Last month’s issue of Dwell, a shelter/design magazine, featured a cover story about a gorgeous modernist home in Salt Lake City’s Emigration Canyon (pictured below). I hadn’t heard much about modernism in Utah, so I was excited to see how the writer would frame the story and contextualize her account of the home. She took the easy way out, for the most part. Salt Lake is “a place not renowned for progressive architecture” (outside Berlin, New York, and Chicago, what is?), the temple’s “finial spires create an imposing presence” (for a modernist, that’s an insult, I think), and “the natural beauty offers considerable consolation for living in a place with a reputation for cultural homogeneity” (nice of her to see the bright side of an otherwise dismal existence).
But overall it’s an interesting article that provides some background on modernism in Salt Lake. (Seems that a disciple of Mies Van Der Rohe, John Sugden, taught at the University of Utah for 25 years and designed many residential and other buildings, including the U’s Merrill Engineering building.) It also led me to wonder how the average Mormon views modern architecture. Then in this month’s issue, the issue was teed up perfectly in the letter to the editor section:
As a native Utahan and a longtime admirer of the simple beauty and clean lines of modern architecture, I enjoyed your article highlighting the Jespersen residence. However, I was disappointed by your assumptions regarding Mormons. I am proud to be a so-called Mormon, especially one who embraces modern architecture. Next time I hope you can lay aside the sweeping generalizations and understand that not all Mormons are stuffy, uncreative people with a lack of appreciation for good style. Thanks again for a great article and an innovative magazine that even a Mormon can appreciate!
Salt Lake City
The author of the article responded, “In no way was I trying to make any correlation between the practice of Mormonism and propensity toward, or aversion to, modern design. . . .”
So I bring this question to all of you. Is there a Mormon propensity toward, or aversion to, modern design or architecture? If there is a real, even if unconscious, aversion, is this simply a reflection of the more general middle class American hesitation toward the aesthetics of modernism, or does it have a more-or-less Mormon source? I tend to think that caring about architecture (or, more precisely, acting on that care) is simply a luxury that most people cannot afford, but is there something more to it in this instance? And since when did “Utahn” become “Utahan”?