Soaring angels

Los Angeles has been secularised as far from its original function and title as one could imagine. Its floridly reverent original name, El Pueblo de Nuestra Señora de Los Angeles, has shrunk to the briefest vernacular LA. A madonna is a mega celebrity, angels abound in new-age book shops and the word spiritual might have something to do with billboards for bourbon. Many see it as a soulless city, but those who enjoy it do so for its energy, its diversity, its institutions and its hip confidence.

The part of the city I have become familiar with is associated with the cult of eternal life, the life of the body and face rather than anything which might lurk deeper than the skin. You can’t take your wealth with you; it seems to be saying, so you might as well spend it all on your present self. Perfect teeth, skin and nails are the norm, created and assisted by an army of associated professionals. This is exemplified in the recent motion picture Cold Mountain which tells of the incomparable suffering of men in the American civil war and the incomparably perfect beauty of our heroine, at one stage scrabbling around on her farm in the mud and gore, her Jessica’s Nails and her blue eye liner just perfect.

It therefore comes as a surprise—though, given its huge Latino population and its Spanish origins, it shouldn’t—that LA has a brand new cathedral, a striking monument in a sprawling city whose few grand buildings tend to be hard to see, let alone find and visit. Add this masterpiece by Spanish architect Jose Rafael Moneo to Richard Meier’s Getty Center and Frank Gehry’s Walt Disney Concert Hall just across the road to any list of LA must-sees.

Our Lady Queen of the Angels stands on the crest of Bunker Hill, higher and grander than its predecessor, the Cathedral of St Vibiana, which was destroyed in the 1994 earthquake. She rides her site, a slope leads up and the steep side drops down to a river, as the great cathedral of Chartres rides hers; but this lady towers above the hard materials of downtown rather than open fields, and a torrent of traffic replaces the gentle River Eure.

This comparison sets the tone of the building and its great forecourt; you are comfortably at home here, the cathedral does all the right things, yet it constantly tells you that it is a modern building for modern life, not a safe, symmetrical neo-neo gothic or Spanish revival-revival container of symbols for an unquestioning faithful.

It has it all; scale, volume, carillon, campanile, big bronze doors, forecourt, side chapels, crypt, organ, choir, baptistery, lofty windows, light filled interior, huge nave and east-west axis.

But you enter from the side front, not the centre, straight into a sloping ambulatory from which you can access side chapels or step down through narrow sloping entrances to the nave. This is raked, auditorium style, and paved with curved Spanish limestone tiles which follow the contours and fan out from the altar. The acoustics are perfect, fed through trumpet shaped loudspeakers in the centres of the light pendants. You can see and be seen from all points, hear and be heard in this vast pillar-less space in which both symmetry and right angles are hard to find.

The materials are simple and unified in warm earth tones evocative of the region’s early adobe mission churches—translucent alabaster windows, limestone, smooth concrete, cherrywood. Underneath, though, its supporting columns rest on steel and rubber bearings and stainless steel sliders to withstand the sudden lateral motion of a severe earthquake.

This is a building which welcomes the casual visitor as well as the worshipper. In a city with little open space, the forecourt serves as a town square. You could come just for morning coffee served from an outdoor kiosk, and enjoy it under umbrellas by the olive and palm groves in the forecourt. Your kids could play in the children’s garden amongst life-size cast animals of the bible—the camel, hare, lion, donkey—and they can hop along bits of text which acknowledge man’s indebtedness to his non-human companions. You could come to solemn mass and a full choir, in Spanish or English; you could come here to take refuge from the next earthquake or to listen to the 37-bell carillon and the big bells in the campanile on Sundays.

This is California, though, and not far from Hollywood. You almost certainly arrive by car, so you park in a spacious crypt of a car park, come up via escalator, walk past a symbolic pool and water wall, across the forecourt to the bronze doors. A red carpet would not be out of place. Though there is a high wall and colonnade along the freeway edge, its purpose is to dampen sound, not to deny the existence of the rushing traffic below; glass panels lightly etched with flying angels who beckon or wave to the traffic and remind you, in case you feel displaced, where you are. In the burial crypt below, vaults are available for many decades hence, their sale providing funds for the cathedral’s ongoing costs. Appropriately, the first occupant is a screen idol.

There is something of Hollywood too in the most visible of the art works in the interior, John Nava’s 25 tapestries lining the nave walls. On each, a group representing part of the Communion of Saints gazes entranced towards the altar. There is no attempt at chronological classification; Nava places an apostle with an early Christian martyr, a modern saint, a medieval pope and a small group of tough LA street kids. Their faces are photo realistic, having been selected from the files of a casting agent and digitised by Nava’s collaborating artist, John Farnsworth. Nava treats their clothing and the flat backgrounds as if they were of peeling fresco, bridging one of the oldest art mediums with one of the most modern, then taking it all off to the electronically operated jacquard looms of Bruges for quick production.

This is a building in which the architect’s ego lies low, but his solutions to the complex challenges and problems of the task are quite resolved at both the grand and the finely detailed ends of the scale. Though bold, angular and plain, it is far from minimal. It expresses and invites emotional responses without resorting to corny symbolism. In a city where showiness is expected and the cringe meter can be revving high, it is dignified and purposeful, embracing the new whilst respecting and incorporating the familiar.

Above all, it is a place for people.

Anna Griffiths is a NSW art consultant.



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