06 August 2009

Leura Chapel

The Leura chapel is located in the Blue Mountains of Australia in New South Wales, near Sydney. Designed in 1980 by Dale Swan from the firm of Ancher/Mortlock/Woolley and built in 1983, this is a striking departure from the Standard Plans program administered by Church Headquarters in Salt Lake City. I was very pleased to learn of its existence this week. The building has been published in two books, is featured on the architects’ website, and won a Merit Award from the Royal Australian Institute of Architects in 1984.

"Mormon Chapel
Design/Completion 1980/1983
Leura, New South Wales
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints
3,850 square metres
Load-bearing brickwork, steel roof frame
Painted brick, concrete, corrugated iron

The Mormon Church has traditionally chosen the design for each of its local chapels from a set of standardised designs. The chapel at Leura was one of the earliest breaks from this tradition, but was nevertheless required to incorporate the church’s familiar symbolism.

The result is a tower with a stylised and tapered finial and low spreading, white, domestic-scale roofs. The prominent hilltop site is typical of locations for traditional churches, so an effort was made to create a building that was recognisable as a church, while eschewing traditional church elements.

Light is the overall theme of the interior, and it is brought in from four sources to play on a volume of white surfaces. Primary sources are the close-mullioned window to the gallery and forecourt, and skylights at the ridge line. A large window recessed into the tower brings light along the surface of the end wall, behind the dais, to pass over the vault of the gallery. The most subtle light enters from a huge half-cylindrical reflector on the west side. Light is reflected up along the roof plane from an opening at the level of the pews, but as the roof extends to the centre of the cylinder, no direct view out is obtained. This cylinder also acts as a somewhat oversized roof gutter." (From ‘The Master Architect Series IV – Ken Woolley and Ancher Mortlock & Woolley,’ page 102-103.)

"NSW7 Church of Jesus Christ and The Latter Day Saints
Railway Parade, Leura
1983. Ancher Mortlock & Woolley
Public access available

The early 1980s saw a range of white architectural projects. This church by architect Ken Woolley incorporated symbols which are required by the Mormons in their churches, including the use of a tower and low-spreading, domestically-scaled roofs. The white colour in the church is also a requirement of the Church of Jesus Christ and the Latter Day Saints.

The serene interior space is lit with reflected light from semi-circular troughs at ground level. Light also enters through the ridge line where it is baffled by the tie beams. A large window, recessed into the tower which passes over the vault of the gallery, lights the speakers from the side and from above. The construction of the chapel was kept very simple to facilitate the use of volunteer labour to build the church." (From ‘The Architecture of East Australia’ by Bill MacMahon, page 122-123.)

The design incorporates simple, clean lines into the building. This allows for building costs that are in line with Standard Plan meetinghouses of similar size. The white exterior building materials and roof reflect the hot Australian sun away, helping to keep the building cool, providing energy savings, and a building that stands out in the neighborhood. The cultural hall opens up into the barrel-vaulted corridor and beyond into an open courtyard space for activities, directly linking the interior and exterior.

The font for the building is located at the entry lobby with step-down seating leading to the waters edge for viewing. The location of the font here is a sermon all by itself teaching the importance of baptism to the LDS Church. Baptisms are arguably the most important ordinance performed in our meetinghouses. And yet the space for baptism is in many cases unimportant with regard to its placement in the building. Putting the font behind closed doors hidden in a back classroom does little to promote our understanding of the importance of baptism. The font here exists in the most visible space of the building.

This type of approach to the building of sacred space is recognized by the community who have embraced the building, the members who use the building, and the design professionals who have awarded the building with deserving public recognition. The building also becomes a missionary face for the Church that clearly communicates the gospel principles of baptism, the light of Christ, the living water, renewal, and community. Repeating this chapel as part of the Standard Plan program would endear members to their buildings and be a place of joy for members of the community to rally around and support.

Unfortunately no building has been built in the past 25 years that resembles this, nor have any of the innovations or features discovered here by the architect been used elsewhere in LDS buildings. It is rumored that the presiding bishop, during a tour of the building said the Church would never again build a meetinghouse like this. And none ever have. This is the only recent LDS Meetinghouse I am aware of that has been published or honored with an award because of its beauty and architectural merit. If there are other recent modern LDS chapels out there that you are familiar with, that are of good report or praiseworthy, I would be interested to learn of them.

