out of the plane of the wall. Light enters the sanctuary in the gaps between the wooden roof and brick walls, as well as through the long ribbon window that spreads light evenly across the entire church.
The competing elements within this church create a challenging exterior reading. From the north and south, the church recalls an industrial vernacular. From the east and west, it appears as a religious building with a suggestion of longitudinality, reinforced by buttresses running its length. However, entry into the sanctuary reveals the rotation of that longitudinal orientation, as the central aisle of the building actually runs along its transverse axis. This wide proportion challenges the hierarchy between pastor and parishioners, creating a more open space appropriate for a wide range of large communal events.
Perhaps a church cannot solve the problems of Clyde. However, it can at least provide a welcoming gathering space while performing important symbolic roles in its exterior appearance. Balancing a series of dualities – front and back, wood and brick, clergy and laypeople – the church aspires to address the dialogue between past and present in places like Clyde, putting forth a new argument for the monument for small town life.