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Utah architect David Ross Scheer: Here’s my list of the best Utah buildings

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) State Capitol rotunda in Salt Lake City on Tuesday Jan. 29, 2019.

“Ten best” lists are great conversation (or argument) starters. If it’s a slow night in a sports bar, you can always liven things up by asking fans to list the 10 best baseball (football, soccer, badminton, bocce) players in history. Like all such lists, this one is subjective, but (I hope) not without a certain objective basis. One major difference between sports and architecture is that while, for example, batting and pitching are judged separately, good buildings have to “play both ways” and meet all of the following criteria:

  • an interesting (if not beautiful) external appearance;

  • spaces within the building that dignify the building’s functions;

  • a design that enhances its surroundings;

  • endowing its purpose with special meaning.

Also, I only included buildings open to the public so anyone can visit them. So here goes (in no particular order):

The State Capitol (1916, Richard Kletting) • With its beautiful proportions and overall composition, our Capitol is a near-perfect example of the neoclassical tradition in American public buildings. It provides impressive, dignified spaces for large numbers of people to take part in government. The rotunda is especially magnificent, both inside and out. The exterior spaces around it create the appropriate formal setting for the building while providing shaded paths for public enjoyment. Its placement on the hill at the head of State Street in Salt Lake City gives it prominence in the space of the city that reflects its importance to the people of Utah.

(Steve Griffin | Tribune file photo) Dressed in period, clothing Willie Nelson and Cheryl Greer, of the Golden Spike Association of Box Elder County, look into the Capitol Rotunda as they attend the first day of the 2018 Legislature at the Utah State Capitol in Salt Lake City Monday, Jan. 22, 2018.

The City Library (2003, VCBO) • The main Salt Lake City Library carries on the tradition of American public libraries as the most egalitarian of institutions, embodying the idea that knowledge, as the key to opportunity, should be available to everyone. The airy, curving atrium is the best interior public space in Utah. The open stair, glass elevators and the many spaces that look out into the atrium further contribute to its public spirit. The sweeping exterior ramp invites visitors to climb the building as though it were a mountain in miniature. The plaza it creates with the old library (now The Leonardo museum) could be one of the best exterior spaces in the city were it not for the ill-conceived planting area that subdivides what should be a unified space.

Abravanel Hall (1976-79, FFKR Architects) • Sometimes simple is best. The large, plain brick front wall of this monument to the performing arts in Salt Lake City is unexpectedly dynamic, giving way to a glass curtain wall that seems to disappear at night, revealing the brilliantly illuminated lobby and Dale Chihuly’s glowing glass sculpture. The entrance plaza creates the necessary distance for appreciating this composition, heightening the visitor’s anticipation and providing a well-proportioned, lively urban space (although I’d like to see more shade and seating). Once inside, tiered balconies dramatically extend the lobby space upward and away from the visitor. The hall itself is elegant in its simplicity and its excellent acoustics are legendary.

The City and County Building (1891-94, Henry Monheim, Bird & Proudfoot) • Every time I enter this building I feel proud to live in Salt Lake City. This handsome example of the Richardsonian Romanesque style features an artful composition of arcades, towers and bay windows in beautifully executed stonework. The interior opens itself to the public with its elegant stairs and broad hallways. The latter receive daylight by the clever device of glazed offices at their ends. The rooms are enhanced by simple yet elegant woodwork and wisely preserved arched transoms above the doors. The grounds serve as a public park as well as framing the building without excessive formality. Topping it off is the clock tower, an essential symbol of American civic life and a prominent landmark in the city.

Ogden High School (1937, Hodgson and McClenahan) • How I would have loved to go to school in this beautiful Art Deco building! It is worth remembering that, at the time of this building’s construction, the Art Deco style was modern, an attempt to find a style that looked forward rather than backward as did traditional neoclassical architecture. In the depths of the Great Depression, the public found the resources to build a school that expressed the value and importance of education and inspired students to look to the future. It is ironic that now, when our country is so much wealthier, so many school buildings are merely functional boxes.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Ogden High School, Dec. 25, 2019.

