Potential of Architecture

30 years of asking “How can this_______ be designed [better]?”

A devout Mormon architect finds answers, all the way to WWJD.

By Eric W Christensen, Architect

As published in Meridian Magazine, Fall 2010, and similar to as presented at the 2001 Art, Belief and Meaning Symposium at the Brigham Young University, Museum of Art.

Consider the vision of Joseph Smith as described by John Taylor, as referred to me by Truman Madsen:
“We believe that we shall rear splendid edifices, magnificent temples and beautiful cities that shall become the pride, praise and glory of the whole earth. We believe that this people will excel in literature, in science and the arts and in manufactures. In fact, there will be a concentration of wisdom, not only of the combined wisdom of the world as it now exists, but men will be inspired in regard to all these matters in a manner and to an extent that they never have been before. And we shall have eventually, when the Lord’s purposes are carried out, the most magnificent buildings, the most pleasant and beautiful gardens… This is part and parcel of our faith…” [1](Emphasis added)

This inspired visions tells us that architectural design (as well as other arts and sciences) can and will progress “in a manner and to an extent that they never have been before.” Imagine the inspiration and thought processes that will produce such buildings! If we truly hope to see Joseph Smith and John Taylor’s vision realized, we need to be open to all the design inspiration available by repeatedly asking “How can this be designed better”, perhaps even all the way to “WWJD”.


The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was restored through the young Joseph Smith, Jr. having faith in the promise of James that, “If any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God, who giveth to all men liberally…” [2] Indeed, the pattern of the glorious restoration was that the prophet Joseph, with his gregarious, vigorous, and compliant mind caught hold of a thought, intently contemplated its principles, went to the Lord to ask regarding it and was then given divine revelation. We believe these doctrines were not from the fertile mind of Joseph Smith, but of God. Joseph did become increasingly knowledgeable and wise but, as some might consider a paradox, this wisdom came through strict, joyful, voluntary adoption of thinking of things the way God would.

President Ezra Taft Benson said, “Men and women who turn their lives over to God will find out that he can make a lot more out of their lives than they can. He will deepen their joys, expand their vision, quicken their minds, strengthen their muscles, lift their spirits, multiply their blessings, increase their opportunities…” [3] A beloved Primary song says it eloquently, “I’m trying to be like Jesus, I’m following in his ways, I’m trying to love as he did, In all that I do and say… I try to remember the lessons he taught, Then the Holy Spirit enters into my thoughts…” [4] The scriptures are full of the admonition to receive and follow the will of God. “Look unto me in every thought.” [5] “…follow me and do the things which ye have seen me do.” [6]

In the Temple we learn that Adam was commended for not following the philosophy of Man… Rather, he was commended for his integrity to look for messengers (messages) from God. The Lord gave this warning, “Oh the vainness, and frailties, and the foolishness of men! When they are learned they think they are wise, and they hearken not unto the counsel of God, for they set it aside supposing they know of themselves, wherefore, their wisdom is foolishness… But to be learned is good if they hearken unto the counsels of God.” [7] The process of sanctification is to become more and more like God. Elder Bruce R. McConkie taught that true worship is emulation.[8] One of the most profound truths restored in the latter-days is the ultimate potential we “heavenly children” have to become one with Jesus and Heavenly Father as they are one. [9]

I accept the principle that we have the privilege and subsequent responsibility to seek and receive not only guidance from God, but to approach things as He would. The questions, “What should I do?” and “What would Jesus do?” become synonymous. This principle of Godly orientation is fundamental to a happy life.

This same principle has application to all facets of life, not just spiritual. Brigham Young said, “In the mind of God there is no such thing as dividing spiritual from temporal, or temporal from spiritual; for they are one in the Lord.” [10] Modern revelation defines this relationship: “Wherefore, verily I say unto you that all things unto me are spiritual, and not at any time have I given unto you a law which was temporal…” [11] President Young taught, “With God, and also with those who understand the principles of life and salvation, the Priesthood, the oracles of truth and the gifts and callings of God to the children of men, there is no difference in spiritual and temporal labors-all are one. “Our religion incorporates every act and word of man. No man should go to merchandising unless he does it in God; no man should go farming or any other business unless he does it in the Lord.” [12] “We do not allow ourselves to go into a field to plough without taking our religion with us; we do not go into an office, behind the counter to deal out goods, into a counting house with the books, or anywhere to attend to or transact any business without taking our religion with us.” [13]

I’ve been taught these concepts all my life. As a natural consequence of trying to practice these ideals in my life, they have affected my professional design thinking.  As an architect, the question always before me is, “How can this     [site, entry, sequence, roof, trim, finish, light, detail, etc.]     be designed [better]?”  The question is asked; answers bring a set of design ideas; then the question is asked of these initial schemes; which can then produce even better designs.  This process can be repeated again and again, until one of the designs is finally deemed good enough to be selected.  Architects throughout the world and throughout history have worked with this question in all phases and parts of every project. In architectural school we’re taught how to generate design options based on a myriad of factors: basic design principles, function, symbolism, nature, context, aesthetics, budget, psychology, logic, personal subjectivity, rational objectivity, traditional/historical or progressive references, common sense, arbitrary notions, fads, etc. As I’ve considered each of these rationales through the lens of the gospel’s illuminating truths, I believe the spirit has naturally/easily confirmed the valid ideas and/or truths and, alternatively, revealed those that are just philosophies of man.  I want to listen to this spiritual discernment as I generate and evaluate design solutions because, among other blessings, this brings the exciting and humbling possibility of raising this otherwise temporal activity to one with more divine substance… one approaching Joseph’s vision of a new paradigm of magnificent buildings and environments.

The philosophies of man have many marvelous answers, but the question, “How can this _____ be designed” can also be considered by applying higher levels of analysis, based on divine inspiration and the gospel’s eternal truths and values. Further consideration of this concept eventually reaches the synonymous, compelling, infamous question, “WWJD,” “How/What Would Jesus design.”

To support these theses, one may examine: A, The Lord’s specific directions about buildings in the past; B, How Jesus would not design; C, What and how He has designed; and, D, How we might apply the principles Jesus taught to design.


