I’m no anthropologist or architect, but I’d venture to say that a society’s architecture is a significant indicator of its collective character and personality. Believe it or not, Mormonism has stimulated some pretty interesting structures throughout its history. And Mormonism is nothing if not fascinating in its history.
I’m fortunate to be old enough to recall attending ward buildings that were a step above the cookie-cutter chapels that are now mass-produced by correlation.
Even temples, before the day of the mini temple, were once dramatic symbols and powerful statements in the communities where they were built.
Back in the early 70’s when I was barely in Primary my family attended the Trojan Building in San Diego, CA. You won’t find another church building like it.
Even as a five year old, the place seemed special to me. The chapel utilized natural light (though this photo is a bit dark). Since we attended Sacrament Meetings in the evenings back then, we could experience the dusk in real time as we sang hymns and prayed. You’ll probably notice in the picture that there are no doors up near the podium. The doors were only in the back so everyone including the bishop or visiting general authorities entered through the same door, a symbolic gesture of the architecture (and probably not up to fire code today).
Just like the California architecture of other public buildings, the hallways between classes and main rooms were outside. When you left the chapel you walked directly outside to chat in the courtyard, visit another classroom, the Cultural Hall, or to go home.
The best part of this LDS church building was the Cultural Hall. True to its mid-century design, the structure had a sunken basketball court. By the time I became a teenager we’d long since moved from the area, but I returned often to attend youth stake dances. Back then, live bands were often hired to play at dances and we could watch the band or cruise the dance floor by walking along the raised hallways on either side. Even better, when you got too warm and needed to cool off you could walk right outside the hall, be outside and yet still be within the confines and safety of the church building.
The design respected the San Diego environment, encouraged community and just felt slightly classy.
Once my family moved into East County San Diego we attended the El Cajon 2nd Street Building. This building was a step closer to what you see today with a few interesting features you won’t see anymore. There was a second story of classrooms and also a courtyard here. I don’t think the courtyard, however, was a result of the original architectural design but from a later expansion and remodel.
The chapel had a cry room in the back on either side. It sat directly off the foyer with big glass windows facing into the chapel. The chapel sound system was piped in. A parent with an unruly child could take the infant or toddler back to the cry room, still participate in the meeting and yet not disturb other worshippers. I’m not sure why that brilliant idea went out of fashion in LDS church buildings. It seems like a no-brainer given the culture and demographics. Today, the foyers serve the same purpose and yet there’s more of a disconnect for those who want to participate in the meeting but can’t. More often than not, the foyer ends up being populated with a mixture of children and their caretakers (usually older siblings because Mom and Dad want to stay in the meeting), or folks who showed up late and don’t want to make a scene, or the people who really don’t want to be there at all and yet something still compels them to occupy the sofas in the foyer.
In the 2nd Street chapel, the sacrament table sat on the ground level directly in front of the podium making it seem more a function of the congregation than of the authorities on “the stand.”
At BYU I lived in a house directly across the street from the Manavu Chapel. I wandered over a few times to enjoy the peaceful, serene feel of that century old building. There are hundreds like this in Utah. Each one is unique. These old buildings represent the sacrifice and devotion of the members who worshiped in them.
LDS architecture has always avoided the standard crosses, statues and ornate symbols in worship halls. But there was a time when aesthetics overpowered function in LDS ward buildings.
And therein lies the difference between these structures and modern meetinghouse construction.
When you walk into any modern LDS meetinghouse you get the sense that you are walking into a corporate board meeting. They are all the same with very little variation. You could blindfold me and set me in any LDS meetinghouse (built after “correlation” took hold in the 70’s) and I’d be able to find my way around. This includes international ward buildings.
Sensitivity to local cultures is now absent in the LDS structures.
The current standardization in architectural design evokes mediocrity, conformity, inflexibility, and restraint. The builders seem eager to suffocate innovation, diversity, individuality and any hint of the sacred in favor of continuity.
It shouldn’t be a surprise that creativity, individual expression, variety and autonomy are likewise squelched in the individuals who attend services within those cinder-block walls.
It’s no wonder that recent observers have said,
“Mormonism is a church with the soul of a corporation.”