2016-06-30
SALT LAKE CITY, Utah -- From the uppermost seats in the new Conference Center for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the pulpit is more than a standard city block away. But as church President Gordon B. Hinckley inaugurated the facility in early April, his mellifluent voice sounded as if it were coming from the person next to you.

As far as anyone involved with the project can determine, the conference center, with its 21,000 seats, is the largest dedicated space for 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 feel intimate.

Designed by Robert Frasca of ZGF Partnership in Portland, Ore., along with the church's architects and a bevy of top national consultants, the conference center building covers the equivalent of nine city blocks.

Broken into a series of terraces and cubistic volumes and soon to be draped in a rooftop garden, the center looks more like the fractured walls of a canyon than it does a building. Inside, the 8-million-cubic-foot sanctuary is uninterrupted by a single column. But the curving contours surround 145 church leaders, a 350-member choir and the 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 of temple building." Under his leadership, the church has dedicated 1,400 Mormon meeting houses and 50 temples worldwide -- more than all his predecessors combined -- to stand, in his words, as "a witness to our conviction in immortality."

For the 66-year-old Frasca, who was here to see his handiwork at the conference's second session, it was another architectural mission accomplished -- at least, mostly. Despite more than three years of breakneck-paced designing and building and often redesigning, the center was ready as planned for the millennial conference but still just 70 percent complete. Nevertheless, Frasca appears well on his way to achieving what he considers the two most-important goals of any project: to "create at least one beautiful room" and to "give something back to the public realm."

But perhaps most significantly for those outside the church, Hinckley and Frasca have created worship space destined to be examined as the king of the new architectural genre of the megachurch.

If you haven't noticed, churches in America have been getting bigger, huge, in fact, particularly those built by American-born religions. Like the corner drugstore and downtown food mart, the country and neighborhood church, the inner city cathedral and their counterparts in the synagogue are being upstaged and outnumbered by the new Wal-Marts of religion, often mixing everything from aerobics to cooking classes in variants of Baptist and new born-again faiths.

Occasionally these churches aspire to the kind of architecture that has made cathedrals, synagogues and mosques some of the most powerful landmarks in the world. The Reformed Church of America of Orange County, for instance, commissioned Philip Johnson to design a 2,800-seat sanctuary that is a structural wonder of steel trusses and 12,000 panels of etched glass. But most of these church buildings, sometimes seating 10,000 worshippers (often in folding chairs), are built cheaply, quickly and almost always near freeway interchanges. Their unimposing, community-center-style architecture is part of the calculated lure to new members.

The new Mormon Conference Center, pegged by The Salt Lake Tribune to cost $270 million -- the church officially releases no figures -- however, will have what Hinckley a "boldness in harmony with the tremendous outreach of the church across the world."

Raised a Catholic, Frasca might seem an unlikely choice to design the new keystone of a church renowned for its internal management of every aspect of its empire. But having designed everything from the Oregon Convention Center to the California Science Center, Frasca's firm offered experience both deep and broad. And having hired and fired James Stewart Polshek, a New York architect known for his aggressive architectural aesthetic, the church opted for the far less stylistically driven Frasca.

"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 we needed a firm with a lot of urban design experience. After all, we were totally redesigning downtown Salt Lake."

This is a city that was not just settled by Mormons but was very much designed by them. In 1831 the religion's founder, Joseph Smith, sketched out plans for the ideal Mormon city: a one mile square divided into 10-acre blocks by four streets that are 132 feet wide and 21 streets that are 82.5 feet wide. Salt Lake is one of more than 500 American cities based on this plan -- except that its founder, Brigham Young, made the streets even wider.

The mammoth new conference center, occupying just one of Salt Lake's 600-foot-square blocks, therefore seems grown right from the soil. Though the church leaders entertained the idea of a 35,000-seat hall in an inflatable building, in the end, they settled on the comparatively modest-sized 21,000-seat hall, based, says Gray, on the "pure form of conference." In other words, it is a sanctuary made to order for the church's twice-annual congregation of its membership.

San Francisco-based theatrical designer S. Leonard Auerbach and world-renowned acoustician Christopher Jaffe designed the hall within "a geometry developed to command an audience." All of the sanctuary's seats fall within the peripheral vision of a single speaker at the pulpit. And spread across the orchestra level and two 600-foot balconies, each cantilevered by 95 feet, every seat has a clear sightline to the pulpit.

In essence, the sanctuary is the size of a sports arena finished to the grade of the very best theaters and symphony halls. It features 7,000 dimmable lighting circuits and a series of remote-controlled television cameras. The fan-shaped space, known as a "single-response hall," has a natural reverberation of 3.5 seconds -- perfect, Jaffe says, for both the spoken word and organ music. Three rings of speakers farther out in the hall allow it to be easily tuned electronically for the voices of the choir.

With its silent heating and ventilation system, numerous remote-control cameras, full TV and audio production facilities and systems for simultaneous translations in 60 languages, "This is the largest broadcast studio in the world," Auerbach said.

With the consultants delivering a state-of-the-art sanctuary, ZGF's job was to place it in a building with some architectural coherence. But if in scale and historic precedent the Conference Center is the Mormons' equivalent of the Byzantine-era Hagia Sophia, the Great Mosque of Edirne or St. Peter's Basilica, it has none of the architectural pretentions.

"He (Hinckley) wanted a building that was as comfortable as the old Tabernacle that didn't overwhelm the Mormon Temple," Frasca recalled. Inspired by the familylike way church members gathered in groups around the old Tabernacle before and after a conference, Frasca borrowed a concept from the French palace of Versailles: "I just made a bunch of rooms."

So, too, with the building's exterior. Visiting for the first time in 1996, Frasca stood at the site's uppermost corner and recalled an 1870 photograph of Salt Lake City when the town was little more than meadow.

"The building as a landscape," Frasca recalls saying to himself. "It was the first and only idea I had. Fortunately, they bought it."

If you try to see the conference center's agglomeration within a church architecture lineage from Roman to Byzantine to Gothic to Modern, it will remain fuzzy. But view it as the ultimate megachurch, housing and projecting one of the most powerful of American-born global religions, and it becomes much clearer.

"I know it's not breaking new ground in architecture," Frasca says. "And frankly, I couldn't care less. It's responding to a particular circumstance in a particular time."

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