Independencia

My work has recently taken me to Independencia, a relatively rough-and-tumble neighborhood of Lima that began life some decades ago substantially as a collection of self-built houses on land taken in settler invasions.  During the course of the visit, I ended up walking down the main street of the area, right past the municipal headquarters building.  Just across the street was a striking LDS chapel complex.

The complex was a Latin American standard Stake Center setup: a complex with a large chapel, a standalone Institute building, a basketball court, and a high metal fence around the whole property.  The off-white color scheme, the architectural design, the relative cleanliness of the walls, and the general lack of color make the complex stand out dramatically against its surroundings.  So also does the fact that the chapel is built right in the middle of a long row of auto body shops.

The chapel is strikingly unlike other church buildings in Independencia.  Most Protestant buildings are storefront churches with billboards designed to convey religious messages (“The LORD is God”) in a bright and busy visual environment.  Catholic chapels in the Independencia area, by contrast, tend to aim for an architectural style that fits gracefully with surrounding buildings, differing primarily in size.  So the LDS building, which looks a bit like a very small U.S. gated community rendered in cinder block, is something of an alien presence.

Of course, if the Independencia chapel were transplanted to Salt Lake City, it would look badly out of place there, as well.  The walls — like most in Lima — are basically not insulated, and the cinder-block construction would look cheap and strange.  The stake center is not really a fit with Peruvian culture, but neither is it a simple export of Utah.  It’s a partial adaptation, in constant tension between its place of origin and its host culture.  It announces its difference, its foreignness, in its very structure while perhaps oddly making a proclamation of wealth through its size, security, and cleanliness from the omnipresent building grime due to Lima’s overwhelming smog.

What, one wonders, do people in Independencia think of the building?  The handful of residents that I asked as they waited in the line for busses right in front of the chapel didn’t really think much about it at all.  The first woman said, “They’re just some Americans.”  An older man said, “They’re Mormons, right?  Some kind of church, I guess, or maybe they sell books.”  A second woman shrugged and said, “I’m Catholic.  I don’t really care what other people build.”  And so it goes.

Comments

  1. I was recently in Aix-en-Provence and thought the white chapel there was wonderful. However, I don’t like that our chapels are always behind tall fences. Unfortunately, the reason for that is because there could be vandalism and break-ins otherwise but it just doesn’t look very friendly.

  2. Mark Brown says:

    Do Peruvians (Peruanos?) play basketball, or is the hoop setup mostly for the missionaries’ benefit?

  3. John Mansfield says:

    What do schools in that town look like?

  4. It would be funny if New Jerusalem were to be centered in that town.

  5. gst, are there Lamanites there?

  6. J. Nelson-Seawright says:

    John F., right, it’s unfortunate but understandable. There are lots of buildings in Peru with fences; our apartment building has one. But lots of other churches in Peru somehow get by without fences. It’s a balancing act, I guess.

    Mark, some Peruvians certainly do play basketball; a house in our neighborhood has a hoop over its garage, even. But soccer is clearly the national sport. I guess it would be hard for the church to build a soccer court at the chapel.

    John Mansfield, schools around Lima come in all shapes and sizes. Government ones tend to look a bit like decrepit office buildings.

    gst, sure, why not?

    Grant, who can say? Certainly there are more people of substantially indigenous American descent than in, say, American Fork.

  7. Very interesting stuff. Thanks for the post. Your description voices well some of my own thoughts on the small LDS chapel in Santiago de Maria, El Salvador that I visited a couple of years ago (and will be returning to this winter). ” It’s a partial adaptation, in constant tension between its place of origin and its host culture” very aptly describes the church building there (and probably many other LDS chapels throughout the world).

  8. Matt W. says:

    I’m not sure what you are getting at J. That the Church builds buildings that aren’t crap like their surroundings? I think that is great!

  9. Grant, who can say? Certainly there are more people of substantially indigenous American descent than in, say, American Fork.

    But what about Spanish Fork?

  10. S.P. Bailey says:

    Sounds like the church buildings I know in Brazil. I lived in a small apartment in one of these complexes in Olinda, PE for six months.

    Even with the tall walls, vandalism and such is a problem. More than once, we came home to find the door to our apartment mangled by somebody trying to break in. One night, one of the missionaries rolled over and actually saw a hand reaching into our open window. It grabbed his key off the dresser. We had the locks changed first thing the next morning. Another time, I was reading my scriptures and heard a shattering sound, distant but getting closer. Turned out some dude was making his way around the chapel breaking windows with a club.

    The basketball hoops often go unused, but the cages enclosing them make perfectly good futebol areas. Brazilians call playing in a small enclosed area like that “futebol de salao” or “futsal.” They were extremely popular with the neighbors. We enjoyed getting our trash kicked by them on p-day. Or, if we had enough Brazilians in our district, things went better for us …

  11. J. Nelson-Seawright says:

    Matt, the surroundings are poor, but the chapels also differ from the neighborhood in terms of cultural expression. This is not intended to be a criticism, but rather something interesting.

    S.P., good thoughts, thanks.

  12. Witold Rybczynski is my read on this stuff. He is great on explaining how we try to express ourselves or our cultures.
    Your post is a hard call: Do we want a chapel that says ‘Independencia’, or ‘Mormon’?

  13. JNS, I’ve spent a lot of time in Lima, but never been to Church there. I’m one of the very small group of people who loves the Lima weather (cool and foggy most days). Reminds me of the coastal California town where I grew up.

  14. J. Nelson-Seawright says:

    Geoff, I really like Lima weather as well! We could start our own Facebook group, and compete for the title of smallest group on the site.

  15. You should include a picture of the Independencia ward builing in the original post.

    I love happening upon an LDS ward building. It has happened to me more frequently than I would have thought would be warranted based on mere chance. It’s always a welcome sight!

    It was fun a couple of weeks ago as we vacationed in Marseille, France to learn that the local ward building happened to be a five minute walk from our hotel room, just on the other side of the Prado there next to the beach.

  16. J. Nelson-Seawright says:

    John, I’d love to include a photo. Unfortunately, it’s a bit of a rough-and-tumble neighborhood, and my research assistants insist that it wouldn’t be safe to take a camera or cell phone out on the street.

  17. JNS, small threadjack: I already am a member of the smallest group on Facebook. I joined a group called “Refugees from Bolinas,” which is the small coastal California town where I grew up. This is a hippie town about an hour north of SF. Anyway, I commented that I grew up a liberal hippie and am now a conservative Mormon. Since then, nobody has joined the group. Crickets.

  18. It was fun a couple of weeks ago as we vacationed in Marseille, France to learn that the local ward building happened to be a five minute walk from our hotel room, just on the other side of the Prado there next to the beach.

    It’s a tough life, johnf, but somebody’s got to do it. :-)

  19. Full of adversity.

  20. Aaron Brown says:

    JNS, you have perfectly described both the building complex and the surrounding neighborhood of an LDS chapel I walked past in Port au Prince two years ago. I couldn’t ask the locals what they thought of the building, as I don’t speak French creole, but I sure wanted to. A bizarre, white, seemingly wealthy, alien structure amidst a sea of poverty and tin roofs.

    AB

  21. It’s a partial adaptation, in constant tension between its place of origin and its host culture.

    What’s even more interesting to me, when in a foreign country – I visit one in particular quite a bit – is to discover to what extent this also applies to the church as an organization / culture (not just architecturally speaking).

  22. LDS chapels in Iquitos are the same. They’d look weird in Utah but they look weird in Iquitos too. People don’t think they sell books though, they think we sell drugs (!) because how else could we afford such a nice building in Iquitos?

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