How we approached the design of a new church in the Midwest prairies by DRDH
Owasso, on the edge of Tulsa in Oklahoma, is quintessential suburban America; an apparent non-place of shopping malls and tracts of housing, whose folksy elaborations fail to escape Dan Graham’s withering photographic critique of the 1960s.
The myriad churches, their artificially lit, climate-controlled interiors swollen in the competition to attract ever larger congregations, echo the commercial buildings that surround them, often distinguished only by the clip-on spires that rise above the parking lots. Its once remarkable prairie has largely been lost to what Kenneth Frampton describes as ‘the ruthless flattening out of the contours in a typical American, suburban subdivision’.
The old Midwest is still here, but you need to look for it. The new church is set within 100 acres of preserved prairie that our clients, the Beacon Hill Baptist Community, have owned and tended for a number of years. It is a very beautiful landscape, an almost imperceptibly rolling topography of tall grasses that they intend to steward both for their own congregation and for the growing suburban community they will serve.
Historically, churches have spoken to a landscape through their form while their spaces looked inwards, removing worshippers from the physical world to focus better upon the spiritual.
A generous cloister allows for relaxed circulation and an enlarged congregation
Attending outdoor summer services on the site, the potential for a more intimate relationship between church and land seemed immediately apparent, recalling their earliest incarnations as open-air altars, or the biblical tabernacle the Israelites took with them into the desert. Both ideas resonate with the traditions of American Baptists who carried their church as they travelled out into the Midwest. We therefore proposed that not only should the church feel intrinsically part of the landscape, but also that the landscape should be fundamental to the experience of the church.
A church’s form is what signifies it within the collective memory of its congregation and the wider community. Recently, working in the very different context of Norway, we explored this through a design that knowingly referenced the particular form and scale of a previous church on the site and thus addressed a commonly understood iconography. In Oklahoma, given the lack of architectural precedent, we instead sought inspiration from American Realist Andrew Wyeth’s mid-20th century paintings of barns and prairie farmsteads.
Their dark, clustered silhouettes informed our desire for a church that would offer a familiar figure, while at the same time signifying its special purpose. The paintings led us to an ensemble of pitched roofs that shift in relation to each another as you move around them. This strategy also recognised the breadth of activity the community is engaged with beyond worship, arranging complementary functions within a series of connected ‘houses’, rather than a large, single volume.
The Entrance House, Fellowship House, Children’s House and library tower pinwheel around the House of God, their skewed forms and asymmetrical siting counterpointing its centred-ness. Circling the perimeter of the sacred space, a generous internal cloister allows for relaxed circulation and, occasionally, an expanded congregation. Each function connects via this ambulatory and thus the act of worship becomes the physical focus of all aspects of church life. A degree of separation between the sacred and secular is created through a veil of close-centred pairs of columns that mark each row of pews and offer multiple, non-hierarchical entrances.
The altar is traditionally placed at the eastern end, but the arrangement of seating, as a number of differently sized and orientated fields, reinforces the permeable relationship between the church and the landscape on all sides. It also serves the practical purpose of allowing a number of different scales of congregation to meet.
While the church’s form and geometries are spiritually significant to each other, each element also has a particular relationship to the landscape. The surrounding houses create vistas and establish deep thresholds of approach and entry that frame the horizon from the glazed perimeter of the central space. Their links to the landscape are more controlled, with a series of windows and covered porches which open on to the smaller external spaces between them. These will be treated in different ways, from tended garden, to hard surface, to mown grass.
The geometries of each porch relate to those of the hipped roofs and extend out to form lines that echo the traces of old fences and watercourses. These will demarcate ‘land-rooms’ through mowing, trees or change of surface, and will accommodate parking and community activities across the seasons. These visual and sacred lines also extend to a new lake, which will hold the baptismal pool within it and where a memorial pavilion will stand on the water’s edge. Together these elements draw the landscape into the sacred life of the church.