Can a religious complex that doubles the size of the city of Angkor go unnoticed by the rest of the world? And what about a respectable Northern California winery hiding an elitist commune that doesn’t allow its followers to make jokes or sleep more than six hours? Along the history, the architecture has managed to cover all kinds of needs, including the most eccentric to please gurus with outbursts of greatness.
Religions and other spiritual cults – especially the most extreme and of course sects – often leave aside the vow of poverty when it comes to devising their temple, giving rise to architectural feats where size and monumentality are usually above all. . They can even plan an alien embassy on Earth if money is not a problem when it comes to financing. Or materialize a neo-Gothic church in the middle of Farr West (Utah, USA) full of pastel-colored rooms.
On rare occasions, beauty manages to impose itself on the vanity of its mentors and create prestigious monuments. The first temple of the Baha’i religion in South America is an example. Designed by a Canadian studio, it was awarded the prize for the best cultural building at the American Architecture Prize 2017.
1. Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, in Salt Lake City, Utah (USA)
In 2019, the Mormon church registered a total of 221 temples around the world (in Spain there is only one, in the Madrid neighborhood of Moratalaz); 15 of them will see the light soon and 41 announced their construction. All of them were built and will be built in the future like their embryo church in Salt Lake City. With an area of 23,000 m2, it is the temple of the LDS religion (Latter-day Saints) biggest in the world, whose orientation to the Holy Land reveals the original desire of its founder, Joseph Smith, to create a new Jerusalem in the United States called Zion.
The Mormon Vatican was built in 1893 on quartz and granite, sparing no ornamentation or space. Consecrated after four decades of construction, the works followed the guidelines of Brigham Young, Smith’s successor after his murder. The Westminster Abbey or the Tower of London are some of the neo-Gothic references that the architect transferred Truman O. Angell for its execution. At the highest point of the temple would be the hallmark of any Mormon temple: a golden statue of the angel Moroni. At over four meters high, it was sculpted by the Parisian artist Cyrus E. Dallin in Salem, Massachusetts.
A 4.6-meter-high wall surrounds the Mormon complex block, which contains in its 40 m2 the temple, the assembly and the tabernacle, recognizable by its dome shape, which houses the conference and concert rooms of its choir, one of the most prestigious in the world. The entrance to the temple is only allowed to the parishioners baptized in the church and holders of an official document that certifies it. The gardens, on the other hand, are open to the public and are one of the great attractions of the city.
Inside, the building includes seven main rooms with names that allude to the sacred texts of religion –including the Bible in its LDS edition–, along with the baptistery room and other smaller rooms, offices and halls. One of them hosts the meetings of the first presidency, the government that runs the Mormon church, which is currently chaired by Russell M. Nelson.
Garden Room. | Historic LSD Architecture
The original layout assigned the first floor to the Creation room and the Garden room, connected by a ramp. Its disposition is not accidental; it symbolizes the ascent from disorder to order, from injustice to righteousness, and for this reason the ceiling rises on two floors. In the past, one of its doors led to a small greenhouse with natural plants.
Each decorative element of this Eden breathes the rococo air of a late Victorian era: two separate pastel murals, the powdered upholstery of the seats, the cherry wood furniture and the noble balustrades. On the ceiling, large skylights and stained glass windows in which Adam and Eve are portrayed at the moment of being expelled from paradise.
Twisted by crystal chandeliers and white-tinted hallways, its natural wood was returned to it in the 1980s. In the lower corridors hang paintings from the end of the 19th century, signed by Dan Weggeland or Alfred Lambourne. The room that contains the baptismal font It is the great attraction of any building. Baptisms by immersion are performed in this vessel held by 12 molten steel oxen, a fundamental duty for Mormons who want to enter heaven.
Historic LSD Architecture
On the second floor, the bucolic scenes give way to more heated ones starring animal fights. In the heavenly room –A space for meringue and gold leaf– there is a small statue in the shape of a woman that has been the subject of various interpretations; from that of Jesus Christ with a female face to that of Aphrodite or the Virgin Mary herself.
