Building on Faith


The mechanical shovels are chewing loudly into the earth, creating a big hole for an underground parking garage. Dump trucks rumble through the dusty lot and construction workers yell directions over the din.

The scene in downtown Los Angeles is hardly one of contemplative peace, and the property on the south side of the Hollywood Freeway appears to be an unlikely candidate for religious devotion.

But that doesn’t bother Cardinal Roger M. Mahony.

Wearing a red construction hard hat that contrasts with his black suit and shirt, the spiritual leader of the nation’s most populous Roman Catholic archdiocese seems exuberant as he clambers over dirt piles and metal beams at the site. He has no trouble envisioning what it will be in three years or so: the new Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels, the $163-million headquarters for Catholics in Los Angeles, Ventura and Santa Barbara counties.


“We would hope that from the outside, even from some distance, people will see this place is sacred and this place is dedicated to the glory of God, and be drawn to it by a gentle spirit,” Mahony said, pointing toward the hilltop where the 3,000-seat cathedral will stand, facing a large public plaza bedecked with fountains and gardens.

Mahony frequently visits the 5.6-acre hillside property, a former county-owned parking lot between the freeway and Temple Street, Grand Avenue and Hill Street. “I just can’t stay away from the place. It’s so exciting to see it happening,” he said.

A groundbreaking ceremony was held last month, interrupted by Catholic Worker protesters who want the construction money spent on the poor instead. Excavation is proceeding for the 600-space garage close to Hill Street. Digging for the cathedral’s foundation is scheduled to start early next year.

Behind the scenes, architects, engineers, artists and church leaders are pondering many technical and liturgical decisions to translate the much-praised but unusual design of Madrid-based architect Jose Rafael Moneo into concrete, copper, glass and alabaster.


The discussions blend “the transcendent with the very mundane,” according to Nicholas W. Roberts, the project manager for the Leo A. Daly firm. The Daly company is the executive architect/engineer for the cathedral, turning Moneo’s plans into detailed construction documents to meet local building codes.

“Designing a building to last 300 years minimum is not something one does every day in this city,” Roberts said.

Everyone involved cites budget pressures and the tight deadlines to complete the basic structures by September 2001.

“We are racing against time. We can’t stall along the way,” Hayden Salter, Moneo’s chief representative in Los Angeles, said at his desk in the archdiocese’s office. He described the project as “extremely, extremely complicated.”


Practical Concerns

About 20 groups of consultants are busy with such questions as: Where should television broadcast facilities fit into the cathedral? Which biblical scenes should sculptor Robert Graham cast onto the 60-foot-high bronze doors at the main entrance? Will all worshipers be able to hear the spoken words of the Mass? Or the choir and the organ music? What about accommodating motorcades for weddings and funerals?

In a telephone interview from Madrid, Moneo said he has been visiting Los Angeles monthly and expects to keep a similar schedule in the winter and spring while teaching at Harvard University. Faxes and e-mail are flying daily between his staff in Los Angeles and Spain to refine the plan first publicly presented more than a year ago.

“I wouldn’t say it has changed too much,” Moneo said. “Substantial aspects of the scheme remain pretty much the same.”


Drawings and wooden models show a modern cathedral of bold geometric forms and imposing size, 300 feet long and as high as 130 feet. The copper roof is a complicated series of trapezoids, and the church’s side walls hold expanses of glass. Most dramatic, an enormous concrete cross declares the faith above the altar through a window that will be back-lit to glow at night and catch the attention of freeway drivers.

“People are not going to say: ‘I wonder what this is?’ It’s going to be very clear that this is a church,” said Mahony.

While the cathedral extends mid-block from the plaza to Grand Avenue, two other buildings flank the plaza’s east end along Hill Street: an administration center with a cafe, shop and museum, and a separate residence building for the cardinal and other priests.

The architect said he recently made the complex’s entrance more prominent by adding a set of mission bells hung from the colonnades that will border the Temple Street sidewalk. And he is working on details for a free-standing, 150-foot-high bell tower on Grand Avenue that he hopes will answer city planners’ complaints that the cathedral’s rear exterior may not be friendly to pedestrians.


Meanwhile, tests are being conducted on building materials.

Concrete panels, formed into the shingle-like facade that Moneo wants, are being sandblasted and cast in various textures and shades. The goal is a warm adobe color.

