Sacred architecture has always been designed to instruct. Stained glass was developed as way to convert windows into mosaics that told stories from the Bible to what was then a mostly-illiterate audience. The Romanesque and Gothic modes were both meant to glorify God; the Romanesque, following the basilica template, implied God as lawgiver (at least before an understanding of the template was lost), while the Gothic mode emphasized the connection of God to light. The difference between the lighting of a Romanesque and a Gothic sanctuary would have been striking to a pre-electric-era audience.
Similarly, modes of churchbuilding developed by Protestant dissidents used simplicity to instruct. A room whose only ornament is a cross will inherently be focused on it, and church then becomes instruction in the full scope of symbolic representation. Quaker meetings take this to its logical extreme, ditching even the cross in their pursuit of an internal understanding of God. The appearance of this mode was deliberate — a theological response to the Catholic and early Protestant use of ornate and complex architecture as a mirror of God’s glory.
The lessons of what any sect finds most important can be found in the way they construct their most sacred spaces. How do they use ornamentation, if any? Which stories do they choose to represent? Do they emphasize the concrete or the ethereal? The days are long gone (at least in the West) where god was simply an idol behind an altar.
This brings us to Mormon temples. After some seven years, the Philadelphia temple is complete, and is structurally unlike any other sacred space in the city. For, where the focal point of every sacred space constructed in the Abrahamic traditions for the past 1500 years or more is focused around the rite of assembly — the sanctuary, the most sacred part of a church, is always a place of assembly — the Mormon temple, their most sacred space, eschews this altogether. A blithe reading of a temple’s site plans would suggest it has everything except for the sanctuary in it.
This is why going on a tour of the temple is so important. (It’s also why the Mormons could stand to continue to run periodic tours of their temples even after dedication.) Mormon temples have no true focal point — instead, the way to read the temple is to walk the temple in the manner in which it is meant to be walked. The progression of the rooms reveals what they find truly important. To walk the temple is to be instructed.
The first thing you notice when you enter the temple is how unbelievably sumptuous the reception area is. The temple is replete with oil paintings (including an enormous naturalistic mural) and mirrors in lavish gold frames; the floors are in rich maple wood and marble and Chinese carpets; all throughout the interior is the most lavish plasterwork seen in this city in half a century. The Mormons clearly believe in complex, lavish style as a mirror unto God.
On the ground floor is the baptismal font they use to baptize dead ancestors into the faith, one of their more controversial practices. (This, they go to great lengths to stress, is a ‘gift’ that the dead can either accept or reject.) The next floor up is dedicated to changing and preparation rooms — Mormons only wear white once they pass this point.
On the third floor are the instruction rooms, perhaps the most masterful allusion to The Pilgrim’s Progress ever conceived. These are a pair of rooms, beginning with one dominated by a large mural of the land around the temple when untouched by human hands, and then leading into a second, somewhat more theatric room marked by the heavy use of gold trim. In front of both is what they call the “celestial room”, perhaps the closest thing to a traditional sanctuary a temple has — a room meant for reflection, and designed to symbolize heaven.
On the fourth floor are what they call “sealing rooms.” This is the highest most people will go in the temple, and these are the rooms where the Mormon marriage right is performed. Plush altars are found in these rooms — Mormons marry over the altar. For all intents and purposes, the sealing room is the temple’s climax.
In so doing, Mormons are telling us what they find most important. The temple symbolizes the process of growing up: baptism is, among other things, a representation of birth and rebirth; the instruction rooms (which culminate with the celestial room) the process of learning about the world about oneself and the role of God in that world; and the sealing rooms, placed at the very top, represent the rite that ends the growing-up phase and begins the one of rearing others, the single most important action in the Mormon world — marriage. (They believe that the rite is quite literally eternal, by the way — the closest parallel I am aware of is how Parvati is always incarnated as Vishnu’s wife whenever he descends to Earth in Hindu lore.)
Let us be clear here, too. Mormons believe that their temple (which is somewhat akin to a cathedral, in that there is only one for a large area) is a reflection of Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem. While it may be, it is but a reflection, and that, weakly so. Solomon’s Temple is an evolution on the Tabernacle, a structure whose design and materials are specified to an architectural plan’s level of detail in the Bible, and the structure was optimized to the worship rites of Hebrews 3000 years ago. But the functions of the Jewish Temple and a Mormon temple are wildly different — the former was mainly a place of sacrifice and exultation unto the Lord; the latter, one of indoctrination and of marriage. The reflection holds because, for both, the most sacred rites were performed at the temple — and that’s about it.
Strip away the theology and the controversies, and it is an uplifting message. It may or may not be the message that appeals to you — it doesn’t really appeal to me (no matter how cute that one usher was) — but it is worth reflecting that it is a message, and it is a message cleverly told and taught in the very way the temple is designed.