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Nine Moons » Blog Archive : Sacred Space – How Are We Doing? » Sacred Space – How Are We Doing?

Sacred Space – How Are We Doing?

Seth - April 9, 2008

A recent article in The Christian Post reports that the Unchurched Prefer Cathedrals Over Contemporary Church Buildings. The article reports:

In a study conducted by LifeWay Research for Cornerstone Knowledge Network, the unchurched preferred more traditional looking buildings by a nearly 2-to-1 ratio over any other option. Given 100 “preference points” to allocate among four photos of church exteriors, the unchurched used an average of 47.7 points on the most traditional and Gothic options.

The other three options were given only 18.5 to 15.9 points.

The article reports that younger “unchurched” in the mid 20s to 30s demographic particularly preferred the older, more traditional look. Suggested reasons were the connection to the past that older buildings evoke, as well as a common perception that more modern styles seem “cold” and perhaps a bit sterile.

Which, of course, inevitably brings us to LDS architecture. Early LDS architecture shows a certain amount of quirkiness. We’re all aware of the striking temples at Kirtland, Nauvoo, and of course, Temple Square in Salt Lake City. But there are a number of interesting LDS places of worship throughout Utah – particularly its tabernacles. For those who are interested, here are a few good examples (not the best photos in the world, but we take what we can get): Provo Tabernacle, Vernal Tabernacle (now renovated as our 51st temple), Bountiful Tabernacle, Heber City Tabernacle, Loa Tabernacle, and the impressive St. George Tabernacle (took 13 years to build it). Enjoy.

My own childhood is connected to the half century old Richfield Tabernacle. A serviceable design that doesn’t really hold up to the others listed above. But I remember it being a highly interesting building from a kid’s perspective. Hanging balcony seating, twisting hallways, winding stairways, cavernous stage full of winches and pulleys, and a comforting sort of weight that comes from being in an old well-built structure. There was an annual Christmas tree exhibition held in its rooms and hallways every December. Apparently Richfield’s Tabernacle has a pretty eventful history. The first ambitious attempt burnt down. The second lasted longer, but was rendered unsafe by an earthquake and eventually demolished in favor of the current structure which has stood and served as a Stake Center and community events center for well over fifty years.

The second Richfield Tabernacle attempt seems remarkable enough that it’s worth quoting the description from “The Proper Edge of Sky: The High Plateau Country of Utah” by Edward R. Geary:

It was a remarkable edifice. The style was more or less Gothic Revival, but with nineteenth-century exuberance it incorporated many other motifs as well, from Greek pediments to onion domes. It could hold four thousand people, twice the population of Richfield at the time. The tower was 187 feet high, making it in all likelihood the tallest building in Utah outside of Salt Lake City. It dominated the townscape much as medieval cathedrals dominated the towns clustered at their base (pg. 72).

Nineteenth-century exuberance indeed. Yet a part of me wishes that we had a bit more of that exuberance today, in our places of worship. To be sure, the current standardized LDS floorplans for new chapels and stake centers are very serviceable and attractive enough. But like those “unchurched” yearning for a touch of Gothic, I too occasionally wish my own faith had a bit more of a physical connection to its past. And not just uniquely Mormon past, but the great weight of history behind the age-old belief in the one true God.

I’m not alone. There have been other posts on the bloggernacle by those who wish for an abandonment of cookie-cutter churches in favor of something more interesting and connected with our history. But another recent blog post by Moshe Akiva, a committed Jew and longtime admirer of historical Mormonism and Joseph Smith (check out his blog on Mormonism and Judaism – Two Sticks) lists the lack of diversity and individuality of Mormon Sunday worship as one of several reasons he hasn’t converted to the LDS faith.

Going once or twice, particularly in an older, architecturally interesting chapel in Utah is an interesting cultural experience. More than that, particularly in one of the newer, corporate, branded cookie cutter chapels is, to me a possible substitute for chemical anesthesia…

Attending a Mormon church reminds me of going to a McDonald’s or shopping at Target. It’s “branded” and standardized building regulated service standard lessons and “General Handbook of Instructions” are the same from place to place. I realize that this is a comfort to some. I suppose that shopping at Target or eating at McDonald’s in a new city is also comforting to some. I’m not one of those people. I don’t eat at McDonald’s and I rarely shop at Target. I like new out of the way restaurants and small owner-run shops.