The Adobe Utah campus (2012, WRNS Studio) • If you work for a large corporation, this is your dream workplace. The building in Lehi was entirely designed to enhance the experience of workers. The interiors are open and brightly daylit with spectacular views from virtually every space in the complex. At its heart is a group of common areas that encourage interaction and collaboration, accommodating everything from dining to basketball. The deceptively simple arrangement of three elongated, slightly bent buildings makes comfortably scaled spaces amongst themselves. The contrast between the buildings’ linear geometry and the natural forms of the landscape is nicely mediated by a concrete base that takes on varied forms and allows the buildings to literally float above the ground in places.

Church of St. Joseph the Worker (2010, Sparano and Mooney Architects) • This small parish church complex in West Jordan manages to be monumental and modest at the same time. The complex includes a small chapel, offices and the sanctuary. Throughout the complex, humble materials are ennobled by superb craftsmanship, honoring the laborers who founded the parish. The exterior of the sanctuary is especially noteworthy, an exquisite piece of concrete construction that resulted from careful design by the architects and the consummate craftsmanship of the builder. The concrete was formed by wooden boards, which left an impression of every detail of the wood’s surface on the concrete. If you think concrete is an ugly material, you need to visit this church.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Church of St. Joseph the Worker in West Jordan.

The Tabernacle on Temple Square (1867, William H. Folsom and Henry Grow) • This is a geode of a building in the heart of downtown Salt Lake City. Its plain exterior belies the spectacular space inside. When full, the space somehow manages to feel both intimate and monumental. The wooden benches and balconies define a terrestrial realm while the ceiling vaults high overhead, seeming almost limitless. The famous organ is like a building in its own right, enhancing this feeling. The space’s acoustics are famous as well, thanks to the elliptical shape of the ceiling and the balconies (added in 1870). The roof was a world-famous engineering marvel at the time it was built, spanning 150 feet and constructed entirely of wood.

The Rio Tinto Center — Natural History Museum of Utah (2011, Ennead Architects with GSBS Architects) • This building in Salt Lake City’s foothills clearly takes its inspiration from the surrounding landscape. Its overall form owes more to geology than to geometry. The facades are layered in imitation of geological strata with large areas of copper from the Bingham Mine providing a local reference. The multistory central space is conceived of as a “canyon.” Whether one accepts this metaphor or not, it is an exciting space with a certain natural feel, thanks to its terraced floors and irregular walls. The main display spaces are masterfully designed, rendered accessible by beginning on the top floor and ramping down. It is unfortunate that it was not built in a more accessible location.

Lassonde Studios (2016, Cannon Design in association with EDA Architects) • This building on the University of Utah campus is the result of a complete rethinking of the experience of going to college. Every aspect of it makes student collaboration and entrepreneurship the focus of their education. It combines work and living spaces. Its open, flexible plan allows any space to be reconfigured for any use. The work areas are like the proverbial tech guru’s garage — raw space where anything can happen. There are no classrooms or faculty offices; this is the students’ domain where they are free to explore. The building sits in the center of the campus, intentionally placed on the routes most taken by students to maximize its accessibility. The building’s overall form defies typical campus architecture with an irregular shape that is nevertheless logical given the interior functions.

I expect that many (most? all?) readers will have different ideas about the best buildings in Utah. I hope you will let me know what you think by writing letters to the editor, posting comments on The Tribune’s website or emailing me directly.

David Ross Scheer is an architect and urban planner based in Salt Lake City. His publications include "The Death of Drawing: Architecture in the Age of Simulation (Routledge 2014).

Correction: Jan. 7, 2020, 3:27 p.m. • An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified the architects of record for the Salt Lake City Library. In addition, architect Richard Kletting’s last name was misspelled.

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