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Anonymous said...

Thanks for this post. I live nearby and have been curious about the origins of this striking building.

Donnell Allan said...

Beautiful. Thank you for sharing this.

Tod Robbins said...

Wow. This is really great. I'll check with my brother who served in Sydney to see if he ever visited the place.

Paul S. said...

It makes me a little jealous! The building my Ward meets in is not a standard plan. It was built in the 1970s, when the use of Church plans was not yet mandatory, since the Wards had to fund the majority of the building. The Ward hired their own architect, but he came up with something that's amazingly similar to the standard LDS plans of that decade, but is somehow far inferior. It's "nicer" in some regards, but doesn't function as well as the standard plans. It would be nice to see more buildings such as this one in Australia!

Unknown said...


Beautiful building.

Th. said...


(Sorry. That was me.)

FoxyJ said...

That really is a beautiful building. One thing I don't like about many 'standard plan' buildings is that there is little to no outdoor space. Along with that, little space for gathering together before or after meetings to socialize. Many of the older buildings I've seen (and also because I grew up in CA--plus many buildings I've gone to in HI) have lovely courtyards, outdoor walkways, or even bigger windows that integrate the outdoors with the indoors much better.

I think the font thing is cool too. I once attended a meeting at a building in southwest Washington DC that was converted from being a Baptist church. The font is on an elevated platform behind the stand in the chapel--I thought it was a pretty cool place for it.

BTW, I recently finished reading the most current David O.McKay biography and thought it was pretty interesting. You might want to pick it up and at least read the chapters on the building program and the international expansion of the church. I thought they were quite enlightening.

green mormon architect said...

Great comments. The font behind the pulpit reminds me of the description my dad gave of his baptism in South Florida while in the military. He mentioned something about a floor hatch opening up with the font being in the floor at the front of the chapel. I'll have to do some research and see if I can find anything on that.

dan said...

What a lovely building. The location of the font is a brilliant idea and must give the members there a unique sense of unity and belonging when they can walk past the font in which they were baptized as they attend meetings.

The story of the general authority ("we'll never build another like that") caught my attention because I just heard the same quote retold about an approved plan church, the Valley View Ward in Moreno Valley, California. The story I was told about the building is that the builder/contractor was a church member who brought in a substantial amount of higher quality building materials that he had left over from other projects. There are color glass windows in the chapel, beveled/leaded glass doors, ornate moldings, and a number of unique design motifs in wood throughout the building. The only thing that bothered me was the choice of some metallic cone-shaped light fixtures for the chapel that were some kind of Art Deco/Sci Fi hybrid. I think the chapel would have been built in the 1990s (the chapel has a line of paired speakers running along the center peak of the chapel ceiling, if that helps to date it).

Jared said...

i remember the baptismal font for the Strasbourg, France chapel is also located in a hatch in the floor. It is not located at the front of the chapel but close to the side entrance. I remember having a baptism there as a missionary. We turned down the lights in the chapel for a video presentation. We heard some little feet patter towards the door...splash...WAAAAAA! The hatch idea was great, but not too safe.

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Sarah said...

I just stumbled across your blog and was delighted to see the chapel in Leura featured. My father was the architect for the LDS church in Australia at the time and I know he received a bit of heat for the Leura chapel. He went on to work for the church for over 30 years as architect and Physical Facilities manager, in Europe, the US and Asia. He was also working in the middle east when the Abu Dhabi chapel was being built and was able to consult on the design of the chapel, based on what they had done in Hong Kong when the multi level chapel was built there. I'm very proud of the fact that my Dad's work is scattered across the world and its lovely to see someone else appreciate the beautiful architecture that can be found in LDS chapels, especially when they break outside the standard mould!

Unknown said...

I have the blessing to be the current Bishop in this beautiful chapel. I love the baptimial font situated outside the sacrament hall. I love the light which enters from all the windows. Every aspect has meaning. The light of Christ, the examples of Christ and his teachings - the chapel tries to portray this to those who enter is doors.
Our doors are open to all. All are invited to attend to see this building, to join us in sacrament each Sunday from 9am. We are a small congregation and love meeting new people.

Unknown said...

This may be of interest: local newspaper editorial about the chapel in Leura.