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Surreal Mormon architecture comes to La Jolla

The mothership has landed

"We wanted it to stand out like the government buildings in Washington, the cathedrals in Europe." - Image by Dave Allen
"We wanted it to stand out like the government buildings in Washington, the cathedrals in Europe."

Perhaps the most striking and imposing new monument to be built in the San Diego area in recent years is the Mormon Temple currently nearing completion at the junction of Interstate 5 and La Jolla Village Drive. The two icy-white towers, surmounted by a gold effigy of the Angel Moroni and surrounded by neo-Gothic stalagmites, have already become a city landmark. But the general public will be able to wander inside and inspect the temple from within only for a brief period. Says Bill Lewis, one of the design team and a church member, “After that, only those worthy can go through it. To go to the temple, you must be a member. The temple is not so much a secret as sacred.” The temple, in other words, will be restricted to the faithful.

The La Jolla temple is stranger than the modernist church buildings in Rancho Santa Fe by Charles Moore and Garden Grove by Philip Johnson.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints now has 17,000 congregations worldwide and is one of the fastest-growing religions in the United States. New temples were recently completed in Portland and Las Vegas. And aside from the one in La Jolla, others will open shortly in Orlando, Florida, and Bountiful, Utah. San Diego Mormons currently have to go to Los Angeles for special temple ceremonies, but that will change when La Jolla’s sacred building opens, the 45th temple in the world.

Robert McGraw, a local church representative, places the San Diego area’s Mormon population at more than 45,000, in about 100 congregations. Don LeFevre, director of LDS media relations in Salt Lake City, says, “We build a temple in an area when membership warrants it — that is, keeps it busy and operating.... We try to place temples so that there is reasonable access to all people.”

The La Jolla facility will be only the third Mormon temple in California and the first to be built in the state in more than 20 years. (Los Angeles’s temple was built in 1956, Oakland’s in 1964.) The temple was planned six years ago, ground was broken on the eight-acre Golden Triangle site in 1988, but design changes held up construction until 1990. Bill Magnuson, project architect, says that the Mormon Church allowed the design team to rework the original draft, which had called for a straightforward, standard temple. “We then started from scratch,” he says. “We wanted the temple to stand out. We wanted it to stand out like the government buildings in Washington, the cathedrals in Europe. We wanted that kind of pride and power behind it.”

LeFevre cautiously agrees, though he seems eager to play down any suggestions of architectural ostentation. “It seems to me that the temples are more concerned with function than with award-winning architectural designs. My guess is that [church officials] would like them to be attractive and enhance the area in which they’re placed. But we’re not trying to make architectural statements.”

Given the temple’s conspicuous location, looming beside one of San Diego’s busiest freeways, this seems a little disingenuous. The four levels of white marble, golden cherrywood, and gold leafing — an exercise in cultural familiarity, as simultaneously obvious but alien as a cartoon Disney castle — will probably cause a few motorists’ hearts to stop. A recent article in the Los Angeles Times regretted the use of such “familiar imagery” as spires, towers, and a monumental angel, claiming that the recent modernist church buildings in Rancho Santa Fe (by Charles Moore) and Garden Grove (by Philip Johnson) evoke more “genuine, wondrous emotions.”

But if anything, the La Jolla temple is stranger than any of these. Most Mormon temples, in fact, have exuberant and fantastical exteriors, which are in most cases offset by more subdued, even severe interiors. Their effect of strangeness has to do with their populist monumentality. And by their so obvious desire to impose themselves upon time. The architects at Deems Lewis McKinley responsible for the La Jolla site were told quite bluntly to make the thing last for at least a millennium ($20 million seems a small price to pay for such terrestrial permanence). Says Magnuson, “Everything will change around it, and the temple will still be there.”

All in all, the complex, when finished, will be impressively self-contained. Rows of eucalyptus will screen the structure from neighboring buildings (including the residential units right next door). It will be impossible to see into or out of the church itself. High vertical fins on the exterior walls will close it off. Inside, the four floors will house offices, a baptistery, locker rooms, “sealing” rooms (where Mormon couples symbolically “seal” their marriages for eternity), and “ordinance” rooms for rituals and meetings.