The Lord’s specific directions about buildings in the past include the revelation refining the command to build the Kirtland Temple. Just before giving the dimensions of the structure the Lord said, “Now here is wisdom, and the mind of the Lord-let the house be built not after the manner of the world, for I give not unto you that ye shall live after the manner of the world; Therefore, let it be built after the manner which I shall show unto three of you, whom ye shall appoint and ordain unto this power.” [14]

A couple of years later in 1844, there was another applicable incident in Nauvoo. Joseph Smith wrote, “Elder William Weeks (whom I had employed as architect of the Temple,) came in for instruction, I instructed him in relation to the circular windows designed to light the offices in the dead work of the arch between stories. (image at right) He said that round windows in the broad side of a building were a violation of all the known rules of architecture. And contended that they should be semicircular-that the building was too low for round windows. I told him I would have the circles, if he had to make the Temple ten feet higher than originally calculated; that one light at the center of each circular window would be sufficient to light the whole room; that when the whole building was thus illuminated, the effect would be remarkably grand. “I wish you to carry out my designs. I have seen in vision the splendid appearance of that building illuminated, and will have it built according to the pattern shown me.” [15]

The Lord appears to have deemed it enough to work within the 1800′s cultural norm/experience, since the Kirtland and Nauvoo Temples are in fact, variations of the traditional styles of the day albeit “tweaked” in ways as shown above by a prophet with at least a visionary appreciation for the untraditional possibilities. One might suppose that the saints, who “fly to pieces like glass as soon as anything comes that is contrary to their traditions…” [16] had plenty of other, more important issues and doctrines to get up to speed with than progressive/ “divine design”.

The Tabernacle and its “doubled” successor, the Temple of Solomon, (image at right) are also perhaps the definitive examples where the Lord was involved in building design. “And let them make me a sanctuary… According to all that I shew thee…” [17] “See, I have called by name Bezaleel… And I have filled him with the spirit of God, in wisdom, and in understanding, and in knowledge, and in all manner of workmanship, to devise cunning works (“OR artistic designs” per LDS bible footnote 4a).” [18]

Are not these buildings better for having divine input? Would not any building, or any venture for that matter, be better for having divine input? I’m not suggesting that Jesus should design our buildings for us then reveal them in full. The scriptural passages I started with do not suggest that we become non-thinking robots (such was Satan’s plan which God rejected at a horrific cost – a third part of his children), but rather, agents to our own selves, anxiously engaged in a good cause, joyfully choosing to and naturally thinking more and more like God. The instances sited above show that God worked through those people and their best abilities (their “two talents”) within their cultural, technical, and spiritual capacities. That is why some of the early saints were sent on “Art Missions” to Europe to study the architecture, which, back in Utah, resulted in wonderful buildings exhibiting a sometimes odd assortment, but always marvelously zealous smattering, of those European styles. They seemed to be guided by Brigham Young’s vision that, “Every accomplishment, every polished grace, every useful attainment in mathematics, music, in all science and art belong to the saints, and they… rapidly collect the intelligence that is bestowed upon the nations, for all this intelligence belongs to Zion.” [19]

Speaking of the many commonly told stories about how the Salt Lake Temple was built, the author of a paper in BYU Studies continued, “While many of these accounts intend to be faith promoting, hinting that God dictated minute details of design and infrastructure, many common stories are not factual. Indeed, the stories may detract from the appreciation Latter-day Saints should have for the hard labors of mind and body the temple builders endured. While those builders were inspired, God still expected them to do their home work, to study the challenges in their minds, and they did.” [20]

If you are willing to agree that the basic principle of the gospel “to become one with God and Christ” has application in physical/temporal aspects and, that answers to the question, “how might God design _______,” would lead to an infinitely better built environment, then a discussion of the following ideas can be considered.

As a preface to the question, “How would Jesus design something,” one might ask how he wouldn’t design.


As a perfect, all knowing being, the idea that the Lord would choose to solve architectural design opportunities with philosophies of men or “man’s styles” is illogical. Could He? Yes. Would He? For historic or theatrical applications… makes sense. However, otherwise, the thought of Jesus designing in the pagan gentile classical style, the later secular humanist renaissance, baroque, or gothic style of the spiritually dark ages, the minimalist international style, the recent variations of modernism or any other impressive worldly sophisticated styles/fashions/philosophies of man is like running the latest super computer with flint and steel.

Since we know that “whatsoever is good cometh from God”, [21] the “good” in the various styles of man certainly reveal the hand of God. But just as the philosophies of man can be “mingled with scripture”, the inspired parts of the world’s styles are limited and “mingled” with their secular culture, their technology, etc. Consider the different “levels” of inspiration possible as demonstrated in the following “designer’s” questions: How should I design this gothic building? How should I design this to please my predisposed client (the Pharaoh, the aristocrat, the CEO)? How should I design this knowing all the philosophies of man? What would be the best way to design this if I was open to all the inspiration and knowledge God is willing to send me? The principle of free agency limits God to inspire us only to the “level” requested.

Brigham Young valued tradition but explained its mortal constraints. “This law (the priesthood) has not always been upon the earth; and in its absence, other laws have been given to the children of men for their improvement, for their education, for their government, and to prove what they would do when left to control themselves; and what we now call tradition has grown out of these circumstances.” [22] It would follow then that since the priesthood is no longer absent, and although many of the traditions of man are wonderful, there is something altogether greater possible.

Although man’s philosophies, styles and fashions have many fundamental and vital lessons and yes, inspired truths to teach and put into the cognitive process, God’s ways and vision, including therefore his design expertise, are far above mans’ ways.


Honesty and historical respect are additional reasons not to mimic traditional styles. The styles of man came about through progression (or at least a continuum/evolution) of technology and culture. For example, the distinctive Tudor cross timbering came from post and beam wood construction and daub and wattle in-fill, the state of the art in northern European cultures in the 16th century. When we moderns nail 1 x 6 boards over modern steel or wood framed houses to evoke the Tudor style we are exhibiting a fake, shallow, cartoonish caricature (in an individual, this is called being hypocritical). It may also show a level of disrespect (however innocently) to the real historical artifacts and the people of its’ time.

