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January 16, 2003

L. A. Cathedral


At long, long last I have made a pilgrimage to the new Los Angeles Cathedral (formally, the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels). I’m not a Catholic, and I’m not an expert on religious architecture--although I'm not sure who would qualify as such an expert--but with those provisos I will simply report my impressions of the site and the building.

The exterior of the Cathedral makes a fairly powerful statement from the preferred angle of approach, which is out of the parking garage.

J. Moneo, Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels, 2002

However, from the exterior the building strikes me as being in a bit of a defensive crouch, showing massive, largely featureless walls to the street and making sure its vulnerable “cross” window is carefully placed where its hard for people to chuck rocks at it. This “defensive” impression is reinforced by the fact that the church is walled off to the street most of the time; a combination of permanent wall and retractable metal gates—which are no doubt opened prior to services—restricts access at other times to entry points which are manned by security guards. (The security guards themselves seem very pleasant and are eager to discuss the building, by the way—I hope the Cathedral keeps the current crop of guys around permanently.)

Interior Looking Away From Altar

Inside, the Cathedral is a rather hushed, contemplative space. The walls are clad in warm concrete panels. Despite the large size of the interior and its very high ceiling, the effect is not at all overwhelming. In fact, the feeling of the space is oddly horizontal, even a bit compressed.

Windows, South Wall

The windows give the interior of the Cathedral a feeling of being underground, a sensation reinforced by a ceiling that doesn’t vault upwards, but actually sags downwards. A friend I visited with commented that the effect was a bit like being in somebody’s basement. I assume the cave or cell-like quality is intentional and, as I mentioned, promotes a quietist atmosphere. I’m not sure how well it would accommodate something a bit more activist, like an actual service. (Of course, I visited during the week, so I can’t really comment definitively on that.)

Interior Facing Altar

One actively annoying feature is the way the overhead space is filled with chandeliers. They’re not very attractive (although I'm sure their design has symbolic significance) and they just seem to clutter up what needs to be a more visually free and open space. Another questionable decision is the obviously carefully calculated asymmetry of the front (altar) end of the Cathedral. Presumably hoping to avoid forcing the eye towards the altar and the priests conducting the service, this non-hierarchical design unfortunately just ends up drawing attention to how clever it is, which seems rather beside the point in such a setting. (After our visit was over, it provoked a discussion between my friend and I over the use of symmetry in religious architecture. He approves of such symmetry because of its symbolism; I approve of it because it allows design choices to be more mechanical, and thus less “designed” in a building dedicated to the idea that people—even architects—don’t have all the answers.)

So, all in all, while it was far from terrible, it was probably equally far from outstanding…and while it probably serves the institutional purposes of the Church, I think it represents a missed opportunity for inspirational architecture.



posted by Friedrich at January 16, 2003


Are those interior walls canted, or is that an artifact of camera viewpoint in the photos?


Posted by: acdouglas on January 16, 2003 4:53 PM

The walls are not, to my knowledge, canted in, so I assume that impression is caused by tilting the camera. Obviously, photographing architecture (especially interiors) is a highly specialized skill that I, er, am working on. Sorry if my results were misleading.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on January 17, 2003 12:03 PM

Thanks for the visit and review. In your photos, the cathedral looks kinda rough hewn and concrete, a little Louis Kahn-ish primordial-modern. Is that how it feels? The Wife and I drove by it when it was under construction. At that point it looked like a stylish parking lot ...

There's a piece just waiting around for someone to write about how "the sacred" isn't present in many of these modern churches. Though for all I know it is present in the LA Cathedral.

At some point I sear I'll post about Notre Dame's architecture school, which is the only one in the country I'm aware of giving a beaux-arts style architecture education -- drawing, making the grand tour, studying columns, etc. Their grads build new churches in the traditional style, and do it pretty well, at least so far as I can tell from photos. There seems to be a small movement afoot recognizing that post-1950 American churches are a disgrace, and that now might be the time for a return to churches that look like churches.

So: Did the Moneo cast any kind of spell? Or is it just functional, as you say? Maybe fancy/functional? Stylish/functional? (But what's the point of a functional church?) Another victory/defeat for modernist "space"? ...

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on January 17, 2003 12:39 PM

Friedrich wrote: "Obviously, photographing architecture (especially interiors) is a highly specialized skill...."

