Saturday, January 20, 2007

What does architecture say about doctrine?

It was recently announced that Frank Gehry, an icon of postmodern architecture, will be designing a mixed-use development in Lehi, Utah. Gehry is famous for his radically shaped buildings such as the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao. His plans for Lehi will surely break the mold of conventional Utah urbanism. Postmodern architecture is rare in the Beehive State. However, this announcement is not altogether surprising given the success of other recent developments such as the Gateway in Salt Lake City and the New Urbanist community in South Jordan (Daybreak). It seems that the predominantly LDS population of Utah is finally generating a demand for alternatives to the ‘cookie cutter’ homes which have, unfortunately, prevailed in Utah’s sprawling neighborhoods.

It is ironic that just as Utahans are embracing the aesthetic appeal of New Urbanism and postmodern architecture, the LDS church is in the middle of an ambitious building program with ‘cookie cutter’ temples as its focus.

The church has good reasons for building recent temples from a single model. By using identical architectural plans for each new temple, the church keeps building costs low and maintains a sort of equality among its members. However, there are also drawbacks to these matching temples, not the least of which is their drab uniformity.

There is a general fascination with the church’s earlier temples that would be difficult to generate for its new ones. People recognize the Salt Lake Temple, even if they don’t always understand its significance. For example, one vendor in London sells the oddest belts - they are blue with small images of European architectural icons, including the Coliseum, the Eiffel Tower, and … yup… the Salt Lake Temple. Earlier temples have a “spooky charisma,” in the words of Christopher Hawthorne, an architecture critic with the Los Angeles Times.

While it is not practical for the church to use the famous castellated gothic style in its new temples (and neither is it economically sage to build ornate buildings in remote places) there is a sort of vibrancy that the new temples lack. A temple does not have to be large or even follow a particular design theory to generate excitement; and, of course, God can be worshiped anywhere. But why not allow for more variety in the temples’ design?

Does the church’s architectural development over the years represent an increased drive for standardization? Perhaps there is something significant in the fact that leaders of the RLDS church (now Community of Christ) chose a postmodern design for their temple, whereas the LDS church has consistently used classic modern designs for recent temples.


TrailerTrash said...

Fantastic post! I am almost tempted to move to Lehi just to live in this new development...almost. I think that it will be a huge step for Utah culture.

I also have to disagree with you slightly about the new temple designs. While they are mostly identical on the outside, I think that they do go a great efforts to localize each temple and make it unique. This is true for the new flagship temples in places like Palmyra, Winter Quarters, etc, but also NYC.

diahman said...

I also have to disagree with you slightly about the new temple designs. While they are mostly identical on the outside, I think that they do go a great efforts to localize each temple and make it unique. This is true for the new flagship temples in places like Palmyra, Winter Quarters, etc, but also NYC.

I know I was impressed with the desert feel of the Jordan temple in Utah. At the same time though, my feeling is that this holds true only to a certain degree. In temples outside of the US and Europe I don't see so much effort to localize the interior. While I speak with limited experience, and there may be a few minor changes, in general I think this holds true. As such, it may raise an interesting point about our aesthetics--how is our peception of beauty shaped? In our attempts to depict Heaven (i.e., the celestial room), what does it mean to have some variation of what it looks like? How much does the outter architecture direct the layout of the interior design?

Jeb said...

Just as dada art is the decay of art and not art and just as ebonics is the decay of language rather than a linguistic development so is postmodern architecture a decline rather than an improvement.In terms of structure you won't be having a very stable structure in Lehi. I'm sure with some of your temples they can go for years and years without needing a little bit of tinkering. I can't say the same for this postmodern garbage you have invited into your community.

JupitersChild said...


Thanks! I agree, this is great news for Lehi and a great post! I know that even in Provo there are some large, higher-end high-rise condos (well, 5 or so stories, but still...) that are going up in the center of town (new Wells Fargo bldg), that are apparently selling like hotcakes, because people are looking for alternatives to suburbia. I'm astounded that Gehry's going to do it, and like TT, want to live there already...