The point is evident in the comparison of the Parthenon and the other buildings on the Acropolis in Athens to the Caesars Palace Hotel/Casino and its neon neighbors in Las Vegas. The Parthenon is considered the highest level of classical design. Its mature elements and subtle refinements have been the standard for every succeeding generation of neo-classicists. Gauged by the patronization of Caesars Palace, the latest neo-classical fans are us. Just as the Parthenon was the ancient Greek’s temple to their pagan god, is not Caesars Palace our latter-day culture’s temple, where one can buy anything in this world with money? In its recent renovations and additions, Caesars has been rigorous in its adherence to the grand classical style. Yet for all its’ studied design, no-one would or should ever consider it anything other than a stick-on gimmick, another example of adult Disneylandish thematics, slapped up to insipid praise. The comparison and contrast between these two works of architecture is profound… as is the less extreme but still “fashionable” way we “stick on” traditional, classical or other historical elements to our other, more politically correct buildings. The Las Vegas Strip is just an exaggeration of every other American city’s strip model of development. Consider the ramifications of Edwin Hubbell Chapin’s statement regarding fashions/styles, “Fashion is the science of appearances, and it inspires one with the desire to seem rather than to be.” [23]

As a member of a church that espouses the magnificent principle of progression/eternal progression, I’ve considered the progression, or journey, of architectural styles through the ages. If we stop spiritually progressing, we dam ourselves… we dam up our eternal progress. If architectural design stopped at, say, Mesopotamia… put the dam on architectural design then, we would never have had Classical, Gothic, Victorian or modern styles. Each style evolved from previous ones and/or affected subsequent ones. We espouse eternal progression so as not to miss the glorious eternal potential. It would logically follow that the same wisdom/attitude should excitedly also promote architectural progression to not only its’ carnal potential but with this paper’s Divine design thesis, its’ ultimate potential.

Disdain for copying historical styles is common among architectural professionals and in architectural schools,… yet the attraction for such surfacy traditional style is strong in our culture as well as our profit driven, opinion poll/fashion dependant developers, venture capitalist and consumer “stuff” providers. I always figured most people follow the same path I did; growing up loving “Tudor confections” but maturing after objectively considering the issues raised above, seeing and gaining respect for the real things, seeing the possibilities of progressive design and then having this objectivity train our subjectivity. I thought more people would similarly “mature”, but have wondered why it just isn’t so. Perhaps it is our cultural love of “thin things we get caught in the thick of”, or our escapism to nostalgia, or we are put off by the artistic elitism that is (or seems) often so arcane, perverse or problematic. Or perhaps it is just that substantive alternatives are not readily available to us common consumers.

In any case, while progressive design is way down the list of importance in the eternal scheme of things, the question still begs a thoughtful answer… How would Jesus design?

A trip I recently took through British Columbia included the heighted contrast between the powerful scenic beauty occasionally interrupted by man’s “improvements”. In every case, the car scale “strip” retail and other traditional developments were earnest, but in most cases, down right ugly free market appeals to the passing consumer. While freedom is vital and capitalism is powerful and productive, we noticed that the situation only intensified as we approached and entered the U.S. “The greatest acts of mighty men,” said Joseph Smith, “have been disastrous. Before them the earth was a paradise and behind them a desolate wilderness… The designs of God, on the other hand, [are that] …the earth shall yield its increase, resume its paradisean glory, and become as the garden of the Lord.” [24]


Is not the magnificence of nature the handiwork of God? Are there any who, in times of stress does not obtain refuge (even if only via momentary reflections) in the wilderness of mountain forests, colorful desert vistas or beautiful ocean shorelines?

If we want to design like Jesus, we should consider actually, literally, designing like Jesus… that is, seriously incorporating or meaningfully expressing God’s nature and/or its’ design lessons in our projects. (image at right) “After all, Joseph Smith declared, “We are trying to be the image of those who live in heaven; we are trying to pattern after them, to look like them, to walk and talk like them. To deal like them, and build up the kingdom of heaven as they have done.” Yes, but what is heaven really like? We know that too, according to Joseph F. Smith; for that we have only to look about us: “heaven was the prototype of this beautiful creation when it came from the hand of the Creator, and was pronounced ‘good.’” ” [25] The beauty and balance of nature is consistently inspiring as well as instructive, more so than any of man’s decorations. For a practical example, I have noticed that room decor, along with its’ paintings and photos (even of or by cherished loved ones or with personal meaning) become part of a background, rarely registering in the mind or, after a time, even looked at. Conversely, landscape or plants accessed via windows or atriums rarely fail to arouse ones senses. An architect friend once asserted his finding that people would respond to a bad building that was filled with plants as well or better than to an architecturally significant one.

Incorporating nature in projects brings an affinity to the human soul. Interestingly, in a project funded by the U.S. Department of Energy and Office of Building Technology, the Battelle Research Center studied data from specific buildings and found significant quantifiable results that support the concept of “biophilia,” the innate attraction to and preference for nature and natural processes. While citing the data and other similar published studies, the report explained “The project is testing the hypothesis that “green” buildings can have positive impacts on people if they incorporate natural processes and features that are analogous to preferred natural habitats. This hypothesis derives from a growing body of research, which strongly supports the widely held belief that nature is good for us. Until recently, this belief has had little scientific basis. However, a host of well-designed and sound studies have found that both passive and active interactions with the natural world can have profound implications for human health, cognitive functioning, psychological well being, and social behaviors. Surprisingly, however, the empirical and theoretical work on biophilia has had little impact on environmental design. In part this may be due to a sense that this isn’t “news.” Everyone knows that nature is appealing – that is why designers add flowers and trees to enhance the image and curb appeal of their buildings. Yet, many buildings, inside as well as outside, are not designed as if biophilia were an important design concept. Green amenities, if they exist at all, are often limited to high visibility spaces, such as lobbies, and do not extend throughout the building. Biophilia, in the sense we are using it in this study, has to do not only with the presence of green things in buildings, but also with the ways in which space is designed to take advantage of nature and natural processes. Biophilic features include viewscapes, daylight, sensory retreat, opportunities for active and passive contact with nature, sensory change and variability across time and space, and the incorporation of nature themes, archetypes, analogs, and materials in the designed environment.”[26]

