In February of 2019, an Italian architect and 13 Harvard architecture students landed in Clyde, OH, a small town in Sandusky county boasting a population of just over 6,000 and rumored to host the largest washing machine plant in the world.
In their studio, “American Gothic, Monuments for Small-Town Life,” these students took on Middle America, a notion drawing in renewed interest after the divisive 2016 election seemingly floored coastal America with the revelation that a huge percentage of the population, well, isn’t them, doesn’t live like them and doesn’t always think like them, either.
In fact, Sandusky County was one of those places that was won over by Trump after two years of going blue for Obama. A seemingly odd choice for a Harvard design project—a city unremarkable yet arguably representative in all its contradictions and struggles—Clyde was chosen specifically because it isn’t odd.
“We didn’t come to Clyde thinking we would see something incredibly exotic or super strange or horrible. No. We went there exactly because it was a normal place—a place that I think felt abandoned and the majority of the population of that place: this white, Christian majority in Clyde who is not anymore the majority in the U.S.—but it used to be the majority—has somehow lost its status,” Pier Paolo Tamburelli, studio instructor and founder of the architecture studio baukuh and the architectural magazine San Rocco, said.
He himself, though from Italy and working internationally in Europe, grew up in a rural area and has found both similitude and difference in his background and the Midwest, and has also traveled relatively extensively to cities like Milwaukee, Chicago and Detroit.
“Again, I am from a village in Northern Italy with 500 inhabitants—completely rural, but totally different,” he said. “We have these conditions of never being really the place, where nobody will go to San Sebastiano [his hometown] to learn anything. It is a bit outside. The world is full of places that are slightly out,” he said.
He was drawn to the Midwest story, and while coastal Americans themselves may have been just recently and rudely awakened to the existence of Middle America, Tamburelli says the Midwest holds a special fascination for Europeans.
“There is a very long tradition of Europeans going to America and being more fascinated by rural America than New York or the East Coast because the East Coast is different, but it is not so different. The Midwest is really different. One thing is that, if you are European, you tend to think that America is like Europe more or less,” he said. “And you go to New York and yes, it is a bit different. Then you go to Milwaukee and that is really sort of another civilization, and that is very fascinating.”
In Clyde, the students were tasked with designing a public building—more specifically, a Methodist church building. Along with in-person site visits, precedent research and meeting with Clyde residents, students “imagine how public space and collective buildings could contribute to shaping the future of a community, and so contribute to overcoming [provincial Ohio’s] current fragility,” according to their studio brief.
Clearheaded about architecture as a matter of space, building and programmatic function, Tamburelli’s instruction led the studio in a spatial exercise that frames the possibilities of togetherness, collective life and gathering in a small Northwest Ohio town.
“[I]t was my feeling that there was a certain idea of community—a collective life—that was in danger. And we thought, ‘Okay, what’s a building for community in Clyde, Ohio?’ There’s no movie theater…The only real community building is a church [or] a school or the football field of the high school. There’s nothing more there. The movie theater has been closed since the 90s and there’s no theater, no museum, no other things. So, we thought ‘Okay, collective building? A church,’” he said.
Students’ projects tackled issues like nostalgia, the fading of traditions, a weakening of the town’s social fabric and others—topics of philosophical heft and depth that might not seem immediately within the realm of building design. But the students’ exploratory projects resulted in much more than just blueprints or renderings, putting forth an imaginative vision for the 6,000 residents of Clyde.
“At a certain moment you have to design a building,” Tamburelli said. “The only thing we asked was to do it through a certain set of drawings and to produce, in the end, the stop motion [films]—something that would give an idea of how it could be possible to live inside of these spaces.”
The method of representation was a purposeful one, one that opened up accessibility to the otherwise abstracted architecture content to the layman.
“What architecture can do is to visualize a possible form of coexistence, in a way. Just to show it. Not to say that it is going to work like this or work like that, or it’s going to be better, we’re gonna be happy—who knows if we’re going to be happy? But these [solutions] could happen in this frame. That’s the envisioning act of architecture,” he said.
