20 September 2008

The Wall at Temple Square

I just finished a very enjoyable first week of work at the Church Office Building. On Friday while walking around downtown during lunch, I came to the realization that the wall surrounding Temple Square should be removed. It reminds me of a freeway sound wall and feels just as oppressive if you're walking the city sidewalks on the "wall side" of the street. You can't see any of the Church buildings, there is nothing of interest to engage you, and with the large size of Salt Lake City blocks, I found myself never wanting to walk on that side of the street again.

The interesting thing is that Temple Square was originally conceived by Brigham Young to be 40 acres in size with the Temple at the Center (source). Instead it ended up being the size of a city block, which is 10 acres. Now, in 2008, when you look at the Conference Center, the new Church History Library, Relief Society Building, Church Office Building, Joseph Smith Memorial Building, Administration Building, Lion House, Beehive House, Family History Library, and Museum of Church History and Art - how are these buildings different than the Assembly Hall, the two Visitor Centers, or the Tabernacle? In reality, Temple Square as we know it is expanding and has been expanding for a long time. Brigham Young was right on with his 40-acre plan. When the new Church History Library is complete, the Church Headquarters complex will encompass almost exactly 40 acres of land spread over five city blocks.

Aerial image of Temple Square from Google Maps

Historic preservation concerns
Temple Square is surrounded by a high, granite wall that was built shortly after the block was designated for the building of the temple. It was built to protect machinery during construction of the Temple and was never intended to create a monastic enclave. And it is not the original wall that was built. "The surrounding wall became the first permanent structure on what has become known as Temple Square. It was begun in 1852 as a make-work project for the new arrivals and those on their way to the gold fields in California. It later served to protect the machinery used in the construction of buildings on the temple grounds. The wall is a uniform fifteen feet high but varies in appearance because of the southwest slope of the site. It was constructed of adobe brick with a protective sandstone cap and foundation. The bricks were plastered in order to shield them from the elements. With the passage of time, however, the wall had to be rebuilt because of the gradual deterioration of the original materials. Great care has gone into its reconstruction to retain its original appearance." (source) Even though it is no longer the original wall, in my opinion it would be nice to save a portion of the wall for historical purposes that visitors and tourist groups could view.

Site plan of Temple Square 1893

Security concerns
Instead of a wall keeping people out, the buildings could act as a walled boundary, with see-through gates remaining at the entrances. Regarding the entrances, to help make the large city blocks more walkable and pedestrian friendly, the City Creek Center is splitting up each city block into four smaller quadrant blocks. Essentially this is what Temple square block does as well, with the main entrances at the four midpoints of the block.

In a way, the wall within a city is an anti-urban statement. Historically, a large wall was the threshold that defined the city from the country as well as providing security from enemies. Anything outside of the wall was not part of the city. Even though not intended, a walled-off religious complex at the center of a city is telling the public that we don't want you in here - stay out. This message conflicts with the open spirit the missionaries on Temple Square invite people in. The Vatican currently has a 110 acre city surrounded by a wall in the center of Rome. For a comparison to Salt Lake, this would only make sense if the wall were reconfigured to surround the entire 40 acre complex rather than just a single city block.

Vatican map of walled city

The goal would be buildings that engage the street - for both pedestrians and vehicles; buildings that face outward rather than inward. The Visitor Center buildings can and should invite you into Temple Square. Open lines of sight should exist that allow the public to see the beauty of the grounds and instill a desire to enter. The adjacent City Creek Center will bring even more people in close proximity to Temple Square, and a wall is not the way to invite people to learn more about the Church.

Of the four walls surrounding Temple Square, only the East side has been opened up. It is now as much a gate as a wall. The new Main Street Plaza has helped this boundary of Temple Square erode away which is a good thing. On this Eastern wall we are opening ourselves up more to the world. We have nothing to hide, and we want the world to see that. Removing the rest of the wall around Temple Square would go a long way towards furthering our mission to share ourselves with the world. - especially since it is the most visited site in all of Utah and the center of activity for all the Church.

While it may have historical value since it has been up so long, I believe it is sending the wrong message and not engaging the public with who we are. It shuts out the idea of an active urban center, which is one of the goals of the Church with the new City Creek Center. The wall, or at least the buildings and visitor centers adjacent to the sidewalk are a great opportunity to share the gospel and the message of who we are at the street level with the city and with the public. Let's move out of the pioneer days, while retaining a portion of the wall to remember its existence, and knock down the wall surrounding Temple Square.


