When I was a teenager in the early 1980s, I was a member of a choir that toured the churches of many other Christian denominations — Lutherans, Episcopalians, Presbyterians, Catholics, and more Lutherans (I lived in Minnesota). This culminated in touring the cathedrals of Germany and Austria. What glorious and uplifting edifices these believers had built for God!
Coming home to our ward’s meetinghouse with its painted cinderblock chapel and orange industrial-grade carpeting (that clashed with the slightly-different-shade-of-orange pew cushions) left me unimpressed. My mother always reminded me that the LDS Church built temples as houses of the Lord that were monumental (an argument that was already losing potency as smaller, less unique, less impressive temples had begun to dot the earth) and that meetinghouses and stake centers were supposed to be utilitarian.
That argument didn’t satisfy me. Before there were stake centers, had there not been tabernacles? Why didn’t the church build tabernacles any more? More than once I worked on the question, sketching out ideas on paper during Sacrament Meeting. Looking back through my notes, this is one of the results of my 16-year-old doodlings:
My Standard Plan Tabernacle (1986)
This plan attempts to revive a particular Mormon form, the oval Salt Lake tabernacle, to make distinctive Mormon churches. The chapel is in the center, under the highest part of the exterior dome or bowl-shapped roof. Looking at it now, I note that I put a lot of emphasis on conversation spaces. The huge foyer has three or four conversation zones with couches, chairs, and tables, and there are “gathering areas” in front of both the stake offices and also the Relief Society room. This emphasis was in keeping with my feeling that visiting and fellowship were some of the most worthwhile aspects of church.
Details like the door from the deacon’s classroom (YM-1) to the sacrament preparation area of the chapel show my concerns as a 16-year-old boy. The open, conceptual “primary area,” no doubt a nightmare for adults trying to contain energetic children, likewise shows the concerns I lacked. Finally, the plan is altogether in too much love with removable partition walls for my taste today. These partitions are never lovely, whether you’re in an LDS Chapel or the most expensive conference center at the Bellagio resort in Las Vegas.
I was visiting with Paul Anderson last week and was able to get his take on this sketch. Paul is one of the curators of the BYU Art Museum and is one of the experts on LDS Church architectural history. He’s clearly sympathetic to making meeting houses that are attractive and distinctively Mormon. (He even showed me his own master’s project from the 1970s, in which he designed a monumental LDS Stake Center in the sleek international style then in vogue at his art school.) Paul thought the sketch was clever. As someone truly versed in LDS architecture, he pointed out some flaws, including the fact that the Stake offices section would have to have its own door to the outside and the reality that building round is both incredibly hard and wildly expensive.
So, what do you folks think of these concerns? Is there any point in making beautiful, edifying, tabernacles or should utility (i.e., cost) always trump art in LDS meetinghouse architecture? Also, is there value in emphasizing distinctively Mormon architectural and artistic forms or should LDS churches today be built with an eye to blend in with other Christian churches?