He also cites a run-in with the LDS Church in Manti (another location for some great Mormon architecture) that made me rather nostalgic:

I have to say that the best experience I ever had in a Mormon church occurred when I was on a Motorcycle trip that crossed Utah from North to South. It was in the late summer and I was unprepared for the rapid temperature drop up in the mountains. I had a great dinner at the “Bakery” (which included a restaurant) in Manti. I struck up a conversation with a local rancher who turned out to be a Mormon bishop in which I complained about the unexpected cold. He offered to put me up for the night and I slept in a room filled with genealogical information and diaries of his polygamous ancestors. I spent most of the night reading them (with his permission) and then went to church with his family in a quirky old chapel filled with equally quirky personalities who went way off the lesson manuals. The classes were filled with theological debate and local history. I suppose that these people were too close to the the Mormon core to be worrisome to Salt Lake, but they were way off the reservation… In any case this was, by far, the best experience I had in a Mormon service and it was, by far, the most independent.

I’ll admit that I agree with him that Mormonism has become far more standardized and uninteresting than I’d like. I realize there are some good reasons that we are the way we are. Chapels are expensive to build, and unique and satisfying architecture probably just isn’t all that feasible. And can you imagine the outcry at a city planning meeting in some California suburb if the LDS Church tried to drop a
building like the Provo Tabernacle in the middle of a couple Mc’Mansion housing developments? I also realize that we are a pragmatic sort of religion and not much given to wasting time and effort on mere aesthetics.

But gosh, I just find the idea that LDS aesthetics, architecture, and even worship may be stuck at where they are now for the next 100 years incredibly depressing. Isn’t there a way we could be doing this better?


  1. Given that we want people to be attracted to the ‘inside’ of the church, not the ‘outside’, I think there are limits to how much effort to spend on aesthetic issues. How many weeks would it take for the ‘coolness’ of attending services in a more gothic chapel to wear off? If that’s the only thing that attracted them in the first place, what’s the point? They’ll just be moving on to something else, anyway.

    I’d imagine we’d also attract more interest if we featured more rock music in sacrament meeting. Is that the right kind of ‘interest’, though?

    Comment by KMB — April 9, 2008 @ 12:28 pm

  2. KMB,
    There is something, though, about great architecture (and, for me, especially about centuries-old cathedrals) that is more worshipful and invites the Spirit strongly. Sometimes our Protestant-based opposition to grandeur, metaphor, and ceremony makes me, well, nostalgic for something I never had.

    Comment by Sam B. — April 9, 2008 @ 1:25 pm

  3. Both glorious old architecture and functional new architecture have points in their favor. For the unchurched, the points in favor of the old (connecting to tradition, an other-worldliness, a take-me-away-Calgon feeling) are no doubt much more obvious than the points in favor of the new (cost savings, health and safety, computer connections in the clerk’s office).

    What fascinates me is the attraction to the formal, old churches by young people who, if they are like their peers, probably favor casualness in dress, behavior and speech.

    Comment by Ardis Parshall — April 9, 2008 @ 1:51 pm

  4. I think it wouldn’t be much of a gripe with LDS chapels that they are homogenized if what was actually going on inside them was all that interesting. Usually, it seems, it isn’t – aside from the general socializing a lot of us enjoy.

    Comment by Seth R. — April 9, 2008 @ 1:57 pm

  5. In November, a typical LDS chapel in Mesa was completely destroyed by fire (arson, I think). Nobody was injured. When I heard the news I thought, “Should I feel bad about this? Should I mourn the loss?” I never did feel bad, though, because nothing was lost – the building was completely replaceable. They’ll rebuild it exactly the way it looked before and a year later, nobody will know the difference.

    I wonder, however, if the church might have better luck convicing members to clean the chapels and take better care of them if they were more unique.

    I would be very interested in the church investing more in their chapels, and thus the communities in which they choose to site their chapels. Interesting neighborhoods are only constructed with worthwhile buldings. Generic buildings create generic neighborhoods. I would argue that creating worthwhile urban design could be a good missionary tool.

    Comment by SingleSpeed — April 9, 2008 @ 2:19 pm

  6. I agree SS,

    The problem is convincing mc-mansion suburbanites worried about their property values of the attractiveness of that logic.

    Comment by Seth R. — April 9, 2008 @ 2:52 pm

  7. Architecture can never equal natural beauty, in my judgement. I appreciate the effort to construct buildings that are sturdy and practical, not obtrusive or excessively ornamental. If I want something of that order, in Utah I look to the splendid vista of a snowy mountain skyline, or a clear blue alpine lake surrounded by towering conifers.

    We have done so much to obscure and obliterate things which have a natural grace and appeal. I notice this every time I travel into the Wasatch Front area after a long absence. Every year, the view from the highway boasts less and less of the grandeur crafted by the hand of God, displaced as it is by tawdry garish sprawling neighborhoods, cheap-looking glittery flashy billboards that loom over the traffic lanes, and everywhere the appearance of the continual creeping encroachment of trash and decay that signal the triumph of entropy over every creation of man’s feeble hands.

