Thinking outside the Godbox

LDSConfCenterOne of Slate's greatest strengths, since its days under founding editor Michael Kinsley, is to match a topic with the ideal author. Slate comes close to perfection in asking Witold Rybczynski, professor of urbanism at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School, to evaluate the design of megachurches. Rybczynski's thoughts come in 10 extended captions to large, color-rich photos of Joel Osteen's Lakewood Church in Houston, Willow Creek Community Church (the godfather of most nondenominational megachurches) in the Chicago suburbs, the LDS Conference Center in Salt Lake City (pictured), the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels in Los Angeles and Robert Schuller's Crystal Cathedral in Garden Grove, Calif.

To his credit, Rybczynski begins by identifying megachurch as a putdown, and he challenges the label by including Our Lady of Angels on the list.

His point that Willow Creek does not look like a church has been around for a few decades now, at least among readers familiar with church-design debates, but these sentences are rewarding:

The 4,550-seat sanctuary -- it's actually called the Main Auditorium -- of Willow Creek . . . appears to have good sightlines, excellent audiovisual facilities, and comfortably wide aisles for moving around in. But inspiring it's not. It's the architectural equivalent of the three-piece business suit that most nondenominational pastors favor.

Rybczynski sees the LDS Conference Center as an example of "the influence megachurches have had on mainstream religions," which is strange. To be sure, the interior of the LDS Conference Center looks much like the interior of Willow Creek, but it's a conference center, not a church sanctuary set aside for weekly worship services.

The LDS parallel to Willow Creek is not a meeting hall that also functions as a community center, but any of the larger-than-life temples that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has constructed for decades. Those temples are open only to LDS members once they are dedicated, and (as I first heard from my friend Mark Kellner) some of their rooms feel like the lobbies of higher-end Marriott hotels. Outside, though, they are distinctive and unquestionably religious in style. (While churches such as Willow Creek omit steeples and crosses, you'll never find an LDS temple without a golden statue of the angel Moroni.)

Further, in a nation dominated by Protestants, Willow Creek is the mainstream while LDS would be countercultural -- unless mainstream becomes a synonym for "religions founded more than a century ago." (One exception that's gaining momentum: Some liberal Protestants now agree with the LDS idea of continuing revelation, especially when it reverses biblical revelations that they reject.)

These are quibbles, however, with a piece that should gladden the heart of anyone who appreciates clever writing about contemporary church design. Here is Rybczynski's withering critique of the cathedral in Los Angeles:

The bright interior of Our Lady of the Angels is a modern version of a traditional church. But the wooden ceiling is a poor substitute for a fan vault, just as the alabaster panels in the windows have none of the numinous quality of stained glass. The 100-foot-tall nave, which holds 2,600 people, feels squat rather than soaring. The artworks attached to the walls, presumably intended to humanize the architecture, feel makeshift, as if the large space were originally designed for some other function and had been converted into a sanctuary. This busy and confusing interior points to the peril of trying to "update" a traditional architectural idiom. It's as hopeless as translating Shakespeare into hip-hop.

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