Here it is. #1 on the Columbus countdown.
To be quite honest, I was entirely unprepared for my reaction to Harry Weese's First Baptist Church. Driving through a suburban area outside of Columbus, I first stopped at a school with striking blue doors by Edward Larrabee Barnes and a Bruce Adams' clubhouse, feeling no real urgency to see the Weese building that stood just around the curve. Of course, as a fan of Weese, I fully expected (or wanted) to be impressed, but as the flat landscape opened to reveal a pair of steeply pitched roofs floating across a sea of green grass, I found myself in awe.
Chicago-architect Harry Weese is a bit of an outlier in the history of Modern architecture. Often positioned in opposition to Mies or grouped with other eclectics like Eero Saarinen, Alvar Aalto, or fellow-Chicagoan Bertrand Goldberg, Weese is difficult to place within the overarching narrative of Modernism. He was a self-avowed modernist with no real loyalty to the Modern canon. His tendency to experiment often led to buildings that bucked the boundaries of style and program. He progressed with trends without ever really leading them. Weese, to put it simply, was independent and original. And his modern design for the First Baptist Church in Columbus is nothing if not original.
In many ways, Columbus (and J. Irwin Miller) made Weese's career. Relatively unknown when he secured his first commission in the small Midwestern town (about four hours from Chicago), Weese went on to design eighteen projects (more than any other architect or firm) in the Mecca of Modernism- the First Baptist Church being the most celebrated. Completed in 1965, the First Baptist Church is an abstraction of traditional religious architecture. Like a modern Romanesque cathedral or Gothic cloister, the two-story structure is composed of several distinct brick sections all tightly organized around a central courtyard. Situated on the crest of a gentle knoll, the church is defined by the peaks of the sanctuary and the chapel, both rising dramatically from low walls. With curved brick surfaces and a heavy timber roof covered in slate tile, Weese nods to vernacular tradition, acknowledging the past and throwing the rules of Modernism right out of the sanctuary window.
Though the church's site is expansive, Weese designed a structure that is compact and overwhelmingly vertical (in yet another reference to traditional church architecture). The lower level of the building houses classrooms and restrooms and is surrounded by a kind of moat that allows light to filter into the interior spaces. Above, the second story contains the sanctuary and a small chapel. As one passes through the T-shaped main entrance, the ceilings are kept low as the worshipper ascends to the sanctuary. Then in a sudden burst, the sanctuary opens dramatically, rising with the sharp pitch of the roof in an unexpected manipulation of space and experience. Here, vaulted ceilings soar above short, essentially windowless, brick walls, and windows are hidden under eaves to provide indirect light. Clearly though, the dominant element of the room is the triangular spire wall. Bringing the brick exterior into the sanctuary, the screened wall is pierced by rectangular openings arranged vertically to emphasize height, drawing the gaze up to a higher power.
Columbus' First Baptist Church is perhaps Harry Weese's most poetic work. Confident in composition and brave in belief, the church is a synthesis of modernist principles and liturgical traditions. Standing unafraid of references to the past, the church grows out of its sprawling suburban site (Dan Kiley is responsible for the landscape) like an otherworldly (almost geographically disorienting) form. It is a building that wants to move you, the striking silhouette layered with meaning. In some ways, I can see the First Baptist Church as a continuation of Eliel Saarinen's groundbreaking (and arguably Columbus' best religious building) First Christian Church- its humanist expression and thoughtful materiality in conversation with the earlier design. Or Weese's church could be viewed as an adversary to the almost nothingness of what Modernism becomes under Miesian rule (like #2 on my list). And much like Weese himself, it is undoubtedly a difficult building to classify. But if you judge architecture by the heartstrings it pulls and the wheels it turns, the First Baptist Church just might leave you inspired.
The First Baptist Church is listed as a National Historic Landmark.
Well, that is it for the Columbus countdown. I'm headed for vacation, so I'll be back in a couple of weeks with something new (and not Columbus-related).
Photograph at top:
Carol M. Highsmith, photographer. First Baptist Church, designed by Harry Weese. Columbus, Indiana, 2011. Courtesy of the Library of Congress, 2013650716.
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