To the Lighthouse

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Church design may be the only kind of architecture that you learn about in the nursery. "Here's the church, here's the steeple ..." Well, here is the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels, the immense new Roman Catholic church for the city of Los Angeles. So where's the steeple? And where is the central doorway you expect from a great sacred space? And what happened to the stained-glass windows and the crowds of ecclesiastical statuary that a Catholic church has always brought to mind? There have been many modern churches before this one. Even so, the L.A. cathedral, the first to be built in the U.S. in 25 years, is a signal event: a sign that the cleansing operation of modern architecture has been embraced for one of the most ambitious places of Catholic worship of the new century.

Our Lady of the Angels is the work of Jose Rafael Moneo, the great Spanish architect whose roots are simultaneously in the here and now and in the sunlit antiquity of the Mediterranean rim. It was built in part because the Los Angeles archdiocese's previous seat, a much smaller church called St. Vibiana's, was badly damaged in the 1994 earthquake. But it was also built because L.A.'s powerful Roger Cardinal Mahony wanted it. Six years ago Mahony interviewed for the project a series of architects, including Frank Gehry, whose irresistible Walt Disney Concert Hall is going up just a few blocks from the cathedral — all part of what the city hopes will turn the increasingly revitalized downtown into a cultural corridor of museums and theaters.

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Whatever Mahony may have thought about Gehry's exuberant aesthetic, he found a kindred spirit in Moneo, a 1996 winner of the Pritzker Prize, the crown jewel of architectural awards. But even before its official opening, on Labor Day weekend, there have been grumblings that the cathedral's asymmetrical and angular silhouette departs too sharply from conventional notions of church design, especially that of Catholic churches. There have also been complaints that its $163 million cost is too high, especially at a time when the archdiocese may have to spend heavily to settle court claims of sexual abuse by priests.

Moneo has said he wants his church "to offer a space where people feel more able to isolate themselves from daily life." Monasticism may seem an odd inspiration for a building as central to the larger community as a cathedral, but it's key to this one, a high-walled enclosure in ocher concrete with a minimum of window or entryway cuts in its lower half. The mostly windowless exterior and the Spanish-mission-style walls that surround the entire compound can make the church seem to be holding itself apart from the city. The edgy silhouette is both familiar and new, not a postmodern replica of Spanish missions but a sophisticated recollection of them, one filtered through the jagged memory of the urbanized era that followed theirs. At its skyline it has the excitement of the new, but it beckons you into the past.

All the same, at ground level the church lacks the imposing central portal that has signified a great church from the time of the Gothic cathedrals. Instead, the main entrance is set off to one side, marked by a pair of 30-ft.-high bronze doors designed by the sculptor Robert Graham. And what those doors open onto is not the central aisle that leads to the altar but a long side corridor with a series of small chapels along its right, a passage that offers almost no glimpse of the main interior.

For anyone accustomed to entering a church quickly through its front door, the deferred gratification of Moneo's passageway will be puzzling. Moneo has likened the walk down that hallway to the soul's journey toward God's light. In this case the soul turns right at the end of its journey to enter at last into the high-ceilinged, sunlit nave of the church; when it arrives there, all misgivings drop to the ground. Moneo is a master of interior spaces, an expert at setting traps for sunlight. An addition he designed a few years ago for the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston contains some of the most satisfying gallery spaces in the U.S.--a succession of rooms lighted gently from above by light boxes that thrust up from the museum's roof to catch the sun. In his Los Angeles church, light is filtered through windows made of thin sheets of semitransparent alabaster. When the light falls across the great central space and careens around the angled walls, it provides exactly the great climax that his long, hushed corridor promised.

So this is Moneo's answer to one of the most vexing questions in architecture, What should a church look like now? His answer: a public place that also accommodates private reflection. It's the old answer, of course, but one that must constantly be updated. For most of the past 1,000 years, architecture meant church design above all. Michelangelo, Bernini, Wren — to be an architect was chiefly to build houses for God, a demanding client but one who could make your name if you got things right. Then came the 20th century. Office towers and football stadiums pushed cathedrals into the cultural limbo occupied by library cards — those things we know we should revere but don't use as much as we used to. A church, after all, is where you think about death and eternity. A lot of people think about those things now at airports.

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