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Friday, December 2, 2011
ICON MAGAZINE, December 2011; THE LAST WORD--Philadelphia Mormon Temple, Occupy Philadelphia, "Devised" Theater Work; Drugs and Rehab
THE LAST WORD
By Thom Nickels
Philadelphia’s Mormon Temple
When it comes to church or temple architecture, Mormons have it all over Catholics and mega-church Protestants, whose modern churches frequently overemphasize cold, hard lines and utility.
The proposed Mormon temple at 18th and Vine Streets near the Philadelphia Parkway won’t be a utilitarian warehouse. The design is one of many temple designs currently in use throughout the Mormon world. The Philadelphia temple will be the Church’s 77th and it will have two spires, one hosting an image of the Angel Moroni, the angel whom, according to Mormon belief, appeared to Mormon founder Joseph Smith in Palmyra, New York, sometime after Smith asked God which church he should join.
The angel directed Smith to dig in a certain spot where he would find golden plates containing a new scripture. The translated plates became the Book of Mormon, also the name of the current Broadway hit.
The Philadelphia temple spires will reach over 200 feet in height, providing an impressive point of reference in a sky-scape filled with crosses and steeples. The 68,000 square foot building will house a visitors’ center, a family history center, a financial service office for LDS communicants and an employment services office. Renderings of the proposed structure show an eclectic mix of Greek classicism and federalist 18th and 19th century styles, the antithesis of the work of current architectural legends Frank Gehry and Zaha Hadid.
The Philadelphia design is one of the more basic temple templates, chosen from a wide range of styles in use throughout the world. The two spire temple is in fact one of the more recognizable Mormon temple styles and will blend harmoniously with the Parkway’s neoclassical structures.
Other Mormon Temple styles, such as the so called Bountiful, Front Tier, Native American Grecian or even the ultra-Disneyland-conjuring six spire temple in San Diego, have become impressive city landmarks. One of the reasons why Mormon temples become instant landmarks is because they are commonly built in isolated but high visibility sections of the city, such as near freeways. While the Center City location doesn’t afford quite the isolation of a freeway ramp, the temple’s Parkway presence will have a landmark feel nevertheless. The signature capstone, of course, will be the towering gilded fiberglass Angel Morni, trumpet in hand, which promises to compete with the cross atop the Catholic Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul. This juxtaposition promises to be as theologically jarring as the mix of minarets and crosses now popping up all over Western Europe.
Like Islam, Orthodox Judaism or Eastern Orthodoxy, Mormons don’t want to fit in as just another denomination. The design of Mormon temples tends to reflect this view. One will always find traditional elements in Temple design; a. Mormon Temple will always be recognizable as a Mormon Temple despite occasional flourishes into modernism. Mormons, in fact, seem to have a sense that too far a stretch into modernism might threaten a reinterpretation of the faith. Can a religion be altered through architecture? If it can be done through its liturgical celebrations, bricks and mortar may prove to be a powerful influence.
The temple in Mexico City, for instance, is still recognizable as “Mormon” underneath its modern Mayan design, a far cry from, say, the multi-million dollar Catholic cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels in Los Angeles, which seems to twist post-Conciliar Catholicism into a discombobulated box wreck, an appropriate symbol perhaps for a Church in crises.
Critics say that the Philadelphia Temple design contains elements of the confectionary, as if buildings built today must never hearken back to another age.
Hidden City Philadelphia, for instance, found nothing attractive about the structure.
“No one wants to discuss the appalling design of the 70 million dollar temple—if we ignore it, it just might disappear, folks seem to say—but it points up real tension in the decision about the role of new buildings. Should they blend in or boldly pronounce the values of our day?”
But what are the values of our day? Hidden City’s criticism seems to suggest that religions update their values as the culture “progresses.” After all, in a world where Yoga instructors, dog parks and weekly therapist appointments are king, how can there be anything of value in a big, gilded fiberglass angel?
The temple architect, B. Jeffrey Stebar of Perkins + Will, an Atlanta firm, is also a Mormon bishop in the Jonesboro Georgia Stake. The firm is generally noted for its Prairie-style modernism, except of course when it comes to the design of temples.
Mormon temples historically have had a heavy granite look, a carryover from the days of anti-Mormon prejudice when temples, such as the one in Nauvoo, Ill., were burned to the ground in 1848 shortly after being abandoned by Mormons heading west to Salt Lake City. Mormon Temples, according to Paul Anderson, a curator of a show on Mormon architecture at BYU, “aim for a delicate harmony between the Church’s desire to appear reassuringly Christian, while at the same time proudly advertising its separation from Catholic and Protestant dogma.”
