Architecture & Design: Provo
On Mormon Temples
Thoughts Upon Visiting the Provo City Center Temple
I’ve never seen a convincing example of divine intervention in the affairs of men, but those who believe they have may take comfort from something that happened as I was waiting to enter the Provo Center Temple during its continuing open house. While awaiting the film that introduces the role of the temple in LDS life, I found myself sitting near the aisle, next to an empty seat. As family groups passed, each looking to sit together, I watched that empty chair, wondering who, if anyone might be here alone. At last, a woman approached and, after asking if the seat were available, sat next to me. In the time remaining before the film started, she told me that she had grown up in Provo at a time when her ward had no building of its own, but shared a stake center with several other wards. This commonplace arrangement meant that when a large gathering loomed, they met in the Provo Tabernacle, which of course had subsequently been transformed into the building we were about to enter after a devastating fire. She had returned to witness the renewed structure and see how it compared to the one she remembered so fondly.
Informed by her recollections, I was able to approach the new temple with a feeling for its history. According to LDS Church historian Scott R. Christensen, there were never more than 100 tabernacles built, mostly by local initiative, and 65 percent of those were subsequently demolished or dispensed with, leaving the remainder rare examples of what might be regarded as an impulse brought along from other practices by converts: one that blended worship and meetings in a single, hybrid space. According to Christensen, as quoted in the Deseret News, these buildings, while larger than typical meetinghouses and distinguished by their pipe organs, stained glass, and galleries, defy any single description or definition. Having attended services in a Manti stake center, and gatherings held to share testimony of the Miracle Pageant at the neighboring tabernacle (which was recently renovated without changing its traditional role), I was well acquainted with the difference between those two typical structures: the one a combination of community center and schoolhouse, where sermons alternate with basketball games; the other following a larger, older prototype of a public listening room, where Chautauqua-like public lectures and musical performances may have displaced, or merely come to alternate with, religious services. What I had no comparison for, until recently, was how either of these buildings compared with the increasingly ubiquitous temples, which are proliferating around the world, but also across the heartland of Zion, in what must be one of the world’s great building programs.
For an architecture enthusiast unaffiliated with the LDS Church, Utah presents a unique challenge. In many places, churches offer a window into local values, customs, and decorative ideals. Traversing those nations, churches offer places to stop and encounter, indirectly but often more tellingly, both the past and present inhabitants. In Utah, however, one uniquely representative structure, the temple, is off limits to casual entry and inspection. It is possible, of course, to view the outsides of these formidable structures, which can be rewarding: the Salt Lake or Manti temples, with their plenitude of details, from spires to doorknobs, are virtual encyclopedias of 19th-century ornamental lore and a testament to their builders’ devotion rarely seen since the medieval cathedrals. But despite the primacy of the statements made by exteriors, enthusiasts know that the facade, like the human face, only acquires true meaning to the extent that it accurately reflects the interior. The exterior makes an artistic statement, it’s true, but the interior of the building, like the contents of a book, are where that statement is carried out. The true measure of a building is the success or failure of the exterior and interior working together, and that measure can only be taken on foot, by walking around, into, and through the structure. This distinction may help explain controversy, such as surrounds the new Federal Courthouse in downtown Salt Lake City. Those who view it from their passing cars may report seeing nothing but a giant cube, while the architectural judges who award it high marks have walked around, gone inside, and watched it react to the elements throughout the hours of the day and seasons of the year, witnessing it as a living organism.
The first objective observation about the new Provo Center Temple will be apparent to anyone. The splendid, symmetrical, venerable exterior, saved from demolition by a remarkable effort employing the latest construction techniques, was preserved intact, although some additions were made to it, such as the emblematic image of the Angel Moroni atop the central spire. Given present-day temple practice, this means that the porches and doors, like those even more magnificent examples on the Salt Lake Temple, no longer serve any function, other than to graphically represent that the building is closed to conventional entry. Instead, the actual portals can be found underground, a situation that prompted comment even from devout worshippers I followed through this door. Like the Salt Lake prototype, one can enter through a ground-level door in a nearby building that connects via a tunnel, but it appears probable that most who attend will drive into the parking garage and walk from their car to the nearby entryway. This experience, as those around me were noting to one another, can be disconcerting: the open door stands in an area styled as an exterior wall, one marked by classical stone construction and an identifying inscription, but which is also an interior wall, extending upwards not to a pediment, spire, or open sky, but to a flat ceiling, pierced by electric lights, that covers those approaching and extends out of sight in every other direction.
