The LDS church is not a modern church. It isn’t a traditional church either. Rather it is a restored church revealing eternal truths to a modern world. What kind of architecture best reflects the values of a restored church as opposed to a traditional church? Would it be a classical tradition stemming from ancient Greece and Rome? Or would it be the gothic style originating in medieval catholicism? Or might it be modernism, which is unencumbered by motifs associated with traditional Christianity? Modernism emphasizes abstract forms that reflect eternal principles: order, balance, efficiency, utility, tranquility, etc. It is an architecture of rationality, ideal for a church that claims “the glory of God is intelligence.”
Modern architecture however risks alienating members who complain that their church doesn’t feel or “look like a church.” Proponents of traditional architecture argue that classical or gothic motifs are powerful religious symbols that evoke spiritual feelings. Traditional motifs set spaces apart as sacred. Modernism can’t hope to compete with this rich symbolic history. In the end, a modern church may have trouble distinguishing itself as a sacred space.
At times LDS architects have embraced modernism and at other times they have revived traditional styles. Modernism first emerged in LDS architecture in the 1920s. Paul L. Anderson has written an excellent treatment of prewar modern LDS architecture in his 1982 article Mormon Moderne. He focuses on three early types of LDS modernism: Art Deco, Prairie, and the International Style. I’ve covered Art Deco and Prairie styles in previous posts. For this post, I will focus on the International Style and the midcentury modern period that came after it.
The International Style
To get a sense of just how radical the International Style was, consider its three slogans: “ornament is crime,” “truth to materials,” and “form follows function.” Le Corbusier, a leading International Style architect had said, “A house is a machine to live in.” As inhuman as such ideals may seem to us today, they nevertheless captivated the attention of many LDS architects of the time. Lowell Parrish, a leading LDS architect wrote in 1941: “We should employ the principals of this progressive new architecture which are the results of all the technical, economic, intellectual, and social advances of our times. To work in an historical style, to copy or adapt an archeological art form is inconsistent with our present way of living and believing.” Such progressive ideals were at odds with traditionalists in the church. In the end, the church only commissioned a few buildings in a completely pure version of the International Style. This includes the 1942 Ivins Ward Building designed by Lowell Parrish. As one can see from the photograph above, it is a fine building, and an excellent specimen of modernist discipline. However it does not look like a church.
Modernists and Traditionalists Compromise
Traditionalists in the church ended up compromising with the modernists. Most of the churches built in the 40s and 50s are modern in their overall form and construction materials. But they were often decorated with simplified traditional motifs, either classical, oriental, or eclectic. There is something unsatisfactory about this compromise. As traditional architecture, these churches often fail to “look like churches.” Apart from the steeples, the silhouettes of the meetinghouses have more in common with schools or hospitals. And as modern architecture, the traditional motifs sometimes make the structures look too stylized. However these meetinghouses dutifully served a generation of church members and are dearly beloved by those who grew up with them. As can be seen from the gallery below, they still have a certain vintage charm about them.
In the 1960s, the modernists finally won the battle against the traditionalists. Classical motifs were banished and the church embraced a new, progressive vision for its architecture. Culturally, the LDS church was a bit late to the party. By the 1950s most mainstream Christian churches had already abandoned classicism and gone whole hog modernist. The modernist embrace reflected the optimistic and progressive spirit of American Christianity in the 1950s.
Conservative Modernism vs “Modernistic”
Many non-LDS Christian churches from this period look somewhat dated and kitschy today. Their architecture is often described as “modernistic” or “space age.” The LDS church was more conservative and ultimately more successful in its modern period. There were however a few “modernistic” chapels built by the LDS church during this period. This includes a charming meetinghouse built in Liberty Idaho, shown above.
The Perfection of the Church Silhouette
A major accomplishment of the midcentury period was the perfection of the silhouette of the LDS meetinghouse. The modernist motto “form follows function” dictates that a building’s function should be apparent from its form. In the 40s and 50s, it wasn’t always obvious that LDS meetinghouses were actual places of worship. It wasn’t obvious where the chapel was located within the meetinghouse complex, and it wasn’t obvious what the nature of the rest of the building might be.
