April 10, 2008
"Well, it’s big."
That was my sister Joanie’s summary comment on the Catholic Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels in downtown Los Angeles when we visited it shortly after its dedication in 2002. We had a second opportunity to see it a week ago last Monday, when I was in your area to enjoy the weather of paradise and catch up on things with family and friends.
The best way to approach the cathedral is on foot, where you can see it in its urban context. This we did — on, of all things, a walking tour of downtown, guided by our long-time friend Francisco Balderrama, who teaches California history at Cal State L.A. The idea of a walking tour of Los Angeles sounds as oxymoronic as sun-bathing in Antarctica or dining on Big Macs in Paris. But our little excursion in the fresh spring air, starting at that temple of transportation, Union Station, breaking for breakfast at Philippe’s French Dip, winding through the historic Pueblo district, and ending at the Cathedral and the Music Center, brought a refreshingly positive perspective on the center city to me, who grew up in L.A. and had mostly seen it through the window of a car.
After admiring the original Queen of Angels Church on the Old Plaza, built in 1822, we walked over the Hollywood Freeway to Temple Street and looked west. Conspicuous at the top of the hill was the new cathedral, planted there like a fortress, squat and defensive, emblazoned with a huge crusaders’ cross. As we marched up the steep incline of Temple Street — another reason to walk this area, not drive it — we could contemplate the contours of the building with incremental clarity. Our Lady of the Angels is more like Our Lady of the Angles. There are no lofty spires, nothing to direct your eyes to heaven. The walls of the structure oppose each other in a kind of static clashing. According to the cathedral’s website (olacathedral.org, rich in detail about the church and its furnishings), the architect, José Rafael Moneo, designed a building "that avoids right angles and symmetry," in order to evoke a "feeling of mystery." Actually, the feeling it evokes is disorientation. For a place dedicated to a woman, the mother of Jesus, there is nothing feminine about it at all — no graceful curves to delight the eye as in the old Plaza Church, nothing to suggest openness and receptivity. Built at the height of the priest scandals, it presents itself as an unwitting symbol of the conflictedness, the asymmetry, within the Church as an institution.
The interior, though impressively appointed, is similarly troubling. With its sloping seating like a theater, one looks down upon, rather than up to, its central feature, the altar.
Most of the churches designed after the liturgical changes of the Second Vatican Council in the 1960’s reject excessive adornment to focus the attention on the altar itself, but this is not the case here. All along the sides of the building hang enormous tapestries depicting the saints, taking the place of the stained-glass windows of the old cathedrals. It is impossible to take your eyes off them. The representations are so lifelike that you find yourself looking for somebody you know among them — exactly the effect the artist, John Nava, sought to achieve. "A saint," he said, "could look like me." (In fact, the artist employed a Hollywood casting agent to find his models.) There’s no doubt that realism is attractive, but to me at least, the attraction here was aesthetic, not spiritual, not a window to the other world but an entertainment in this one.
Perhaps the most telling feature of all is the placement of a magnificent seventeenth-century Spanish altarpiece, located not in one of the many side chapels but along the back wall. It is to be viewed purely as a museum piece, not as an object of devotion and prayer. To me this clearly shows just how radical is the break with tradition in contemporary Catholic church design. Old churches are treated as museums, and its visitors as spectators, admirers of a bygone spirituality.
There are many inspirational aspects to the place, notably the immense bronze doors, the use of alabaster for windows of gentle light, and the striking tabernacle in the Blessed Sacrament Chapel. But the various components, beautiful in themselves, do not fit together as a whole. They seem to reinforce the asymmetry that the architect saw as central to his concept of design.
On the first page of the cathedral website is a "Did You Know?" box detailing significant features of the building and grounds. One of them is: "Number of parking spaces: 600."
Pay this fact no attention. Park your car at Union Station, calm your soul in the Old Plaza Church, and walk up the hill.