The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has put up a lovely new temple in Philadelphia, one whose traditional design has raised the eyebrows of the city’s leading architecture critic, Inga Saffron, who writes for the Inquirer. She praises the genuine quality of its forthright classicism, but readers may be forgiven for wondering if her plaudits are reluctant – that she feels a church in the 20th century has no right to look like a church.
Here, from “Mormon temple: Radical conservative upstart,” is Saffron’s lead, in which she takes my own line that new classical architecture is radical:
The new Mormon Temple on Logan Square may be the most radical work of architecture built in Philadelphia in a half-century. Clearly, that’s not because the gleaming classical tabernacle offers a fresh, 21st-century take on architectural form-making, or because the designers inventively use new materials, or because they stretch the limits of technology. It’s radical because it dares to be so out of step with today’s design sensibilities and our bottom-line culture.
But really, Inga, this epitomizes the old saw that the it’s not Johnny who is out of step but the rest of the troop. Johnny is in step and in fact the rest of the troop is out of step. From the standpoint of any reasonable outlook on our built environment, not to mention the sentiments of the public, the Mormon temple is in step with what the times ought to be, and most of the clunkers nearby, seen in the picture on top, are out of step.
As Saffron points out, the temple was designed by a pair of firms better known for modernist buildings – or, as she puts it, “modern buildings” – as if a new building just erected were not by definition a modern building. Not modernist, necessarily, but modern. It is by such rhetorical flim-flam that the modernists maintain their stranglehold on culture. I wonder whether here Saffron is praising the two firms or chiding them:
The double-spired temple was jointly designed by two firms that generally are in the habit of making modern buildings, Perkins & Will in Atlanta and FKKR Architects in Salt Lake City, but they have gone all-in to make the Mormon sacred center a credible classical building.
Although I hold them in contempt of beauty for most of their work, I praise them here because they have courageously embraced real architecture, be it as an experiment, a sop to profit, or a joke. Any way you slice it, good for them! What the mainline architecture firms around the country and around the world don’t realize is that if they were to start designing buildings people liked, their profits would soar.
Classicists on the TradArch list have been mulling over this design, noting that the Mormons’ attempts at classical churches in recent decades give off more than a whiff of the McMansion. Here is architect Daniel Morales:
I see all the faults you see and more, but I also see them in many historical classical buildings. The pilasters are too crowded, the plinths unrelated, the entablature above the ground floor has a stunted cornice, and the spire seems to slump away from where it should have risen. More importantly though, I see an affirmation that this kind of attention to detail and the unapologetic attempt to create beauty from a tested language bodes well for us.
Those are the kinds of details I lack the erudition to pick up on, and so do most people, which is why they like classical more than modernism – the latter’s details are almost entirely obnoxious to normal, intuitive human sensibilities, while classical details need not be perfectly canonical (or perfectly noncanonical) to be perceived by most people as lovely.
But Saffron cannot move briskly along that archi-critical highway without her blinders on, so she concludes:
Some might wonder why the Mormons chose the early American architectural style. Many of their most beloved temples, like the one in Washington, are unrepentantly modern.
Most beloved of highfallutin critics like you, Inga, not most people. If the only Mormon temple in a community is modernist, it will be popular with its congregation, which has no choice in the matter. Like most congregations condemned to worship in the various versions of the Church of St. George Jetson, such ecclessiastical abominations only make it harder for believers to figure out the mysterious ways of the Lord.
Chapeaux off to Kristen Richards, who put Saffron’s piece on the entirely indispensable ArchNewsNow.com, which reminded me I should check out those TradArch emails.
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Great blog, David. There has been a movement “inside” the LDS Church (Architecture and Temple departments) to adjust course towards more traditional/classical design, particularly for temple design. There is one individual I know of who is primarily responsible for this. He’s also a member of the ICAA/NU community. This course-correction is actually a return to their own history of great classical/traditional temples built in the mid-19th Century and early 20th Century. Just an aside, the Mormon Church has gone to great lengths to emphasize the “Jesus Christ” in their name. The new logos even enlarge the typeface of the words Jesus Christ. The correct name of the church is: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
What’s challenging about new classical architecture (or, for that matter, ANY classical architecture) is that it can be criticized and disputed. No building will probably go without some criticisms like those made by Danny Morales regarding niceties of detail and proportion. The point is that such buildings CAN be discussed this way. Most contemporary work simply offers nothing that one can talk about. Form seems random or arbitrary, details irrelevant and proportion non-existent. Similarly, you cannot listen to a piece of contemporary music that sounds like a completely random collection of sounds and then say, “Oh, that was a wrong note!” My one request of you, David, is that you track down and give credit to the designers who put this project together, with all its classical detail, inside and out. Many of them studied at the Institute of Classical Architecture and the University of Notre Dame and not only deserve to have their names recorded for posterity, but other architects and other clients need to be encouraged to engage them and their similarly-trained colleagues to make more projects like this. (Certainly the Mormons should be commended–I understand more like this is on the way!)
You are exactly right, and it is a constant refrain of mine, usually linked to the question of how no Pritzker jury has any standard to go by, at least architecturally, in choosing a winner of that prize. There is no language. Same, as you say, with so much music, art and other endeavors for a century more or less.
I agree with you about naming names. I don’t know who they are, they weren’t mentioned except for their firms by Ms. Saffron, though I think they may have been named on TradArch in the thread that I first ignored. I will try to get them in, and keep your suggestion in mind for the future.
Having grown up in Philly, I like it! It certainly looks much better than the Hilton behind it. Philadelphia has always had a mixture of old and new building types. Bravo!