Is the MTC a Good Development?

The recent MTC building controversy has focused new attention on the otherwise unassuming LDS training complex. Most of the attention has zeroed in on the proposed 9-story building, but the entire discussion got me wondering just what kind of an impact the MTC campus generally has on the surrounding neighborhoods. In other words, is it good urban design? To find out more, I wandered around the outside and took a few pictures*.

As most people reading this blog will know, the MTC is a closed, fenced-in complex that trains young missionaries for weeks or months before they head out to assignments across the world.

As I looked at the front of the complex, however, I was struck by the fact that I can’t visualize it’s actual shape. I know that it runs along 9th East, but I don’t really know how it intersects with other parts of the neighborhood. I’m sure residents in the immediate vicinity can visualize the shape of the complex better than I can, but I’d be surprised if most Provo residents could draw an accurate map of the MTC.

The LDS Church’s Missionary Training Center is visible in the top center this satellite image.

I think the difficulty in imagining the shape of the MTC may be a function of its closed, walled design. It also reminds me of Kevin Lynch’s Image of the City that focuses on, among other things, the way people can or cannot visualize their surroundings. In this case, some of the issue may be topography — the MTC is on a hill in a mostly flat city — but either way the complex is a kind of conceptual black hole.

The entrance to the MTC is guarded by a gate.

The enclosed nature of the MTC also reminds me of the design used for many LDS temples, including the one in San Diego that I wrote about in this post. As I indicated in that post, I’m not a fan of the walled-in (or gated-in) approach to development. I can see a greater need for it at the MTC than at a temple — the MTC grounds aren’t a destination for outsiders, after all — but I still don’t think it has a particularly positive impact on the surrounding community.

For example, note in the picture below the absence of many people on the street. Ultimately, the area has a mediocre Walk Score of 54. The MTC itself also probably lowers that Walk Score, either technically or effectively, because it functions as a huge obstacle that pedestrians are forced to circumvent.

9th East at the entrance of the MTC.

One thing the MTC does have going for it is the landscaping. At a glance, the complex looks almost like a gated park. Upon closer inspection, it’s unfortunate that, like a strip mall, the designers of the MTC placed the parking lots between the street and the buildings. However, that’s hardly a unique problem.

A fence and sidewalk along 9th East on the north side of the MTC.

One of the most important issues that I think the MTC brings up is building quality. The picture below shows that they’re generic at best and ugly at worst. More importantly, they’re also cheap and poorly constructed; the original justification for the new 9-story building was that the existing structure had decayed over 30 years to the point that it wasn’t worth saving.

Buildings and parking at the MTC in Provo.

All buildings need maintenance, but it should be appalling that the life expectancy of a structure is barely longer than that of a car. Replacing buildings every 30 years is inefficient, wasteful, and suggests a general lack of vision and foresight. As I mentioned in this post, people used to erect structures that were meant to last.  It’s a shame that developers in this case essentially threw up disposable structures.

The past is behind us of course, but the need for a new building suggests that the real questions we need to be asking should deal with structure quality, not height. So, how long will the new building last? 30 years? 100 years? 1,000 years?

Any of those time frames are possible and over the long term it’d likely be more frugal — or, a better use of church members’ tithing — to construct a building that will last a really long time. That way, future members wouldn’t have to foot bills for generation after generation of replacement buildings.

Building quality is a big question emerging from the MTC, but the complex also shows how different kinds of campuses interact with their surroundings. That’s a similar point to the one made in this post on the contrasts between new building projects by Amazon and Apple. As that post notes, Amazon is doing a better job of incorporating their campus into the city, though sadly the isolation of the MTC lands it closer to (but not exactly like) Apple’s project.

I don’t expect the MTC campus to fundamentally change any time soon. But it could slowly acquire better architecture and, if nothing else offers lessons for other campuses, such as that of the upcoming Tabernacle Temple. And as the debate about the MTC’s new building shows, citizen involvement on these issues absolutely can make a difference.

*These pictures are kind of terrible. I was using a different camera and forgot to white balance it. Sorry.

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4 Comments

Filed under building, BYU, construction, Mormon, neighborhood

4 responses to “Is the MTC a Good Development?

  1. Genelle Pugmire

    Jim, you have hit the nail on the head. . . .this should be an editorial. . . you’re brilliant. In served at the MTC in 1979, , ,the cooling systems malfunctioned then. . . .
    I am so very proud to call you friend and colleague!

  2. Pingback: Bad Buildings are like Bad Food | (pro(vo)cation)

  3. Pingback: Good Architecture Actually Matters | (pro(vo)cation)

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