03 February 2009

Symmetry in Worship

Tabernacle in the wilderness

Endowment House - Salt Lake City

The physical facilities department of the Church exists, in part, to provide Church facilities that help bring souls unto Christ. How do our buildings do this? At face value, *any* building that provides shelter from the elements can help bring us to Christ. Joseph Smith's Red Brick Store, the Endowment House, the Israelite Tabernacle in the wilderness - no more than a tent - all provide examples of simple structures erected to provide ordinances and bring others to Christ. If these structures are sufficient, why do we need more?

LDS Chapel - Pacific

LDS Chapel - Pacific

At the other spectrum, our temples seek to be the best built, with the best materials, with not a vase or piece of artwork out of place. But many other buildings offer the same luxuries. There are buildings all over the world that use the best materials and craftsmanship. High-end homes, hotels, and retail are a few examples of buildings that often equal or exceed what we would call temple quality. So what is unique about our buildings that others could not provide for us? How do they stand out in a way others can't or don't? A common answer will be that our buildings are dedicated, through prayer, for a different purpose from other buildings. And they are. But the real answer to this question has to be something tangible – part of the building itself. In built form, how are they different? Our buildings can act as a tool to help increase faith and to teach the doctrines of the restored gospel. Similar to President Kimball’s call for the artistic representation of Mormonism, I feel that we have yet to truly represent ourselves in built form.

"We are proud of the artistic heritage that the Church has brought to us from its earliest beginnings, but the full story of Mormonism has never yet been written nor painted nor sculpted nor spoken. It remains for inspired hearts and talented fingers yet to reveal themselves. They must be faithful, inspired, active Church members to give life and feeling and true perspective to a subject so worthy.” “God expects Zion to become the praise and glory of the whole earth, so that kings hearing of her fame will come and gaze upon her glory…” (Spencer W Kimball)

He excluded buildings from his list, which may provide some insight into our current ‘function-heavy’ state of buildings in the Church. But the reality is our places of worship have the potential to provide arguably the best forum for sharing the story of who we are. Speaking of the Salt Lake Temple, President Hinckley said, "They [the architects] recognized that they were not simply constructing another building. They knew they were creating a temple of God." (source) Building practices and techniques are different now. For all intents and purposes, today we construct temples and chapels the same as other buildings. Temples are high-end commercial buildings and chapels are large residential buildings. Again I ask: how can we distinguish today a temple or chapel from another building?

Symmetry and asymmetry provide one potential answer.

Plan sketch of Cardston Alberta Temple by GMA with four reflective axes converging on the baptistery and Celestial room above

What is symmetry and why is it important? One definition is an attempt to achieve balance, proportionality, beauty or perfection. This reflects our desire for order and perfection in life. We see examples of symmetry all around us. There are many religious symbols of symmetry - a beehive, a cross, the star of David, a steeple, the sun, or a full moon. Reflective symmetry is the most easily recognizable form of symmetry and the most often used in LDS buildings. This involves utilizing at least one major axis and reflecting the objects to the other side of the axis. I have only found one LDS Temple (Manhattan New York) that did not use reflective symmetry in the design of the building; all the others do. Also, many LDS chapels use reflective symmetry.

Reflective symmetry in a building finds its literary equivalent in scriptural chiasmus. One of the best examples is found in Alma 36. Here Christ is the unchanging axis of reflection at the center of the scripture. Applying Alma 36 to our buildings forces us to ask - how is Christ at the center? How does He cause a transformation within? What does He change and how is that change reflected in the building? If incorporated into the design, this can be a powerful tool to infuse meaning into our spaces of worship. But real change is not possible under the rigor of reflective symmetry. If both sides of the coin are the same, the discussion is pretty much over. Reflection is symmetry for the masses - easily achievable and easily understood. It is also the most basic. We have to move beyond this to get to the real meaning of symmetry and what can make our buildings unique.

A broader and more engaging definition of symmetry is the transformation of an object with at least one property remaining constant. This opens the door to many new possibilities. Symmetry is never perfect - there are never all properties remaining constant - it wouldn't be a transformation then. Therefore, what is dis-similar becomes the most important part uniquely positioned as different. Looking at DaVinci’s Vitruvian man shows the ideal of perfection sought with a perfectly proportioned human body shown. What it fails to account for is the asymmetry of the internal organs, such as the heart - off center and only to one side of the body. This places the heart in a unique position, standing out from the rest, as to importance in sustaining life.

