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A Shared Devotion to the New Cathedral

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.

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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.”

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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.”

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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.

Worshipers will enter the new cathedral through a monumental set of bronze doors cast by sculptor Robert Graham and crowned by a completely contemporary statue of the Virgin. They will then proceed along an ambulatory, which stretches past side chapels along the length of the nave, separated and illuminated by windows composed of 24,000 feet of thinly veined Spanish alabaster. (There is, in fact, not an inch of stained glass in the cathedral proper, though the historic windows from the old Cathedral of St. Vibianna have been restored by Judson Studios and reinstalled in the new structure’s crypt.)

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Once they have traversed the ambulatories, visitors will be invited to turn and proceed through the nave, which is illuminated by an inset cross, oriented as tradition dictates to the east.

These arrangements, Moneo said, will allow “this cathedral to play a double role--the light will illuminate those inside, while those outside will experience the light coming from within the cathedral as a sign. ... This light is used as a metaphor for mystical experience and for the presence of God within the church.”

To Mahony, this use of light and the experience visitors will have of moving through and toward it has “two theological underpinnings--the notion of light and of a journey. The journey through and toward light will provide new insights, as God does in the journey we undertake through everyday life.”

Such conceptual unity, Moneo said, was the product of a working relationship in which the architect and his team “didn’t move a finger without [Mahony’s] approval. I don’t know what would have happened if he had been working with Frank Gehry,” quipped the architect, referring to his fellow Pritzker winner, whose Disney Hall is rising farther up the hill. Mahony’s on-site participation, added Moneo was the key to the cathedral’s rapid progress. “The church operates as an absolute dictatorship,” Mahony retorted, “and that helps moves things along.”

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Though the architect insisted that he and his client had reached “a complete intersection of interests,” Mahony said that differences have arisen during the course of their collaboration. Looking back through their correspondence, the cardinal said, “most of my letters began ‘Dear Rafael,’ but every once and a while there was one that began ‘Dear Prof. Moneo.’”

One difference that clearly lingers in Moneo’s mind concerns the cathedral’s art, which includes not only Graham’s 5-ton doors, but also tapestries by John Nava and works by other local artists.

“The art could have been more daring than it is,” said Moneo, “but the cardinal has insisted on art that is understandable to his people.”

It is an objection Mahony finds unmoving. “We felt that because we have so many ethnic groups in our community, we had to have art with which all our people would feel at home. For the rest, we’ll have MOCA down the street.”

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There was laughter--even from the exacting architect.


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