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Form Follows Values

Jose Rafael Moneo's cathedral design echoes great churches of the past

September 01, 2002|NICOLAI OUROUSSOFF

Los Angeles finally has a spiritual heart. That's the assumption, at least, behind the monumental new Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels. But exactly what kind of spiritual heart is it?

Rising at the corner of downtown's Grand Avenue and Temple Street, the cathedral's stark concrete form stands at the intersection of the city's cultural future. Its enormous footprint--1 foot longer than Manhattan's St. Patrick's Cathedral--ranks it among the largest cathedrals in America. Its towering facade, with its dynamic cross-shaped altar window, looms over a vast plaza that is clearly intended as a communal focal point in a city that has few.

But the cathedral's ambitions are far more sweeping. Designed by Spanish architect Jose Rafael Moneo, it aims to pick up the historical thread that stretches back through centuries of church design and tie it to the present. To do so, Moneo drew on a range of traditional precedents. He then reworked them for a contemporary world. The result is a structure steeped in memory and yet wholly new.

There has never been a fixed formula for designing churches, and debates about their ideal form have raged through centuries.

What we often think of as the typical Roman Catholic church evolved during early Christianity and the Romanesque period, when the Latin cross plan--with its central nave and shorter transept--was first conceived as a representation of the crucifixion of Christ. It reached its apogee in great Gothic cathedrals like Chartres or Notre Dame, which were seen as the physical embodiment of Christ, the link between God and man. The soaring vertical lines of columns, pilasters and buttresses drew the eye up to the heavens, and, just as important, signaled the presence of the divine on earth.

But medieval cathedrals, built up over centuries, were often a patchwork of inconsistent styles, a fact that is summed up by Chartres' oddly mismatched spires--one built in the 12th century, the other, taller and more intricately detailed, built after a fire more than 250 years later.

To the Renaissance mind, such disorder was incapable of expressing the harmony of God's universe with real clarity. In the 15th century architects such as Leon Battista Alberti, Donato d'Agnolo Bramante and, later, Michelangelo began to articulate an aesthetic based on Platonic forms. Alberti, in particular, devised a system of geometric proportions that were remarkably modern in spirit. The dome, meanwhile, became the embodiment of cosmic order and purity.

Such advances produced a philosophical rupture in how churches should be designed. Pope Carlo Borromeo condemned the circle as a pagan form in about 1572 and urged a return to the Latin cross plan. But as Renaissance scholar Rudolf Wittkower pointed out, architects continued to push the boundaries of church design. And during the next few centuries, many of the great churches and cathedrals were an attempt to resolve the conflict between these two forms--the Latin cross and the centralized dome--and their symbolic meaning.

Nowhere was that struggle more visible than in the construction of St. Peter's Basilica. The seat of the Vatican was designed by Bramante in the early part of the 16th century in a Greek cross plan, with four symmetrical bays. Antonio da Sangallo proposed adding a long nave, which would have destroyed the basilica's symmetry.

Later, Michelangelo reasserted the design's cohesion, emphasizing the structure's vertical lines to unify the body of the basilica with the dome. Finally, Carlo Maderno returned to the Latin cross plan, lengthening the nave and completing the St. Peter's design seen today.

Meanwhile, others were pushing such ideas a step forward. In Venice's Il Redentore, Andrea Palladio anchored a central nave with a bulbous dome. Seen from the main entry, the interior's vaulted nave dominates the view, and only as you move farther into the building does the relationship between the nave and the domed space become apparent. Relating the notion of unity to movement through space was a breakthrough. Man, in effect, becomes part of the composition.

Since then, we have seen the delirious geometric forms of the Italian Baroque churches, the darker, brooding Spanish version, and the more pompous monuments of neoclassicism.

But in modern times the most radical challenge to the conventional church plan came from the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), whose reforms were intended to adjust church doctrine to contemporary reality. Those reforms were interpreted by architects as a move away from the basic nave and transept pattern toward a more communal experience, with the congregation wrapped more closely around the central altar.

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