Its ceiling rises to the top floor, which houses the offices, the Presidential Room with a balcony reminiscent of neoclassical theaters, and the Quorum where the 12 apostles meet each week. One of the doors of this Heavenly room leads to the Sealing room, in which the members who marry sign the marriage to eternity. In its origins, the LDS church allowed polygamy until its prohibition in 1890. Its founder, Josep Smith, grew to have between 30 and 40 women, including some under the age of 14.
Since 2019, the temple is undergoing a long renovation that will last five years and whose final result, as planned, can be seen in this video.
2. Bahaí Temple of South America (Santiago de Chile)
In 2003, the construction of the first temple of the Baha’i religion in South America began on the slopes of the Andes. A text from its founder Baha’ullah, in which “a dwelling made of light” is alluded to, was the starting point for the creation of this translucent construction, which receives natural light during the day and emits a soft and warm halo towards the outside at dusk. The Canadian studio Hariri Pontarini Architects –authors of urban plans for financial and residential districts in Toronto such as Bloor & Dundas or Commerce Court 3– took the reins of this peculiar project together with the Chilean capital that would take 13 years to see the light. Its mission is to create a House of Worship for Baha’i that will last more than four centuries on Earth.
With the premise of achieving an interaction between contradictions such as stillness and movement or intimacy and monumentality, the studio devised a solid structure capable of dissolving in light. Its shape emulates that of a blossoming bud, similar to the other seven temples of the Baha’i community scattered around the world. The most famous is located in New Delhi, it was built by the Iranian architect Fariborz Sahba in 1986 and is known as the Lotus temple.
DOUBLE SPACE PHOTOGRAPHY
Its formal structure complies with the precepts of Baha’i architecture: it must be round, have a dome and nine sides that represent each of the great religions of the world. In the Chilean case, the most striking feature is precisely the nonahedron ensemble formed by the monumental glass petals. United in the central oculus that forms in the dome, this intermittent façade seeks to make the light from the inside palpable from the outside. In the evening, according to the architectural study in its file, the lighting changes from white and silver to ocher and purple tones when reflected in its dome.
This concept is reinforced with a translucent marble cladding that it was transported from the Portuguese quarries of Estremoz. Dark leather and oak wood spread across the floor, stairs, and seats of the ceremonial hall. With a capacity for 600 visitors, the project was developed with digital technology that would allow the construction of a 30-meter-high steel superstructure. Formed by 18 students warped in this material, they seem to be the arteries that breathe life into the entire organism.
To fracture the marble pieces –870 in total– they resorted to the technique of compressed water jet cutting. The molten glass exterior cladding involved four years of research in collaboration with artisans at Jeff Goodman Studio. Awarded with the best cultural design award of 2017 by the American Architecture Prize, since its opening it has become one of the great architectural attractions of South America.
3. Dhammakaya Cetiya Temple, in Khlong Luang (Thailand)
Eight times the size of Vatican City, it is possibly the largest religious complex in the world. As grandiose as it is unknown in the West, the power struggles between its cult and the armies of the Thai government are some of the reasons that have overshadowed the magnitude of this micro-city north of Bangkok.
Founded in 1977 as a spiritual retreat center, this flamboyant temple complex is the international headquarters of the Dhammakaya movement, described as “the modern face of Thai Buddhism” and embroiled in many controversies over its unorthodox interpretation of this religion. From the spiritual – it has been accused of being materialistic and too ‘modern’ for its link to the most current technologies – even financial ones. To the leader of the movement, Luang By DhammajayoHe has been accused of embezzlement and money laundering. The most famous of his complaints, the deviation of 35 million euros from the donations that his faithful had made in exchange for assuring them the entrance to heaven, a controversy that led to the closure of the temple for several days in 2017.
As the controversy increased, so did his wealth and number of parishioners. In 1984, the expansion of the temple was managed to decongest the increasingly crowded ceremonies, which led to the World Dhammakaya Center. At an estimated cost of $ 10 billion by local newspapers, it houses the new meditation and ceremonial buildings, plus a school, a hospital, a dining room for 6,000 monks and the headquarters of its own television channel.
