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Where to Put a Cathedral, Recreate L.A.

September 08, 1996|'By Kevin Starr | Kevin Starr, a contributing editor to Opinion, is the State Librarian of California, chairmen of the State Sesquicentennial Commission and a member of the faculty at USC

Now is the time to reconcile and unify Los Angeles by means of the very same challenge--the siting of the forthcoming Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels--that has created so much controversy in the city. This month, a cathedral site-selection committee will make its recommendation to Cardinal Roger Mahony as to where it thinks the new cathedral should be built.

The architectural and planning firm of Johnson Fain and Pereira Associates, meanwhile, has completed for the Civic Center Authority, with the support of the Central City Assn., a Civic Center Shared Facilities and Enhancement Plan. At long last, thanks to this plan, an impressive instance of large-scale urban planning and design, the core of Los Angeles--from the Indian village of Yang-na, to City Hall, the historic Times Mirror building and the Cathedral-to-be--would be integrated, energized and launched into the future.

Will the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels designed by Jose Rafael Moneo, one of the world's leading architects and winner of the Pritzker Architecture Prize this year, come into synergy with this planned City Square, or will the creations of these architects, because of controversy, bitterness and intransigence, be separated from each other, with Los Angeles the loser?

Johnson Fain and Pereira Associates began its researches with a consideration of the topographical basis of Los Angeles, how Native Americans used the region, how the Spanish and Mexicans laid it out, how Lt. Edward Ord surveyed and mapped the city in 1849, and how American Los Angeles grew in the 19th and 20th centuries. The plan rediscovers and builds upon an identity that has been unfolding for more than 200 years, re-presenting, if you will, the essential DNA code of the historic core as an integrated whole. It is as if a grand city has been in gestation for 200 years and is now being born through the subtle midwifery of a design scheme linking what is already there, what is coming into existence (like the cathedral) and what should be.

At the heart of the urban plan is a landscaped, four-block City Square fronted by City Hall (plans to retrofit the building are still on hold), the Times Mirror building, the New Otani Hotel and St. Vibiana's. Here is ground zero, among other things, of the second- or third-largest administrative/governmental complexes in the United States. Even more dramatic, here is to be the town square, the zocalo, busy with pedestrian traffic, ringed by buildings representing church and state (a cathedral and City Hall), as well as a newspaper building and a hotel. In 1572, the Law of the Indies governing the design and construction of Spanish cities in the New World, such as Los Angeles came to be in 1781, called for such a space.

Site 1 under consideration by the archdiocese--the southwest corner of Second and Main streets--would have the new cathedral face the proposed City Square in direct line of sight (once the Cal Trans building is removed, as currently called for in the Civic Center Masterplan) with the south facade of City Hall, which has always been its most public and ceremonial wing. Site 2--the Cal Trans parking lot bounded by First, Second, Main and Los Angeles streets--also faces the City Square but would cut its four-square-block dimensions by half. Site 3--the northwest corner of First and Spring streets, directly across the street from the Times Mirror building--also faces the City Square, diagonally across from City Hall. Site 4, atop Bunker Hill, is the full block bounded by First, Second, Grand and Olive streets, directly opposite the stalled Disney Center and diagonally across from the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. Site 5, also atop Bunker Hill, is the double block bounded by Grand, Hill and Temple streets and the Santa Ana Freeway. Site 6 is at Sixth and Bixel streets, on the western side of the Harbor Freeway.

Should the new cathedral be built on either the southwest corner of Second and Main streets or on the block bounded by First, Second, Main and Los Angeles streets, it would, for a thousand years, energize the forthcoming City Square in the manner of the great cathedrals of Europe. It would state its message of religious value directly to the secular world. It would open out on to the square, be accessible to all arriving by foot. It would be woven into the very fabric of the city, which also bears the name of Our Lady Queen of the Angels. Even if the new cathedral were sited on the northwest corner of First and Spring streets, facing the Times Mirror building, it would still possess this quality of pedestrian access, of classic urbanism, although not to the same degree. (Unfortunately, the third site, if chosen, would put the new cathedral into direct competition with City Hall and the bland, modernist Criminal Courts Building.)

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