Yikes! What constitutes decay? How do you differentiate it from development? And what do you mean about stable structure (physical or social)?

TT and diahman,

I have to side more with diahman on this one. For me the architecture needs to vary, not just the interior. I think Manhattan was a question of exigency and not of aesthetic choice. I read one reviewer's impression that the celestial room reminded him of a hotel lobby. Which gets us to the question diahman asked: how is our perception of beauty shaped?

One question for diahman: Is the celestial room supposed to "depict" heaven? Or does it remind of heaven in other ways? (Luxury, peace, overstuffed chairs and fake flowers?)

diahman said...

Is the celestial room supposed to "depict" heaven? Or does it remind of heaven in other ways? (Luxury, peace, overstuffed chairs and fake flowers?)

That's a good question, and I don't really know. My preliminary thoughts are that the celestial room is somehow supposed to help us perceive the celestial kingdom. The question to ask is, what kind of perception is it? Now, one response to this (and perhaps a valid one), is that there is no real relation between the celestial room and the celstial kingdom because the celestial kingdom transcends all of our attempts to describe it. This however pushes us back to a lower order discussion about our attempts to relate and describe something that is ultimately indescribable.

If we took the other position that the celestial room is a depiction of the CK (as vague a depiction as it would be), we would be more or less still asking the similar question: What type of perception is the celestial room supposed to be?

I agree with the implications of your question--the celestial room seems meant to evoke certain feeling: tranquility, rest, etc. These emotions, it seems, are supposed to come from our auditory capacity (the lack of sound) and our visual sensories (the grandeur of the room). The question to puruse is, how are visual sensories (and out ability to interpret them) shapped by the environment we live in? What are different cross-cultual interpretations of "no sound"? Are we opperating with universal assumptions here? Or how "local" can we go?

On another interesting note, why do we not also rely on our sense of smell to enhance the experience of the celestial room? None of the celestial rooms I've been in smell bad, but none of them smell really good either. What does this tell us about our privileging some means of perception above others?

Anonymous said...

for those interested, here's more with photos of a model:,1249,660191719,00.html

Handle said...

Thanks Cyninge. The buildings look really great. I'm a little baffled by the wakeboarding lakes. It seems like an odd mix of urbane and country. I wonder if the lakes come from Gehry or strictly from the developer (an avid wakeboarder). Postmodern meets country bumpkin. Odd.

Neil Ransom said...

I wonder if the gas used for the wake boarding lake will cancel out the gas saved by the Daybreak community?

Jonathan Kland said...

There are so many topics to comment on here - I don't even know where to begin...

As an architect, I can tell you that different, just for the sake of being different, is not always good. Most "famous" architects are so full of their ego that if you aren't careful, they will destroy your community in order to build their career. Gehry falls into this category.

This monstrosity that Gehry and the developer want to build in Lehi is anti-urban. If they really cared about people living in Utah, they would put it where it belongs - in downtown SLC. You can barely experience urban living in Utah as it is. The last time I was in downtown SLC, it was a ghost town.

As far as the church is concerned, if they want Postmodern, you don't need to look any farther than the Conference Center for one of the nicest Postmodern and Green Buildings in the Country. It was designed by a good architecture firm here in Portland called ZGF. It is not an eyesore, like Gehry's buildings. They actually care about the community and fitting into the existing urban framework. I am not a big fan of Postmodern, but if you're going to use it...

The cookie-cutter approach for Temples also applies for meetinghouses. There are obviously many reasons for this, but in my opinion, what they are doing now is terrible. Suffice it to say, if you're going to copy something all over the world, why not copy something beautiful? The Temples and meetinghouses are almost always a let-down for me compared to what they represent. Great architecture, on the other hand, always adds to and reinforces the beauty that it represents.

Doctrinal representation should be what we are striving for, and nothing is more beautiful than our doctrines. The same cannot be said of our places of worship. We could do SO much better.