The Look of Temples

The New Ogden Temple, <small>© 2010, Intellectual Reserve, Inc.</small>

The New Ogden Temple, © 2010, Intellectual Reserve, Inc.

This weekend I got to drive past the Ogden Utah Temple, which is currently surrounded by a high fence as it undergoes a major renovation. While there is nothing new with renovating a Temple, as far as I can tell, this is the first time that the outside appearance of a Temple has had such a significant change. What does this mean?

My brother, who lives in Ogden, says that many members there couldn’t be more pleased. He says many couples looked at the Temples and passed, choosing to get married in Bountiful and Salt Lake instead. Of course, Ogden-based wedding photographers, caterers and others are also pleased at the prospect of more weddings in Ogden.

No doubt many will initially claim that the exterior appearance doesn’t matter—or at least doesn’t matter as much as what goes on inside a temple. I agree with the latter—what goes on inside a temple does matter more. But the exterior clearly has some importance.

The exterior appearance clearly matters to the Church, because it has photos taken of temples for use in teaching and in buildings. We are regularly told by the Church that the exterior appearance of temples inspires. And the Church also defends the designed appearance of temples in court, arguing for steeples, lighting and other crucial design elements against neighbors who apparently don’t like Temples or don’t want them in their neighborhoods and challenge the Church in the zoning process.

How temples look is also a central part of Mormon culture. Seeing temple photos and illustrations on the walls of members homes is almost cliché. The popularity of such images is so widespread that an entire industry exists to provide these images. So the appearance of these buildings clearly matters.

Of course, Mormons are hardly the only group that cares about the architecture of its buildings. Last Thursday I listened to Diane Rehm interview the master architect for the new World Trade Center, Daniel Libeskind, about his life and his design for the building site that has attracted more attention than any other for more than a decade. [See Libeskind’s design here]. I found his description (on the show) of his design to be fascinating and inspiring, especially his including symbolic elements in the design.

While I feel inadequate in any assessment of architecture (and I hesitate to compare temples to office towers, given their very different purposes), I do see a kind of parallel in the importance of symbolism and exterior appearance in these designs. Somewhat ironically, critics lambasted the original World Trade Center when it was first constructed, just as members have long lamented the appearance of the Ogden (and Provo) Temples. I have often wondered if local members had grown to love these Temples, despite the reactions to their appearance. In thinking about how members will react, I can’t help but remember that, in the aftermath of September 11th, the criticism of the original design of the World Trade Center have largely been forgotten and the images of the towers are largely beloved.

So, what does all this mean? If the exterior of a Temple is changed, what should we think? Is it just our own cultural understandings and influences that determine how we react? Does this change just reflect how our culture (both in and out of the Church) sees inspiration? or is there something more to appearance? And, was the original design a mistake? or just appropriate for its time?

Despite these issues, I assume that few Church members will mourn the old appearance of the Ogden Temple. Instead, rather quickly, they will adorn their walls with new illustrations of an Ogden Temple that looks very different from its predecessor. The old photos may eventually even be mistaken for photos of the Provo Temple—unless, of course, the Provo Temple is likewise renovated.

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33 comments for “The Look of Temples

  1. August 22, 2011 at 8:49 am

    That’s horrible news. Why replace architecture rich in symbolism with one that looks so generic? What is with all the cookie cutter temples lately?

  2. Left Field
    August 22, 2011 at 9:18 am

    I’d like the new Ogden Temple more if it wasn’t virtually indistinguishable from nearly a dozen others.

  3. chris
    August 22, 2011 at 9:30 am

    In various types of research I’ve seen or done, you can always count on between 10-20% of the people will hate the changes no matter what.

  4. Janell
    August 22, 2011 at 9:50 am

    A point of note is that in Utah there is the option to have a choice of temples – the cost difference of having one versus another in your wedding photos is minimal. In other areas of the world choosing a temple to be married in is likely more a function of cost and convenience than appearance.

    So, what does it say that one has to spruce up a temple in order to attract patronage?

