What does architecture say about doctrine?

What does architecture say about doctrine? January 21, 2007

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.


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