Salt Lake City’s Mormon Temple, perhaps the most famous in the world, was finished in 1893 (it was designed by Brigham Young’s brother-in-law). A little known fact is that before its completion Church leaders made sure that it was astrologically aligned. Earlier temple designs also contain symbols you’re unlikely to find in modern temples. Besides the absence of crosses, older temple models are filled with Masonic handshakes, moon phases, suns, Big Dipper Constellations, and Inverted Pentagrams. Critics of Mormonism love to point out that such symbols are proof that the religion is from ‘the dark side,’ but sometimes, as has often been said, a symbol is just a symbol.
When I first visited the Occupy Philadelphia City Hall site, what struck me was the similarity to protest gatherings in the Sixties and Seventies. When I was a conscientious objector doing alternate service in a Boston hospital during the Vietnam War, frequent peace rallies, teach-ins and speeches in Harvard Yard became a staple of life. During the Vietnam War Moratorium in 1969, for instance, physicians, nurses and employees of Tufts-New England Medical Center sponsored a Draft Card burning. The hospital’s sponsorship of this radical act barely raised an eyebrow then. Today it would be unthinkable for a large metropolitan hospital to sponsor such a rally, but in those days many were convinced that the country was on the brink of a second Revolution.
Almost 45 years later, the country may indeed be closer to that revolution.
The Occupy Wall Street phenomenon, which has become an international movement, targets corporate destruction of the economy and financial abuses by banks and other financial institutions. Many of the protestors in the United States call for the dissolution of the Fed, that non-governmental agency posing as a governmental agency, whose job it is to distribute huge amounts of fiat currency to banks (at zero cost) who then lend that cash to the public at huge rates of interest.
Abolishing the Fed is a fine goal if only because U.S. money, which is no longer backed by the gold standard, currently runs the risk of becoming as worthless as German currency in the 1920s Weimar Republic. At that time, an unchecked Germany kept adding zeros to its currency until the fiat bills had no value whatsoever.
Is the message of Occupy Philadelphia getting out?
Marty Moss- Coane featured two Occupy Philadelphia participants on her radio show, Radio Times last month. Unfortunately, the show’s guests spoke in gross generalities and were a far cry from the articulate voices of most people living at the site. “Things are bad and they have to change; we have to do something” was the main refrain of the two guests. Perhaps, when all is said and done, it was the seductive sound of one guest’s Valley Girl accent that got her invited on the show.
This begs the question: what about the corporate media?
Unchecked media consolidation works to snuff out or not report news pertinent to a vital democracy. Significant stories that should be given top coverage are given little or no coverage when one or two news sources control everything.
During my visits to City Hall, I found that few occupiers had a sense of urgency when it came to the power of the corporate media. Some had never even heard of the film, Orwell Rolls in His Grave, which addresses this issue.
Two young male Occupiers challenged me on this issue. “We get coverage all the time,” one said. “We are all over the world. It’s huge!” Yes it is huge, but what you’re getting is media coverage based on the oddity of the encampment, a kind of ‘Let’s see what the freaks are up to today” rather than a serious examination of the issues being raised.
The average American who walked through City Hall last month probably didn’t stop to read the literature on the many tables there, but instead fixated on the deteriorating condition of the tents, how the occupiers were dressed, or even the smell of certain individuals. In the minds of most passersby this was enough to dismiss the entire movement as illegitimate. Making snap judgments based on appearances is a minor American pastime.
“The spoiled brats who make up the bulk of these whiners show what this so called movement is all about,” one Philly.com reader commented. “A jobs fair to these lazy slobs is like a cross to a vampire,” said another.
The middle class did this to Vietnam War protestors in the 1970s, calling them dirty long haired bums and dismissing their protests until the implosion of The Pentagon Papers brought the illegality of that war to a head. Overnight the tables turned; grandmothers everywhere confessed: “The hippies were right all along!”
In every political group there are extremists who obfuscate primary issues with satellite baggage.
At City Hall I heard soapbox talks on Vegan lifestyles and how everyone should give up the killing of animals; pleas for the formation of a new political party (no mention was made of the need for a Constitutional Convention, however). There were also plenty of Trotskyite socialists walking around addressing one another as “comrade” and praising the works of Karl Marx. One Trotskyite even dressed in a fur hat and faux Soviet uniform while others stuck to wearing armbands over long trench coats. Perhaps it was all an October-Halloween thing, but then again maybe the “dress up” Trotskyites were suffering from some kind of post-adolescent stress disorder.
Despite this costuming faux pas, Occupy Philadelphia deserves every Philadelphian’s support.
‘DEVISED’ WORK IN THE THEATER Writing a successful play is no easy task. When I was asked to write a play for a friend several years ago, I had no idea the project would take me into the dizzying orbit of “devised” or collaborative work. Until then, the idea of writing a play was pretty much a solitary endeavor, like novelist Thomas Wolfe writing on legal pads in longhand, or Jean-Paul Sartre making notes for his play No Exit while sitting alone in the Café Flores.