    For the record though I’ve always thought the Provo and Ogden design for a temple looked too 1970s. The new Ogden temple now looks like “early 21st century temple building extravaganza.” *shrug* Is there a way to create architecture that doesn’t date itself?

  5. Jim
    August 22, 2011 at 10:15 am

    Brother Emil B. Fetzer, the architect of the Provo and Ogden Temples, (as well as some other notable temples such as Washington DC and Jordan River), was asked quite often about them. It is reported that at a special fireside for Provo Temple workers he spoke at great length about the Provo/Ogden design, specifically claiming that it all came to him in a dream, complete with an angel showing him around inside the building. This was a fairly well-known vision as Brother Fetzer felt the hand of the Lord in designing such unique buildings and shared it enthusiastically.

    Alas, it seems that the Saints have totally rejected the divine, revealed design of these two unique structures and has, instead, demanded bland, cookie-cutter, corporate-looking boxes instead. How predictable we are as a people. I just wonder why the Brethren gave in to the members and joined in rejecting the direct vision provided to Brother Fetzer. Once you start trying to satisfy the whims of fickle Utah brides you will never gain peace.

  6. Sam Brunson
    August 22, 2011 at 10:16 am

    Is there a way to create architecture that doesn’t date itself?

    If by “date itself” you mean “stops looking decent a decade after it’s built,” there must be a way. Generally, the architecture of Chicago and Manhattan—largely a century or more old—looks pretty darn good (ignoring, for the most part, buildings built in the 60s/70s). Heck, Tuscan towns look great after 500 years, and Roman architecture still looks good (if a bit crumbly) 2000 years later. It’s not that you can’t tell when they were built, but somehow, some architects manage to create a style that is relatively timeless.

    And we’ve been able to do it in the Church, too. Or at least, we could in the 19th century—the Salt Lake temple still looks classy to me, and the Provo Tabernacle was gorgeous. I don’t know what, exactly, has changed, but our architecture seems somehow less timeless today, sadly.

  7. August 22, 2011 at 10:17 am

    One of the differences between Ogden and Provo is the surrounding area of the temple. While Provo has Squaw Peak as a backdrop and is surrounded by high-end suburban housing, Ogden’s setting is more urban. I’ve always preferred Provo to Ogden as a result of the setting.

    #1 Kim: what is so symbolic about the Ogden Temple’s present architecture?

  8. August 22, 2011 at 10:19 am

    Simple. The Ogden/Provo temples were possibly (and I use the qualifier only for the sake of avoiding having to defend the obvious) the ugliest temples on planet earth. Given a choice, people (even Mormons!) prefer something not ugly to something ugly. And, given a choice, people (even Mormons!) would prefer a not ugly temple in their wedding photos to an ugly temple in their wedding photos.

    And, yea, maybe if one/both of the temples were blown up by terrorists, we’d talk more about that than how ugly they used to be. :)

  9. Sam Brunson
    August 22, 2011 at 10:22 am

    corporate-looking boxes instead

    FWIW, I know people like to throw “corporate” around like it’s a bad thing. But generally, the urban corporate-looking buildings are the best buildings. The Empire State Building, the former Sears Tower, everything you can see from Millennium Park, any skyscraper in the world is a corporate-looking box. Because the corporations had enough money—and wanted the prestige—they bought the best architecture money could buy. (Money doesn’t automatically buy taste, of course—see, e.g., anythings with the “Trump” name on it—but it certainly doesn’t hurt.)

  10. August 22, 2011 at 10:22 am

    #5 Jim, thanks for the insight into Brother Fetzer’s experience. Certainly there is an efficiency in the Provo Temple (I’ve never been inside the Ogden, though I assume it’s the same) which is impressive.

    “I just wonder why the Brethren gave in to the members and joined in rejecting the direct vision provided to Brother Fetzer. Once you start trying to satisfy the whims of fickle Utah brides you will never gain peace.”

    While you may be right about Utah brides, I suspect that they are not the only reason for the exterior redux. Is there any definitive word on that matter?

