I have heard people say that Mormon temples are not good architecture. I think I understand where they are coming from. I just disagree. Insert amateur disclaimers here: I am not schooled or credentialed in architecture, art history, or anything like that. But I like architecture. I read about it casually, and I have a rough understanding of certain periods and movements. I also pay attention to the buildings I inhabit. And the buildings that somehow represent me. Also: I am an opinionated bore!
I do not think that all Mormon temples are good architecture. Some are definitely better than others. And then there is my personal favorite, the Cardston Alberta Temple.
Beauty. Virtually every detail works for me. The temple is massive and fortress-like. Yet it is not menacing at all. You get the feeling of approaching the front door no matter what angle you take from the edge of the temple’s park-like grounds to its outer walls. And the courtyard surrounding the entrance (notice the decorative rod-iron work) forms an inviting transition into sacred space. The temple’s scale related to its surroundings is satisfying: the temple is prominent in a small town on the plains of Southern Alberta. Given the present surroundings, it is not difficult to imagine the temple in its year of completion (1923). Also, the temple’s form echoes Chief Mountain, which seems to rise from the same plains some twenty miles to the southwest. The woodwork inside is impressive. So are the period fixtures. The relief sculpture in the lobby and the murals are also exceedingly fine.
Anxiety. Full disclosure: I am a sucker for the American Arts and Crafts movement, and particularly the Prairie School, most famously plied by Frank Lloyd Wright. Hyrum Pope and Harold Burton–Salt Lake architects who successfully adopted and adapted Wright’s style–submitted the winning plans in a church-wide contest to design the new temple to be built in Alberta. (Pope and Burton’s plans were also used for the Mesa, Arizona and Laie, Hawaii temples. Cardston took longer to complete than Laie due to World War I.)
This decision to build Mormon temples in a trendy and thoroughly modern style in 1913 (the temple took 10 years to build) strikes me as interesting. Our most recent temples are modern, but only in the safest, most conservative way. You could make an argument that Frank Gehry is the living answer to Frank Lloyd Wright. And I can’t imagine the church contracting out temple architecture to Gehry or his ilk anytime soon.
Maybe there are good reasons for that. Maybe considerable sympathy existed between certain aspects of Mormonism and the Prairie School that does not exist between Mormonism and what qualifies as “good architecture” today in the eyes of architecture elites. Both Mormonism and the Prairie School exude vigorous optimism. Both emphasize simplicity, practicality, and discipline. Most interestingly, the Prairie School was influenced by William-Morris-style romanticism, which posited that better homes make better people. Try to import that line of thinking into Mormonism and what do you get? The temple is the House of God. It makes better people. And a better House of God–more beautiful and functional–makes even better people.
Anyway, my point about Gehry is not exactly a complaint. I am fascinated by Gehry’s playful subversion of ordinary-building geometry. And yet I am not anxious to see temples become Gehry au currant. This is beautiful in its own way, but I cannot imagine seeking refuge from the world within its walls. Despite my Prairie-School love, I am not even completely comfortable with the Cardston temple. After all, it is a fine work derivative of a larger tradition. Its primary aesthetic is not distinctively Mormon.
Expansion. As the first temple built beyond United States borders, the Cardston Temple also represents the first step in the explosion of worldwide temple construction of the past few years. Of course, many temples built in recent years are virtually identical smaller temples. I can’t say that the architecture of these temples is as thrilling as Cardston’s (or, for that matter, of other favorites of mine: Salt Lake City, Mexico City, Oakland, and Provo/Ogden). But I understand the apparent trade-off involved: more people in more places have access to the temple and its rituals. The cash and care that used to flow into a few grand buildings is now split between more than one hundred temples.
Imagination. Setting aside the temple’s primary aesthetic, there is something distinctively Mormon about the Cardston temple. If the appropriation of the Prairie-School style constitutes an act of reaching beyond our borders (as opposed to merely acknowledging that we form a small part of the Western tradition), then this appropriation is an enactment of the 13th Article of Faith. The act of embracing a modern style may also signal the forward-looking rootlessness characteristic of pioneers.
However, the temple’s ancient elements speak most clearly about how Mormons understand themselves. The Cardston Temple–massive, rectangular, low to the ground, lacking a spire–brings to mind Solomon’s Temple and temples of ancient Central America. Mormons see important links between all three buildings. Present archeological evidence may or may not corroborate the existence of such links, but archeological evidence does not make faith or the holy stories in which faith is embodied.
The bottom line: I was sitting in the lobby after a session waiting for my wife. I reflected on my surroundings. They made me feel close to ancient people–children of the House of Israel like me–who also went to temples to worship God. It occurred to me that we are all family. The Spirit of Elijah. It felt good.