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.