  11. Jim
    August 22, 2011 at 10:27 am

    Paul, this blog and thread at Mormon Mentality had an extensive discussion of the change to the Ogden Temple.

  12. ron
    August 22, 2011 at 10:33 am

    I will not mourn the old look, but then I was never very happy with the location to begin with. Provo and Bountiful got to put their temples up in the hills overlooking their respective communities. Ogden got a site in the middle of a blighted, decaying downtown. If the re-designed temple can blend together with a revitalized downtown Ogden and influence the center of this once dynamic city, then I will cheer both the design and the site.

  13. August 22, 2011 at 11:11 am

    So, I called up Brother Fetzer when I was at BYU (late 90s) to interview him for a paper I was writing on architectural symbolism. Turns out, there was no intended symbolism; in fact, he sounded surprised that “everyone knows” it represents the pillar of fire and the cloud by day that led the Israelites. He may have had a vision, but he wouldn’t admit it to me; he was very pleasant on the phone, but had little patience for all the symbolism/vision crap.


    Makes you wonder, though. We recently took a tour of the Conference Center, and when we oohed and aahed over the fountain (of living water?!) that is directly over the pulpit on the roof, our missionary guide said they’re supposed to say there is no symbolism in that building either, but then he smiled and shrugged as if to say he thought it was pretty obvious too.

  14. August 22, 2011 at 11:13 am

    Oh, I shouldn’t have said “crap.” I meant “faith promoting rumor.”

  15. Jason
    August 22, 2011 at 11:18 am

    Ogden temple facelift. Isn’t it about … time?

  16. August 22, 2011 at 11:26 am

    Jim, thanks for the link. It matches my recollection, and my conversations with my BIL who lives in Ogden. No public statement saying it’s being done for the brides, but public statements saying it’s part of the downtown redevelopment effort (or if not “part”, then at least consistent with…). And I think that’s fine. The church can do what it likes with its temples.

    Shannon, as for symbolism: we all look for and find symbolism in art, literature, music and architecture, even when the creator of those works didn’t originally conceive it that way. It’s natural to do so, and perfectly acceptable.

    FWIW, I was married in the renovated Logan Temple. The interior that I saw was totally modernized and stripped of pioneer charm, except for the chapel. It was really disappointing to me. Until we were married there, I had assumed I’d see an interior more like Salt Lake’s (where my family was sealed when I was a little boy). That said, our sealing has held for 31 years and counting. :-)

    The “stake center” temples in Chicago, Boise, Taipei, Lima, etc, took a bit of a beating, but they are also quite lovely in their own way. We loved visiting the Taipei temple when we lived there. And we now attend a “small” temple and despite its size, it is also quite delightful.

  17. Jim
    August 22, 2011 at 1:14 pm


    Just as a clarification (nitpicky though it may seem), the Temples do not belong to the Church. While they may be held under the church corporation for reasons of compliance in Babylon, they are the Lord’s Temples and, as such, should reflect His Will in design, symbolism, and meaning – not that of the bureaucratic temple department of the corporation.


    Thank you for sharing that experience. However, I am really surprised by Brother Fetzer’s response about meaning and symbolism. I wonder if he felt that way about the Washington DC or Jordan River Temples also. Perhaps he had the inspiration beaten out of him by that point in time due to the Saints rejection of his vision. All Temples have a certain amount of symbolism and meaning that goes beyond the surface appearance. Look at how the Church highlighted all the symbolism in the re-constructed Nauvoo Temple. The Ensign magazine even highlighted it all.

    It was pointed out by someone else that the church temple department waited until Brother Fetzer passed away before they announced the destruction and re-design of the Ogden Temple.

  18. Zack
    August 22, 2011 at 2:02 pm

    As I eagerly await the plans for the Philadelphia Pennsylvania temple where President Eyring will be breaking ground next month, I’m terrified that — if it looks anything like the temples the Church has been churning out for the last couple of decades — it will be the ugliest building in that part of town.