In the 60s, the overall form of the meetinghouse changed dramatically. It was suddenly obvious from the outside that these meetinghouses were built around a central chapel with extended wings made up of classrooms or offices. It was a pleasing arrangement of abstracted forms: squares, gables, and rectangles, punctuated by an impressive modern spire. These silhouettes stood out beautifully within their neighborhoods and they looked unmistakably like churches even though they contained no traditional religious motifs.
Midcentury churches also reengaged with ornamentation, but not in a superficial or compromised way. Ornamentation emerged organically out of the materials themselves, built into the design of the brick or woodwork.
Perhaps the greatest legacy of the modern period were the many inspired designs that were created for chapel interiors. While completely devoid of crucifixes, icons, or traditional architecture, these chapels nevertheless feel like sacred spaces. Many chapels incorporated warm, organic materials like brick and used extensive wood paneling as opposed to plaster. Ceilings often featured inventive designs and sophisticated cove lighting, creating a “halo” effect. Unfortunately, these beautiful chapels languish in obscurity, known only to local congregations who may not appreciate just how unique they are. I hope that the gallery below will help spread a greater appreciation of this period of LDS architecture. (In addition to chapels from the 60s and 70s, the gallery below includes examples from what I call the “compromise” period of the 50s. While the exterior of the meetinghouses from this period were frequently compromised by traditional motifs, the interiors rarely contained any classical stylization.)
Standardization: The Youngberg Standard Plan
During the 60s and 70s, the church shifted almost exclusively to standard building plans. Standardization reflected a renewed focus on efficiency, affordability, and practicality. These are all virtues prized by modernism itself. According to modernist architectural theory, an emphasis on efficiency and affordability could actually can lead to more beautiful, pleasing forms, as suggested by the motto “form follows function.” The LDS church achieved a particularly beautiful balance between form and function in a standard plan called the Youngberg, designed by Alv Youngberg in 1963. Twenty two of these plans were built through 1966. Youngberg’s model is beautiful inside and out. Simple, efficient, and undeniably sacred in character. Richard L. Jackson’s Places of Worship provides an excellent survey of the various standard plans during this period.
The Twilight of Modernism: The Brower Standard Plan
Over time however, the standard plans began reflecting a greater emphasis on function over form. The vision perfected by Youngberg and other modernists began to falter. A standard plan called Brower was introduced in 1979. It put the entire meetinghouse under a single rectangular roof. This vastly expanded the design’s efficiency and affordability. Soon all the previous models were abandoned to focus on the new, consolidated design. What the Brower plan gained in efficiency, it sacrificed in silhouette. Gone was the beautiful arrangement of forms that had characterized the mid-century period. The Brower’s hipped roof structure completely obscured the nature of the building itself. Even the iconic chapel facade was missing. The Brower standard plan marked the end of the modern period of LDS architecture.
While the exterior of the Brower plan was perhaps disappointing, it still contained a remarkable interior design. Particularly interesting is the sculpted ceiling of the chapel, which could be taken as a symbolic abstraction of a cloud cover. It brings to mind some of the innovative designs of Eero Saarinen.
The Brower plan pointed LDS church architecture in a new direction, one that would soon make a dramatic return to traditionalism. With everything under one roof, the church could be redesigned with colonial motifs to look like an expanded version of the traditional American one-room church house.
A Modernist Revival?
Since the 1980s, LDS meetinghouse architecture has returned to classical or colonial motifs. Occasionally gothic or craftsman motifs are added. But modernist purity has been completely abandoned. It’s been over 40 years since this classical revival and it’s worth asking if a modernist revival might be on the horizon. In 2022, the LDS church built a new meetinghouse in downtown Salt Lake City as part of the 95 State office complex. It is entirely modern and even includes a new spire in the classic 1960s style. The interior of the chapel is refreshingly minimalist, with an open, airy quality unencumbered by classical motifs. Could this modern chapel be a sign of more to come?