"Objects and phenomena around us show signs both of symmetry and its lack at the same time. In reality, a thing is symmetrical in one or more aspects. In other words, it conserves one or more of its properties under a particular transformation, (such as a reflection or a rotation), while it is asymmetrical in other aspects: that is, its other properties are not conserved. There is no perfect symmetry (when all properties are preserved) and no perfect asymmetry (when no single property is preserved)." (source)

So while Alma 36 is perfectly reflected internally, the position of the story in context of the Book of Mormon is not at the exact center, but slightly off center. Similarly the position of the heart in our body is not at the exact center, but slightly off center. Looking at several of our temples will provide similar examples. In the case of the Orlando and Helsinki temples, the baptistery is placed off axis. Located as an object within an otherwise symmetrical building, the baptistery becomes the lifeblood, or heart, of the building. The plan tells us the baptistery is more important than the other spaces. It is out of place and therefore set apart for a special purpose within the context of order, rigor, and sameness. Some transformation shifted it off axis. As the heart of the Temple, the baptism of our deceased ancestors provides life and salvation for us and for them. As Joseph Smith taught, "Those Saints who neglect it in behalf of their deceased relatives, do it at the peril of their own salvation." (TPJS, p. 193) In this way, even the Celestial room, by remaining on axis, is overlooked and blends in with the other symmetrical spaces.

Plan sketch of Orlando Temple by GMA showing baptistery as heart of building off both axes

Plan sketch of Helsinki Temple by GMA showing baptistery as heart of building off the axis

Applying this broader definition of symmetry to our spiritual lives places us as the object being transformed. A conversion is a spiritual symmetry, transforming from the 'natural' person to one born of God. This creates a perfect, new creation - beautiful and full of balance. A new person. Pulling important spaces off axis is one way our temples and places of worship assist us in this sometimes painful and wrenching transformation as we learn of God and participate in saving ordinances. In this way, perfect reflective symmetry is actually the opposite of conversion because if both sides of the reflection are the same, there is no change. The spiritual transformation we want of ourselves is not an exact replica of who we are, but a transformation that changes us into something better. This could be seen in the building as we symbolically progress through our mortal existence, as shown in the examples at Orlando and Helsinki. Other examples could involve a transformation through movement and progression.

Pablo Picasso. Nude on a Beach

Another type of symmetry was explored by the cubist painters and expands on the concept of a transformed object with a property remaining constant. The cubist painting seen above offers multiple viewpoints of the object while maintaining a fixed vanishing point. This allows us to see individual details of an object from different directions. Here we are seeing the woman from three vantage points at once. This type of symmetry is more than a simple balance in our lives. Holding the same end in a fixed state provides a symmetry of how God sees us - seeing all of a person at once - a true representation of who we really are, and what we have become. A place of worship could provide us a glimpse into such a world of how God sees us and how God views us as a complete person. Using this approach, one possible solution to a representation of heaven, would be to think of the Celestial room as the fixed vanishing point in a painting, similar to the example above. Gods' view of us is all-encompassing at once, therefore the Celestial room could provide multiple layered views of the individual progressing through life. Glimpses into the previous spaces traveled in the Temple would be provided, layered and juxtaposed to provide a complete timeline or picture of mortality, all from a single vantage point. We are then more easily able to recognize who we have become and where we have traveled, seeing our lives in an eternal context as God does.

This is an example of Symmetry in Worship.


Tyler said...

There's not much symmetry in the Anchorage, Monticello, or Colonia Juarez temples either, especially not in Anchorage and Monticello which have both had additions that create rather haphazard massing.

green mormon architect said...

That is an interesting point about additions, Tyler, that I hadn't thought about. Especially in regards to the smaller temples as they experience growth in their areas. For years, the Church has used a phaseable meetinghouse standard but I don't think that has ever been explored for Temples. It would interesting to see how many Temples had undergone expansions over the years. The ability to expand could be included in the original design of our Temples, so when that occurs, the building doesn't lose it's meaning.

Bryce Pendleton said...

I know that this was written more than six years ago, but do you have a diagrammatic sketch of the layered, vantage-point celestial room you described? I'm designing a modern temple for my master's thesis in architecture and I've given a lot of thought to this essay for quite some time.

Architecturally, I am left to wonder if the celestial room in the center (i.e. Cardston) acts as such a vantage point, since the plan view is essentially an infinite perspective from Heaven. I wonder if lowering the celestial room to the same level as the other rooms allows you to see the other rooms in progression.

Do you have anything thoughts? I'm extremely interested to have a visual representation of your idea.