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Monumental expression of faith
Published in The Financial Times, 17 January 2003, p13.
Any landmark in a diffuse city like Los Angeles has to be on a freeway. In promoting monumentality, such a building is already counter to the urban ecology of LA that makes the freeways a commanding force, and puts penetrability and accessibility in architecture first over a clear distinction between inside and out. 65-year-old Spanish architect - and longtime US resident - Rafael Moneo's new and imposing Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels, which graces West Temple Street in the city's rapidly regenerating downtown, would have been next to a river had it been European. In the absence of flowing water, Moneo elected the Hollywood Freeway as Los Angeles' metaphorical 'river', connecting people to each other.
The first Roman Catholic Cathedral to be erected in the western United States in thirty years, the 11 storey, 95 foot high building took just three years to build, from the start of construction in 1999 until late spring of this year. The 2ha complex includes a conference centre and a rectory. Perched at the top of the site at Bunker Hill, next to Highway 101, the Cathedral is longer by a few feet than St Patrick's in New York, and is surrounded by a 2.5 acre plaza with a café that is used for outdoor services and other civic activities. An escalator takes you down from plaza level to a 600 space car park below ground level. The visitor, sipping his cappuccino on the plaza, is bound to concur that the building seems anchored in the modern world in terms of facilities and interior ambience, while fulfilling its religious function. What, however, is gained in terms of its wider relationship with the city?
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Moneo's client, Cardinal Roger Mahony, asked the architect for a space for a communal experience, 'like a town meeting', with the congregation wrapped around the altar. That request was in accord with Moneo's ease with building architecture that works on a number of levels. "I wanted both a public space", he explains, "and something else - what it is that people seek when they go to church". To achieve both of these qualities, he introduced a series of 'buffering, intermediating spaces' - plazas, staircases, colonnades and a most unorthodox entry. "I wanted to avoid the perspectival view," Moneo says, referring to the kind of axial organization of space that emphasises the relationship between man, priest, and God. "I try to avoid feeling obliged. I want you to feel your own freedom."
Worshippers enter on the 5900m2, 3000-capacity Cathedral on the south side, rather than the centre of the cathedral, through a monumental set of bronze doors cast by sculptor Robert Graham. It's a building with virtually no right angles. As Moneo intended, this geometry contributes to the Cathedral's feeling of mystery. A 50 foot concrete cross 'lantern' adorns the front of the Cathedral. At night its glass-protected alabaster windows are illuminated and can be seen at a far distance. Their abstract forms, without the use of stained glass, are striking. The Cathedral is based on a traditional prototype, the Latin cross floor plan, with nave, apse and transepts of the Gothic cathedrals. But Moneo then allows that prototype to be transformed by the liturgy's democratic character and the challenge of siting the entrance in line with that. The result is a reinvented plan with a gently sloping floor that, were it not for the imagery lining the walls, has the open feel of a generic urban meeting place, a market, for instance, universal and yet located in the contemporary world at the same time. Moneo aims for timelessness: "I want to put architecture in the flow of history".
The first churches in Los Angeles were Spanish missions, and much of city's modern architecture owes much to the Spanish Colonial Revival style of which adobe construction was a central part. Moneo draws heavily on this heritage, building the Cathedral in a pale sienna-pink shade of concrete reminiscent of the California missions with their courtyards surrounded by sun baked adobe walls.
Moneo is widely regarded by his American peers - architects like Eric Owen Moss, Los Angeles' leading proponent of deconstructivism - as an exceptional talent, careful and conservative, and as such he fits in well with the Catholic hierarchy. The question, Moss says, is whether Moneo's response to the brief adds or detracts from the city. "Architecture in LA", Moss explains, "is about discovery and invention in terms of space, shapes, forms, uses and problem-solving. Los Angeles uses the language of invention, because the city is actually making itself at this heightened density... not remaking itself."
Moneo's building predictably suggests Roman Catholicism's longevity, sustainability and power, which suggests he may have fallen short of this vision. The austere and fortress-like nature of its walls - which look better as views on the website than observed from the pavement - can be likened to traditional religious buildings in Santiago de Compostela, for instance. "Its exterior is more protective and deals with the outer city as an adversary - which is one of the church's traditions," says Moss. "I think the inside of this building is a place that sequesters and nurtures you, in real contrast to the protectiveness of the outside."
As a resolution of that tradition, the interior is also by far the most innovative aspect of the architecture. It is a serenely original statement somewhat marred by a mixed quality public art programme not of Moneo's making. Unfortunately fussy bronze chandeliers ill-suited in design to the numinous task of illuminating the celebration of the major liturgies shout for attention; perhaps the Cardinal can replace them in due course.
Outside the Cathedral, yet still within its enclosing walls, the visitor can stroll the entire periphery of the building and the plaza, a rare chunk of unimpeded public space with its own café. Like the Getty Center, which opened a few years ago in nearby Brentwood, the plaza gives visitors the chance to be urban pedestrians. Now Frank Gehry's Walt Disney Concert Hall, a few blocks away on Grand Street, which has the same intention, is nearly ready. Downtown LA has long since been typified by a crop of skyscrapers and pedestrian shopping malls in defensive enclaves. The question is, will the current conversion to pedestrian space which is a feature of downtown urbanism more widely, and something Moneo draws strength from, but only inside his Cathedral enclosure, genuinely bring downtown a sense of place? The Cathedral was a major opportunity to buck the trend and serve as a focal point of downtown redevelopment. In spite of its civic intentions internally, it is a shame that its hermetic exterior character reinforces a monumental approach to urban development in an area that could benefit from a more permeable structure.
© 2018 Lucy Bullivant
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