    The temple lot sits next to this building and its twin (the Library):
    It’s across the street from this cathedral:
    The Franklin Institute is across the Parkway:
    As is the Academy of Natural Science:
    Logan Circle:
    To say nothing of the Philadelphia Museum of Art or Rodin Museum just up the Parkway.

    If the Church unveils a plan for another temple that looks the same as so many other temples built in the last couple of decades, I’ll be a more than a little disappointed. The Manhattan tragedy is an architectural crime. But at least there aren’t any particularly attractive buildings in the immediate vicinity. Making a building out of sidewalk is never a good idea. Even if it looked good in the plans and even if it looked good at the dedication, it will be ugly in ten years’ time. I’m afraid that’s what Philadelphia is going to get and I’ll be happy that it’s there, but it’s not going to turn any heads — except away.

  19. Cameron N.
    August 22, 2011 at 2:19 pm

    I don’t mind minimalism as a designer. LDS temple architects have been borrowing from Frank Lloyd Wright ever since Cardston and Hawaii.

    However, I hope they don’t change Provo. It has a timeless mid-century modern feel to it, and doesn’t need to be changed in my opinion. The painting of the spire was the only change I would have done.

  20. Jim
    August 22, 2011 at 2:40 pm

    Zack, having been raised in Philly and joined the church in the (now deceased) Broomall 1st ward at age 19, I also eagerly await the design of the Philly Temple. My fear is the same as yours, especially since they also bought the lot across the street and now can create the same standard suburban plan they have used for the Kansas City and Rome Temples. I have been fasting and praying for the past three years that it is matches its location. Perhaps I am just foolish in thinking the church temple department would allow for such uniqueness. We will know on September 17th.

  21. Rosalynde Welch
    August 22, 2011 at 2:52 pm

    I love the minimalist and modernist aesthetic in architecture, particularly mid-century modernism. Beyond that, I love the Provo and Ogden temples for their attempt to work out a modern, Mormon visual vernacular of spirituality, even if they didn’t succeed entirely. I’m completely uninspired by the bland neo-traditional pastiche of the newer temples, and so sad to see an actual aesthetic statement like the Ogden temple disappear.

  22. Paolo
    August 22, 2011 at 3:20 pm

    I am disappointed in the Ogden temple redesign, seeing basically all the new temples looking like the architecture dept took a box of Legos and rearranged them to become the next new thang. I would like to see some real architecture that truly lifts and inspires rather than squat boxes (maybe that have a steeple of sorts). All the grey boxes just aren’t all that interesting. Temples like San Diego, Wash DC, SLC, and even Mesa are all interesting buildings that seem to speak to the divine.

    Just my $.02

  23. August 22, 2011 at 4:23 pm

    #17, Jim — I agree with your nitpick, but since it’s the Lord’s church and the Lord’s temple, I’m not too worried. I don’t doubt that those who are making temple decisions are seeking the Lord’s will. That said, I can’t explain the Atlanta Temple for the life of me.

    That said, I’m far more interested in what goes on inside the temple.

  24. August 22, 2011 at 4:30 pm

    All architecture is dated – whether that is intended or not. The temple they are putting up is as dated as the temple they have torn down. We just won’t really notice it until we, as a society, have moved on to some new form of building. Interestingly, God’s will for his buildings follows the popular styles of the day in American architecture. And that includes today. The exception may be the pioneer temples which were built as fortresses as much as anything. But even the Salt Lake temple, now the symbol of the church, was widely reviled as poor design when it was first built. One example is Rudyard Kipling who said,

    “The flatness and meanness of the thing almost makes you weep when you look at the magnificent granite in blocks strewn abroad, and think of the art that three million dollars might have called in to the aid of the church. It is as though a child had said: ‘Let us draw a great big fine house—finer than any house that ever was,’ and in that desire had laboriously smudged along with a ruler and pencil, piling meaningless straight lines on compass drawn curves, with his tongue following every movement of the inept hand. ‘Then sat I down on a wheelbarrow and read the Book of Mormon, and behold the spirit of the book was the spirit of the stone before me.”