While the students’ visit was brief and perhaps little more than a strange blip in the lives of the residents of Clyde (Tamburelli also mentioned the wonder with which the town received 13 Harvard students), in the students’ envisioning of the seemingly mundane, they found remarkable beauty and kindness.
“[T]o learn how to look at something is always to recognize what is beautiful, because there are things that are beautiful in Clyde, Ohio,” Tamburelli said. “I think at a certain moment, different communities should be able to come to terms with each other with certain kindness…And [there]’s a visual counterpart to that: there is this kindness in the landscape—there’s kindness and beauty in the everyday life.”
Explore a digital exhibition of selected projects from the studio here.
Learn more about the impetus for the studio below in a selected transcript of the interview with course instructor and architect Pier Paolo Tamburelli and Teaching Associate to the course, Nelson Byun.
Pier Paolo Tamburelli (PP): One thing to me that is interesting and that has been very important for our studio is when we came, we first went to Detroit and we visited this church by Gunnar Birkerts that was a little bit, I’d say, modern…And I knew the church. I don’t even really remember why I knew it, but I didn’t really know much about Birkerts. So we studied a little bit and we also went to see a couple other things like the amazing library in Ann Arbor, Michigan… I don’t remember if it was Michigan or Michigan State University.
Nelson Byun (NB): The University of Michigan.
PP: At that time, I bought a couple of books about Birkerts and learned a couple of things. For instance, he did plans in the 70s. He did maybe 10-15 public buildings in the Midwest: a public library in Duluth, Minnesota, the federal bank [building] in Minnesota, [a] museum & church in Detroit, [a] library in Ann Arbor. He had an entire career as a relevant American intellectual living in Detroit and fundamentally always working in the Midwest. He started his career in another office that was starting an office that was also in Michigan, and when he worked with Saarinen, I think he was sharing the desk with Robert Venturi. So, there was a moment in which the Midwest was a place, at least for architects, where you could run a significant practice and you could survive on designing public buildings. Which I think is not really the case anymore. I don’t know these contexts very well, but I can imagine there are other figures less relevant than Birkerts, less accomplished as an architect—I don’t know—but it could be an interesting story of what architecture in the Midwest was in the 70s. That is a story, I mean I am not an expert, maybe there is somebody who has a Ph.D. on that.
Ruth Chang: I am sure there is.
RC: But how did you get connected to the Midwest, to Clyde? Your background has nothing to do with the Midwest. Even if other architects found their way here, how did you find a connection to Clyde?
PP: My background has to do with the Midwest in the sense that I am from the countryside, and all countrysides look the same in the universe. [Ruth laughs] So that’s the reason. The other thing is I spent a semester in Chicago in 2014. When I was in Chicago, I traveled. I drove around and went to places like Indianapolis, Detroit or Milwaukee. They are not particularly touristic, but I am interested in seeing these sort of places. When Mark [Lee, Chair of the Department of Architecture] invited me to teach in Harvard—actually my first proposal was about one thing in Rome, but then it sounded too complicated to do, and then I thought, ‘Okay, let’s do something about the U.S.” Then, “Let’s do something about the Midwest.”
RC: Did you feel that you were kind of going against the grain or that you were coming up with your own discourse as you were coming up with the syllabus?
PP: No, I [don’t] think it was. Well, of course, Donald Trump’s election brought a lot of attention to these places that elected Donald Trump in the end. And Ohio was one of them. So I don’t think I was doing something that was innovative or crazy. At the same time, I think for Americans, it probably would have been more difficult… I could play the card that “I am a naive European, I just want to have a look at that.” So, in a way, it was easy for me. For instance, in the jury [for this studio], at a certain moment—for American critics, there was a moment in which things started to be tricky, which it [was]. I don’t think I was incredibly innovative. I think it was relatively easy for me to be interested in that because of these backgrounds. Because I’m—I am interested in these sort of things. I watched all these movies about the Midwest. Just to give you an idea, at a certain moment—not even when I was in Chicago—at a certain moment, I went to Mount Rushmore, driving for I don’t know how many days, just to see this thing that I don’t think is really something that a standard European architect would go and look at.
