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ARCHITECTURE : Mormon Temple Is Mute Symbol to a Meaningless, Endless Sprawl

July 11, 1991|AARON BETSKY | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES. Aaron Betsky teaches and writes about architecture

Los Angeles has grown up on a long tradition of biblical images: Since the 19th Century, it has been seen by many as the Promised Land, possessed of a climate and landscape reminiscent of the Middle East.

At the heart of this New Jerusalem stands a building that self-consciously proclaims itself to be the heir to the Temple of Solomon, a mysterious mass of concrete surmounted by a golden angel looking east toward the dawning of a new age.

A closer look at this towering structure, located on an axis with Overland Avenue just above Santa Monica Boulevard, reveals very little. Though the building vaguely resembles a church, there are no crosses, no naves, no church bells, no references to a traditional house of God. Most of all, there is no way into the structure. Its gray monotony is relieved only by tall, skinny sunscreens behind which nothing can be seen. The relentless symmetry of the building leads you automatically to a grand set of bronze doors facing a courtyard at the front, but you are not allowed in. This, it turns out, is a sacred place, the Los Angeles Temple of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

This center of Mormonism, one of 49 around the world, was constructed in 1956 from designs by Edward O. Anderson. Its almost 200,000 square feet of space are hidden away on a 25-acre hilltop site, into which there is only one entrance, off a side street to the east. The temple is basically a concrete box, much taller than it is wide or long, which gives rise to a 257-foot tower topped by a gilt "angel Moroni." Though it has a spire and some of the proportions of a Gothic cathedral, the temple in fact more resembles the Masonic lodges on which Joseph Smith based many of his rituals.

The temple is indeed not a church in the usual sense: Congregations meet elsewhere, and no regular church business is conducted here. It is a place for holy rituals and instruction, which take place in the myriad rooms that apparently fill the structure. The most important of these are the "sealing" ceremonies, by which not only husbands and wives, but also ancestors and children and parents are bound together for eternity. To enter the temple, even Mormons have to obtain special referrals and then don white robes.

What you and I non-Mormons are left with is one of the most striking monuments on the Westside of Los Angeles. Its abstraction and mystery is enhanced by its prominent placement atop the bluff, and by an architecture that is crisp, but enigmatic. Nothing hints at any of the functions inside.

Even the kinds of details that help you understand how buildings are made, like eaves, gutters or cornices, are left off, leaving the temple to soar up in its vestment of square concrete panels, shedding all of the complexity of Los Angeles as it looks toward a more perfect world.

Its relation to the city is like that of one of our other great places of worship, our shopping malls: closed, divorced, turned inward. But it is also more of a piece of urban sculpture than a building, a monolith that forces you to place yourself in reference to its own enigmatic designs. It is a mute monument for the meaningless, but endlessly allusive and mysterious sprawl of Los Angeles.

Aaron Betsky teaches and writes about architecture.

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