Michaela Stephens said...

It's possible that the wall is the boundary of the church's private property (if it is as I surmise private property) and removing the wall would be making it into a public space, meaning all kinds of demonstrators could gather there and be generally disruptive.
I have read that private property has to be maintained as such, otherwise if people get in the habit of accessing it whenever they want they create a precedent for themselves to have legal access. My terminology is probably all wrong, but that's as far as I recall.

Will said...

Interesting idea, but I'm not sure that I agree. Old-town centers in Europe feature public spaces surrounding massive houses of worship. Though I like these areas as nerve centers of European cities, the sacred structures in them do seem less than sacred. They seem to function more as beautiful monuments to moments in architectural history and as part of the city's history. That is, they function (at least to me) more as secular spaces than sacred ones.

There is nothing out of place about a bunch of kids getting drunk sitting on a fountain in the plaza of a cathedral. It's quite normal, actually, and part of the experience of the space. Again, I like this feel, but only because these spaces are excitingly secular to me as parts of historic cities.

There is something about the strong separation between the streets of the city and the grounds of Temple Square that strikes me as being quite appropriate to LDS sacred architecture and landscaping. It establishes the first level in a gradation of holiness that continues and increases through the reception area of the temple on through the various areas of the temple itself. It is open to all, but set apart.

I like the idea that, when one is on Temple Square, one is more on Temple Square than in Salt Lake City, if you follow me. One has crossed from secular space to sacred space. Creating this experience seems to be quite useful to the role Temple Square plays in missionary work. For me, it outweighs the image of openness removing the walls would create. It lets visitors feel that this is someplace else, separate from the hectic world.

Also, your comparison of the walls to a freeway sound wall does not necessarily argue against their appropriateness when you think of how Temple Square's walls actually shut out much of the noise of the traffic that surrounds it.

This, again, strengthens the sense of sacredness of the space. The wall acts not only as a liminal marker announcing the first step into sacred space, it also aesthetically reinforces the feeling of separatedness by both making the space quieter and shutting out the view of the secular world beyond.

I do see what you are saying about opening the space up to outsiders, but I think the demarcation of sacred space is valuable for visitors to Temple Square. I agree that the Church shouldn't give the impression that it wants to shut others out, but I do like the idea that it offers refuge from secular turmoil in the way that it is designed as a space.

Allen said...

I'm old enough (73) to have seen the downtown section of SLC change a lot. I'm glad, though, that the wall hasn't been removed. I've never thought of the wall as being there to keep people out. The wall does, though, keep the noise of the city out, making Temple Square a peaceful place to walk through or to stop and meditate about things of God. As with other things of architecture, it's all how we look at things.

green mormon architect said...

Good points Michaela, Will, and Allen. And thank you for your thoughtful comments. I just wanted to clarify a few points. My perspective from this post was from walking the city streets, and as such, the sidewalks adjacent to the walls felt very uninviting and foreboding. In the middle of a city and at the center of Mormonism, this does not make sense to me and seems unfortunate – maybe a lost opportunity. It forces the Visitor Centers to turn their backs to the city by facing inward. I am a huge fan of transitions and thresholds, but I don’t think a large wall is the only or best way to achieve this. Just as there are better options for freeways than harsh un-aesthetic sound walls, there are better options for providing a sound buffer and demarcation zone dividing the secular and temporal at Temple Square.

As I mentioned above, Temple Square now encompasses 40 acres and much of that, including the Conference Center, Main Street plaza east of the Temple, and the area between the Church Office Building and Administration Building are beautifully landscaped and just as reverent and sacred as what is contained within the walls. In fact, with the reflecting pool and views of the Temple from the east side, they may even be more preferred spaces than within the walls themselves. This separation of space and distinction between the sacred and profane is done in these instances without the use of a wall. And many of these spaces are open plazas to the public. I am new to the area, but as far as I know, there have been no real problems with vandals, etc. in these plazas.

I agree with Will that we should maintain the sacred distinction between our sacred sites and the outside world, but my hope is that the Church can also play a role within the city at the pedestrian level to aesthetically engage, invite, and draw people in as well.