Houses of Worship, Not Cookie Cutter Churches

One of my favorite things to do while traveling is visit magnificent churches. I like it so much in fact, that I’m reluctant to travel to places that don’t have great religious buildings.

Good religious architecture is one of life's great pleasures.

Good religious architecture is one of life’s great pleasures. This baroque church is located in Seville.

More than other utilitarian structures, houses of worship are overtly supposed to embody the values and faith of their creators; a great church shows that a community of people came together to glorify something they felt was important.

I was recently reminded of how diverse great religious structures can be while reading this Atlantic Cities article on “13 Eye-Catching Houses of Worship.” Though I’m something of a traditionalist when it comes to religious architecture, the slide show demonstrates that new buildings can be as unique and inspiring in their own way as historic structures.

Utah consistently ranks as one of the most religious states in the U.S. Salt Lake is one of the most religious big cities, and Provo is presumably even more so. And there are interesting examples of religious architecture, with the LDS Church’s Provo Temple and Provo Tabernacle standing out.

But a lot of the religious architecture in Provo is, frankly, awful. The new stake center on 900 East immediately comes to mind as a bland, cheaply built structure on a woefully designed piece of asphalt (in a place where congregants could and should walk to church).

This sprawling structure was recently completed on 9th East and has numerous problems. Why, for example, are there so few windows and therefore so little natural light? Why is it surrounded by a massive parking lot when it serves mostly young, able-bodied people who live within walking distance. Why is it just so darn ugly?

This sprawling structure was recently completed on 9th East and has numerous problems. Why, for example are there so few windows and therefore so little natural light? Why is it surrounded by a massive parking lot when it serves mostly young, able-bodied people who live within walking distance. Why is it just so ugly? Is this how we want treat our faith?

Bear in mind that the building in the picture above is a multi-stake center, not a little local church. If it was a Catholic building, it would look like a cathedral or an abbey, not like a prison. And this isn’t an isolated incident, as the area around the Towne Center mall demonstrates:

South Provo.

South Provo and several churches.

Four churchs are visible in the picture above, though they nearly blend in with the mall on the lower right. Significantly they’re all built with a cookie cutter design and are surrounded by enormous parking lots — again in a place where many people could theoretically walk to church.

No one expects any organization to build only magnificent buildings; sometimes it’s just about whatever works.

But while every building doesn’t have to be grand, some should be. And yet I cannot immediately think of an LDS building  that was built in the last 20 years in Utah County that was was not an architectural disappointment. (The point isn’t to single out the LDS Church, which I happen to be a member of. Rather, the LDS Church is simply the largest religious property owner in the area and happens to have a lot of spiritually bankrupt architecture.)

The LDS Church also has an illustrious architectural past that produced grand structures like the Salt Lake Tabernacle as well as charming country chapels like this one in Levan:

This chapel is notable for including the words "Holiness to the Lord" above the door. The phrase is more common on LDS temples.

This chapel is notable for including the words “Holiness to the Lord” above the door. The phrase is more common on LDS temples.

Or this one in Provo:

This building, which today is no longer a church, is located on 5th West in Provo.

This building, which today is no longer a church, is located on 5th West in Provo.

Other religions have also built impressive religious structures in Utah. Salt Lake City has a handful of beautiful religious buildings, but other communities have noteworthy examples as well:

This Catholic Church is located in Park City. Unfortunately, Provo's best example of Catholic architecture was pointlessly demolished several years ago.

This modern Catholic Church is located in Park City. Unfortunately, Provo’s best example of Catholic architecture was pointlessly demolished several years ago.

Sadly, there’s good reason to fear the future; the LDS Church is currently transforming the Ogden Temple — which was similar to the one in Provo — from a modernist building to a cookie cutter structure. Hopefully a similar fate is not in store for Provo.

In Provo, the church also recently converted an interesting little modernist building in my neighborhood to a McMansion style office:

This building is located on the corner of 6th East and 1st North.

This building is located on the corner of 6th East and 1st North.

The transformation is detailed in Alan Peters’ blog — which has a lot of great Provo-related stuff. He writes,

This makes me sad. It was a unique-for-its-setting modern building; now its just another boring LDS-Church-plastic-style building. The building was actually built in 1964 as a seminary building for the now closed Farrer Junior High School. The seminary closed when Farrer became a middle school and that’s when the Family History people moved in. Farrer is completely gone now, replaced by the brand new Provo Peaks Elementary.

Is this really all our faith means to us? Cheap, generic structures surrounded by seas of asphalt? Shouldn’t at least a few buildings be designed to make us think of God?

English critic John Ruskin apparently thought so when he argued that buildings must be good on more levels than one:

We require from buildings two kinds of goodness: first, the doing their practical duty well: then that they be graceful and pleasing in doing it.”

Gaudi also pointed out that human creations, including buildings, are more than just containers meant to do a job:

The creation continues incessantly through the media of man.

Certain parts of select religious structures in Utah are designed to do just that. But spirituality isn’t a piecemeal thing and an utilitarian building with a pretty room isn’t the best we can do.

Gaudi's Sagrada Familia in Barcelona.

Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia in Barcelona.

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