Friday, July 1, 2011

The Architecture of a Cathedral

Church architecture is a recurring theme in this blog. The reason is simple: churches (and synagogues and temples) are pure architecture. Aside from the obvious purpose of providing a spiritual meeting place, the main function of an ecclesiastical building is to enclose space in a beautiful manner. What better assignment could an architect ask for?
1. Entry plaza, Our Lady of the Angels.
Our Lady of the Angels is one such space. As the main Catholic cathedral serving the Los Angeles diocese, the building was controversial when built. Replacing a venerated historic building damaged by the 1994 Northridge earthquake, its non-traditional architecture is an affront to some.  An intern of mine visited the cathedral not long after it opened in 2002. He did not like its aggressive modernity. I had seen published photos of the cathedral (uninspiring) but wanted to reserve judgement until experiencing it in person. That finally happened last week.
2. The Virgin Mary marks the cathedral's main entrance.
The cathedral was designed by Pritzker Prize-winning Spanish architect Rafael Moneo. Jumbled-looking in photographs, the hands-on experience is exhilarating. If you are a traditionalist, of course your opinion would differ. There is nothing traditional about this building. Right from the get-go, the main entrance is off-center and backwards. Unlike any cathedral of which I'm aware, you enter from behind the altar and are required to traverse an austere side aisle to the rear. From there you make a right term and an about-face before the glory of Our Lady of the Angels is fully revealed. In any standard cathedral the nave is exposed at once. Not so here. This is a fresh and daring strategy that makes perfect sense. The main space becomes the worthy goal of an architectural pilgrimage.
3. The nave.
But, wait, it gets better. Moneo uses the long entry aisle to organize a series of side chapels. Chapels are standard fare in Roman Catholic churches, but here they are starkly modern, as well as prominent, features in the sequence of events. The most remarkable thing about these side chapels is the way natural light is introduced from a hidden source.  This happens because the chapels slip underneath the nave's higher volume so natural light can be borrowed from large, unseen windows. This is a fresh version of the old Renaissance magic trick of flooding the focal point of a space with hidden clerestory windows. It makes the object of veneration appear other-worldly. Roman Catholic architects have been at this for a long time and it is reinterpreted anew in Our Lady of the Angels.
4. Side chapel.

All told, the overall impression made by this edifice is one of strength, austerity, and high drama. Does this fulfill the architectural assignment of being a good religious space? I think so. It is, certainly, not beautiful in the conventional sense. There is no comfort here from the familiar. But there is a certainty of purpose that seems appropriate for an (authoritarian) religion. It is a job well done.
5. Nave windows.
Our Lady of the Angels is theatrical, calculated to awe. Some readers may wonder why I am less critical of this space than I was with another theatrically religious building: the Mormon Temple in San Diego. (See previous blog entry November 14, 2009.) Both exhort towards religious emotions. But this Catholic version somehow carries more gravitas. It is architecturally savvy. It is much less of a cardboard stage set than the Mormon version. Perhaps the weight of centuries of architectural expertise has paid off for the Catholics. I also appreciate the fact that Catholics let you roam freely through their architecture whereas Mormons restrict access. (The only other religion that has given me a more difficult time with access to holy spots is Hindu. But that's another story.)

If you want to make your own evaluation, this site at Grand Avenue and the Hollywood Freeway is worth a visit. I offer the accompanying pictures for your consumption, but, remember: two dimensional representations are never the same as experiencing the real thing in living three dimensions. Bon apetit.

Photo credits:

1. Los Angeles
2. MJK
3. Kjetil Ree
4. MJK
5. MJK