RC: What is so different about this? Is it the massiveness? The blankness? Everyone wants to go to Europe. Nobody wants to come to the Midwest.
PP: Except Europeans. There is a very long tradition of Europeans going to America and being more fascinated by rural America than New York or the East Coast. Because the East Coast is different, but it is not so different. The Midwest is really different. One thing is that if you are European, you tend to think that America is like Europe, more or less. Little differences. And you go to New York and yes, it is a bit different, okay. Then you go to Milwaukee and that is really sort of another civilization, and that is very fascinating. To me, it is very interesting.
PP: I am not sure I would like to live in Milwaukee. Not sure. What we did, we did with a lot of respect. Again, I am from a village in Northern Italy with 500 inhabitants—completely rural. But totally different. We have these conditions of never being really the place, where like nobody will go to San Sebastiano to learn anything. It is a bit “outside.” The world is full of places that are slightly out.
RC: You brought up that obviously Trump was a big…his election and the kind of voices coming out of the Midwest, that elected him, largely. That kind of brought to attention certain social realities in the Midwest. Was that different when you went to actually visit? Were the students able to…It seems like you came in with ideas from literature, ideas from movies—this ideal Midwest. Then Donald Trump gets elected and then you come here. You land yourself, you drive into town. Was the problem more real? What was the social reality like when you [were] on the ground?
PP: The Midwest that we saw in the movies is really not an ideal place. The Midwest of The Deer Hunter, although it is not rural, it is currently not ideal. Also, the reason why I took Clyde was that Clyde is one of those counties in the U.S. who voted—I think the county is called Sandusky—Sandusky County is one of the counties in the U.S. who voted, Obama, Obama, Trump.
PP: And we didn’t come to Clyde thinking we would see something incredibly exotic or super strange or horrible. No. We went there exactly because it was a normal place. A place that I think felt abandoned and the majority of the population of that place—this white, Christian majority in Clyde who is not anymore the majority in the U.S., but it used to be the majority—has somehow lost its status and its loss of status generated certain reactions, and among them, the election of Donald Trump. This doesn’t mean that every single white Christian voted for Trump. I don’t think it’s like that.
We also didn’t want to develop any social theory. We are architects. We just say, you know, there is this thing we paid zero attention to in the last 20 years. And then all of a sudden it came up booming when this monster Donald Trump appeared. Actually, it was more than expected in a way because…You should pay attention. So, I thought, “Okay, let’s go there. Let’s have a look.” We clearly selected a place that was not extreme. We didn’t go to West Virginia. We didn’t decide to design a big box church for crazy Baptists or whatever denomination. We took a standard church, a little bit old fashioned, then we discovered that, through the studio, that was in the moment of a big crisis in that Methodist church because there was a schism inside the Methodist Church. But I didn’t know. We decided for Methodist only because it was just a so-called main denomination—Protestant. So we didn’t want a Catholic Church or a sort of brand new form of Christianity. And we also didn’t want to provide solutions, so in the end, we just designed the churches, their buildings. They don’t solve problems, they just provide a certain form, a certain architectural function. So, in a way, it also remains an academic exercise, and an exercise on architecture.
RC: I see.
NB: But I was also describing to Ruth before how the trip also entailed meeting the mayor of the city—meeting city officials. We went and visited various churches and spoke to the pastors about the social-economic conditions of the place, as well as a “big box” church and how it contends with it. We also spoke to a professor at the [Harvard] Divinity School as well as another minister in the Harvard area, just to compare the smaller religious institution, I guess, with the larger ones as a whole. But I also felt, from my perspective at least, seeing it from the outside, I think that Pier Paolo has a great gift of distilling the culture of a place into the architecture itself. I think each project, how it started through to the end, was really sort of, in the end, a subtractive process for me and sort of making the building more relatable in narrative and also in quality, of the vernacular, the quality of modesty that matches the place, I feel. That was my perception at least.
