Sunday, August 28, 2016

New Mormon Temple Pitched

“Tours” of the new Mormon Temple in Philadelphia are now being offered to the public free of charge until the official dedication in September.  Lasting about an hour, they are preceded by a 10 minute inspirational film that sets the mood for presentations to follow.

“Tour” isn’t exactly the proper term here.  Yes, we were guided through the new space while our hosts, different ones in each room, and others stationed in every stairwell and corridor, briefly explained what each part was used for.  The main thrust of their talk, however, was concerned with devotion, baptism, the afterlife, the joys of belonging to the Temple and personal anecdotes about their faith.  I’ll limit myself here to the building itself.

The overall impression is of an immaculate, pristine space in which nary a paint roller brush stroke, crooked line or imperfect miter appears,  All surfaces, be they granite or drywall, are perfect. Not a single seam wavers.  Switch plate covers are perfectly aligned. Banisters and railings are all perfectly joined and silken to the touch.  Everything sparkles from the enormous chandeliers to stained-glass windows.  Visitors are required to wear booties to preserve the mostly lily-white carpeting, marble and hardwood flooring.  While understandable given the large crowds passing through in devotion or curiosity, one has the feeling the perfection will endure long after the "tours" end and the real business begins.  There is no room here for imperfections.

That said, the structure has as much character as a convention hotel or mortuary.

Worst are the god awful paintings adorning nearly every wall and corridor.  Many look as if they’ve been acquired from the firms that supply motel chains.  Badly painted and generic, they seem to be after thoughts intended to break up the monotony of the endless perfection.  Reproduction furniture abounds.  The overall impression is of Neo-Bland, antiseptic and unexceptional.

The colors of the walls are almost all a variation on white or beige, soothing to the point of boredom. There are no grand halls though a few larger spaces have soaring ceilings.  There are, however, dozens of small rooms, like breakout conference rooms in any of a thousand corporate centers and hotels.  These, our guides tell us, are where most of the real work is done, behind closed doors.  There is no main sanctuary with its row after row of pews, altar or bema.

The exterior of the building makes no pretense of being modern.  Indeed, it is unabashedly retrograde without ever defining any particular style.  There are plenty of classical elements to go around, all the more to establish pedigree and tradition.  There are occasional elements suggesting the Baroque and some that even attempt to evoke the 18th Century colonial traditions of Philadelphia.  In other words, it is a pastiche pure and simple.  Having seen Mormon temples in several other cities throughout the United States I can say they vary more than your average McDonald's but all clearly adhere to a style book.

A baptismal font set on 12 bronzed oxen representing the twelve tribes of Israel is perhaps the most soothing room of all because unlike nearly every other space in the temple, one looks down, not up or across, into the cool, inviting water, which swirls softly in contrast to the stasis everywhere else.  This view is small consolation for an otherwise forgettable experience.