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Creating a Timeless Place in an Ever-Changing City

Architecture: Jose Rafael Moneo sought to define what makes a space sacred.


Around 6 Friday evening, a groggy, bespectacled man in a wrinkled blazer slipped undetected into the rear entrance of the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels. The construction workers were gone, the opening was two days off, and the low sun threw orange light sideways across the walls and windows.

"When you stand here," said the man softly, "you feel the walls as sources of light."

"And when you stand here, the ceiling is like wings, folded, protecting you."

Then, as the man pointed up toward the cross behind the altar, a security guard stepped up.

"Architect?" inquired the guard.

Architect, indeed. After six years of work bringing this building from his imagination to the corner of Grand Avenue and Temple Street, Jose Rafael Moneo of Madrid was taking a few covert minutes inside the vast concrete-and-alabaster structure.

"It is always rewarding, and at the same time sad, to finish a work," Moneo said. Earlier in the day, speaking in Spanish to a television interviewer, Moneo compared the vast church to a ship still in dry dock.

"I'm looking forward," he said, "to when the ship is finally out in the ocean."

Moneo, 65, has seen perhaps 80 of his building designs realized in his career, has served as chairman of the Harvard University Graduate School of Design's architecture department (from 1985 to 1990) and has won the highest global honor in architecture, the Pritzker Prize (in 1996, the same year he won the competition to design Los Angeles' new Catholic cathedral).

But before this, Moneo had never designed a religious building and had never had such a high-profile project outside his homeland.

After six years of monthly visits to Los Angeles from Madrid and a vacation on the Spanish island of Majorca that lasted through most of August, Moneo flew into California on Thursday night, just hours ahead of the cathedral's last round of pre-opening news conferences and walk-throughs. For the next week, he said, he'll be quietly hanging around the site, watching it come to life.

"I think we have achieved most of what we were looking for," Moneo said. He also professed deep respect for Cardinal Roger M. Mahony's leadership on the project.

Still, the architect said, he would have liked to have handled more details himself, from the kneelers scattered in chapels around the cathedral to the cardinal's chair by the altar (made by another artist). Most volubly, Moneo has spent months on a futile campaign to reduce the number of hanging lamps over the cathedral's pews.

Many insiders on the project have fretted that the lamps, which resemble downward-aiming trumpets and hold small speakers as well as lightbulbs, mar the visitor's crucial first view of the altar from the rear of the cathedral. Mahony has maintained that the pews need that light. Moneo suggested dryly on Friday that as a worshiper in a pew, "you don't need the same light that you need for surgical intervention.... I am sure the cathedral, with half of the lamps we have today, would be much nicer."

Still, Moneo said, working with Mahony has been simpler than dealing with bureaucracies, and much easier than dealing with the Prado Museum in Madrid, where his design for an extension has been bogged down for years.

Onlookers have been struck by the stark surfaces of the church's sand-colored concrete walls, but their designer has been living with that idea for so long that his gaze travels easily and rapidly across the church exterior. Inside, strolling the aisles and ambulatories, Moneo pointed with satisfaction to several asymmetrical chapels along the entrance ambulatory (the architect's nod to the diverse nature of Mahony's flock); to the vast alabaster clerestory windows, which filter light into sepia hues; to the tall concrete cross behind the altar, which is visible to northbound cars on the Hollywood Freeway, which happens to flow along the Camino Real route blazed by Spanish missionaries in the 18th century.

Continuing his stroll, he frowned at a porcelain Madonna he'd like to see on a higher pedestal, and confessed that he would have liked more input on the mausoleum beneath the cathedral and the cardinal's residence across the plaza. He lamented the lost portico (vetoed by Mahony, the architect said) that would have offered shade to worshipers as they drew close to sculptor Robert Graham's bronze cathedral doors. Yet he shrugged off the fake owl someone had installed above the entrance to discourage birds.

As for the artworks displayed in and around the cathedral, "Don't ask me what features I like and don't like," Moneo said. "There are some that I clearly don't like. But I don't need to share completely with the cardinal his aesthetic tastes."

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