An Appreciation

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.

12 thoughts on “An Appreciation”

  1. A great detail I failed to work into the post is the Orson Whitney verse inscribed on each side of the entrance:

    Hearts must be pure to come within these walls,
    Where spreads a feast unknown to festive halls.
    Freely partake, for freely God hath given
    And taste the holy joys that tell of heaven.

    Here learn of Him who triumphed o’er the grave,
    And unto men the keys, the Kingdom gave;
    Joined here by powers that past and present bind
    The living and the dead perfection find.

  2. I’ve never been to Cardston, but I’ve always wanted to because of the pictures of the Cardston Temple. It has always looked most characteristically like a temple to me.

    One of the reasons I was unhappy about the angel being added to the New York City temple, was I’d like to see the temples be more like the Cardston temple.

    My native temple is the Los Angeles. I was sealed to my family there at age 4, and married there in my 20s. Because of that, I love what’s great and what’s ordinary and what’s specific about the Los Angeles Temple. No other temple could mean so much to me.

  3. I heard a few years ago from Penny in the BYU Writing Center that they sold all the original cool furniture from the Cardston Temple and replaced it with the boring stock stuff you find in Stake Centers. Is this true?

  4. The temple was closed from 1988 to 1991 for remodeling. I would not be surprised if furniture was replaced then. (What a great garage sale that would have been! Please comment if you scored some arts and crafts style furniture hand made by Canadian Saints!)

    However, the furniture that I remember (I am thinking particularly of the waiting area) was definitely appropriate to the architecture. Stuff like this.

  5. Prairie style. Mission style. Arts and crafts. Craftsman style. They seem to get used interchangeably. I don’t know if there is an accepted taxonomy that dinguishes one from another.

  6. You know I totally agree with you the Cardston Temple is really cool looking and really it’s in the middle of no where which is really cool. I also like the one in San Diego very cool to come around that turn and boom it’s in your face.

  7. Two things.

    First, the Cardston temple was the second to be built outside of the USA. Laie was the first. I know, Hawaii was a territory at the time, but I doubt if a temple was built in Puerto Rico, people would consider it an American temple.

    Second, you missed out on one of the greatest symbols of the Cardston temple: it is built like a mountain. Not only does it resemble a mountain in tis shape, one was ascend to its summit to complete the endowment.

  8. Hi Kim:
    I’m glad you came across this some four years later! For what it is worth, I didn’t miss the mountain thing. I wrote: “Also, the temple’s form echoes Chief Mountain, which seems to rise from the same plains some twenty miles to the southwest.” Of course, the temple-mountain tie is ages old and not unique to Cardston. All temples of this era caused patrons to climb the mountain of the Lord as they progressed through the endowment.

    Also, I’m counting territories (Hawaii circa 1909, Puerto Rico, Guam, etc.) as part of the U.S.! They send representatives to Congress, are subject to the jurisdiction of U.S. Federal courts, and I don’t need a passport to travel there. Good enough for me!

  9. Seeing pictures of the Cardston temple in my youth, I thought it looked… ugly. Then when I was 13 my mother and I were driving through that area of country, and I got to see it in its setting. Suddenly the architecture worked for me. I remember that as one of my own first experiences in how context can really make a difference esthetically. (I haven’t visited since, so I don’t know what I’d think of it now…)

  10. Good thoughts on Temples and the magnificent Cardston Temple. When faced with the question “How should I design a temple”, what answers would come? What additional questions and answers would come after that? What inspiration could come…? These are the questions and answers that excite a Temple worshiping designers soul. Ones that have excited my soul all my life. It is fascinating to see how Pope and Burton answered the question as they turned to Wright’s Unity Temple for inspiration. Yes, it is dramatic plagiarism for forms, details and ideas, but oh what great & meaningful results. No other Mormon temple achieves the same light filled, meaningful circulation symbolically and honestly expressed as worshipers spiral sequentially up and around to the climax of the Celestial room in the center top. Many other great analysis is due, as you have done so well. Thank you. If not the aesthetic and ideas of Gehry’s metal and curves, are there other eternal ideas that would be brought to the inspired mind, that are more than “distinctively Mormon”… that are distinctly of God? The question for our beloved brethren is, can the Houses of the Lord [again] be designed to such meaningful, expressionistic,”honest” and even divine heights? Do they all have to be thinned to the traditional / classical / Wasatch front, faux efficient aesthetic/ordering? There are many talented architects wonderfully bridled for a chance. If only the questions were asked and it was desired, and of course, if it was God’s will. May God grant the magnificent brethren the interest and inspiration. If not, like you, we’ll understand the apparent trade offs and be blessed beyond comprehension to have even just the privilege to attend a House of the Lord. Also see for a devout Mormon architects findings how to answer the question of how to design _______.

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