    Comment by Jim Cobabe — April 9, 2008 @ 3:26 pm

  8. I think traditional places of worship appeal to people so much because they feel so sacred. I try to spend a few minutes in my universities gigantic, Gothic, stained-glass adorned chapel every couple of days because it is such a good place to go and meditate. It is an awe-inspiring place, and its easy to feel the presence of God.

    I would appreciate some variation in LDS chapels, but I’m honestly not sure how much difference it would make in my conception of church. For me, LDS chapels aren’t marked by the same kind of obvious sacredness that a cathedral is, but instead they are marked by a comforting familiarity that is special in a different way. Even if we were to build various churches, there will still be screaming babies in the pews, kids running around in the hallways, teenagers flirting in between classes, and places for all kinds of midweek activities. That’s not to say that I don’t love our churches – because I do – but the kind of things that one appreciates in LDS churches is the warmth and familiarity, and how much it feels like a home. A little chaotic – sometimes a lot – but wonderful nonetheless.

    Comment by Megan — April 9, 2008 @ 5:38 pm

  9. You think you don’t like modern LDS architecture, try going to BYU-Idaho!!

    Interestingly enough, I read some books on the impact of LDS archictecture on the intermountain west for a paper I did at BYU-I.

    I’d have to go with KMB on this one. It is also noteworthy that the reason cathedrals are considered more sacred are because they are basically catholic temples. Our architectural beauty come in our temples and the same goes for every other religion. Really the only religion in the history of the world without a temple is Protestantism.

    Comment by Bret — April 9, 2008 @ 6:52 pm

  10. HA. Jim Cobabe is a bowl of sunshine.

    Comment by SingleSpeed — April 9, 2008 @ 10:47 pm

  11. Seth – It is an interesting subject that you have presented to us and I have mixed thoughts. I grew up in a small Mormon community in Southern Idaho and certainly the most interesting architecture in town was the church architecture on the various ward houses. The ones built at the turn of the century (the 20th century) were the most interesting and then the stake center that was built – I think in the 50′s – was less exquisite. But all of them were more interesting that the prototypical meeting houses the church builds today.

    I have a friend who is an architect for the church and he oversees the building of church buildings in different states. He tells me that zoning laws in Southern California require unique and sometimes drastic aesthetic changes to be made to the otherwise standard plans.

    A former employer of mine (I’m an architect) told me of a project he worked on the the early 60′s for a poor ward on the west side of Salt Lake. He said the folks from Church Headquarters requested of the contractor to use some of the local ward members as unpaid laborers because in those days each ward had to pay for their own buildings. The contractor agreed. When the concrete foundation work turned out to be less than perfect because of the unskilled labor used by the contractor, the county inspector said he would let is go because the foundation would be covered with earth but asked the contractor to strive for better results. But when the church inspector came on site, from the same office that convinced the contractor to use the unslkilled labor of the ward, he insisted the contractor remove the defective foundation work and start over. Such was the plight of the building program when local wards had to raise all the money.

    From that perspective I think the “prototype” church buildings we have are adequate when you figure we are trying to accommodate at least one new church building per day throughout the world. It is also a good deal for the less affluent wards (of which there are many) so they can all have decent facilities.

    However, an aquaintence of mine visited a new meeting house built in Phnom Phen, in Cambodia and said that the local residents had not maintained the facility very well and that their culrual differences did not fit the modern “American” ward house. Just another thought.

    Although the new ward buildings are very plain and without decoration I think they are better than some examples of the temples we have built. Probably the two ugly ducklingsa would be Provo and Ogden and I would say San Diago is close behind them. Just my opinion.

    By the way, I live in the Washington DC metro area and so it might not surprise you that the DC Temple is my favorite.

    Comment by Lamonte — April 10, 2008 @ 6:44 am

  12. Actually, I’ve always liked the Provo Temple. Although I liked it a lot better before they painted over the gold spire. Now it just looks like it’s got a piece of chalk sticking out of the top.

    Comment by Seth R. — April 10, 2008 @ 8:09 am

  13. I don’t know what it is about those plan buildings, but they are so hard to love. The Encino ward meetinghouse I attended in Southern California, which my grandparents raised money for and helped build, I have emotions wrapped around the details there–the brick wall with little stain glass replacing random bricks, the crank-open windows, the long hallways in various directions leading one-way to the Primary Chapel, or the Cultural Hall/gym, or the classroom hallway where I attended CTRA and studied a bible with a technicolor picture of the Sea of Galilee on the cover.

