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Midwest

Midwestern churches

MIDWESTERN CHURCHES

As I have talked about in a couple of recent posts on the flatness of the Midwest, a simple building standing in that relentlessly horizontal landscape is a powerful, singular moment.  This is even more apparent when it is a church, rising upward to heaven, a determinedly vertical building contrasting the vast horizon.

midwestern vernacular - agricultural buildings

elevator 01

elevator 01

a photographic ode to the grain elevator

elevator 02

elevator 02

ag buildings 01

ag buildings 01

elevator 03

elevator 03

elevator 04

elevator 04

I

I have written in the past about silos and grain elevators and the attraction of the their stark, pure forms dominating the midwest landscape.  A couple of hundred years ago, English gentlemen would race their horses to the next church steeple poking its head above the lanscape, the steeplechase race.  Driving across the flat midwest, you can almost always see another grain elevator in the distance, like so many grand mileposts or sentinels guiding your way across the landscape.

Midwestern churches

midwest church 02

midwest church 02

As I have talked about in a couple of recent posts on the flatness of the Midwest, a simple building standing in that relentlessly horizontal landscape is a powerful, singular moment.  This is even more apparent when it is a church, rising upward to heaven, a determinedly vertical building contrasting the vast horizon.

midwest church 03

midwest church 03

Unlike other parts of the US and Europe, in the Midwest, the steeples of the surrounding churches are not the dominant markers of the landscape.  The grain elevators and silos far surpass the height of even the most ambitious chapel.  But what these local churches lack in the hierarchy of height, they make up for with a kind of bold simplicity and frank determination.  Wind-swept and storm-battered, the verticality of the church buildings is defiant, taking on the rain and wind and marking a place of gathering.  Though the Midwestern houses may seem to hunker down below spreading roofs, the churches make a claim for community, tethering a point on the ground to changeable cloudy skies above.

midwest church 01

midwest church 01

The church is a fixed point in an otherwise often endless landscape, without definition.  These churches have no desire to "work with the topography" or "meld with the surrounding landscape" or any of the other tropes of place-making architecture. The grain elevators and silos may be taller and more audacious, but the steepled church has a dogged, determined optimism to make a place, to gather a space around it, and hold it for a community to gather around.  They don't so much work with the landscape as define it.

midwest church 04

midwest church 04

midwestern bridges

steel bridge 03

steel bridge 03

Before interstate engineers replaced our river crossings with solid, straight, under-supported super-slabs of concrete highways, spidery steel bridges carried us across the impediments to the relentless to- and fro- of an increasingly mobile society.

steel bridge 01

steel bridge 01

When you pass through the steel rib cages of these older bridges, especially the narrow, long spans, crossing a river feels like a celebration, an exciting transformation from one place to the next.  The uniformity of road surface, side rails and driving surface of concrete pier bridges celebrate only the efficiency of travel, not the journey.

steel bridge 02

steel bridge 02

These bridges make a space amongst themselves, an interstitial place between here and over-there.  Because the structure of the bridge is above you and around you, you don't simple glide across a river or steep valley, but you feel the suspension from gravity of that leap across space.

roads West

oregon trail

oregon trail

On a recent roadtrip I followed the path of two of America's most famous roads - the Oregon Trail and old Route 66. They say the adventure is in the journey, not the destination, but both of these pathways existed to traverse the country as quickly and safely as possible on the way to the West and a better future.  The journey was long and arduous, sometimes dangerous, and the prospect of the gleaming future in California was ardent enough to persevere the trials of the trail.  You might get your kicks on Route 66, but you weren't too linger too long.

The Oregon Trail, as most of us know from school, was the primary wagontrail west that departed St. Louis and crossed the plains of what was later to become Missouri, Kansas, Nebraska, Wyoming and beyond.  The trail itself is not a single path, but a series of braided trails largely following water courses and passing through the Rocky Mountains and over the Continental Divide at their lowest and most accessible location, South Pass City in Wyoming. And like that city, now a ghost town, the paths of the Oregon Trail are long-abandoned and obscured.  There are some places where roadways were put down in their place, some contemporary river and stream crossings in the same historical locations.  But for the most part, the Oregon Trail has disappeared in farm fields, pastures and range.

route 66 sign

route 66 sign

Route 66 is the fabled early automobile journey west, from Chicago to Los Angeles.  Like the Oregon Trail, it was a path of dreams, a trajectory to sunshine and the abundance of the West Coast.  And like the Oregon Trail, it has also largely disappeared.  There are sections in most states that can be identified and even driven along, but there are significant stretches that have been lost.  The interstate highway system made Route 66 obsolete and greatly reduced the driving time across the midwest.  But with this efficiency gain, there has been a loss of the progression of small towns and eateries, gas stations and motels that were sprinkled along the route.

route 66 abandoned buildings

route 66 abandoned buildings

What is most interesting to me is that these two most famous routes West, fundamental chapters of the history of the country, have largely disappeared in a relatively short span of years.  Searching websites, old maps and documents can reveal their paths, but actual on-the-ground discovery is rather difficult.  Route 66 is infrequently  marked with some historic road signs and you can find the occasional historic markers for the Oregon Trail, but history and 'progress' fling us along so rapidly, that these old routes are swept away with little regret and short eulogies.

dairy rama sign

dairy rama sign

Maybe these paths West, these winding journeys to a better life, have withered away like the pilgrimage paths of the Middle Ages.  No longer able to sustain our belief in the myth of redemption at the final destination, the presence of the paths themselves are unwelcome reminders of dreams lost to reality, faith in that "next great future place beyond the horizon" exposed as naive myth. Better to erase that nagging reminder in the guise of progress.  We get there faster now, but the journey is not so rich and the destination no longer Shangri-la.

the Flyover

flyover01

flyover01

Over the recent Thanksgiving holiday break I took a roadtrip from Colorado to my native Kentucky.  This is the vast Flyover land of the center of the United States.  It is roughly the former vast inland sea from the Rocky Mountains to the Appalachian Mountains.  It is certainly the least densely populated one third to one half of the the US, and largely dominated by fields and pasture, sheds and barns, farmhouses and shacks of agricultural America.

This immense area - eastern Colorado, Oklahoma, Kansas, Missouri, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, western Kentucky - is not the stuff of dramatic landscapes.  That is not to say that it is not beautiful, but it is a softer, more subtle set of relationships between land and sky that makes this area's initial uniformity peel away to reveal an intensely beautiful sense of place.  And in that flat, or gently rolling landscape, a building sticking up from the earth holds a kind of power that qualifies the space around it.  A sense of space aggregates around a building.  Here in the Rocky Mountains and in so many places along the eastern seaboard, there seems to be a natural space that buildings have been placed within.  But in these midwestern plains, a building makes a space, a small domesticated sphere that comes into being only by the nature of the building.

flyover02

flyover02

Frank Lloyd Wright knew this.  He clearly understood how a building sits on this flat earth and how a large, sheltering roof can make a space more profound than a series of walls.  On my recent trip I did not visit any of his iconic prairie-style houses, but rather the Price Tower in Oklahoma.  More about that in an upcoming post.

Driving for many hours is a great way to reflect on things, and for me this naturally falls to things architectural.  Over the next few weeks I will post some more photos and thoughts that bubbled up during this long drive.  Send me your thoughts.