Also under study is alabaster’s durability when panels of the whitish stone are placed behind glass windows in the California sun. Forget about the darkly colored atmosphere created by stained glass in more traditional churches. Instead, Moneo wants natural sunlight filtered through alabaster to produce a special glow and feeling of enclosure. In fact, the entire cathedral is on a slight angle from the street grid to better catch the sunlight.

“I hope it enhances this sense that you are out of daily life and reaching into this other sphere in which the religious experience happens,” he said.


The project is complicated by seismic worries. Rubber and steel base isolators that operate in the foundation like shock absorbers are expected to allow the cathedral to sway about two feet in a quake.

“So the wine may spill out of the chalice, but the building won’t crack,” Roberts said.

Cathedral work was delayed in part by court battles with preservationists over the still-undecided fate of St. Vibiana’s Cathedral at 2nd and Main streets. The archdiocese wanted to demolish and replace the quake-damaged St. Vibiana’s with the new church but then switched to the larger and more prominent tract above the freeway. That move triggered protests by Native Americans who charged that the land may have been an ancient burial ground.

City officials say that the most significant archeological finds so far are old whiskey bottles, chicken bones and bricks from demolished apartment buildings.


Although rainy winters could slow things, the general contractor, Morley Construction Co. of Santa Monica, is optimistic that the three-year schedule can be met.

“From what we think, it will be a mighty effort, but yes, we all intend to do that, Lord willing,” said Morley Senior Vice President Terry Dooley, project executive for the cathedral.

$163 Million Is the Limit

The archdiocese reports that $130 million in building donations are pledged or collected. Mahony said he is confident the remaining $33 million will be raised by the end of next year. He insists that the total price tag is frozen at $163 million, not including artwork to be added over generations, and that any inflation in basic costs will trigger cutbacks in other features of the complex.


The cathedral’s floor plan echoes aspects of Catholic tradition, such as a nave in the ancient cruciform shape and an underground crypt chapel for the remains of St. Vibiana, a 3rd century Italian martyr. Vatican II reforms are evident too, in having seating on three sides of the altar.

But other parts of the planned interior show radical departures from convention.

The altar is near the front facade, not the back wall. Visitors will enter corridors that surround the nave and walk toward the more brightly lighted sanctuary in what Mahony describes as a “journey of faith.” Moneo has altered his original design to allow more side entrances into the nave from the corridors in case worshipers did not want to walk the hallways’ full lengths.

“Of course, we always kid about our Catholic parishioners who are used to coming in the back door and sitting in the back pews,” Mahony said. They may be in for “a big shock,” he added, because some of those side entries lead to the front pews.


The corridors, known as ambulatories, are to be lined with 10 devotional chapels. Those chapels do not open into the main sanctuary since Mahony does not want devotional prayers to compete with the Mass. On the walls of the ambulatory along Temple Street, a mural will depict the history of the Roman Catholic Church in California--to be extended over the decades.

There are no stone arches across the ceiling or gargoyle carvings. The nave’s ceiling is to be made of woven wood, meant to help acoustics and soften the effect of the concrete walls.

Ayahlushim Hammond, an official of the city’s Community Redevelopment Agency, which is monitoring the project, praised Moneo’s designs for creating “a hallowed space that is serene and beautiful.”

She said, however, that some city planners have expressed concern that the cathedral’s Grand Avenue side may not be inviting. The CRA is working on a master plan for shops and plantings that will link the cathedral, the Music Center, Disney Concert Hall and the Museum of Contemporary Art.


Moneo’s staff is tinkering with the Grand Avenue facade. In addition, they think extra landscaping will improve their section of the street and that the bell tower should prove to be an attraction.

At the construction site, the archbishop is thinking about how chapels may be decorated to reflect various ethnic communities of Los Angeles. He envisions angel symbols stamped into the plaza’s pavement. He talks about one garden for children’s play and another for quiet contemplation.

“I can see it,” Mahony said. “Absolutely.”



Cathedral for the 21st Century

Floor plans and computer images for the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels in downtown Los Angeles show a block-long complex that combines Roman Catholic tradition with architectural innovation. The archdiocese hopes for a landmark visible from the adjacent Hollywood Freeway and a worship space that glows with sunlight filtered through alabaster panels. Work recently began on what is expected to be three years of construction.

The two images above show interior plans for the cathedral’s 3,000-seat nave. At top are a side wall and alabaster-lined windows. The lower image shows the wooden ceiling and massive concrete cross in a window above the altar.