Nibley suggests Brigham Young understood this Biophilic principle. “Where men cannot foresee the distant effects of their actions on the environment because of the vastly complicated interrelationships of the balance of nature, what rule of action shall they follow? Brigham was never in doubt: the one sure guide for him was the feeling for beauty; he knew with Plato that the good, the true, and the beautiful are the same; that what looks and feels and sounds and tastes good is to that degree sound, useful, and trustworthy: “You watch your own feelings when you hear delightful sounds… or when you see anything beautiful. Are those feelings productive of misery? No, they produce happiness, peace and joy.” We can trust such feelings, for “every flower, shrub, and tree to beautify, and to gratify the taste and smell, and every sensation that gives to man joy and felicity are for the Saints who receive them from the Most High.” [27] Our work is “to beautify the whole face of the earth, until it shall become like the Garden of Eden.” [28] The very object of our existence here is to handle the temporal elements of this world and subdue the earth, multiplying those organisms of plants and animals God has designed shall dwell upon it.” [29]

God’s design talents are evidenced in all sizes: in the Cosmic scale of the universe, galaxy and planetary organization; the regional scale in eco systems of mountain ranges, oceans, deserts, prairies or jungles; the microscopic scale of cell structure, microbial activity to even the molecular and atomic scale. God’s designs are as incalculable as they are beautiful. The plants and animals are as intriguing and revealing as the geologic or material world. These examples provide an infinite number of ideas from which to draw design concepts.

God’s creations, mentioned above, are often considered organic in character, but they are also often made up of geometric and mathematic truths not so much designed but designed with. Pure forms, including the circle, the square, the triangle and their variants, (image at right) are not philosophies of man but revelations of truth.

When one lets go of the relatively few philosophies of man, the innumerable possibilities of God’s nature, light and truths become “the new” standard or philosophy to work toward and in. “When that which is perfect (God’s possibilities) is come, then that which is in part (man’s limited philosophies) shall be done away. When I was a child, I spake… understood… and thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.” [30]

Such a vision is not a style or even radical, but an approach or an attitude. It is not liberal or conservative. To design like Jesus one uses the principles of design (truths of design) with as many of the senses (spiritual, intellectual and physical, etc.) turned on as possible. The more senses that are turned on, the more relationships will be made, and the more concerns will be addressed, etc. John Ruskin, the British writer said, “…the art is greatest which conveys… the greatest number of the greatest ideas…” [31] A thoughtful missionary companion related this idea to absolute truths when he spoke of what might be termed “absolute design.” “Is there a perfect … say, color,” he’d ask. I’d respond, “For what?”. “Exactly,” he suggested. It’s not relative. There is a perfect color. One would have to take into account the individuals involved as well as perhaps the context, culture, lighting, material availability, costs, life-cycle analysis, meaning, energy usage’s, waste potential, life safety, etc. It might take hundreds of levels of specificity, but there is one color that would be the perfect color for a specific application. The possibility that there is a best color… or the best design answer… is exciting to consider. Mortals are not able to go to that perfect level of analysis on each design issue, but we can go further than we do now, and in spiritually related categories.

I believe Jesus would use the principles of design because they are the fundamental/basic truths of all design, including design found in nature/God’s design. Principles such as:

Form: proportion, shape, form types, transformations, subtractive and additive forms, articulation, positive/negative spaces, etc.

Form and space: multi dimensions, planes, mass, verticality/horizontality, closure, light, view, space defining elements, etc.

Relationships: interlocking spaces, adjacent spaces, linked spaces, etc.

Organizations: centralized, linear, radial, clustered, grid, etc.

Principles: scale, axis, symmetry, balance, hierarchy, datum, rhythm, repetition, etc. [32]

Architecture has been called “frozen music”. The comparison between architecture and music might help those who appreciate and can objectively analyze quality music to appreciate the potential of architecture. The musical principles/truths of harmony, contrast, meter, etc, also have place in great architecture. Just as the recent addition of music and advanced cinematography have heightened the endowment presentation, so also could more meaningful architecture heighten temple and all other activities.

In addition to considering what Jesus wouldn’t design like, what and how he has designed and the truths and foundational principles God knows, uses and reveals to us, I believe that if we were to try to design like Jesus we would also take the principles he taught or exemplified and see how they might apply to design. There are many examples:


1. MODESTY Jesus showed modesty and restraint and asks us also to be frugal and modest. In design, ostentatious display of wealth or any other out of proportion element seems out of Divine character. Simple, understated designs might be more appropriate… crafted works that a humble carpenter might offer, for example.

2. EXCELLENCE Modesty, however, does not denote mediocrity. Jesus is the definition of excellence. Those who want to emulate Him would design to the best of their abilities, which, by continual faith and works will naturally lead to excellent results. The intent is not to do better than others, to get A’s while the majority gets the “average – C”, but rather, as Brigham Young said, “What are we here for? To learn to enjoy more, and to increase in knowledge and in experience.” [33] Nibley summarizes, “Learning is our proper calling… First and last, the gospel is learning unlimited.” [34] The great British architect, Sir Norman Foster, told me once, “What you’re interested in will show in your work.” The work by designers interested in continually learning the unlimited gospel will show ever-increasing excellence. Continual progress then would enable people to comprehend, incorporate and embrace more and more issues. Conversely, when the built environment exhibits the average or carnal interests so loved by the world, an opportunity for true (Godly) excellence is missed.

3. MEANING As Jesus is also the master of power and powerful messages, designs can also be powerful and meaningful in an infinite number of ways. There are many projects designed around the idea of the continuation of eternity. For example, an architect recently designed a home for a client that expressed the progress of life from childhood to “grandparenthood.” (photos at right) Walls stepped up and around/creating an entry courtyard, and then continued through the house to form the rear yard, ending at the client’s parent’s apartment door. The meaning was incorporated with the functional requirements of the building and site. Architecture can powerfully integrate meaning with everyday circulation. In effect, one can literally live (or work, play, worship, etc.) in art, surrounded by helpful meaning.

