Gendering Mormon Temple Architecture

3 Apr

Michael Haycock, who has his own blog here, joins us again with this insightful piece.

In recent research for a term paper on Mormonism and native Hawaiian culture for my history course on the American West, I came across Frank Salamone’s essay on “The Polynesian Cultural Center and the Mormon Image of Body.” Salamone discusses the alterations made in traditional Polynesian dress made at the Center to accommodate LDS conceptions of modesty, gender differentials in bodily coverage, and subversions of modesty through manner of dance and personal comportment.

While I will save for another day his analysis that greater male bareness at the Polynesian Cultural Center is reflective of Mormon gender ideology, I would like to focus here on another observation he makes, taking a cue from another researcher: “As Knowlton mentions, Mormons are surrounded by phallic symbols in their religious imagery, including the architecture of their temples.”

My immediate reaction was a sort of revulsion; how could one relate the ethereal heaven-reaching spires to something so base?  Furthermore, I felt that this analysis reflected a sort of Freudian phallomania. Could temple spires truly be conceived as symbols of such dramatic masculinity? I do not think it is anywhere near that simple.

Here is the church house, here is the steeple...

Even as Salamone qualifies that “American Mormons are a bit more subtle and shy about these images [than Pacific Islanders],” I think that cultural context must be considered when judging Mormon architecture. First, it arose in the American Northeast and West, were the country church reigned supreme: a rectangular structure, roof pitched to the sides, and a steeple housing a bell by whose ringing the community might measure time in the absence of clocks. This, in turn, was influenced by hundreds of years of European church-building, wherein the spired bell tower was literally the pinnacle of community achievement and served as a significant civic and ecclesiastical landmark. The dramatic Catholic cathedral, roughened and simplified by frontier Protestantism, has had an enormous impact on Mormon designs. The Kirtland and Nauvoo temples, save for the interior arrangement of their assembly halls and other ordinance-specific designs, had more to do with the neighborhood church with its amalgamation of folk architectural vocabularies than the Mormon theology reflected in incidental surface details (sunstones and moonstones, for example). If the spire is a phallus, it’s a democratized European one. (Were Tocqueville an architect, he’d have written a book on this.)

Moreover, sometimes Mormon architects tend to do strange things. There’s a reason that the Washington DC and San Diegotemples are likened to fantasy castles: they articulate architectural movements of their times in ways that are mostly unparalleled in the modern world. People don’t quite know what to make of them.

You should see it with a Hollywood marquee. Yup.

(Humorously, the South Park creators knew exactly what to do: they based the stage frame for the Book of Mormon musical on the San Diego Temple itself, and play on the peculiarity of its design by shifting its lighting throughout the production.)

Part of this comes from the fact that there is, comparative to other Christian churches, very little Mormon liturgy, and what we have we have adapted to make it as efficient as possible. Most temples do not have the early four-room progressive endowment session (exemplified by the Salt Lake Temple), favoring instead a two-room design that allows for two sessions to go on at once (as well as a symbolic change in lighting and the appearance of the veil in the second room). Moreover, despite the performance of sacred, central ordinances in LDS meetinghouses, these ordinances are rarely architecturally central. The majority of the buildings’ floor area is taken up by offices and classrooms, while in the chapels themselves the focal point is taken up not by a Sacramental altar but by the pulpit (note how in cathedrals and the like the pulpit is off to the side and the Eucharistic altar takes center stage). Baptismal fonts, more often than not, are disguised as closets.

Another element of absurd Mormon practicality is the fashion in which church design is envisioned. I still remember the March 2006 Ensign, wherein the Church announced new, multistory urban chapels, the exteriors of which were given architectural features determined to be cues to the buildings’ religious nature. Yes, the architects chose elements—like rose windows, vertical and horizontal divisions, prominent towers and entryways—which had evolved naturally over centuries until in the popular psyche they said “church,” and then applied them to Mormon chapels wherein they were entirely, and quite hilariously, out of context.

Yes, we're THAT practical.

Many of those motifs had had theological or liturgical significance in their original incarnations, and the exterior, especially of Gothic cathedrals (from which many of these architectural cues originate), was made to reflect the interior of the building and the rites performed therein. When I got the chance to visit one of these LDS meetinghouses in NYC this February, I laughed at how incongruous the design was: exterior windows, running up four floors, had nothing to do with the rather typical layout inside, and the pseudo-rose window opened into the gymnasium!

Typical LDS Church in Argentina.
Atypical Argentine church.

