The discernible expatiate of God, nature, and architecture unfolds amidst modernist landmarks of Columbia, Indiana. The hexagonal structure and the most slender-tall spire with a small gold cross at the top is a treasure trove of modernism architecture, the famous North Christian Church, designed by Eero Saarinen in 1959.
The design of the building is an imitation of the traditional church model using a modern architecture that served the needs of the congregation. The church is Eero Saarinen’s last project as he tragically passed away after submitting the building’s design. The effort to build and complete the church became a tribute in his memory and contributions to the town.
The site is flat in a residential district, so the church is elevated to stand proudly above the parked cars and surrounding little ranch-type houses. Saarinen’s buildings often had an interesting use of geometry, as seen prominently in the North Christian Church. The structural arrangement of the building is highly inventive and elegant in its simplicity. In plan, the church is a simple hexagon, elongated slightly along the East-West axis with entrances on the shorter sides. Each corner of the hexagon has massive piers that support the structural ribs converge at the top of the roof and angle upward into a spire.
The height of the spire rises to a soaring 192 feet. T3he tall spire is an expressive gesture that becomes the narrative between the Earth and another world, reaching far into the sky. As also experienced by visitors is the hexagonal base of the church that seems to be aligning the heavens and the ground visually. With this kind of central plan on this site, Saarinen thought to make the church in one form-A tower that would be gradually built-up of the sheltering and hovering planes into the spire.
According to Saarinen, in the 11th and 12th centuries, the cathedral was a significant thing. It consisted of a cloister or a priory or some little low building off to the side, but the cathedral building remained dominant. On the contrary, in present times, there are Sunday school rooms, good-fellowship rooms, kitchens, gymnasiums, square dancing rooms, and so that tends to sprout into separate buildings which make the church insignificant, and almost a forgotten thing. Thus, Saarinen decided to keep the allied activities downstairs in the basement and put the sanctuary above ground to signify its visual and architectural value.
Saarinen was inspired by the steep steps at Angkor Wat and Borobudur and traditions that make a visitor interact with the architecture and gives a sense of magnanimity while entering the church. The odyssey from the exterior to interior is organically augmented to give worshippers a spiritual experience. The use of earthy materials, grey slate floors, dark mahogany pews to the spirited formal geometries, the architecture strives to create a pious ambiance that is intimate and subliminal. The decompression of the chamber, grey slate floors, dark mahogany pews, and eerie natural lighting induce a sense of awe in the visitor.
The design of the famous church was a response to depreciate contemporary divine blasphemy that can sustain the fundamental purpose of the church which is to worship in peace. In collaboration with landscape designer Dan Kiley, this place illustrates the conviction that design and life are inseparable. North Christian Church was completed in 1964, and Kiley’s extensive landscape developed post completion of the building. The landscape was planned maturely with a high degree of integrity. The building cleverly integrates into the fabric of the site while the landscape smartly enhances the views of the building.
Saarinen simply split up primary and secondary church functions by placing them on separate floors. The upper level which is above ground is devoted to the large central sanctuary and the ambulatory that surrounds it. The allied spaces like the bathrooms, kitchen, and fellowship hall – are placed underground in the basement, beneath the worship space.
The cadence of light in the sanctuary is simply masterful. Saarinen believed that the primary element to create the right spiritual atmosphere would be light. The beautiful formal geometry of the plan reflects in the cast-in-place concrete ceiling with a single oculus placed above the central altar, an eerie natural and primary light source that is supplemented by dim artificial light over the smooth concrete ceiling.
This enclosed spiritual world was conceived in a way where people can gather in unity and harmony. The Communion table is a central focus of the sanctuary, consisting of twelve pedestals symbolic of the twelve disciples, placed on a tiered platform. The highest pedestal at the end of the table represents Christ and holds a silver chalice with a loaf of bread for the service. The congregation sits around it that faces each other as a community.
Eero Saarinen was so proud of this last building that he designed. Its Godly form has been copied many times since its completion, and it’s the most recognizable icon of Columbus. In 2000, North Christian Church was designated a National Historic Landmark as a tribute to its value to the city and post-war American architecture. The character of the church defines simplicity and finesse that makes it an ideal modernist masterpiece soaring the earth to the skies. The exterior form with a spire acts as a beacon of hope reaching upward to God as it proclaims this as a church in the silhouette of Columbus.