In the last few weeks, I have been reminded of my disdain for modern Mormon architecture. Watching the First Presidency Christmas Devotional at the LDS Conference Center earlier this evening was the latest of these reminders. In contrast to 19th-century Mormon meeting halls (like this one I attended Stake Conference at last month) that were hand-crafted, relatively ornate, and aesthetically appealing, today’s cookie-cutter chapels (and an increasing number of temples) seem to have efficiency as their chief aim.
In a recent post, I mentioned that a google image search for “megachurch” produced an image of the interior of the LDS Conference Center as its first result. It was then pointed out that it appeared that the website with the image didn’t even realize it was a Mormon building (as opposed to an evangelical building).
However, it appears that others have noted the similarities between the 21,000 seat Mormon auditorium and other megachurches. While one prominent researcher of megachurches defines them not only based on size and style of the building, but also on the theology of the church that occupies the structure. However, Witold Rybczynski, in his 2005 article and slide show “An Anatomy of Megachurches: The New Look for Places of Worship,” over at slate.com, doesn’t hesitate to label the Conference Center as a megachurch. Looking through the slide show and comparing the design to other Protestant megachurches, it is understandable why. Commenting on the LDS building, Rybczynski says,
The largest religious assembly space in the country is the recently completed Conference Center of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints in downtown Salt Lake City. It was built to accommodate 21,000 people for the Semiannual General Conference of church members, but it also houses the Mormon Tabernacle Choir and is used for church pageants. The approach of the architects, Zimmer Gunsul Frasca of Portland, Ore., shows the influence megachurches have had on mainstream religions. The ecclesiastical imagery is confined to the giant pipe organ. The arena seating, the mainstream decor, the profusion of lighting and television broadcasting equipment, as well as the surrounding lobbies and vestibules, are distinctly secular. If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.
The last line seemed especially stinging. Given what I regard as an architectural heritage that includes aesthetically-appealing temples and tabernacles with intentional symbolism and detailed craftsmanship, this new genre of Mormon architecture seems especially disheartening. I wonder, though, if there are larger issues at stake than my personal preference for 19th-century Mormon building design. How significant, if at all, is architecture to Mormon identity? Have we negotiated that identity by following evangelical megachurches in creating symbol-less, “distinctly secular” styled buildings?
*I forgot to note when I originally wrote this up last night that Darren Grem’s post on “Megachurches, MegaEconomics” over at Religion in American History also inspired this post, and pointed me to some of the resources I drew from.