Last month I had occasion to visit Utah. (Twice, in fact.) While driving around the state, I took note of the culture constructed by the religion of a certain presidential hopeful. As you might imagine, the number of Mormon “stake centers” there borders on the absurd. They are easy to spot, even from the Interstate, due to their distinctively modular architecture.
If you’ve never lived within the proposed boundaries of the putative state of Deseret, this may sound weird, but I can identify the age of a Mormon meetinghouse at a glance. You see, each building from the 60s looks pretty much identical to the others built at that time. Same for any other vintage. It seems about once a decade, high command decides what a new church should look like and passes the blueprint down the line.
The current model looks like a New England congregational church building ordered from a SkyMall catalogue:
If God is indeed “in the details” then this incredible church building speaks to the American spirit! The extraordinary red brick and white panelling is hand painted for startling realism. Impress guests with the charm of your elegant 84″ Concord steeple which stands as a symbol of the strength and freedom of an enduring generation.*
*Any similarity to actual SkyMall listings is purely coincidental.
But seriously, while it is easy to make fun of industrial uniformity and steeples that look like they were purchased at Costco, there is a reason the Mormons do what they do. By streamlining production and design, they gain the same efficiencies of scale that a McMansion developer gains. Sure, each church isn’t its own individual snowflake, but they are functional, well-appointed, and cost-effective.
Actually, the efficiencies don’t stop at common blueprints. I unceremoniously mentioned that these buildings are called “stake centers.” Within the Mormon hierarchical structure, each stake is made up of multiple “wards” or “branches.” Each of these smaller, geographically-defined units functions as a distinct congregation for weekly programming, yet will convene in a common meeting place. This kind of efficiency makes one wish that the LDS ran the DMV.
In another corner of American religion, Evangelicals have also acquired a reputation for elevating efficiency in the construction of their places of worship. Usually this is a backhanded compliment coming in the same breath as a complaint over compromised aesthetics. Matt’s article on Evangelical church architecture last year elicited just such a comment from Christopher Benson:
Sorry to be a grump, but I don’t think the vast swath of American Evangelicals will ever prioritize or appreciate church architecture because [biting my lower lip] of a prevailing lowbrow aesthetic, populist impulse, and utilitarian calculus. Evangelicals, in my observation, usually pursue truth and goodness to the neglect of beauty, as if beauty is luxurious indulgence or gratuitous ornamentation. Once we comprehend that beauty is an essential rather than accidental attribute of God, our image-bearing will involve beauty-making.
Here is my point: Mormons actually prioritize church architecture precisely because of a certain utilitarian calculus. There is no failure to think deeply about how they build meetinghouses, rather an abundance of theological reflection balanced against economic realities. Every aspect of their cookie-cutter blueprint is strategically ordered to best serve the ordinary needs of the local congregation. Each building is intended, not to be an architectural marvel, but instead a center of community life–dances and dramas, Boy Scouts and basketball, and, of course, religious instruction and congregational administration.
Yet Mormons cannot be written off as aesthetic ascetics. They have built dozens of ornate temples where all of the official stuff like marriages and baptisms take place. These facilities are constructed at much greater expense and a much greater emphasis on beauty. Still, the design of their weekly meeting places brings a different principle to the fore.
Perhaps we have underestimated both Evangelical buildings that look like warehouses and Mormon buildings that look like they were purchased at a warehouse store. Both models are achieving some level of functional excellence in a world of scarce resources. A thing that is, actually, quite beautiful.