This 3.2 square kilometer complex, reminiscent of its titanic size as that of sports stadiums, would more than fulfill its objective: to accommodate the three million devotees who say they congregate in more than 30 countries. The 300,000 statues covered in gold and bronze from its vault make the Phra Mongkol Thepmuni memorial hall the main focus of attention. Its 108-meter-high flying saucer shape – adopted as the religion’s logo – hosts the Makha Bucha celebration, which takes place on the night of the full moon of the third lunar month to honor the teachings of the Buddha.
Its interior also spares no resources: 700,000 sculptures of the same god accumulate before the thousands of parishioners who, dressed in orange robes, gather every Sunday on their concrete platform. Although it is open to the general public, there is a section for restricted access leaders and monitored by security cameras 24 hours a day. During a raid by the Thai police, they stopped to see exercise and massage rooms, as well as golf carts to get around the complex.
4. Worship of luxury in Apollo and the Renaissance vineyards (California)
Swimming, smoking or joking prohibited. Dogs are also not allowed without pedigree, hair coloring or riding a bike. “We couldn’t say‘ hi ’-“ hello! ”- or‘ you know ’-“ you know? ”- and we had to keep our feet flat on the floor in front of the table when we had dinner.” One of the spokespersons of the commune, rooted in California since its creation in 1970, thus narrated the bizarre norms that the members of the religious cult known as Fellowship of Friends had to assume. The reason was none other than paying absolute attention to its leader, Robert Earl Burton. This former teacher defined himself as “an angel in the body of a man”, claimed that he was able to speak with Jesus Christ or Benjamin Franklin and emphasized education and beauty as the tools to achieve eternal peace.
Aerial view of the Apollo residence. | Google
A full-blown esthete who recruited intellectuals from all over the planet for his cult. “There who was not an artist was a poet, psychologist or sculptor,” said Gideon Beinstock, a former member of the commune. Until the arrival of the Armageddon that, according to Burton, would devastate the Earth and from which only the members of this cult would be saved, there was no reason to retreat to a life without beauty. Better to receive ‘enlightenment’ surrounded by wine, ballet, opera and works of art.
Its members did not perform rites on an inverted pentagram, but They bought Baccarat crystal and wore Gucci shoes. As the community grew, Burton decided to acquire a 500-hectare piece of land near Sierra Nevada, in northern California, which he would finance with 10% of the personal income that each member had to contribute upon arrival. This would be the beginning of Apollo, a spiritual center for “the care of the mind and body” where his disciples could establish bonds with each other. In exchange for letting go of their close circle, they would live in a sanctuary of knowledge made up of an open-air theater, a printing press, a concert hall, their own zoo and an art gallery.
The routine of the community, which reached 500 members in its prosperous eighties, passed between refined tasks such as playing an instrument in its orchestra, taking care of the French garden or poetry readings. The main building of the complex would be known as Goethe Academy and its design was inspired by Norman castles.
A row of Ionic columns guarded the entrance to a house-museum with an extensive cherry wood library, a massive dining room and various rooms in which the art pieces were accumulated. Guercino’s Bath of Venus and other works from the 17th century coexisted with Persian rugs, Sèvres marble and porcelain fireplaces. Among his entire collection, the highlight was a hundred furniture of the Ming dynasty that it would reach $ 11.2 million in an auction of the Christie’s house.
Interior of the Goethe Gallery. | KIM KOMENICH
In addition to having a school and a cemetery, the winery that they developed on 365 acres of their land stands out. Under the Renaissance label, they came to market their own wine, despite the few winemakers they had and it was not exactly fertile land. As the San Francisco Chronicle reports, as the Renaissance winery found its place in the competitive market in the area, the collapse of the community began. The accusations of sexual abuse of minors received by its leader, together with the tax evasion of two million dollars, caused a critical trend to emerge among its members.
The fact that Burton’s prophecies were not fulfilled – such as the fall of California to the ocean in 1998 or the nuclear holocaust in 2006 – was the trigger for many of them to leave the community and, with it, the care of their vineyards. Today Apollo represents a landscape in ruins, with the exception of a small wine community that tries to break through under the label of L.A. Wave.