    Mormon architecture is flourishing in this postmodern world and LDS members are especially on board with this style of building. We are in an interesting time where all that matters is the surface treatment of a building. The reverse facadomy they are performing on the Ogden Temple is essentially plastic surgery. Ultimately it is a fake, shallow, and meaningless attempt to find meaning. At least the original Temple design knew who it was and what its principles were.

    One of the saddest things for me is that the magnificent Ogden Tabernacle spire will be torn down. We couldn’t risk having a Tabernacle outdo a Temple. The solution? Destroy the Tabernacle. Strip it of its beauty and glory. Castrate it, if you will. The new Temple should not be designed to fit into its urban context. That’s too difficult. Instead drop in a cookie-cutter facade (that is supposed to be appropriate everywhere, but really is appropriate nowhere) and change the context to be subservient to the new Temple.

  25. August 22, 2011 at 8:46 pm

    I think the main issue here is the use of resources. While it’d be nice to design new temples with their own unique aspects and distinct architecture, the Church saves money by basing temples on a number of pre-approved floorplans and general designs that can be tweaked a bit. I do think it’s gotten out of hand, though, with uber modern, predictable everything. I can’t think of a temple design from the past few years that has really blown me away. Rome, while following the KC/Brigham City neo-two tower design, at least plays on the theme in a bit of a different way.

    I’m from Orange County and while at first many of us lamented our “stumppy” and “pink” temple, I’m actually kinda glad that now, while its floorplan is pretty similar to most Mini Temples 2.0, the exterior is actually distinctive and intrinsically Californian.

    To you Philly dwellers, I’m with you in spirit. I hope the Church puts something in befitting the neighborhood, but I won’t be surprised to see a modern, urban, multi-use structure unveiled. After all, have you seen the “unofficial” plans for the Paris Temple? It looks like some sort of community center!

  26. el oso
    August 22, 2011 at 10:51 pm

    Having 4 nearly identical temples be the closest to the last 4 places I live, I see some symbolism. The gospel is the same everywhere. Even the church buildings with the same basic design differ more than the temples.
    There is also one more great thing about the 4 clones. They are hours closer than a larger and possibly more unique building would be. Based upon this, the Ogden temple should still be there and any major remodel should have gone to an even closer-to-my-home small temple. That is one of the hardest things that the building construction folks have to do, allocate the building funds appropriately around the world.

  27. J.A.T.
    August 22, 2011 at 10:54 pm

    There’s something awkward about the church’s relationship with Ogden. There always has been. The church has done about everything possible to erase the pioneer history of that community. Would it surprise many today to learn that Ogden was one of the very oldest LDS communities in UT? Provo kept the old Tabernacle (until it burned), Salt Lake has kept so many chapels and buildings. But Ogden’s old pioneer tabernacle was demolished decades ago, along with countless handcrafted pioneer artifacts and other chapels. I could tell stories about the Ogden Tabernacle’s midnight scrap-piles that would make you weep. Even the Ogden Temple, set in urban blight, was an homage to the future, not the past. While the KC/Rome temples at least give a hat tip to the old temples (Manti and Logan), the church has never wanted Ogden to dwell in nostalgia. Most of the pioneer buildings in Ogden have been bulldozed in favor of models A,B, or C. Such a tragedy. I lament the fact that the pivotal role Ogden saints played in the settlement and history of the church isn’t honored with more historical preservation and in reflective architecture. I’m not convinced the old Ogden Temple was successful in honoring them any more, except in individuality and innovation, two hallmarks of the people and industry of the city.

    I think we must remind the church leaders a great deal of Moses’s children of Israel. We’re really good complainers. The Ogden Temple has suffered nicknames like: The George Jettson Temple, the Thumb Tack, the U.F.O, the sandwich with a toothpick, Lightning striking a marshmallow, the spinning top, the ’60s mod temple, etc. Now that it’s gone, we realize that a unique and highly efficient example of excellence in sacred geometry and mid-century futurism is now gone. We’ve wiped out an important part of our artistic past, just as we did when we demolished the Ogden Pioneer Tabernacle. Once it’s gone, it’s gone. Once again, Ogden’s history is erased.