As anyone acquainted with the history of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and the role of the temple will anticipate, exemplary design and workmanship bordering on perfection follow. Where the Provo Center Temple differs from, for example, the Payson Temple that opened just weeks previously, is in the dominant material and the vernacular use it dictates. The Payson Temple is clad in stone, paved with a combination of tile and carpeting, and glories in the precision with which such structures as stairways, doorways, moldings, and windows can be conceived and executed in limestone, granite, and marble. Presumably because of its history, the Provo building features extensive use of wood for these purposes. Even the floors employ parquetry to a remarkable extent, given the heavy use the builders anticipate and the relative impermanence of wood. As an historical note, where some wood details in the original were grain-painted, giving available but undistinguished lumber an ornamental flair, the woods that replace them display exquisite, and increasingly scarce, inherent beauty. It’s good to see that, at a time when exotic woods are often used expendably, someone is using them in a way meant to last and be appreciated.
Perhaps the most important quality in a building is how it uses space. Given the relatively small scale of the Provo Tabernacle, the architects were challenged to create, for instance, a Celestial Room that matches the soaring height and inspiring lantern of the Payson Temple. For a room that, as its name implies and according to the introductory film, anticipates the experience of heaven, individuals will have to draw their own conclusions as to how well this is achieved. Other functional rooms—and of course it is a characteristic of temple design that every room has a designated purpose—anticipate and lead up to this climactic space in a coherent progression—even if it remains unlikely that normal use will capitalize on this progression the way the tour did.
Speaking of space, whether bounded by wood or masonry, one thing that the replacement of the lost tabernacle by the new temple signals is what kind of spatial preference is being “set in stone” by those who build these extraordinary monuments. It may help to clarify this if we can compare these temples to another well-known monumental program. During the Middle Ages, Gothic cathedrals grew larger and ever more idiosyncratic as each community of worshippers vied with the others to make a grand, individual statement of faith. Something similar happened after 1850 in the larger LDS community, leading to those hundred or so quirky and unique tabernacles. But during the gothic era, churches also grew more mysterious, their great height and intricate structures not so much bounding space as extending it into ever more porous, soaring visual labyrinths that were pierced by dark, impenetrable arcades alternating with brilliant, luminous stained glass. They became insubstantial and, perhaps, indeterminate.
By comparison, in the ever larger and more elegant temples being built today, the spaces, however large, are reassuringly straightforward. They trend away from houses where large numbers may gather to worship together while conducting public business. The jewel box wherein baptisms are performed, with its capacious, gravity-defying font and powerful oxen evoking a great and enduring task, and the Sealing Rooms, every one proportioned for joining two families, each appear to be devoted to a single task. In its heavenly reference, the temple is a sequence of highly determined spaces, and their purposes resonate identically from one temple to the next. There is evidence here of the overarching design of a central authority. And here the judgment of architecture must end and give way to a reading and appreciation of its goals and purposes, which is not an aesthetic question, but a choice of doctrine and covenants, lying beyond the work of the critic.
Idealogue . . . from page 1
Larissa Sansour does something related though more specific in her piece “A Space Exodus,” where national emblems undermine the grand narratives of dominant countries to highlight the plight of neglected populations. With a soundtrack that evokes Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey,” and shot sequences that call to mind any number of big-production space-exploration movies—“Martian” being the most recent— she enacts a drama that subverts the traditional moon-landing narrative: the artist, wearing her country’s insignia, bounces across a lunar landscape to plant the Palestinian flag in the lunar soil. “One small step for a Palestinian,” she says, “one giant leap for mankind,” challenging Neil Armstrong’s famous line—spoken, after all, by a man claiming to act in behalf of humanity but who shortly after engaged in a symbolic act born from a long history of war and colonization: the planting of his nation’s standard. Mankind, in the form of superpowers like the United States and the former Soviet Union, may reach for the moon and beyond, Sansour suggests, with a poke in the ribs, but remains unable to solve the crisis of a small population located in a tiny portion of the earth’s landmass.
