American Gothic, Monuments for Small-Town Life

“American Gothic” is a painting of 1930 by Grant Wood, showing a white, middle-aged couple in front of a farm. The man wears jeans overalls and has a pitchfork in his right hand, the woman is dressed in a colonial-style apron with a red neoclassical cameo. The farm has a gothic window, both a sign of pretentiousness and a clumsy declaration of belonging to a European, Protestant tradition. The pitchfork suggests a rural and moderately hostile context.

At a time when recent political developments have brought 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 will design a Methodist church on a plot located on North Main Street, in Clyde, Sandusky County, Ohio. Clyde was 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. 

The agenda of the studio is double: to understand the social reality of the Midwest by investigating the materiality of its territorial organization, and to design a simple architectural object knowing that, in the end, a building is a building, and the relationship of analysis and design is (fortunately) very indirect.

A list of hundred churches will provide a starting point for the design exercise. The observation of the context and the confrontation with disciplinary precedents will develop in parallel. It is left to the student to determine how personal creativity, disciplinary knowledge, and an understanding of context and politics, intersect with and determine a design hypothesis.

Designing a church in Clyde, Ohio is an experiment on the vitality of the classical tradition. In a context where classicism could easily be misinterpreted as traditionalism, if not worse, the studio asks to re-discover the openness and generosity (and ambiguity) of the classic tradition.