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Architecture Review

A Modern Sanctuary

Jose Rafael Moneo's plan for the new seat of Los Angeles' archdiocese is wonderfully inspired, an invitation to spiritual awakening in the midst of a hard-edged, secular city.

September 23, 1997|NICOLAI OUROUSSOFF | TIMES ARCHITECTURE CRITIC

Cathedrals are meant to elevate the soul. They are great communal meeting halls, capable of shutting out class and cultural differences. But how to do that in a soulless, fractured era? A Spanish Modernist obsessed with history, architect Jose Rafael Moneo shuns the chaos of contemporary life. His design for the $50-million new seat for the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Los Angeles, Our Lady of the Angels, is a spiritual filter: a sanctuary in the life of the city where the soul can be silently healed.

Moneo's design was briefly on public view Sunday, in a ground-blessing ceremony at the new cathedral's site at Temple Street and Grand Avenue, downtown, as cars whizzed by along the 101 Freeway. The three elaborate wood models, which arrived last week from the architect's offices in Madrid, were carted away after the ceremony, but they detail for the first time Moneo's vision for the new cathedral. The project is scheduled for completion in September 2000.

The cool abstraction of Moneo's design may offend some. Despite the organization of the plan, which echoes traditional missions by arranging a cathedral, the cardinal's residence, parish center, bell tower and contemplative garden around a vast plaza, the scheme is strikingly Modernist. The cathedral is a massive, unadorned concrete shell, perched at the southwest corner of the lot, along Grand Avenue. The plaza is vast and bare, enclosed by a series of arcaded walkways. Its only trees line a reflecting pool that juts out from the gardens alongside the cathedral, into the open courtyard. There is a rawness to the forms. But it is just that rawness that gives the building its spiritual weight.

In Roman Catholic church design, abstract formal language has often symbolized divine purity. The geometry of Alberti's Renaissance churches reflected a belief in the mechanical order of God's universe, for example. Moneo's forms are an extension of this tradition, but they are forcefully dynamic. Everything here is asymmetrical. The body of the cathedral is placed at a skewed angle on the site; its faceted roof slopes up dramatically toward the altar. Moneo's formal language perfectly reflects his belief in the importance of movement in architecture. The cathedral's beauty comes from the architect's ability to translate form into a poetic contemporary vision.

That sense of movement is coupled with a desire to offer a path out of the world of the everyday. Grand Avenue, with the adjacent Music Center, Museum of Contemporary Art and the proposed Walt Disney Concert Hall, has long been heralded as the city's budding cultural strip, one of the reasons the cathedral's sprawling 5.8-acre site was selected by the archdiocese. The choice is more than symbolic: In moving from the site of the downtown St. Vibiana's, church leaders clearly wanted to enhance the church's place at a central point in the cultural fabric of the city. Yet despite its urban setting, Moneo has created an environment that turns intensely inward, away from the street.

The cathedral building, in fact, has its main entrance within the plaza, away from Grand Avenue. To reach the back of the nave, the traditional entry of a church, you are expected to cross the width of the plaza under a long, covered arcade, and pass through an internal ambulatory that you enter from the altar end of the church. The distance is staggering--370 feet. Only when you reach the back of the nave do you turn to face the altar. The journey is the message. The building itself becomes your spiritual guide. (There is also a secondary access from the street nearer to the entry to the church.)

Once inside, even the arrangement of the pews is sightly askew. Since the chapels lining the nave face outward--toward the ambulatories on each side--from within, they appear as massive concrete pillars. Above, two huge clerestories--made of a translucent alabaster--bring light into both the central space and the side chapels, animating the simple forms. An enormous cross-patterned window, also of alabaster, glows above the altar. The position of the chapels adds to the feeling of blankness. But the idea is to focus the energy on the altar--to separate the various functions within the church.

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As architecture, of course, it is a risky gesture. How do you prevent the long walk into the church from becoming merely monotonous? We won't know until we have traveled across the space ourselves. Moneo himself seems slightly nervous about the length of the entry ambulatory's exterior wall. The archdiocese is planning a mural for the wall that will tell the tale of the Catholic Church's history in Los Angeles (raising the additional question of whose version of the story to tell). The mural will remain unfinished, so that subsequent generations can complete it. But clearly part of the idea stems from an unease over the wall's blankness.

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