5. Raelian Extraterrestrial Embassy (no location)
As in other extremist cults, this ‘ufo religion’ arose from an alleged vision. In the case of the French sports journalist and singer Claude Vorilhon, it was not an apparition of the virgin or the baby Jesus. The spiritual leader popularly known as Rael claims to have had encounters with aliens in 1973, who entrusted him with the mission of spreading the true secret of humanity. The message, in particular, would disrupt all the principles of Catholicism and science.
Scale model of the future alien descent Elohim. | rael.org
For Raelism, the human being was created in a laboratory of a parallel world and by a group of inhabitants known as elohim. These scientists were expelled from their planet, settling on ours 25,000 years ago to continue conceiving men and women through genetic engineering. These beings “wonderful and full of harmony” would end up leaving Earth and leaving us to our fate, when verifying that their creation were barbaric and unpleasant beings.
Wrapped in a white robe, with Celtic medallions and messianic airs, Rael assures that the Bible includes this episode, but a mistranslation in which elohim – in Hebrew, “those who came from heaven” – was confused with the mystical concept that would give place to the western entity of God, it would banish any alien doctrine.
The ideology of the Raelian movement goes beyond spreading its version of the origin of humanity. Self-proclaimed as an atheistic religion, its leader takes on that work that prophets like Jesus, Muhammad, Moses or Buddha failed to accomplish: guide us through the path of wisdom and prepare the ground for the return of our parents to Earth. What may seem like a vague prophecy, has its days numbered: in 2035 it will be the date of the meeting. To receive them as they deserve, Rael has devised a plan to build the first alien embassy on Earth.
Plans of the future Elohim embassy. | RAEL.ORG
Rael has stated on more than one occasion that “luxury is an engine for the progress of humanity”, and this is transferred to his architectural plans. The most widespread UFO religion in the world is preparing a futuristic design dwelling that will be financed with the tithes of its followers. The place of residence will be decided in 2027. In its development plan and for security reasons, it is specified that the Elohim Embassy will occupy a “neutral land”, whose airspace is not subject to military or radar-powered surveillance. Having a warm climate or diplomatic immunity are other requirements that the candidate country must have.
In functional terms, the embassy must cover a minimum of four square kilometers of surface. Will be surrounded by a park that will include a swimming pool and will provide privacy to the residence of aliens. The main building will have a maximum of two levels, a surrounding wall with two entrances and another block of vegetation. The entire construction will be developed on white concentric forms that allude to the crop circles, those circles that appear in the cultivation fields and that some theories consider the result of paranormal phenomena.
The roof of the residence will include a terrace with landing strip for a ship 12 meters in diameter. Inside it must include seven independent rooms with their own bathroom, as a hotel to receive visits. It will be complemented by a conference room and a dining room for 21 diners. If their plans are carried out, the first Extraterrestrial embassy on Earth will be ready in 2030. You can see a simulation of their result in this video.
6. The second Goetheanum from Dornach (Switzerland)
Can one be a rigorous scientist and lover of the occult sciences at the same time? The thinker Rudolf Steiner (1861-1925) banished this antithesis throughout his life. Physicist, biologist, mathematician, chemist and philosopher, he dedicated his career to consolidating a current of thought in which determining the essence of man was as vital as feeling hungry or thirsty. “Who am I?”, “Why am I in this world?”, “What is the meaning of my life?” These are the questions that evoked a work destined for self-knowledge and that would be the seed of the so-called Anthroposophy that he founded in 1912.
With more than 3,000 members from all over Europe in its early years, this spiritual movement would develop until the beginning of the Great War a multitude of artistic activities, the first Waldorf school and the foundations of biodynamic agriculture. With the latter, Steiner revolutionized the way of cultivation based on an ecological and sustainable method, linked in turn to unprecedented patterns to date such as the movements of the Moon and planets.