The play eventually took on a life of its own, involving not only the necessary addition of a dramaturge but editorial input from a long list of characters. In the end, it was much like a play written by committee.
A visit to Philadelphia’s Adrienne Theater this summer exposed me to the subject of “devised” work. “Devised work” in the theater is the latest avant- garde infection. I use the word infection because devised work’s general philosophy is to establish creative teams of people involved in the writing of a play, from stage lighting directors, actors, directors, director’s assistants or anybody else who feels that they have something valuable to contribute. The collective consciousness in these creative teams is all about creating the best play possible.
A noteworthy champion of “devised” work is David Dower, Associate Artistic Director at Washington, D.C.’s Arena Stage. At a panel discussion recently, Mr. Dower proclaimed, “The future of theater will be made by devised work,” and that “the days of one writer sitting alone in a room, submitting the play to the theater,” are over.
Good-bye Eugene O’Neill, Samuel Beckett, and Jean Genet; hello creative teams a la Hollywood screenwriting board rooms.
Arena Theater, for instance, has a new “devised” policy of only accepting plays from playwrights whom they “engage” with, meaning, if you are a playwright outside you don’t stand much of a chance.
Michele Volansky of Philadelphia’s PlayPenn wrote about Mr. Dower recently in PlayPenn’s newsletter and voiced a ‘wait and see” view about devised work, giving it the benefit of the doubt while also wondering about some of its more radical expressions, like the super nova avant gard play without a written text.
“Nothing remains that I can access,” Ms. Volansky posits about text less plays. “Pig Iron and New Paradise Laboratories in Philadelphia have social relevance but none of them exist outside the memory and personal experience of those who witnessed them personally.”
“For a play to endure,” she adds, “you have to have a text.”
DRUGS AND REHAB
Septa’s 15 trolley, which I ride almost every day from my house in Fishtown, becomes at various times what some people call the Methadone Express. Users en route to two major methadone clinics along Girard Avenue often nod off in their seats and scream rather than talk when having conversations with friends. Many have a glazed look in their eyes, recalling Wolf Rilla’s 1960 film, Village of the Damned.
Withdraw from methadone can be more difficult than withdraw from heroin. That’s why when methadone clinics put patients on a withdraw program they usually drop the intake by about 5 mg. per visit until the patient is down to nothing. After treatment there are still problems because most patients experience withdraw symptoms and have difficulty sleeping. This situation often becomes so intolerable that most go back to methadone or street drugs.
Suboxone, or the “rich man’s methadone,” is no panacea either because in order for it to work an addict must keep taking it. It also causes no permanent changes in a user’s brain, so relapses are common.
These vicious cycles prove that heroin is the most devastating drug
on the planet.
Without a desire to change, an addict will never be cured of his/her addiction. Heroin, for most addicts, is a lifetime sentence. This is true whether one stays on the drug or opts to transition to methadone or Suboxone. A near- lifetime of maintenance is still required. Maintaining sobriety for an addict then becomes much like a career endeavor, often replacing vocational or professional goals.
One tragedy of Philadelphia’s immense heroin problem is its impact on the city’s homeless population.
Addicts today are able to spend 30 days in rehab (at the state’s expense) where they go through extensive rehabilitative programs. Residents are able to eat three meals a day. While there are currently sensible limits on how often an addict on public welfare can use free rehab facilities, the future looks dim for poor people opting to get clean for the first time.
With the barrage of federal and state cutbacks happening at every level, the time is approaching when all 30-day free rehabs will be a thing of the past. The logic behind these cuts, aside from obvious cost cutting factors, is the fact that politicians are beginning to take aim at how addicts use free government rehab as a means to get clean in order to get a bigger high once rehab is over.
Cycling out and entering another free rehab after more drug use has become a sort of urban dance for addicts who can never get clean.
Future government cuts would eliminate rehab for people on welfare, increasing the number of addicts with no place to go.
There are so called recovery houses, of course, but often these places are merely money making operations. Recovery house are post-rehab community living arrangements with house managers and established rules for residents. They are not drug rehabilitative facilities per se but protected environments that prepare an addict for reentry into the real world.
Some houses are as liberal as 1960s San Francisco communes, where members come and go at whim and are rarely tested or searched for drugs. These houses are in the business of “recovery” only to make money. Addicts are evicted for non-payment of rent while injurious behavior related to their recovery may be overlooked.
There are good recovery houses, of course, where participants sign in and out and where drug tests are administered, but houses like this are not the norm.
Despite the proliferation of new restaurants, bars and art galleries in Fishtown—there was even a laudatory article about the neighborhood in The New York Times a couple years back—its reputation as a drug capital is still well deserved. Neighbors may balk about the problem, and businesses may chase away panhandlers who beg for drug money, but the daily tidal wash up of used needles still manages to make a Jackson Pollack mess in nearly every local shopping center and Dunkin Donut parking lot.