“Abstract construction” helps broaden the religious experience of members, says the advocate of the current appearance of the space age.
After seeing plans to remake the Provo Temple, hundreds of Latter-day Saints signed a pair of online petitions urging church leaders to stick to the structure’s current look.
“We respectfully urge the temple department to reconsider and preserve the exterior of the Provo Utah temple and to make seismic improvements on the current building,” a Change.org petition States.
President Russell M. Nelson first announced his intention to rebuild the building at the October General Conference of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The day before Thanksgiving, the church unveiled a render of the redesign, which replaces the distinct drum-shaped base and dramatic central spire of the current building with a square structure similar to that of many other contemporary temples of the Saints of the last days.
Those who oppose the new look argue that the redesign would sacrifice a relic of Faith’s architectural heritage on the altar of current tastes and preferences.
“We must recognize and honor our past, the good and the bad,” wrote Rachel Whipple, signer of the petition, “not to erase it and replace it with a homogeneous present”.
Adding to the sense of urgency is the 2014 church overhaul of its Ogden temple. Formerly the twin of the Provo building, it now has a more conventional look.
Built in 1972, the temples of Provo and Ogden aroused strong emotions before they even paved the way.
“The early pioneers would not have been so callous in their approach to harbor the activities of their faith,” wrote one of the early critics, Donald Bergsma, in Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought when the church first revealed the plans for these two buildings. Efficiency embedded in shared designs convinced Bergsma that faith had become more concerned with efficiency and cost optimization than with “spiritual matters.”
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But for Emil Fetzer, the architect of the two temples, rationalizing the construction and use of the temples was a spiritual matter.
According to grandson Joe Lyon, Fetzer was on a flight to Frankfurt, Germany in 1967 when he saw a vision of the layout that would eventually serve as the basis for the two temples.
It is said to contain several ordinance rooms – where members undertake a symbolically rich reenactment of humanity’s mortal journey in a religious rite called the endowment – all directed to a central celestial room, representing a return to the presence of God.
This setup would allow more patrons to participate in more ordinances than any other temple at the time.
Fetzer, who died in 2009, went one step further by visiting the iconic Salt Lake City Temple with a notebook and pocket watch in hand. His goal: to determine exactly how long the ordinances took in the temple and how long to just wait for the ceremonies to begin or resume.
“He then built the building around the time needed to complete the endowment session as a whole,” said Lyon, referring to the longest rite that took place in the temple.
Lyon, who was close to his grandfather, said he understands the need to update the temple and that doing so in an older structure often requires major changes. Lyon said he was less concerned with changes in the shape of the temple than in its function.
“My greatest hope,” he said, “is that they don’t spoil” the “German efficiency” which he thinks his grandfather was inspired to bring to the temples of Ogden. and Provo.
In contrast, architectural historian and native of Provo, Alan Barnett, believes that the temple’s current design serves a function of its own.
“It’s an abstract building,” Barnett, the author of a Change.org petition and one Facebook group in support of the current look, said in an interview. “And like abstract art, it opens us up to explore and understand things we are not used to.”
In other words, in a faith fascinated by object lessons, the current Provo Temple is a building that teaches Latter-day Saints that worship is “not a uniform experience.” Limit the architecture where people seek to experience God, and you limit the religious experience.
Barnett and others like him realize they face an uphill battle. The effort, however, is not without precedent. Earlier this year, members successfully rallied to protect the 133-year-old town’s historic murals Temple of the Mantis, which is currently under renovation.