Some things have had to be sacrificed, however. Because of spiraling costs, the tiered fountain that was to have poured water into a reflecting pond south of the temple has been scrapped. And the “marble” towers turn out, on closer inspection, to be sheathed in a marble-like acrylic material called EIFS. Nevertheless, says Clyde Romney, spokesman for the local district of the church and an attorney in Escondido, “We have tried to create something as near perfect as possible.” The church has even bought a huge supply of shoe covers of the kind worn by surgical staff to protect the temple’s expensive beige carpets from the trampling of the hordes.

Of course, the temple has caused some agreeable surprises in an area like the Golden Triangle, where just about every new development is so fastidiously dedicated to the glory of Mammon. La Jolla Village, on the far side of the freeway, gives a charming view of a giant Ralphs. Next door is the Aventine, with its 190-foot office tower, and the Transamerica Insurance group looms up within a stone’s throw. To see an 80,000-square-foot development in one of the county’s most precious pieces of commercial real estate (about $60 a square foot) dedicated not to insurance or to all-night shopping is nothing short of miraculous.

Does this mean, then, that San Diegans should be willing to forgive anything just so long as their ruthlessly utilitarian skyline is punctured for once by a marble (sorry, EIFS) wedding cake temple dedicated to nothing but transactions of the spirit? Opinion is going to be divided. The architecture critics have already begun swooning in horror. New York Times critic Paul Goldberger recently wrote that the Maryland Mormon temple looked like a church designed for Buck Rogers. Describing the La Jolla complex, the California press agreed. Some of them, though, actually wondered if the temple would “raise interesting questions about the role of architecture in modern society.” And one or two couldn’t refrain from sneakily admiring its vulgar monumentalism. Do the ten sinister, steel-framed spires pointing, like their remote European cathedral ancestors, toward the infinite rewards of Heaven put the smug materialism of La Jolla to shame? What unpredictable spiritual effect will this have over the years? After all, they’ll have to pass it virtually every day of their lives.

The spire-oriented cathedral is a reminder, a call to repentance and guilt. The Mormon temple has the same architectural logic and message. The question is, will such ardent and austere other-worldliness thrive in an environment so consummately dedicated to the here-and-now?

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"We wanted it to stand out like the government buildings in Washington, the cathedrals in Europe." - Image by Dave Allen
"We wanted it to stand out like the government buildings in Washington, the cathedrals in Europe."

Perhaps the most striking and imposing new monument to be built in the San Diego area in recent years is the Mormon Temple currently nearing completion at the junction of Interstate 5 and La Jolla Village Drive. The two icy-white towers, surmounted by a gold effigy of the Angel Moroni and surrounded by neo-Gothic stalagmites, have already become a city landmark. But the general public will be able to wander inside and inspect the temple from within only for a brief period. Says Bill Lewis, one of the design team and a church member, “After that, only those worthy can go through it. To go to the temple, you must be a member. The temple is not so much a secret as sacred.” The temple, in other words, will be restricted to the faithful.

The La Jolla temple is stranger than the modernist church buildings in Rancho Santa Fe by Charles Moore and Garden Grove by Philip Johnson.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints now has 17,000 congregations worldwide and is one of the fastest-growing religions in the United States. New temples were recently completed in Portland and Las Vegas. And aside from the one in La Jolla, others will open shortly in Orlando, Florida, and Bountiful, Utah. San Diego Mormons currently have to go to Los Angeles for special temple ceremonies, but that will change when La Jolla’s sacred building opens, the 45th temple in the world.

Robert McGraw, a local church representative, places the San Diego area’s Mormon population at more than 45,000, in about 100 congregations. Don LeFevre, director of LDS media relations in Salt Lake City, says, “We build a temple in an area when membership warrants it — that is, keeps it busy and operating.... We try to place temples so that there is reasonable access to all people.”

The La Jolla facility will be only the third Mormon temple in California and the first to be built in the state in more than 20 years. (Los Angeles’s temple was built in 1956, Oakland’s in 1964.) The temple was planned six years ago, ground was broken on the eight-acre Golden Triangle site in 1988, but design changes held up construction until 1990. Bill Magnuson, project architect, says that the Mormon Church allowed the design team to rework the original draft, which had called for a straightforward, standard temple. “We then started from scratch,” he says. “We wanted the temple to stand out. We wanted it to stand out like the government buildings in Washington, the cathedrals in Europe. We wanted that kind of pride and power behind it.”

