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Mormon Temple Will Become Landmark in Golden Triangle

Talk about architectural diversity. The Golden Triangle--the dense, bustling area that developed rapidly during the 1980s--already has a suburban housing tract, acres of condos, two shopping malls, several of San Diego’s ugliest office towers and The Aventine, a wild postmodern hotel-office complex designed by controversial architect Michael Graves.

Now the area is getting a new conversation piece: a multi-spired Mormon temple, a kitschy piece of architecture that will resemble a giant white wedding cake. Scheduled for completion in late 1992 or early 1993, the 80,000-square-foot building is already provoking curious glances from motorists passing by on Interstate 5.

The giant concrete foundation of the $20-million-plus building has been rising just south of La Jolla Village Drive since February. It will become a temple that raises interesting questions about the role of architecture in modern society.

For all the care and expense the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is lavishing on the building, the temple will be more a cartoonish fantasy than a serious and fresh work of architecture. New York Times architecture critic Paul Goldberger once wrote that a Mormon temple in Maryland looked like a church designed for Buck Rogers. Unfortunately, that description fits here, too.

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Although there is nothing innovative about its design, which will resemble more than 40 other Mormon temples throughout the United States, its romantic, castle-like forms will undoubtedly please about 45,000 San Diego Mormons.

The concrete, steel and glass building will also mark one of the few times such a sizable project has served a spiritual purpose rather than a profit motive in contemporary San Diego. This is healthy in a city becoming overrun by speculative, profit-driven development.

In the race for symbolic dominance of the Golden Triangle, the temple will place religion neck-in-neck with commerce. In fact, its twin steeples will be exactly the same height as the 190-foot office tower at Graves’ nearby Aventine--taller, if you count a gold-leafed statue of the angel Moroni atop one steeple.

The San Diego temple will be the 46th Mormon temple in the United States and the third in California--others are in Los Angeles and Oakland. With spires rising out of square towers atop a blocky base, the design will be similar to other Mormon temples, although this one is actually something of a departure. San Diego architects Deems Lewis McKinley, who designed the temple, persuaded the church to forgo its stock temple plans and start from scratch. Design began shortly after the church acquired the site in 1984.

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Since the basic design was finalized in 1988, additional changes have been made to save money. The exterior of the structure will be coated with an acrylic material called EIFS instead of being sheathed in white marble, which will bring a savings of more than $1 million. A tiered fountain that would have spilled water into a large reflecting pond south of the temple has been eliminated.

The temple will be a haven for anonymity. You won’t be able to see into, or out of, the building, which will be used for religious rituals, or “ordinances,” unique to the Mormon church.

The temple will be screened from neighboring buildings by stands of eucalyptus. Visitors will enter the 8-acre site from the south, park in surface lots and walk into the building from the east.

Identical building halves, each anchored by towers at four corners, will be joined by a four-story base. Landscaped slopes will rise to meet the sides of the base. Tall, vertical, concrete fins will line exterior walls between panels of geometrically patterned leaded glass.

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The four floors will house offices, a baptistery, locker rooms for changing into religious garments, “sealing” rooms for ceremonies some Mormon couples undergo to symbolically seal their marriages for eternity and “ordinance” rooms for rituals and meetings. Mormon temples are used only for such weekday religious activities, not for Sunday services, which are offered at smaller neighborhood churches.

The spaces above the fourth floor and beneath the temple’s two massive towers will be left open, flooded with natural light from the building’s leaded glass walls. Under the west tower, a spiral staircase will ascend upward through the 112-foot-tall space, carrying visitors to the various floors.

Typically, the fantastic exteriors of Mormon temples are countered by conservative decor within. Regardless of appearances, this building will last a long time, if not for eternity. The architects were told to make it to last at least a millennium.

“Everything will change around it, and the temple will still be there,” marveled project architect Bill Magnusson of Deems Lewis McKinley, who, like other architects, is accustomed to “developer” quality construction used on speculative buildings.

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But why would the church spend more than $20 million (including a design fee of more than $1 million) for yet another knock-off of its basic ice cream towers-and-spires theme?

“It seems to me that the temples are more concerned with function than award winning architectural designs,” said Don LeFevre, director of media relations for the church in Salt Lake City. “My guess is they (church officials) would like them to be attractive and enhance the area in which they’re placed. But we’re not trying to make architectural statements.”

Obviously, though, the intentional selection of a site with such high freeway visibility, and a high-profile building to go on it, speak of a desire to reach the masses.

So why not opt for a truly great work of architecture that still meets all of the church’s functional needs?

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In Rancho Santa Fe, for example, the Catholic parish’s marvelous new church by architect Charles Moore cost just $3.4 million. Architect Philip Johnson’s all-glass Crystal Cathedral in Garden Grove evokes soaring emotions with contemporary imagery. And the Christian Science Church has a long history of hiring the best architects and letting them be creative, including a 1910 Bernard Maybeck-designed church in Berkeley.

Undoubtedly, the Mormons’ decision to go with familiar imagery--towers, spires, a statue of Moroni--is a deliberate attempt to provoke predictable, reverent responses, at least from many church members.

But a solid, inspired work of original architecture might evoke more genuine, wondrous emotions.

On the other hand, maybe the church is onto something. Maybe this temple will be exactly what people will need in a millennium or so.

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