Austere and slightly atavistic in its mysticism, the new Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels is a landmark of remarkable architectural intelligence.
Designed by the Spanish firm Jose Rafael Moneo Architects, with Los Angeles-based Leo A Daly Architects, the cathedral will be unveiled at an elaborate dedication today. The grandeur of its interior will instantly make it the city's most glorious public space. In its beauty, it is the equal of the Getty Museum's celebrated glass rotunda. In its heroic scale, it embodies L.A.'s slow shift from a place of stubborn individualism to one that is struggling to find its communal identity.
The design's power stems from its aura of timelessness. Few structures have been able to express the long arc of architectural history—from antiquity through classical Modernism—with such crystalline clarity.
Fewer still have sought to create such a seamless spiritual journey from outer to inner worlds. That Moneo accomplishes this feat in a city known for its relentless obsession with the future verges on the miraculous.
Moneo has said that his design was influenced by the traditional cathedral plazas of his native Spain, as well as of South America. The complex is divided into two main components, stretching out over an entire city block from Grand Avenue to Hill Street and between Temple Street and the Hollywood Freeway.
The cathedral stands at the block's southwest corner. The long, low form of the two buildings that house the cathedral offices, meeting rooms and residence anchor the block's eastern edge. Together, the two structures frame a vast plaza, creating a sacred precinct that seems almost archaic.
Normally, such traditional plazas are rooted in the life of the city. In Venice, Italy, for example, pedestrians weave their way through a maze of narrow alleyways before they reach San Marco Square. Once you step through its arcades, the sense of openness is explosive.
Moneo's plaza, by comparison, seems to have crashed down from a distant world. There is a pedestrian entrance on Temple Street, but most visitors probably will arrive by car, quickly dip into the parking lot and rise to the dazzling plaza by escalator. The streets and the freeway below are irrelevant. Civic leaders have touted the cathedral as a major addition to the cultural corridor flowering along Grand Avenue. In fact, the cathedral, oriented toward its cloistered plaza, virtually ignores Grand. Seen from the avenue, its heavy, block-like forms have a tendency to fade into the inferior 1960s-era Modernist buildings that surround it. The saw-tooth pattern of its massive clerestory window, meanwhile, gives the facade an introverted quality, as if it were oblivious to the natural order of daily life.
Yet that indifference to context is also quintessentially Los Angeles. It represents accepted wisdom about how to create public space in a suburban landscape without a true sense of center, whose communal tissue remains, to a large degree, its freeways and shopping malls. Most architects, when faced with such realities, have simply walled themselves off from them. The result is often a place like the Grove at Farmers Market—a new high-end, open-air mall—or CityWalk: faux urban fragments embedded in a sea of parking. Richard Meier's Getty Center, modeled on Italian precedents, is effectively the same—a vision of cultural purity perched on a bucolic mountaintop.
Moneo's best work tends to be rooted in the historical context of his native Europe. In the 1986 National Museum of Roman Art in Merida, Spain, for example, the structure's blank, brick form rests gently on top of the Roman ruins. In Murcia, the delicately rendered facade of his City Hall annex building, completed in 1999, faces a brooding Baroque cathedral. Such works create a palpable tension between new and old.
In the case of the cathedral, withdrawal becomes a virtue. Moneo's interest is not in themed environments. Nor is it in local architectural traditions. His aim is to create an inner voyage, one that draws you away from the commercial pollution and visual noise of contemporary urban life and into a more contemplative world.
That journey is breathtaking, and it begins at the plaza.
The first stop is a small entry court, which is set slightly below plaza level at the edge of Temple Street and in front of the parish buildings. The court breaks the rhythm just as you enter the plaza, framing a view of one corner of the cathedral's facade.
From here, the cathedral becomes a composition of dynamic planes, its forms folding back to heighten the play of light and exaggerate the building's upward thrust. A thin plane of concrete folds across the top to hold the eye. An immense cross, fashioned out of concrete and glass, breaks through the cornice line.
Once you've caught your breath, you must choose one of two broad stairways. One leads to the cathedral doors, the other to the center of the plaza. Venture onto the plaza, and the facade seems to flatten out, becoming more stoic and imposing. The effect gives the expansive outdoor plaza, shaded by a few scattered palms, a calculated air of tranquillity.
The main path, however, runs along the plaza's edge, to the church. Across the threshold, a long ambulatory leads alongside the main worship space toward the back of the structure. The walls converge slightly, creating a forced perspective, a visual trick that makes the space seem longer than it is.
It is here that Moneo's mastery of composition and form reaches its peak. A row of chapels stretches out to the right, shielding the view of the main worship space. The walls dividing the chapels have an asymmetrical rhythm—some close together, others farther apart—that gives them a musical aura. Slots between the chapels allow for carefully framed views into the main sanctuary. Light filtering through the enormous alabaster clerestory spills down into the chapels from above.
But this is only a tease. Once you reach the back of the ambulatory, you turn abruptly, and the entire cathedral suddenly opens up to you. The room is built at the scale of the city. Above the altar, the cross-shaped window reappears, its concrete-and-glass form breaking through the facade in a sort of spiritual epiphany.
If this sequence of spaces has an architectural equivalent, it is Frank Lloyd Wright's 1905 Unity Temple in Oak Park, Ill. But Wright's version is much more compact. Visitors enter and turn abruptly, then suddenly turn again, before slipping into the sanctuary. In Moneo's cathedral, that experience is carefully drawn out so that it takes on a different meaning. The architecture is measured to the pace of the mind's eye, and with each step you are forced to make a mental adjustment, as if purging yourself of trivial distractions.
That sense of displacement comes to a halt in the main sanctuary. The floor is slightly raked and the walls open up toward the altar. The effect is the reverse of that in the ambulatory, shortening the distance to the altar, and locking you in your place. Muscular concrete pillars that house the chapels rise up on either side.
The crushing weight of the pillars embodies an idea of permanence that is a bold challenge to L.A.'s faith in a disposable, consumer society. But Moneo also softens this effect, and the space has an ethereal, otherworldly quality. The room's asymmetrical forms seem to carve through space. The polished concrete surfaces—stained a sandy yellow—are silky to the touch. Above, the patterned wood surface of the ceiling sags down like the belly of a whale, which helps give the room an unexpected warmth.
Apparently, this was still too much aloofness for archdiocese officials, who have cluttered the space with unfortunate details in an effort to bring it back down to earth. The chandeliers, in particular, are atrocious. Their ornate bronze fixtures nearly destroy the visual lines of the interior. The John Nava-designed tapestries should have reinforced the abstraction of the architecture. Instead, they fight with it. It's best to ignore them.
Upon leaving this room, Moneo eases you back into the world. A secondary ambulatory leads along a tranquil garden, which is visible through an 80-foot-long window. The campanile rises in the background, punctuating the view. Stepping back out onto the plaza, the bustle of life begins to overtake you again. Sounds of the freeway float up from below. California's harsh, golden light shakes you from your reverie.
Still, Moneo's architecture has left a lasting mark. If it struggles to find its place in the city, its intent is to offer a refuge from it. The relentless flow of Los Angeles' sprawling landscape is momentarily lessened. In its place is a monument to spiritual communion that certainly ranks among the great architectural achievements in recent American history.