LeFevre cautiously agrees, though he seems eager to play down any suggestions of architectural ostentation. “It seems to me that the temples are more concerned with function than with award-winning architectural designs. My guess is that [church officials] would like them to be attractive and enhance the area in which they’re placed. But we’re not trying to make architectural statements.”

Given the temple’s conspicuous location, looming beside one of San Diego’s busiest freeways, this seems a little disingenuous. The four levels of white marble, golden cherrywood, and gold leafing — an exercise in cultural familiarity, as simultaneously obvious but alien as a cartoon Disney castle — will probably cause a few motorists’ hearts to stop. A recent article in the Los Angeles Times regretted the use of such “familiar imagery” as spires, towers, and a monumental angel, claiming that the recent modernist church buildings in Rancho Santa Fe (by Charles Moore) and Garden Grove (by Philip Johnson) evoke more “genuine, wondrous emotions.”

But if anything, the La Jolla temple is stranger than any of these. Most Mormon temples, in fact, have exuberant and fantastical exteriors, which are in most cases offset by more subdued, even severe interiors. Their effect of strangeness has to do with their populist monumentality. And by their so obvious desire to impose themselves upon time. The architects at Deems Lewis McKinley responsible for the La Jolla site were told quite bluntly to make the thing last for at least a millennium ($20 million seems a small price to pay for such terrestrial permanence). Says Magnuson, “Everything will change around it, and the temple will still be there.”

All in all, the complex, when finished, will be impressively self-contained. Rows of eucalyptus will screen the structure from neighboring buildings (including the residential units right next door). It will be impossible to see into or out of the church itself. High vertical fins on the exterior walls will close it off. Inside, the four floors will house offices, a baptistery, locker rooms, “sealing” rooms (where Mormon couples symbolically “seal” their marriages for eternity), and “ordinance” rooms for rituals and meetings.

Some things have had to be sacrificed, however. Because of spiraling costs, the tiered fountain that was to have poured water into a reflecting pond south of the temple has been scrapped. And the “marble” towers turn out, on closer inspection, to be sheathed in a marble-like acrylic material called EIFS. Nevertheless, says Clyde Romney, spokesman for the local district of the church and an attorney in Escondido, “We have tried to create something as near perfect as possible.” The church has even bought a huge supply of shoe covers of the kind worn by surgical staff to protect the temple’s expensive beige carpets from the trampling of the hordes.

Of course, the temple has caused some agreeable surprises in an area like the Golden Triangle, where just about every new development is so fastidiously dedicated to the glory of Mammon. La Jolla Village, on the far side of the freeway, gives a charming view of a giant Ralphs. Next door is the Aventine, with its 190-foot office tower, and the Transamerica Insurance group looms up within a stone’s throw. To see an 80,000-square-foot development in one of the county’s most precious pieces of commercial real estate (about $60 a square foot) dedicated not to insurance or to all-night shopping is nothing short of miraculous.

Does this mean, then, that San Diegans should be willing to forgive anything just so long as their ruthlessly utilitarian skyline is punctured for once by a marble (sorry, EIFS) wedding cake temple dedicated to nothing but transactions of the spirit? Opinion is going to be divided. The architecture critics have already begun swooning in horror. New York Times critic Paul Goldberger recently wrote that the Maryland Mormon temple looked like a church designed for Buck Rogers. Describing the La Jolla complex, the California press agreed. Some of them, though, actually wondered if the temple would “raise interesting questions about the role of architecture in modern society.” And one or two couldn’t refrain from sneakily admiring its vulgar monumentalism. Do the ten sinister, steel-framed spires pointing, like their remote European cathedral ancestors, toward the infinite rewards of Heaven put the smug materialism of La Jolla to shame? What unpredictable spiritual effect will this have over the years? After all, they’ll have to pass it virtually every day of their lives.

The spire-oriented cathedral is a reminder, a call to repentance and guilt. The Mormon temple has the same architectural logic and message. The question is, will such ardent and austere other-worldliness thrive in an environment so consummately dedicated to the here-and-now?

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