The subtext of colonialism in Sansour’s work becomes full-blown text—and image—in Dan Mills’ “Us Future States Atlas,” which presents the artist’s idiosyncratic vision of cartography in a world transformed by U.S. dominance. Freshly minted states like “New Albany” (Albania) and “Thermia” (Iceland) are superimposed on U.S. maps to show their relative size, and their landmass is separated into bright colors to demonstrate their respective worth and uses. The style of the pieces mimics traditional cartography (elsewhere, the individual mixed-media works have even been put together as an actual atlas, bound in faux leather) but the provisionary and subjective nature of the artist’s interpretation is suggested by his handwritten notes about the history, value and possible inclusion into the U.S. body politic of places like Iraq, South Korea and Singapore. The ongoing project began in 2003 and reflects the bellicose, regime-changing posturing of U.S. foreign policy in the dreadful naughts. While in hindsight it is easy to see how ineffective we were at such regime change, and how difficult it would actually be to incorporate foreign lands into our national tapestry, even that observation, like Mills’ work, misses an important aspect about American Imperialism in the 21st century: we’re not particularly interested in amassing new states. Just ask Puerto Rico. We’re like a billion-dollar rideshare company claiming to have only created a software platform, not an employee base—rather than take on the responsibilities that would follow from bringing other lands and people into the official fold, we’d much rather exploit them from a distance.
Many of the works in Idealogue are ironic or sardonic, not meant to make one laugh so much as smirk. One work that will make you laugh, when it doesn’t make you cringe, is Ivan Argote’s video piece “Two 50 Years Old White Males Having Emotions” (2013). Standing in a darkened room and lit from overhead, two aging men embrace, their heads resting on each other’s shoulder, a hand patting the other’s back; as the camera pans round and round, a range of emotions, sometimes congruent sometimes colliding, is expressed by the men: at first the embrace seems a fraternal hug, full of comforting gestures, but as the camera moves around the pair it reveals one man crying while the other laughs, one pulling closer just as the other rolls his eyes and sighs. At one point, when one of the men stiffens and pulls away slightly, his nose and eyes squinting, his brow furrowed in disgust, one can’t help but wonder if his partner has just soured the air with a bodily function (or maybe one could help but wonder, but such are the immature trains of thought the current election cycle will impose on a viewer). These moments are good for a laugh. But they are deeply unsettling as well. This male intimacy, so uncommon to witness in our culture, is refreshing to see at first glance, but as it dissolves and distorts, as the inability of the two parties to communicate some form of sustained communion becomes evident, it imbues the piece with a sad undercurrent, both private and political.
The dissembling mask is a constant trope in the figure of the clown, his frown hidden beneath a painted smile, and appears as a central metaphor in the pieces by Kathryn Andrews. She works from historical images of hobos, clowns and migrant workers from the early 20th century, and using costumes, a stylist and older men as models, creates portraits that she silkscreens onto sheets of Plexiglas. Above these images she has collected a variety of found objects— political pins, candy wrappers, lottery tickets, pills—suggesting an oversaturated consumer culture. For the most part these re-created images are not so much reflections of the hobos and migrants of the Depression era, as the exhibition tombstones suggest, but caricatures of the same, related more to the hobo or clown character developed in films and variety shows after the Depression; they are, in other words, reproductions of another form of consumer product, mass entertainment. While Andrews’ portraits are some of the most striking works in the exhibit, their slickness and commercial “pop” run counter to any anti-consumerist message.
We are all clowns, without an audience, in the work of Basim Magdy. So he tells us in a text piece that begins “After much contemplation and debate, the clowns that run this degenerating society . . .” One of the troubles of text art is that enlarging the font doesn’t necessarily make a statement more interesting. It just takes up more room—in this case an entire wall. “The Future of Your Head,” a work by the same artist, projected with light bulbs against a two-way mirror, is more effective, both because of its visual presentation and by the pithiness of the text. Jeremy Deller’s textual work “Doctor David Kelly,” printed gray on black like a memorial wall, references a British scientist who, after sharing his doubts regarding Iraq’s WMD program and then being humiliated on national television, allegedly killed himself. It may be too foreign a reference to have an impact on Utah audiences, though, and the fact that a Republican candidate for the presidency now shares the doctor’s view, doesn’t make the reference more interesting because it’s ironic. It’s still tragic.
Like Dennis Madalone’s 9/11 video, ideology is something we can’t escape, it permeates the fabric of our lives, weaving its way into our thoughts and actions. We can embrace it, and revel in the pleasures of zealotry, or run from it, and be tripped up by our own blindness. Or, as these artists suggest, we can learn to laugh at it.