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Design 2001

A Shared Devotion to the New Cathedral

Cardinal Mahony and architect Jose Rafael Moneo credit the project's success to a strong working relationship.

November 29, 2001|TIM RUTTEN | TIMES CULTURE CORRESPONDENT

In 1985, on the occasion of his appointment as chairman of Harvard's department of architecture, Jose Rafael Moneo delivered a lecture in which he sadly recalled Victor Hugo's famous observation that "books killed cathedral architecture."

Moneo, for whom the "walls and columns" of the Gothic cathedrals summarized "all natural and sacred history," since has returned frequently to Hugo's aphorism. Widespread literacy, the Spanish architect argues, means people "no longer use buildings as books." Contemporary mass media, he likes to say, have essentially eliminated architecture's instructional role.

And yet, there he was on stage Tuesday evening, seated between his patron and client--Cardinal Roger M. Mahony--and MOCA curator Brooke Hodge, explaining "our" new Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels to a crowd that all but filled a downtown hotel's ballroom. Their spirited conversation was organized in conjunction with the Museum of Contemporary Art's current exhibit, "What's Shakin': New Architecture in L.A.," which includes large-scale models of the cathedral on view at the museum's Pacific Design Center space through Dec. 30.

Victor Hugo notwithstanding, the sacred building that the 63-year-old Pritzker Prize winner and the 64-year-old prelate described is meant to convey ideas every bit as compelling and imposing as the adobe-hued physical structure that has arisen with such rapidity alongside the Hollywood Freeway on Bunker Hill's northern slope. It is a building whose place, scale, cost--nearly $200 million--and ambition have made it the focus of international attention, well in advance of next fall's scheduled dedication.

The site, which Moneo compared to that of "Notre Dame on the banks of the Seine," was, he said, "an unexpected gift."

So, too, by both their accounts, has been the collaboration between Moneo and Mahony. Through the centuries, the princes of the Roman Catholic Church have been princely patrons. Mahony and Moneo, however, strike a particularly contemporary variation on this theme.

The lanky, can-do cardinal is completely at ease before an audience; legs outstretched, he is equally quick with a humorous quip and a discrete intervention, when his architect's English falters before the complexity of his thought.

For his part, Moneo, elegantly turned out in tweeds and flannels, is habitually intense; his chin tends to sink more deeply into his hands whenever his client uses the words "providence" or "providential."

Moneo insists that the 11-story cathedral--the first to be built in North America in more than a quarter-century--along with its sprawling plaza, rectory, offices, conference center, gardens and 150-foot campanile, are solely the product of "the site's logic and my memories of the churches I have experienced."

When a member of the audience inquired whether "divine" inspiration played any role in his design, Moneo's head sank, again. "There have not been many good examples of religious architecture in the last 100 years," he replied finally. The past century, he said, has produced churches that were "good buildings, but not good religious architecture. The exceptions are few and of small scale: "the Matisse chapel and LeCorbusier's churches at La Tourette and, particularly, Ronchamp [in France]."

It was the knowledge of such shortcomings, Moneo said, that rendered him both "excited and reluctant" when he was invited to compete for the cathedral commission six years ago. "Then it began to seem that fate was going to put into my hands this difficult project, a certain feeling that it was inevitable."

If it seemed so, according to Mahony, it was because Moneo seemed to him and his advisors "the architect who could best capture the sense of sacred--not public--space. ... He understood that this wasn't just another downtown building."

Nor is it just another cathedral in the historic sense, which helps explain Our Lady of the Angels' potential for greatness. From the outset, both architect and cardinal were convinced by visits to churches such as St. Patrick's in New York and the great cathedral in Toledo, Spain, that their dual role as public buildings and houses of worship--along with too-ready access from the street--had subverted the buildings' orginal purpose.

"We knew," Mahony said, "that we wanted to separate public worship from private devotion." Not doing so, he said, produces the confusion and distraction familiar to anyone who has visited St. Patrick's or most of Europe's religious monuments.

"I wanted both a public space," said Moneo, "and something else, what it is that people seek when they go to church." To the architect, the logic of those competing interests suggested, first of all, a series of "buffering, intermediating spaces"--plazas, staircases and colonnades. Then, most compellingly, an unorthodox entry, which clearly has captivated the architect's cardinal client.

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