Meaning in architecture, just as in Jesus’ parables and teachings, can be simple or multi-layered. Such meaning and expression can be a strong organizational “parti” or an overlaid series of other higher prioritized factors. An article in the April 97 Ensign described the experience of an architecture student who was required to include in his masters thesis a design of a building that would demonstrate a word or phrase to describe the spirit of his church. Several suggestions were considered and the student eventually received, as an answer to prayer, the words “Light” and “Enlightenment”… from which he designed a building that integrated these ideas into the design. [35]

As another example of letting important meaning be the basis for design, in 1991, an architectural design was submitted (and subsequently appeared in the exhibition) to the Church’s 2nd International Art Competition/Exhibition, “Themes from the Scriptures”. (photo at right) The hypothetical design was for a temple using the same size and quantity of elements then required for temples. True to the requirements of the exhibition, the design was derived from the scripture in Isaiah, “In the last days… the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established in the tops of the mountains… and He will teach us of his ways and we will walk in His paths… let us walk in the light of the Lord.” [36] The design was derived from, contained layers of meaning of and expressive of images of “mountains”, “the path” (the path/plan of salvation) and “light”. As a purely personal and joyful hypothetical continuing exercise, as the architect participated in his regular personal temple worship over the subsequent years, answers regularly came to the questions of “how could “this” element (of the temple design) be more meaningful, more efficient, more responsive, etc..” This has naturally resulted in additional design variants.

Shortly after the initial exhibition, the same architect was encouraged by the head of design in the Church‘s Physical Facilities Department to show what meaning could be incorporated into the Church’s standard “Legacy” plan without increasing the cost or changing the footprint. The resulting design had elements such as the seating, the circulation, the building massing, entries, and even a tall pointed steeple of a skylight all giving simple reverence to the sacrament, the primary purpose of the building in the first place.

Architecture and planning certainly does not have to be religious in function to be incorporated with or derived from a substantive meaning. Many homes, schools, offices, retail, airports, municipal buildings and others abound with a meaningful conceptual base.

4. HONESTY Honesty in design can be manifest in architecture in several ways. As mentioned previously, just as Jesus asks us to be honest in all our dealings, we can create elements made out of things they appear to be made out of. The textures and feel of a real material can add to the design intent. Masonry connotes solidity and strength. Glass can bring light, airiness and openness. Wood can bring warmth and nature. Similarly, there is an honesty in using materials in natural ways. The great architect, Louis Kahn is famous for teaching this idea by asking the brick “what it wants to do.” As a material with its only significant strength in compression, it “wants to” span openings as an arch (in contrast to bearing on a steel beam). Therefore, the example concludes, the most honest, natural way to create openings in masonry is with arches.

An honest building is one whose outside relates to the inside (and visa-versa). Except when deception/surprise is the intent, it is extremely disappointing to come upon buildings whose exteriors strongly suggest a certain kind of interior, only to find something altogether different, unrelated or unsympathetic to its exterior. An example of this is a bank building seen recently in Arizona with a striking, faceted copper domed roof, which, upon inspection of its interior, had a ubiquitous 10′ high, 2′x 4′ suspended acoustical tile ceiling. Such works remind one that, “A double minded man is unstable in all his ways” [37]

5. DEBT In an unscientific survey I just conducted, asking people about the costs of housing and utilities, I found the following: For a household with a $50,000 gross income, the take-home income after taxes, social security, and health insurance comes to $36,000. A house mortgage of $120,000 at 8.25% interest rate results in monthly payments of $1100. Add on $200 per month in utilities (power, gas, water, sewer, etc.) results in $1,300 per month. This amounts to 43% of a family’s take home pay that goes to the house. If tithing is paid, the percentage goes to 50%. Over 30 years, the amount paid for the house is $468,000. This doesn’t take into account other “stuff” to furnish and equip the house.

How did we get into this predicament? It is quite different than former times when homes were hewn from the wilderness. Our American society has evolved to accept this as a cultural norm. But that is all it is – a cultural norm. People throughout the world live long happy lives with substantially less costly housing. Yes, that family cited above can buy a less expensive home in the first place, but what if there were ways to have as comfortable and functional a house for say, half as much? Think of the money that could instead be put in savings every month…, or the time spent, instead of working to afford the mortgage, playing with and teaching the kids.

What if there was a system where instead of the monthly payments going to a mortgage company, the monthly money would go to “pay as you go” increases in the size and/or quality of the home, incrementally as family changes warrant? Over the life of a mortgage, as demonstrated above, about 3 times the price of a house, in this case $348,000 could be saved. Could Jesus figure out a way to make the above (or better) scenarios work? Could we, with his inspiration, figure out a way to make the above (or better) scenarios work?

6. EFFICIENCY/ENVIRONMENTAL STEWARDSHIP Efficiency in design is likened to the efficiency evident in Godly organizations, nature and Jesus’ ability to say a lot in a small parable. The Latter-day pioneers, led by the always thrifty Brigham Young, were famous for their work ethic that made survival in the harsh frontier possible and eventually blossom. Theirs was the motto, “Use [fix] it up, wear it out, make it do or do without.” The twentieth century has brought a life style with increasing conveniences and advances unknown of in recorded history. In the latter portion of this century we have had a “deck chair shuffling on the Titanic mentality” that disregards the natural consequences of our actions… aided and abetted by our engineering/problem solving prowess, and the attitude that energy would be “too cheap to meter”. We in the industrialized nations have an economic system based on consumption, which has created an extraordinarily comfortable lifestyle for the past several decades.