  28. Holly
    August 23, 2011 at 12:11 am

    I always sort of dug the Ogden temple, particularly after I saw it up close. but I came to respect it when I learned that it was supposed to be a stylized version of a cloud and a column of fire, that it was designed to be religiously symbolic in a way few things in Mormonism actually are. I was horrified by the news that the temple would be revamped, and was even more horrified when I saw the denuded building a few weeks ago while attending Sunstone. I think it’s a tremendous loss, for Ogden, for Utah, for Mormons, and for anyone who cares about either architectural history or history, period.

  29. Jacob F
    August 23, 2011 at 7:20 pm

    Fetzer’s principal charge in designing the Ogden/Provo temples was volume + efficiency. I imagine the FPR about him being shown the design by an angel may have morphed from his feeling inspired about the “six ordinance rooms surrounding the celestial room” design, which was very innovative and turbocharged the quantity of endowments that could be performed in one temple in one day.

    Realize, by the way, that Fetzer was tasked with this assignment during a time of austerity in church spending. That was behind the efficiency push, but also affected the type of materials that could be used, including on the exterior.

    The new McKay biography describes Fetzer revealing the exterior design to the FP/Q12: some were shocked, but McKay stated that he liked it. And so it was built as-is, office building (corporate?) windows and all.

    In summary, the innovation of the Provo/Ogden design was in the layout of the interior and the incorporation of a single spire, not in the inclusion of office building windows.

  30. J.A.T.
    August 24, 2011 at 10:04 am

    The efficiency of the Ogden/Provo design has proven indespensible to the Provo Temple, which holds some of the highest usage numbers of any temple, even since newer temples have opened in the area. (It carries the weight of the MTC, BYU, Provo and surrounding communities). Unfortunately, the Ogden Temple has a long history of very low traffic of any kind (not just marraiges).

  31. KTB
    August 24, 2011 at 1:48 pm

    Sorry in advance for the long comment.

    I lived in Ukraine for several years. When I first saw the rendering for the Kiev Temple I was very disappointed that it did not look at all Ukrainian. In spite of this, in my excitement for the Ukrainian saints, I set the rendering of the temple as the desktop background on my laptop. A few weeks later, I had to take the computer to have it fixed. The young technician in NYC immediately said “Is that a Mormon temple?” when he saw the screen. I was shocked and told him it was and asked him how he knew. He replied that he had watched a program on TV about the Salt Lake Temple and he said that it just reminded him what he had seen. I still didn’t (and after visiting, don’t) think the exterior of the Kiev Temple is Ukrainian, but I am glad that it is immediately recognizable as “Mormon,” at least to some people. That said, I still have very mixed feelings about the re-do of the Ogden Temple.

    Re: the comments about the Ogden Temple’s location in an urban area instead of on a hill: my father was assigned by his stake president to serve in his place on the committee of Ogden-area stake presidents that was involved in the planning of the temple. As best as I can remember the recollections my Dad passed on, this issue was specifically discussed and, although there were strong feelings both ways (some people thought the Masonic Temple had taken one of the best “temple” spots and had to be outdone), eventually it was intentionally decided to put the temple downtown so that it would be more accessible, including by public transportation. Having tried to attend several European temples (including Kiev) while traveling without a rental car, I wish this logic was applied more often.

    The other thing I remember my Dad saying about the committee meetings is that the stake presidents were not at all happy with the idea of the upper levels of the temple being rounded because they thought it unnecessarily added to the cost (which in those days was still borne in part by the local members), but I guess Bro. Fetzer’s aesthetics prevailed.

  32. J.A.T.
    August 25, 2011 at 6:04 pm

    Your post makes me think about geographic locations, natural temples, and sacred sites differently.

  33. Kruiser
    August 31, 2011 at 1:49 pm

    As long as Frank Lloyd Wright was mentioned, how about a “Falling Water” style temple for a future Pittsburgh, PA site. There are plenty of hills and water falls there?

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