RC: Right. I think that’s really helpful that through the process that there’s something being distilled into a kind of, like, essence for the students themselves to be able to…I know you said it’s not about solving problems, but it’s clear each of the students had some kind of a design or at least an issue that they were looking at? Especially the issue that something [they design] is public, right? You chose a public space. Why is the public especially important in the context of rural America?
PP: Well, because it was my feeling was that there was a certain idea of community, a collective life, that was in danger. And we thought, “Okay, what’s a building for community in Clyde, Ohio? There’s no movie theater, there’s—the only real community building is a church and the other can be a school or the football field of the high school. There’s nothing more there. The movie theater has been closed since the 90s and there’s no theater, no museum, no other things. So, we thought okay, collective building? A church. I was also relatively uninterested, in this specific occasion, because it’s not something that’s uninteresting to me but, in this specific occasion we weren’t particularly interested in the religious aspect of the church. It was more, kind of, you know, the minimum social collective building. There was a church, so that’s what interested us.
RC: So what were the elements that the students worked with from the vernacular and what were they trying to express?
PP: Oh, these I don’t know. That was up to the students and we gave them a list of churches, a list that are Protestant, that were mainly selected by me, so they were European, and in a way Catholic. In a way they had absolutely nothing to do with Clyde, Ohio because architecture is also like that—there’s a discipline of architecture and you have precedents. When we gave that to the students and said, you study these for two months and you redraw it, but then you don’t need to copy them. That’s maybe something that I tend to do always when I teach. I tend to do things that are in parallel and they have no clear link—the connection is up to the students.
N: It’s also nice to note that you visited all these churches, right, Pier Paolo?.
PP: Maybe not every church, but largely yes.
RC: I heard about that, that the students, each one, had to draw 10 different churches and compile this kind of encyclopedia of resources for themselves in the process of doing it, which subconsciously they will intuitively apply what they have learned onto their own design in Clyde, Ohio, depending on what they feel was successful or useful, and especially when the product came out. For me, [when] I saw those stop motion videos and some of the text, the drawings— and it does feel like that their work, or the studio’s work, does do something beyond as it does—architectural spaces do— have some other effect beyond just the form, right? And that seems to be very purposeful. Especially for the students, I don’t know if you can speak for them or maybe for some of the more notable ones, how does the building play a role in the middle of the city struggle? I think there’s this fracture between—actually in the syllabus, too, you’ve mentioned [this fracture between social reality and the building design]: “We look at the social realities, we look at the culture here, we look at the economic realities, too, and then we talk to all these people,” but then, there’s this moment where we have to turn to design. So how does that happen? I think for the general public to understand, how does a building, you know…[arrive]?
PP: At a certain moment, you have to design a building. In the school of architecture, it’s relatively easy. You tell the students, you know, it has to be this amount of square feet, and then everybody designs. And there’s no way to avoid the arbitrariness of that moment, so we didn’t try to avoid it. That was up to the students. The only thing we asked was to do it through a certain set of drawings and to produce, in the end, the stop motion—something that would give an idea of how it could be possible to live inside of these spaces.
RC: That was another one of my questions, which is this idea of the shelf-life—the representation and the shelf-life. It seems like it was a very purposeful decision for you to select, to have these parameters for the students to make, first of all a scaled model of probably the entire Main Street—that’s what it looked like. it was amazing. Maybe tell us a little bit more about that. Why did you have them make this huge model and what was the idea behind the stop-motion?
PP: The models are actually not huge, actually. They are normally 1:100 with a maximum going 1:50—they are not huge. This thing with the stop-motion is something that I happen to do in my own office a couple of times. I think it describes very well the possible experience and adds the time dimension to the description of an architecture project. I thought it was possible to build a short narrative. So these little movies, some more and some less, but they all have a little bit of a story, like, something happens in them. Yeah, because what was interesting for us was mainly how the space could be used by these communities, not so much how to build these buildings, so the architectural description of the object is relatively simplified. There’s no technical drawings, there’s no details and so forth. We decided to spend more time in providing an idea of how to experience these spaces.
RC: Was there any thought about reconnecting with the mayor or whoever you spoke with, the city? How were they?