We in the Baby Boom era of the Church have bought into the mindset and exhibit the same symptoms of “affluenza” as our gentile brothers. This love of “stuff” has consequences. God wants us to “handle the gold and silver of the whole earth without having a desire for it. Only as a means with which to gather Israel, redeem Zion, subdue and beautify the earth, and bring all things in readiness to live with God in heaven.” [38] “As long as we go on accumulating stuff in this life, we are playing the devil’s game.” [39]


Consider the words of Joseph Smith to the saints in Far West, (and compare them to today’s society) “Brethren, we are gathering to this beautiful land, to build up “Zion.” …But since I have been here I perceive the spirit of selfishness. Covetousness exists in the hearts of the Saints. …Here are those who begin to spread out buying up all the land they are able to… Now I want to tell you, that Zion cannot be built up in any such way… I see signs put out, Beer signs, speculative schemes are being introduced. This is the way of the world- Babylon indeed…” [40] Nibley points out that Joseph changed the “up and coming name of “Commerce” to “Nauvoo, the beautiful”, showing something of where he thought a city and its peoples priorities could be. [41]

Consider the effect of material consumption in the U.S. alone if we continue to consume at our current rate of an estimated 40 – 50 times as much as an average person in the third world. The U.S. population, 5 percent of the world total, uses about 30 percent of the energy.[42] Then consider also the words of Brigham Young, “It is not our privilege to waste the Lord’s substance.” [43] Why? For one parochial reason as pointed out so interestingly in the book, “Working Toward Zion” by James W. Lucas and Warner P. Woodworth, in a few short decades, if church growth rates continue, a mere 10% of the members of the church will be in North America and Europe. 90% of the membership of the church will live in a third world condition.[44] These people are our brothers and sisters, entitled to as much of our love and concern, and action (or more conscientious, efficient action) as one from across the street or across a couple of state (or stake) lines.

In a leadership meeting I attended featuring Elder Boyd K. Packer, a fellow asked about the “needs” of his special interest group. Elder Packer took sharp exception to such “needs” and was humblingly pointed in explaining that as he has ministered in less fortunate places around the world he has visited with people who were truly needy…, people who had little or nothing…, people whose only hope came from their humble, guileless faith. “It is not given that one man should posses that which is above another, wherefore the world lieth in sin.” [45] If we in latter-day America (it having fulfilled it’s primary purpose of providing an environment for the restoration, nurturing and raising of the church to world wide stature) haven’t been “spanked” for our diversions to our Divine mandates, to a degree we are rendered totally superfluous to the gospel’s mission, the very least we owe our third world brothers and sisters is more efficient, responsible consumption of the earth’s resources.

Even if we have substantive doubts about the assertions and the remedies of those who warn of man-made global environmental degradations, shouldn’t we be “conservative” in our approach? Nibley pointed out, “It behooves us as fortunate visitors in the King’s palace to behave circumspectly (conservatively), to look and admire, damage nothing, take nothing with us, and leave everything as nearly as possible as we found it. Restraint is the watchword in dealing with God’s earth.” [46]

What does this have to do with architecture and the built environment?

One of the principles of modern architecture was maximizing the efficiency of spaces. Wasted space caused by poor or average design also causes wasted materials, wasted opportunity, and wasted energy to condition the space, plus wasted effort that went into creating the wasted space, materials, opportunity and energy in the first place.

This applies to land use as well as buildings. Suburbia, the great American planning experiment has given a century of people a way of life. Those of us happily raised in suburbia, sometimes find it hard to recognize that in addition to its benefits, suburban land planning is not “perfection” and may have serious negative consequences. Based on the automotive revolution, this car based planning mode has contributed to the disintegration (some say, destruction) of real, people to people neighborhoods and place making. Modern suburbia uses huge tracts of land, sometimes the most productive, at huge material amounts per capita. (photo at right) Suburbia seems to be self perpetuating as these unnourishing neighborhoods age and “de-volve” and people (including most people in the north American Mormon culture) flee ever outward to newer incarnations of our societies developers latest “pot-shelf progress”. This of course causes the need for more cars to get around the sprawl on larger and more freeways, which continues the vicious circle of discontent, urban flight and disintegration.

An alternative that Jesus might validate as being based more on people than on cars is “traditional town planning/new urbanism.” (image at right) This model, traditional in that it is derived from a pedestrian, pre automotive based type of town planning, is experiencing a renaissance as people are recognizing the negative side of suburbanization and are looking for something more humane. In addition to the higher density, other issues of “new urbanism” include enhanced sidewalks and narrower streets, which would result in the resource efficient lay out of utilities, for example. These projects attempt to be more pedestrian oriented. Front porches would be an important feature that would overlook the streetscape and provide opportunities for people to embrace the neighborhood. The usual situation of garage doors creating the street edges would be diminished. There would be an increased emphasis on community parks and other community amenities. But an important point to make, one of the weaknesses of the new urbanist developments, thus far, is that the architecture has reverted to a hollow selection of traditional, “stick-on elements.” A better result, more rigorously and consistently substantive could be obtained if the developers also embraced the other worthy issues of energy utilization, the environment, and of course the spiritual framework here proposed.

Another alternative to suburbia is a more dramatic break. The architect Paolo Soleri still stands by the vision he first proposed a quarter century ago, manifest by “Arcosanti” outside Phoenix, Arizona. During the first Iraq war Soleri said, “Now we are again in the middle of a storm because of the environmental crisis. But today no one mentions that our energy problems are largely caused by suburban sprawl. No matter how well we do the wrong things, we aren’t going to solve the problem. We’ll simply cushion it.” [47] His solution is to build fantastic mega-structures, which combine residential, occupational, agricultural and other societal functions in a building or closely interconnected buildings. Utility systems, power, water waste, etc., would be generated, recycled and/or otherwise managed in a closed loop, on site, in ways benign to the environment. To those who recoil at the image of inhabiting such large buildings Soleri counters, “To turn to the issue of mega-structures: You know, I intend to build something that is physically a “mini,” not a “mega.” The city of Phoenix is truly a mega-structure; I suggest that something as sprawling as Phoenix could instead be made of mini-structures. If they happen to be more visible in the landscape because they’re tall and stratified, that doesn’t change the fact that they occupy only a fraction of the volume or consume a fraction of the energy used in Phoenix.” [48] Cities and buildings can and should be designed to minimize the energy required to service them.

