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Jim Nielson: Proposed Utah state flag designs are comic-book substitutes

Members of a made-up profession shouldn’t take our history away from us.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Students from Ellison Park Elementary hold 20 flags, all which are semifinal designs for the creation of the new state flag, Sept. 22, 2022 at the Utah Capitol. On Thursday, the Utah Department of Cultural & Community Engagement unfurled the 20 semifinal designs, now on display in the Hall of Governors. The design review committee is seeking public feedback through a SurveyMonkey form until Oct. 5, 2022. After that time, four to six flags will be presented to the task force, led by Gov. Spencer Cox and Lt. Gov. Deidre Henderson. The final design will be presented to the Legislature later this fall.

One of the first proposals I encountered as a state representative was a bill to change Utah’s flag. The shield at the center of the flag was supposed to have been white; the date was not in quite the right place. The flag we’d used until then didn’t honor the designers’ historical intent exactly. We fixed it.

Lawmakers today are again in a flag-changing mood. But this time it’s not about respecting history. No, politicians want to discard the beautiful emblem our ancestors handed down and design a comic-book substitute.

For about 60 years, flag experts (flag admirers relying on a made-up profession to bolster claims of expertise, absent recognized experience, academic degrees or credentials) have made a pastime of inventing principles they think make good flags. They’ve given themselves a name: vexillologists. How do you argue with someone sporting a pompous title like that?

I will try.

Distilling the dictates of these self-described cognoscenti, we learn that our flag must look like a concept generated by a kindergartner. It is allowed no complexity. It can’t be challenging to remember or sketch. It may tell only the shortest of short stories.

Oh, and no alphanumeric characters, mind you!

In the dumbed-down designs that result from all this, the nirvana of monotony is prized above heritage; the putative experts encouraging Utah’s current folly have already pronounced Utah’s flag, with its vivid details and sweeping story, dead on arrival.

Going back to my first trial-and-error investing in the early 1980s, I suppose I’ve spent as much time learning about money management as these self-styled experts have about flags. But this avocation doesn’t make me an expert. The professional that manages our retirement funds is the real expert. He has years of experience, a long history of relevant education and training, and recognized credentials.

I suppose inventing a new profession and declaring myself an expert could be fun, but I’ll stick with architecture. In this field, the path to licensure is usually a 10-year trek (or more); real expertise takes another decade or two. And architect-experts think we know more than others. For generations we’ve gone around telling laymen that stripped-down modernism outshines traditional architecture. But though I may appreciate buildings like Salt Lake City’s Hatch Federal Courts Building — the Borg from Star Trek? — most people don’t. Instead of modern design, most prefer buildings like the Classical House and Senate Office Buildings of 20 years ago that flank the Utah Capitol.

Experienced and expert architects don’t get to dictate the style of every new structure. But when it comes to flags, vexillologists would dictate how all of them should be — even flags from years gone by. Yes, in addition to any new flags, vexillologists advocate destroying, not preserving, historic flags. These relics must make way for appropriate banners complying with invented principles. Can you imagine architects mandating that historic structures be replaced with modern buildings meeting our modern style edicts?

No. Architects do just the opposite. Utah’s hated new courthouse project (the “Borg” again) included protecting the traditional Moss Courthouse and a bold relocation of the historic Odd Fellows Hall for adaptive reuse.

Whenever I have a new building to design, I encourage my client to consider modern design. And if you, one day, have a community that needs a flag, go ahead and design it using vexillologists’ comic-book principles (if you can convince your constituents).

But don’t tell me or the citizens of Utah to do away with our flag and all that it means. If you do, I’ll propose this corollary: tear down all your colonial looking homes and replace them with suitably modern replacements.

Jim Nielson

Jim Nielson is an architect, a frequent architectural expert witness in legal cases, an adjunct professor of architecture at Utah Valley University, and a former state representative.