PP: I think we tried to write to them but we didn’t really insist on much. It would be very nice if you organized something in Toledo to have them, because that is probably easier than to have them in Cambridge.
RC: Absolutely, yeah. So they were aware of what the brief was about and that these thirteen students from all over the world…
PP: Actually, a lot of them were Americans. The studio was strangely American.
RC: [Ruth laughs] They chose it for a reason!
PP: The large majority was American. And I don’t know if it’s normally the case.
RC: I think it maybe had something to do with the topic matter, because it was an option studio, “The American Gothic”? Does a designer have a way to address problems or issues? Because, obviously, there are social realities, right? And I always thought that, you know, the representation is a way to bring these ideas into the foreground of the general public and to go beyond the profession, I think, is really important as much as it is important to have good architectural objects.
PP: Yeah, well, I have to admit that I’m not the best at this operation. I don’t really think that architecture can really address or solve a problem. What architecture can do is to visualize a possible form of coexistence, in a way. Just to show it—not to say that it is going to work like this or work like that or it’s going to be better, we’re gonna be happy—who knows if we’re going to be happy? But these [solutions] could happen in this frame. That’s the envisioning act of architecture. So I’m relatively skeptical of saying, you know, by doing this we solve this problem, blah, blah, blah. But I also understand that from another point of view, that might be your point of view, trying to act inside of this reality, you need to allow people to get into the project more directly. I would be happy to do that, but I’m not able. On this level, I’m terribly academic. I think, you know, architecture is architecture and that social activism is another thing, and I don’t do that. Not because I don’t want to do it—just because it’s not my job; I would be terrible at that.
RC: I think that is something that, for me, coming from that discipline—or this article, let’s say, does attempt to, if not tell people the problems that we’re solving, it frames it for how they should look at the pieces, right—which I hope to exhibit some of them on our website. And I think it’s fair, and also enjoyable for these people and for the general public to, when they see it, have some kind of way in, to understand how they should enjoy it, right? Sometimes we have to teach people how to look at architecture, you know. I think that’s—go ahead.
PP: Sure. That’s another thing. Like any place in the world, I don’t think it’s a good idea to go there and say, “You know, you have a problem,” and even worse, “And we have a solution.” No, sorry. One thing is to learn how to look at…to learn how to look at something is always to recognize what is beautiful, because there are things that are beautiful in Clyde, Ohio and that was something that we tried to do. To gather an understanding of a certain way of life, a certain landscape, a certain ritual to us that, at times might be boring, that might be interesting, but there are also moments which, there are issues. Yeah, I don’t know, they can be touching. I make a simple example. At the end of “The Deer Hunter,” there’s a funeral and is this guy who does the pancakes and starts singing “God Bless America.” And, honestly, “God Bless America” is not the most exciting thing in general that you can think of. But in that specific condition, it’s really beautiful and touching also for somebody who’s not American like me. So, there’s something to discover and there’s something very special and interesting that is in its context.
RC: Yeah, and so the students, when they came in, even as Americans who might not be from the Midwest, to them it might as well be another place entirely, in another country entirely. And they come in and I think it seems like their role was more like an embracing canvas—a little bit more observing and immersing, rather than going out with an agenda to solve anything. And maybe they’re more of a reflective instrument, then, for the project. Maybe the product is more of a reflection than a criticism, and I think that’s really, I think that’s part of— that’s the tension that’s really helpful I think for a place like the Midwest, like Clyde, Ohio, or even Toledo, where criticism is not taken well but also I think that there is a need to take a look at it in a critical reflection way. There is a way to say, “What other people can, what other perspectives can enrich our own?” And that collision of two worlds, of people from “outside-in” with an open heart—that kind of interaction is really needed. And I feel like most of the interactions that happen [are] not that kind of embracing one. It’s either “out” or “in,” but the moment of that collision, which I see this studio as being that [collision]. You have these incredible smart East Coasters, or West coasters or wherever they’re from, probably not from places like here…
PP: A few of them were.
RC: …[they’re] coming here and how many people from Clyde, Ohio make it out to Harvard GSD [Graduate School of Design]? It’s like a whole another world that’s just a dream.