Designing any building to minimize energy usage is very easily done. Many of the strategies cost nothing. For example, minimizing the east and west exposures while maximizing the north and south will decrease solar gain in the summer and increase solar gain in the winter (since in winter the sun is lower in the southern sky). Appropriate window size and placement, thermal mass, insulation, natural ventilation, earth integration, etc., will all yield dramatic energy savings at minimal, if any, additional capital cost. Strategies which will soon pay for their higher initial costs include installing higher performance glazing, solar hot water heating systems, day-lighting and various assortments of electronic sensors and equipment, to name just a few. These strategies should be basic to anyone involved in building that has a sincere desire to be efficient.

Energy sources created through renewable resources; solar, wind, hydro, etc., hold great promise of efficiency, independence, reliability and cleanliness. All these admirable attributes are found in Jesus and his thoughtful followers. The renewable energy sources are therefore worth consideration and application.

Buildings and communities can utilize these resources for all or part of their energy needs. For example, there are many buildings powered and heated entirely, or in large part, by the sun through photovoltaic systems and passive and active solar strategies. $0 monthly utility bills are certainly “of good report or praiseworthy.” Remarkable recent advances have been made in these technologies reducing the costs significantly.

The criticism of renewables has always been their higher cost compared to the cost of connecting on the utility grid and our nonrenewable energy consuming culture. While this is still the case in most instances, remote locations (sometimes only a couple hundred yards from a grid connection and its fee by the foot) can make the cost of renewable sources like PV less expensive in capital than the grid today as well as in long term life cycle costs.

7. “ETERNALITY”/SUSTAINABILITY God always has an eternal perspective. Jesus would design in such a way that resulting projects would not adversely affect future generations. This approach has been termed “sustainable development”. Since energy efficiency issues described previously affect the earth’s resources, pollution and cultural norms, it is certainly a primary concern to sustainable design. Another concern is the cradle to cradle characteristics of building materials. It is estimated that up to one third of the waste that goes into landfills is construction waste. Instead of thinking about the creation, use and eventual discarding of things, we should close the loop. Instead of discarding a worn out element, we can recycle the matter in the element to a new use… and start the cycle again. Brigham Young said, “Never let anything go to waste. Be prudent, save everything.” [49] Even sewage has its uses: “Everything, also, which will fertilize our gardens and our fields should be sedulously saved and wisely husbanded, that nothing may be lost which contains the elements of food and raiment for man and sustenance for beast.” [50] Obsolescence would be mitigated and planned obsolescence would be exposed as the evil fraud it is. Another aspect to consider in the measure of a material’s sustainability is its embodied energy, that is, the sum total energy it takes to create, transport and place a material in a building. For example, a steel column, with the energy required to mine, transport the raw materials, smelt, refine and form the steel, then transport and assemble, would have higher embodied energy than say, a wood post.

In addition to the enormous amount of unnecessary waste of building material, construction waste also comes from demolition of relatively short lived modern buildings created by our short term thinking culture. If longer life building design, materials and systems cannot be financially justified through longer perspective minded life cycle analysis, then at least building design, materials and systems that have benign waste potential can be used. Ideally both strategies could be employed.

Ancient systems such as adobe, rammed earth and earth integration can last a long time (consider the 300 year old Taos Pueblo), and when they do eventually disintegrate back to dust, no toxic substances remain. (photo at right) More people live in adobe houses than in all other building systems combined. In the United States alone, more than 500,000 live in adobe houses. Throughout history, “earth” has been the world’s most widely used construction material. “The use of mud in new construction has undergone a revolution lately. It has been used for everything from low-income HUD housing to multimillion-dollar mansions. In an energy-conscious age, it has become the ideal material for a passive solar house.” [51]

There are many exciting ways to make buildings more sustainable. Many require only common sense; others come from the Divine gift of innovation.

8. INNOVATION Innovation is considering all options, concerns and materials and synergistically creating solutions greater than the sum of the parts. Synergy is a Christian concept exemplified by hope, faith and works magnified through the divine grace and merits of Him who is mighty to save. We do not have all knowledge as God has, but He has shared with us the opportunity to experience the thought process that goes into creating. Design in architecture is the mental (and hopefully spiritual) activity of taking the factors and creating solutions…, “spiritually” first, in preparation to then being physically constructed. Innovation in architecture is going a step or two beyond, out into the darkness, addressing a couple more issues and solving them all with a new or “higher” perspective. It is looking at the question of how to design a house (or an office or factory, etc.) afresh, free from preconceptions, as if a house has never been seen before. Not “reinventing the wheel”, but the paradigm shift of “creating a better mousetrap.”

An innovative architect, William Bruder, took note that the client was an ironworker. Using the owner’s spare pipe and abilities, he designed a home that celebrated the roof structure as an expressive space frame, fabricated at a weekend building party at virtually only the cost of the refreshments. (image at right)

An other architect, the author, recognized that indoor planted areas are a desirable amenity, then designed a building, not with studs or bricks or even adobe, but with no walls at all… just earth berms pushed up when the site is graded. (image at right) Appearing to be an expensive feature, the colorful, fragrant plant covered berms also save on the cost of the building and will save in energy usage because of its thermal advantages.

Architectural innovation is possible with thoughtful uses of off the shelf items, regular items used in different ways or new items used in productive ways. The continually advancing sciences and technologies are suppliers of and resources for life enhancing, innovative design. The path of creative, lateral thinking is following the example of Joseph Smith in keeping the mind gregariously open to truth and expecting the infinite/innovative possibilities to be revealed as the search goes on.

9. THE ULTIMATE OBJECTIVE Above all other principles that we can apply to design is Heavenly Father’s ultimate objective, “To bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man.” Every design decision can be judged against this over-arching goal. Our built environment should enhance and respect a people’s context and especially, the individual. We could have buildings (and cities) that nurture, that reinforce learning and growth, that can adjust as we age, and that can change seasonally, or even from moment to moment, as might be appropriate to the spirit.


