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Scaled up and divinely appointed: FLDS urbanism

June 18, 2009
The limestone-clad FLDS temple in Eldorado, Texas. Photograph by J.D. Doyle.

The limestone-clad FLDS temple at Yearning for Zion. Photograph by J.D. Doyle.

Museo has a stellar piece by Adam Marcus about the origins of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (FLDS) community in Eldorado, Texas, which was famously raided by the US federal government last year on suspicion of child sexual abuse. Marcus takes up the architectural and planning aspects of the sect’s from-scratch visionary city, Yearning for Zion.

Given the FLDS’s sense of divine appointment and defiant rejection of external (“gentile”) norms, it’s no surprise that a decidedly outsider architecture emerged.  Quoting Marcus,

The contrast of these buildings with their landscape is exacerbated by the odd choice to build with logs in an area of the state where there are no trees. Thus it seems that the FLDS’s intention is to invoke the mythologized American cabins of past settlers, and by extension, portray themselves as the quintessential American frontier society. In a remarkable, bizarre synthesis of formal convention (notions of what a house ought to look like) with the functional demands of a polygamist lifestyle, the typical FLDS house strives to project the idealized image of American domesticity, yet everything is scaled up in size as needed in order to accommodate the numerous sister-wives, as the brides are called, and scores of children who live inside.
A typical FLDS family home at Yearning for Zion. Photograph by

A typical FLDS family home at Yearning for Zion. Photograph by J.D. Doyle.

Marcus proceeds to read the gargantuan gleaming temple, clad in limestone quarried on the property, through its design echoes of Joseph Smith’s original Latter-Day Saints temple in Nauvoo, Illinois. By hearkening back to the pre-schismatic founding architecture, the FLDS implies not just a linkage to the original church, but a supersession. And then there are the divergences from that temple vocabulary: “The turrets are topped with crenellations that continue around the roofline, suggesting the profile of a castle or a fort, thereby producing an uncanny confusion of religious monumentality and the architecture of military defense,” Marcus writes. Essential reading.

This piece is also in the vein of one of the most challenging and rewarding books I have collaborated on, The Visionary State: A Journey Through California’s Spiritual Landscape by Erik Davis, with photographs by Michael Rauner.

A sort of secret history of the Golden State as told through the stories of the diversely religious and compelling individuals who founded and continue to inhabit it, The Visionary State is also a huge survey of eccentric, divinely inspired architecture. When the Spirit guides the architect’s hand the results usually vault well beyond the ordinary.

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