PP: I think the students, although they were not all from a similar context, but at least the American students that were in my studio, they had a very clear picture of the Midwest and what the Midwest is and what’s enjoyable, what’s annoying [about the region]—and I think that the kids in my studio they knew exactly what they were going to see. The other way around, like from people in Clyde, Ohio towards the Harvard students, I’d say there’s much more, how do you say, mystery, in a way. For these other people that we talked to in Clyde, Harvard students are really special. They’re really kind of different beings, which is something to me is strange because, in Europe, more or less everybody goes to a public university and there’s some better or some worse, but nobody cares that much. But in America if you go to Ivy League Universities, you really belong to a separate sect of the population. I perceived that very, very strongly in Clyde, Ohio. So these kids are “special kids.”
NB: In our studio we had Heinrich from Finland, Beining from China, Samantha from France and Bam from Thailand and I think I remember them telling you that they chose the studio because of the site, they liked Ohio as an exotic place for them, like how would Heinrich ever imagine himself to be in the Midwest, in Clyde, Ohio? Just to point that out.
RC: I think that these students were being received as these creatures from above, different and special and smart and different from people in Clyde, Ohio. I think that that’s even…
PP: That was not the perception of the students—that was more the projection from people.
RC: Yes, I think that’s more of the reality of how little they feel connected to the outside and how little they feel that they have the so-called privilege to even talk to people who are smart and intellectuals. I think that speaks to the lack of connection between certain cities in the United States to other cities, that it does feel like—I mean many of these people grow up in Clyde and like-cities, like-towns and never leave. Some of them never even leave Ohio, let alone even think about “What is an Italian man doing in their town?” So did anybody ask you, “What are you doing here?”
PP: Yes they asked. I tried to answer; we tried to answer…
RC: After hearing about all this, you guys had a meeting with Clyde residents… From what I understand, they didn’t get to see the end result and the stop-motion videos are really useful to help get them into the space or experience. You don’t need to know how to read a plan, you don’t need to know how to draw, you just watch it and I think that’s exactly why at our end-of-the-year celebration we invited some of our donors and things to come and we put up a screen. And when people said “Where’s this from?” we didn’t have to explain anything; they could just look at it…How should residents approach these videos? Do you have any hopes for how people understand the project? Or just let it be? These are visualizations, imaginations for realities, these are ways, these are possibilities, but they are not by any means mandates here. Is that it?
PP: No, I mean, the project is for a little church in a little town. We are not imagining that we are going to build it. It’s more to understand the landscape, the condition and to look at its humanity and richness. It’s no more than that. There’s no immediate agency. We are not proposing a strategy to do this or that—we are not even saying you should build more churches. It’s quite abstract on that level. It’s more to show a possible way to look at this reality.
NB: You are basically trying to tell the story of the place through the building. And I also recall, you were very careful with everyone’s storyboard. And maybe matching a narrative of the natural place, with the events going on… just how the movie was put together.
PP: At a certain moment, if the United States doesn’t want to collapse as a country, I think there should be a moment of recognition among different groups of…. And in this, maybe I’m going off the topic, but I think our core understanding of identity, policies, is not helpful at all. So I think at a certain moment, different communities should be able to come to terms with each other with certain kindness. And I think this kindness was something that we try to explore. The kindness, if you want—let’s put it like this for a second— kindness even of people who voted for Donald Trump. There is this kindness to them, it’s possible to approach them that way, so to speak. And that’s a visual counterpart to that, there is this kindness in the landscape, there’s kindness and beauty in the everyday life. That’s what we tried to do.
NB: I remember in the final review, that’s exactly what critics were saying about the movies—that they had this quality of empathy, trying to sort of reflect them, that kindness, a unique quality of life that they have.
RC: I think that’s exactly needed. I feel even though I was asking you questions about social agency, I feel like your responses are presenting a picture of possibility, of coexistence that I personally really echo with. So, again, thank you so much for taking the time to speak with me and also spending more than a few hours on Ohio and the Midwest with a bunch of really smart kids. I know that it’s a little bit different from the typical studio.