    I don’t know what details a plan building offers that my children might be so attached to. The jute on the wall? It makes me want to encourage them to chase each other round the track that runs round the chapel and cultural hall, since that’s a feature one could bond to.

    I feel really lucky we happen to be living within the boundaries of a non-plan meetinghouse now. There’s a chalkboard in one of the classrooms with sliding wooden doors to cover it. There are carpeted stairs leading up to the stage in the cultural hall, where the adults sit and talk between classes, and the kids play on after church. Details are good.

    Comment by Johnna Cornett — April 10, 2008 @ 9:29 am

  14. I have a love affair with old churches and cathedrals. And some of the most interesting I’ve seen are in Utah where I served for two years. In little towns like Santaquin or Ephraim, you can find churches obviously designed and built on the hard backs of the community where they reside. Some have large murals of the Savior and many have the most beautiful pipe organs. I love these kinds of hand- made spaces but I just don’t see how that’s possible in a worldwide church.

    Moshe Akiva’s analogy with corporate America is spot on, but I see it a different way. For example, as much as Starbucks tries to give you that authentic coffee house feeling, its still a corporate version of such nostalgia and ambiance. People long for the quaint “mom and pop” restaurants and shops but cease to understand the nature of capitalism. Eventually, the mom and pop will sell out and open a franchise. The whole goal of the church is to be the largest church franchise in the world. Its only going to get worse (or better, depending on how you look at it).

    Comment by cj douglass — April 10, 2008 @ 9:38 am

  15. At least we can be glad that Church architecture has never fallen to the level of that white barn at the YFZ Ranch in Eldorado Texas.

    But calling it that is an insult to barns.

    Comment by Mark B. — April 11, 2008 @ 6:45 am

  16. Looking at those photos, I always thought it was a police model made out of styrofoam. Like for planning where the SWAT guys will kick down the doors, and where to put the snipers… I guess…


    Comment by Seth R. — April 11, 2008 @ 3:09 pm

  17. I suspect the LDS ward buildings are so cookie cutter because that makes it possible for the church to stretch their dollars farther.

    Consider, these are tithing dollars being spent. The widow’s mite. The brethren know that and they want buildings to be good and strong and attractive, but not excessively so.

    It reminds me of how in the Book of Mormon it says that people tend to love the ornamenting of their churches more than they love the poor and needy.

    Good thing the brethren love the poor and needy more than the ornamenting of their churches, huh?

    I like neat buildings just as much as the next guy, but I’m more happy with those cookie cutter church buildings, because it shows the tithing is being used carefully.

    Comment by Michaela — July 17, 2008 @ 6:53 pm

  18. Agreed Michaela, agreed.

    As much as it galls to say it, I guess we can’t have everything.

    Comment by Seth R. — July 17, 2008 @ 7:17 pm

  19. Why does this have to be an either-or thing? I’m all for careful stewardship of tithing funds, but at least the interiors of even our “cookie-cutter” chapels–I mean the room where we have Sacrament Meeting–surely could be made more aesthetically pleasing and inspiring in design than they are, while remaining cost-effective.

    The odd angles, plain wood trim, indirect lighting, vast expanses of unadorned wallboard, and lack of any traditional design motif that says “church”, however innocuous, makes most LDS chapels these days look like big conference rooms at Best Western motels rather than places of worship. Some of the free-standing steeples I’ve seen on LDS buildings built during the last 20 years are hideous eyesores. Truly embarrassing. Surely we can do better than this without spending frivolously.

    The interior of a church should at least inspire a bit of reverence with its design, but there again, every Sacrament Meeting I’ve ever been to anywhere has been about as reverent (before it starts) as an airline terminal. Obviously current designs aren’t doing the job. I’m afraid we’ve become so focused on remaining a cost-effective “peculiar people” that we’ve lost touch with some of the good things that are still there in the larger Christian tradition like inspirational architecture, even at a basic level, and are unwilling or even unable now to recognize how the appearance of sacred space really has a significant impact on the worship experience. Once in a while my family and I actually skip out early on the 3 hour block and go to a nearby Catholic or Episcopal church because we find much more of a reverent spirit there, and the buildings themselves, with their beautiful traditional designs, truly invoke a feeling of reverence. How I wish LDS chapels would do that.

    I’m not arguing for “adorning our churches at the expense of the poor.” But when a church adopts building policies that eliminate virtually every traditional architectural indication of reverential worship, something’s wrong.

    Comment by Alan — July 18, 2008 @ 11:07 pm

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