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If you’re driving on Interstate 5 north of Downtown San Diego near La Jolla, you can’t miss the gleaming white spires of the San Diego Mormon Temple. The design may evoke fairy-tale castles or science fiction movies, but it has a specific spiritual significance for Mormons.
Consecrated in 1993, the Temple building is open only to faithful
members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints who bear the
requisite credentials from their local clergy. Inside, they perform
weddings, baptisms, and various secretive “temple ordinances” that
include the initiation of members and the retroactive conversion of
deceased relatives for a proper afterlife— hence the Mormon obsession
with genealogy. But anyone is welcome to visit the Temple grounds and
see the architecture and gardens, for the price of listening to
friendly Church members eagerly tell you all about both the Temple and
The “science fiction” architecture of the Salk Institute for Biological Studies, also in La Jolla, directly supports the Institute’s mission to promote advanced science. After earning fame and fortune from developing the first polio vaccine, Dr. Jonas Salk decided to establish a center for biological research that would attract the world’s most eminent scientists. He commissioned the Modernist architect Louis Kahn to design the campus.
Salk and Kahn worked closely to realize their vision of an ideal research environment that would foster collaborative discoveries and inspire creativity. Inside, there are no walls or barriers between laboratories and offices. Large windows and shafts provide abundant natural light. (This was in 1960, well before the invention of the fluorescent-lit cubicle now universally recognized as the optimal environment for collaboration, creativity, and productivity.)
For the exterior, Salk challenged Kahn to design “a facility worthy of a visit by Picasso.” He responded with a symmetrical collection of concrete structures around a travertine courtyard bisected with a narrow straight channel of water flowing into a pool on the ocean side of the campus. He also chose materials intended to endure years of weathering with little maintenance. The 29 connected buildings have a stark unfinished look that contrasts with their setting on a bluff overlooking the ocean. The concrete was not sanded or painted after it set, so it keeps its natural appearance.
Both Salk and Kahn unquestionably succeeded in realizing their vision. The Institute is home to four Nobel laureates, not including two who are now deceased and five more who won their prizes after training there. It has earned top ratings in various fields, as measured by the number of published papers and citations to those papers— an important measure indeed in the “publish or perish” realm of Academia. The campus has received various architecture awards, including a listing in the National Register of Historic Places.
The geometric forms, textures, and details throughout the campus
make it an exciting place to photograph. But I wonder how a design that
was so strikingly “futuristic” in the 1960s will fare as the real
future catches up with it. To me, the campus suggests the set of a
Star Trek episode, or possibly a less-than-Utopian vision of the
far-off 21st century as portrayed in 1950s science fiction movies.
On a clear day, the view from 250 meters high on Mount Soledad encompasses nearly all of San Diego. When the weather isn’t so clear, the bird’s-eye view of the foggy “marine layer” can be very helpful in planing the day’s itinerary. The hill is home to San Diego’s television transmitters, and to a city park in which various Christian groups have built large crosses since 1913. An organization now called the Mount Soledad Memorial Association dedicated the current 9-meter-high white concrete cross on Easter Sunday in 1954. They have held annual Easter services there ever since. For faithful Christians, the first golden light of Son-Rise illuminating the cross on Easter morning must be an awe-inspiring sight. But in 1989 Phillip Paulson, a humanist Vietnam veteran, filed a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of this prominent religious symbol on public land. Thus began a tragicomic soap opera of litigation and political maneuvering that has continued for over two decades.
The City first tried selling a small plot of land under the cross to the Mount Soledad Memorial Association. Signs along the site perimeter still inform visitors that “the cross and the land within the circular sidewalk ahead ARE NOT CITY PROPERTY.” After courts rejected successive variations on that theme— some involving ballot measures— as improperly favoring a particular religion, the Association decided to build a veterans’ memorial around the cross. Starting in 1999, they added a flagpole and flag, new brick steps, and six granite walls with space for some 3,200 plaques to commemorate individual veterans. Veterans’ families could buy plaques or engraved bricks, with the proceeds helping to fund the Association’s defense of the cross. With the war memorial in place, the Association and the City could assert that the cross was no longer a religious display, but a generic marker to honor the dead in an entirely secular patriotic monument.
In 2004, all the parties to the lawsuit agreed on a settlement that would have moved the cross to the grounds of a nearby Presbyterian church whose elders had agreed to accept it. But the City Council blocked the move, at the insistence of several members who proclaimed both their Christian faith and their unyielding belief that the cross should remain where it is. The City Council finally removed itself from the dispute in 2006, by passing it on to the federal government. That August, President Bush signed a bill originated by a San Diego congressmen to seize the memorial site through eminent domain. The cross is now part of a national veterans’ memorial administered by the Navy. Phillip Paulson died two months after that “seizure,” but other plaintiffs are continuing the constitutional challenge against the Defense Department in federal court. And the Mount Soledad Memorial Association continues to sell plaques.
Taken by itself, the veterans’ memorial is a well-executed and aesthetically appropriate monument, in a genuinely inspiring location and setting. But it unfortunately cannot be untangled from the protracted and divisive politics that resulted in its creation, or from the cross. The centerpiece of the monument is undeniably a defining symbol of a particular faith: It represents the instrumentality by which the Christian Savior shed his blood to redeem humanity. As the core of a war memorial, it thus implicitly excludes the many non-Christian veterans who, alongside Christian brethren, shed their blood to defend the Constitution and American values that notably include pluralistic diversity and religious liberty.
The monument’s history also makes it a questionable way to honor
even Christian veterans. The Mount Soledad Memorial Association insists
that the cross was intended from the outset in 1954 as a tribute to
veterans of the then-recent Korean Conflict. But the site had no flag
or patriotic symbols, or anything that mentioned veterans or wars,
until a series of state and federal court rulings over ten years
consistently found it an unconstitutional religious display. Only then
were veterans conscripted once more to help the Association “save the cross.”