As far as anyone involved with the project can determine, theconference center, with its 21,000 seats, is the largest dedicated spacefor worship in the world. But like the state-of-the-art sound system,the rest of the building has been engineered to make the huge feelintimate.
Designed by Robert Frasca of ZGF Partnership in Portland, Ore.,along with the church's architects and a bevy of top nationalconsultants, the conference center building covers the equivalent ofnine city blocks.
Broken into a series of terraces and cubistic volumes and soon to bedraped in a rooftop garden, the center looks more like the fracturedwalls of a canyon than it does a building. Inside, the8-million-cubic-foot sanctuary is uninterrupted by a single column. Butthe curving contours surround 145 church leaders, a 350-member choir andthe assembled thousands with the warmth of a family living room.
For the 89-year-old Hinckley, who has led the church as since 1995,the conference center marks the high solstice of "a glorious season oftemple building." Under his leadership, the church has dedicated 1,400Mormon meeting houses and 50 temples worldwide -- more than all hispredecessors combined -- to stand, in his words, as "a witness to ourconviction in immortality."
For the 66-year-old Frasca, who was here to see his handiwork at theconference's second session, it was another architectural missionaccomplished -- at least, mostly. Despite more than three years ofbreakneck-paced designing and building and often redesigning, the centerwas ready as planned for the millennial conference but still just 70percent complete. Nevertheless, Frasca appears well on his way toachieving what he considers the two most-important goals of any project:to "create at least one beautiful room" and to "give something back tothe public realm."
But perhaps most significantly for those outside the church,Hinckley and Frasca have created worship space destined to be examinedas the king of the new architectural genre of the megachurch.
If you haven't noticed, churches in America have been gettingbigger, huge, in fact, particularly those built by American-bornreligions. Like the corner drugstore and downtown food mart, the countryand neighborhood church, the inner city cathedral and their counterpartsin the synagogue are being upstaged and outnumbered by the new Wal-Martsof religion, often mixing everything from aerobics to cooking classes invariants of Baptist and new born-again faiths.
Occasionally these churches aspire to the kind of architecture thathas made cathedrals, synagogues and mosques some of the most powerfullandmarks in the world. The Reformed Church of America of Orange County,for instance, commissioned Philip Johnson to design a 2,800-seatsanctuary that is a structural wonder of steel trusses and 12,000 panelsof etched glass. But most of these church buildings, sometimes seating10,000 worshippers (often in folding chairs), are built cheaply, quicklyand almost always near freeway interchanges. Their unimposing,community-center-style architecture is part of the calculated lure tonew members.
The new Mormon Conference Center, pegged by The Salt Lake Tribune tocost $270 million -- the church officially releases no figures --however, will have what Hinckley a "boldness in harmony with thetremendous outreach of the church across the world."
"My job was to make sure it was a Mormon building," said Leland A.Gray, the church's senior design architect who hired Frasca. "And weneeded a firm with a lot of urban design experience. After all, we weretotally redesigning downtown Salt Lake."
This is a city that was not just settled by Mormons but was verymuch designed by them. In 1831 the religion's founder, Joseph Smith,sketched out plans for the ideal Mormon city: a one mile square dividedinto 10-acre blocks by four streets that are 132 feet wide and 21streets that are 82.5 feet wide. Salt Lake is one of more than 500American cities based on this plan -- except that its founder, BrighamYoung, made the streets even wider.