The images of architecture and other habitats designed by Jesus, and more applicably, by people striving to design how Jesus might, are exciting to imagine. Joseph Smith saw them in vision and was thrilled. Perhaps the cities and buildings would seem like they are extensions of nature…. like they grew there or belong there. (images at right) One could imagine building elements and streets laid out in ways to perhaps emphasize important ideas or spaces and de-emphasize un-substantive ideas or items. Many elements like entries or people spaces would be designed in conjunction with nature and geometry in powerful and functional ways. Such developments would be efficient so as to need only the energy created (without polluting by-products) on site with innovative technologies, made cost effective through the incorporation of natural heating and cooling strategies. Materials used would be cost-effective, often natural and finished in natural ways… ways that never give (or gave) toxic side effects. Developments would support local contexts and local resources in ways that honor, embrace and add to the local culture and economy, making opportunities for a high quality of life affordable and attainable worldwide. All the while, such projects could be meaningful in timeless ways, not the least of which would be an overall reflection of our God and his love and invitation to come to Him and adopt His ways.

Although the philosophies of man have answers, the question, “how should this ______be designed”, will be far more substantively answered by aspiring to design as Jesus would …open to all the inspiration available. Mormons often realize that the real solutions to the challenges faced by the world are found in the gospel. Is it not obvious that the same is true of our built environment? Such developments are not just millennial evolutions but include strategies, design ideas, technologies and opportunities that are available now, only requiring interested patrons to choose them instead of the customary philosophies of man. The real potential of “a peculiar peoples” architecture and built environment is a continuation of the “blossoming”, approaching greater, even divine heights.

Let us be like the Brother of Jared. When challenged by the Lord to come up with a solution to one of his habitat dilemmas, he didn’t just offer the common rock at his feet. Rather, after an exemplary (albeit unrecorded) inspired and thought filled design process, he went to the mountain and crafted “white and clear stones, even as transparent glass” – the most elegant proposal he could create, one he humbly hoped would be embraced by God.

Eric W Christensen, Architect


7009 Alamosa Way

Las Vegas, NV 89128


  1. John Taylor, April 6, 1863, Journal of Discourses, Volume 10, pg 147.
  2. James 1:5
  3. Ezra Taft Benson, “Jesus Christ—Gifts and Expectations,” Ensign, Dec. 1988, 2
  4. Janice Kapp Perry, “I’m Trying to Be Like Jesus,” Childrens Songbook, 2005, pg 78–79
  5. D & C 6:36
  6. 2 Ne 31:12
  7. 2 Nephi 9:28, 29
  8. Bruce R. McConkie, “The Ten Commandments of a Peculiar People, BYU Devotional, Jan. 28, 1975,
  9. John 17:3
  10. DBY, 13
  11. D&C 29:34
  12. DBY, 9
  13. DBY, 8
  14. D&C 95:13, 14
  15. HC, v.6, pp. 196,197
  16. TPJS, 331
  17. Ex 25:8, 9
  18. Ex 31:2-4
  19. JD, 10:224, 8:279
  20. Paul C. Richards, “The Salt Lake Temple Infrastructure: Studying It Out in Their Minds,” BYU Studies 36, No. 2 1996-97
  21. Alma 5:40
  22. DBY, 133
  23. Edwin Hubbel Chapin. BrainyQuote.com, Xplore Inc, 2010.
    http://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/quotes/e/edwinhubbe386856.html, accessed April 27, 2010.
  24. TPJS, 248-249)
  25. Hugh W. Nibley, Brigham Young and the Environment (Printed in Truman Madsen and Charles . Tate, eds., To the Glory of God: Mormon Essays on Great Issues – Environment, Commitment, Love, Peace, Youth, Man Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1972) with quotes from Brigham Young, JD 9:170 and JD 23:175 respectively
  26. Judith H. Heerwagen, “A Tale of Two Buildings: Biophilia and the Benefits of Green Design,” Battelle Research Center, Seattle, Washington, 1996
  27. Hugh W. Nibley, Brigham Young and the Environment, (Printed in Truman Madsen and Charles . Tate, eds., To the Glory of God: Mormon Essays on Great Issues – Environment, Commitment, Love, Peace, Youth, Man Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1972) with quotes from Brigham Young, JD 12:314 and JD 9:244 respectively
  28. JD 1:254
  29. JD 9:168
  30. 1 Corinthians 13:10, 11
  31. John Ruskin, Modern Painters, 1856
  32. Frances D. K Ching, Architecture: Form, Space and Order, VanNostrand Reinhold Co., 1979
  33. JD 14:228
  34. Hugh W. Nibley, Educating the Saints, Nibley on the Timely and the Timeless, Religious Studies Center, BYU, 1978
  35. Keith W. Wilcox, “My Quest in Finding Light and Enlightenment,” Ensign, Apr. 1997, 49
  36. Isaiah 2:2,3,5
  37. James 1:4
  38. JD 3:160
  39. Hugh W. Nibley, “Brigham Young on the Environment,” Printed in Truman Madsen and Charles . Tate, eds., To the Glory of God: Mormon Essays on Great Issues – Environment, Commitment, Love, Peace, Youth, Man Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1972
  40. Edward Stevenson, Life and History of Elder Edward Stevenson (n.d.), 40-41; cf. J. Grant Stevenson in “The Life of Edward Stevenson,” master’s thesis, BYU, 1955, 43.
  41. Hugh W. Nibley, “Brigham Young on the Environment,” Printed in Truman Madsen and Charles . Tate, eds., To the Glory of God: Mormon Essays on Great Issues – Environment, Commitment, Love, Peace, Youth, Man Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1972
  42. Bill McKibben, Maybe One, New York: Simon Schuster, 1998
  43. JD 11:136
  44. James W. Lucas, Warner P. Woodworth, Working Toward Zion, Aspen Books, Salt Lake City, UT, 1996
  45. D & C 49:20
  46. Hugh W. Nibley, “Brigham Young on the Environment,” Printed in Truman Madsen and Charles . Tate, eds., To the Glory of God: Mormon Essays on Great Issues – Environment, Commitment, Love, Peace, Youth, Man Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1972
  47. “Paolo Soleri’s Archology: Updating the Prognosis,” Progressive Architecture, March 1991
  48. ibid
  49. JD 1:250
  50. JD 11:130
  51. Douglas Preston, “Building With Mud Signifies Success in the Southwest,” Smithsonian Magazine, Nov. 1989