And requires a specialized camera as well.

Thanks for the response.


Posted by: acdouglas on January 17, 2003 2:28 PM

One must remember that a primary driver in the design of this cathedral was to be sure that it would survive an 8.0 earthquake. Having lived in Los Angeles during the last several major quakes, I can say that many of the more beautiful and ornamental features of traditional architecture would be so much rubble on the ground after a fairly 'big one'.

Posted by: alicia huntley on January 18, 2003 2:06 PM

FvB -- Eyeballing your photos for the umpteenth time, I'm 1) happy to admit that they're better than anything I could manage under similar circumstances, and 2) wondering something: Does the building avoid feeling like what so many modern churches feel like, namely a cross between a bunker and a shoebox? It's looks kinda bunkery and shoe-boxey in the photos. I do register that some of the "design" elements and "plays with space" (yawn) seem pretty sophisticated. But do they succeed in taking all of the bunker-shoebox curse off the building?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on January 18, 2003 5:22 PM

I was struck by the description of the Cathedral as having a sort of defensive posture. In the history of cathedrals, this isn't unusual. Many of the cathedrals of Spain, for example, are hulking Gothic fortresses, built precisely as refuges against attack during times of local instability during the reconquista. I'm not suggesting that this has anything to do with the style of the LA version. Nevertheless, it reminds me that we can be pretty persnickety about 'church architecture' without paying attention to a very long history with a great variety of styles. Who's to say what 'the sacred' is in such a building?

Posted by: juantag on January 20, 2003 5:52 PM

Juantag -- A "defensive posture" ... "hulking Gothic fortresses"... -- excellent characterizations! But given your strong responses and powers of evocation, why would you shy away from saying whether (for you at least) "the sacred" is present or not in something like the LA Cathedral? If you aren't to make such an assertion, and I'm not, and Friedrich isn't -- well then, who is? "The experts"? I think the three of us have demonstrated expertise enough. And, heck, Friedrich's actually visited the place...

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on January 20, 2003 11:52 PM


You asked about the presence of "the sacred" in the L.A. Cathedral. I would say that a feeling of an alternate consciousness certainly exists there, but less so in the big public space I showed in my pictures and more so in some smaller, niche areas around the periphery of the building. These areas are 100-200 square foot spaces contained between massive, 50 feet or more high concrete walls. When these spaces contain any religious furnishings at all you know you're not in a secular building, but even the ones that are currently empty have a good deal of that feeling as well. I don't know if it would be possible to achieve the same effect in a larger space suitable for holding large services, but if the architect had pulled it off the building would be a far more radical statement, both architecturally and religiously. Now that you've got me writing about this I'm sorry I didn't show these smaller spaces in my posting, although I doubt any pictures I could take without much more thought and experimentation would have communicated much. Also, I would refer you (again) to the "Sacred Places" website by Christopher L.C.E. Witcombe of Sweet Briar College, (URL for a very interesting discussion of these issues.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on January 21, 2003 11:39 AM

While in LA a couple of weeks ago, I had every intention of a short visit to the Cathedral, but got a bit caught up in downtown traffic, and couldn't find the darned thing. Anyway, I'm grateful for the photos, too. My point about the sacred wasn't that no one is expert enough to say, but that calling a space 'sacred' has more, I think, to do with how you use it than how you describe it. I remember a visit to Berlin's Dahlem Museum a few years back (I think it was the Dahlem), where I spent an afternoon wandering gallery after gallery of religious art, especially some impressive Russian icons. I gawked like any tourist would, but I noticed one thin young man standing attentively before a small, rather unremarkable icon--with his shoes off. He wasn't dressed like a tourist; he had threadbare clothes and a ratty rucksack on his shoulder, and thin sandals by his feet. I walked on. Many minutes later, I walked through that gallery again, and he still stood there, alone, absorbed. We can draw our conclusions about who he was or where he came from (The Wall had recently fallen), but he doubtless turned a secular museum space into a sacred space. Or was it the icons that did that, and we generally are too insensitive to notice? Perhaps some might argue that museums are 'sacred' the way churches are, but certainly one is derivative of the other....

Posted by: juantag on January 21, 2003 2:20 PM

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