I finally got the full tour of the Conference Center ("CC") recently (as well as just observing the Joseph Smith birthday anniversary commemoration on TV). Nice place — it's nice to know my tithing bucks go for something more than just buying up more real estate in Florida. Actually, I really like the building. It's big, very big, designed to bring as many Mormons under one roof as possible during General Conference and similar events. If they could make a building that would seat all five million active Mormons at one time, I think they'd do it. The CC highlights an essential point about the Church that is often missed: It's about community. The goal is to make us all one big happy family (at least figuratively and possibly literally).
This follows one of Bushman's comments in RSR, namely how much of Joseph's efforts went into creating a mutually supportive community of believing Mormons. The whole gathering theme was part of that. The emphasis on big temples (as opposed to regular Sunday meeting houses, never one of Joseph's priorities) was another. Bushman noted at one point (in RSR or in one of his lectures) that it is really the still-growing community of believing Mormons that is Joseph's primary legacy. General Conference celebrates that sense of community, bolstered by an array of broadcasts and publications to make everyone feel part of the event and by an impressive building (first the Tabernacle, now the CC) in which to host the semiannual event.
Recall that a sense of community or fellowship (Gr. koinonia) was a central concern of Paul as he spread the word outside Palestine and created dozens of new Gentile or mixed Jewish/Gentile house churches. He struggled most of his career to keep these churches and the rest of emerging Christianity, especially the original community in Jerusalem, under the same roof. The bigger the organization, the more diversity, the bigger the roof that is needed to bring everyone together. I like the idea that the CC, as a big building with a big roof, symbolizes the Church's movement toward being a wider community, more open, more inclusive, even a little ecumenical. The Mormon roof is getting bigger. Nice contrast to our Evangelical friends, who spend a lot of time identifying those who don't meet their definition of a Christian and aren't welcome to sit at their table. The Evangelical roof is shrinking. At least that's how I see it.
As for the CC building itself, I like it. Compared to the other large religious buildings I have toured (Catholic cathedrals in Europe and the Crystal Cathedral in Southern California), I really like the plain and functional style. Maybe that's just me, but I never liked the ornamental style of most religious structures or shrines, which always seem designed more to impress peasants than to serve any divine purpose. The gardens on the roof of the CC are a nice touch too.
Anyone else have impressions or observations on the Conference Center? I haven't attended an actual event there yet. I suppose I might have a different impression if there were a large crowd of Mormons wandering around the place as opposed to a big quiet interior space. But I'm told the fine acoustics and good visibility really enhance performances and presentations there.