Interestingly enough, the LDS Church recently seems to be putting a greater emphasis on placing spires on meetinghouses, perhaps in an effort to be identified as a Christian denomination. My local ward got a steeple a few years back, and now it no longer looks like a medical practice. However, this strategy can backfire in different cultural contexts. In Argentina, where I served my mission, there was no tradition of steepled country churches, and the Mormon churches were literally the only churches with steeples. I cannot tell you how many times I had to explain that in the United States, where these designs were conceived, a steeple is shorthand for “church”! To the typical Argentine viewer of Mormon churches, the spire marked them as something foreign.

So Mormon architecture is significantly, perhaps predominantly, influenced by conceptions of how religious architecture should look, emerging from American (and European) religious history. It would be hard to ascribe some sort of uniquely Mormon theological, cultural, or sexual significance to temple spires that are not adopted and adapted from surrounding styles.

That said, let’s problematize the issue of gendered architectural discourse. To see the temple spire as a phallus might not be phallomanic, but it is certainly phallocentric; however,the temple itself is an ambiguously gendered space. While the endowment is the locus of the most dramatic example of ritual gender differentiation in Mormon liturgy, it (and the preceding initiatory ordinances) are also the locus of the greatest questioning of traditional gender norms, wherein women perform priesthood ordinances and are hailed as queens and priestesses. Since 1894, the sealing ordinance has represented the union of the generations as well as the sexes, sacralizing the biological ties that bind, The baptistery is a figurative womb/tomb in which the dead are reborn/resurrected to new life in Christ. Add this to the female identification of the earth, under whose surface the baptistery is traditionally located. This interior gender indeterminacy and unity spills out onto the exterior.

Salt Lake City Temple.

The theory of the temple spire as a phallus can be disturbed by contextualizing it in the surrounding architecture; no temple is merely a singular spire. There are many Mormon temples that have more than one spire, as well as some that have none. Of those with multiple, we have the Salt Lake and DC temples with their six-spire design inspired. As overt symbols of the organization of the (male) priesthood, these are probably the closest to fulfilling Knowlton’s evaluations.  They seem to be inspired by the podium arrangement originally used in the Kirtland Temple, in which the presidency of the Melchizedek Priesthood would face across the hall to the presidency of the Aaronic Priesthood. If indeed the sets of spires are intended as symbols of the First Presidency and the Presiding Bishopric, it is possible to read each spire as representing a male figure.

Cardston Alberta Temple

However, temples with two, one, or no spires are harder to place, not to speak of the five-spire Oakland or Cochabamba Temples. How are we to see Laie Hawai‘i; Cardston Alberta; or Mesa Arizona? Certainly, we could take a page from typically highly-gendered architectural discourse and talk about their robustness, muscularity, or solidity in masculine terms; but just the same, those terms could be applied equally well to plenty of women. There is nothing phallic about them. The increasingly popular two-spire design, in which a spire crowns each end of the building along the longer axis,  could be seen as a six-spire shorthand, the spikes representing the Aaronic or Melchizedek Priesthood. But the unstable gender ambiguity of the priesthood inside the temple makes a superficial analysis unadvisable. What are we to say of the Rome Italy Temple, whose double spires top a structure that has broken with the vast majority of temple designs and incorporated significant curves, the temple’s body enclosed by nearly parenthetical walls?

I LOVE this design.

Rome Italy Temple. I LOVE this design.

The placing of fountains, gardens, and flowers on temple grounds further mark the place as one of natural fertility. (Of course, this is made problematic if one considers gardening an act of masculine man-icure, man-aged fertility being the story of female suppression throughout human history.)

Provo Utah Temple. 1960s feminist statement?

The spires of the Provo Temple and the (old) Ogden Temple, furthermore, are represented as fountains spouting forth from the round body of the building: could these not signify the breasts of the Mother Church (a common Christian theme not absent from Mormon thought), whence we derive our nourishment in our childlike earthly sojourn?

Besides, why should it be repulsive to imagine the Gospel, preached by Moroni atop the spire, as the sperm that fertilizes the dormant ovum in each human spirit to turn us into gods in embryo (especially within the uterine confines of the temple), and the Church as the mother’s womb that shelters that fetus until its eternal rebirth?

In this way, I believe the temple could be seen as a celebration of both sexes.

What does everyone think?

One Response to “Gendering Mormon Temple Architecture”

  1. vivek01 June 11, 2012 at 6:05 am #

    The placing of fountains, gardens, and flowers on temple grounds further mark the place as one of natural fertility.Excelant temple for that sits…

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