But the many facets of this 20th century Leonardo da Vinci do not end here. His extensive work not only covered poetry, painting, sculpture, or theater. Steiner also worked as an architect 17 times. Among others, he built the two world headquarters of the Anthroposophical Society baptized as Goetheanum, in honor of the German scholar who inspired his thinking and vision of the universe.
After the fateful end that brought the first building – it was devoured by a fire caused in the middle of a dispute with the Nazi party – Steiner launched his second home in 1923. This time, the initial wooden structure would give way to a solid foundation of concrete. The pioneering use of this material marked a milestone in architecture by allowing it to take on sinuous, large-scale forms. Steiner compared the Goetheanum with the shape that a shell exerts on its fruit, simulating the very metaphysics that governs life. The result is a great expressionist mass of stone and glass, which seems to connect with the mountainous landscape that surrounds it in Switzerland.
Steiner based his design on the breakthrough principles of a new architecture that eliminated the prevailing use of the right angle. Sometimes referred to as the father of organic architecture promoted by Frank Gehry or Herzog & de Meuron, color is a defining element of its interior. Between the undulating games of its corridors and cavernous stairs, the light passes through the colored glass and bounces off the watercolor murals of the vault, breaking down into shades of pink, green and violet.
The heart of the building is an auditorium for 1,000 people supported by columns and architraves like veins that spread blood throughout the temple. Several rehearsal rooms, classrooms and offices run with the same rhythm that governs its facade. In 2018 it opened its doors to Wallpaper magazine to use it as the setting for a fashion editorial.
Steiner was unable to see his work completed in 1928. The loss of the first building seriously affected his health and sparked a long illness that would end with his death three years before the work was completed. Branded as a scientist for using scientific methodology for occult and spiritual purposes, his legacy continues at the Superior School for the Science of the Spirit.
5. Community of Christ Temple in Independence, Missouri (USA)
Since 1994, a spiral lance breaks through the peaceful sky of Independence, a small Kansas City town. It crowns the headquarters of the Community of Christ, one of the divisions of the Mormon religion that emerged after the murder of Joseph Smith in 1844. With a thousand congregations spread across 59 countries and the base of operations in the state of Missouri, it is the second largest LDS denomination in the world.
Emerged as a restorationist church that defended a pure and primitive version of the Christian religion, over time it became involved in a more liberal current that rejects the plan of salvation of the apostolic church, allows the ordination of women in the priesthood and advocates for a broader range of believers.
Wallace B. Smith, the prophet-president of the Community of Christ until 1995 and great-grandson of Joseph Smith, had this temple built after a revelation. For the design he distanced himself from the Gothic iconography of the LDS. Gyo Obata, architect and co-founder of the Hellmuth studio, Obata + Kassabaum –authors of the Plaza Levi’s in San Francisco or the Salvador Dalí Museum in Florida– signed the winning project of the contest. “It was a young church that sought to have its own identity, free from other influences such as Gothic or Georgian. I had the opportunity to create something completely different for them. His work as an international ministry led me to the shape of a Nautilus shell ”, emphasizes the architect in the book Gyo Obata: Architect, Clients, Reflections (Images Publishing, 2010), which contains testimonies and reflections on his work.
The cone shape of its cusp was created in the workshops of A. Zahner, a company that sculpted the metallic skin so characteristic of the buildings of Frank Gehry. An engineering feat that involved 300 stainless steel panels to raise its 91 meters high, four years of work and a specific computer program to make its spiral design a reality.
COMMUNITY OF CHRIST
Outside, a brick-sculpted world map welcomes the temple. Above the arch of the main door, there is a bronze engraving representing the sacred forest where Joseph Smith had his first revelation. Next, a step path known as the Way of the Worshiper opens, leading to the ceremonial hall and whose protagonist is a 5,685-pipe organ by the Casavant Frères firm.
With a capacity for 1,600 people, it has a chapel adorned with paintings by Jack Garnier, a museum, offices and a Japanese garden for meditation. Unlike the Mormon Church, the Temple of Independence, listed as a National Historic Landmark, is open to the public and receives more than 60,000 visits a year.