repelled by LA’s ultra-modern cathedral. Rebecca Sparke challenges us to look again at this architectural marvel n the midst of bustling downtown Los Angeles the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels rises majestically above the traffic of Temple Street. It is the first Catholic cathedral to be erected in the western United States in 30 years and was only dedicated in September 2002.
Spanish architect Professor Monen’s post-modern geometric design consists of virtually no right angles. Its solid concrete structure is painted to emulate the “sun-baked walls of the California Missions”. Together, the distinctive colouring and the striking aesthetics attract the attention of passers by. However, unlike the demanding downtown skyscrapers, Our Lady of the Angels does so tentatively and demurely, despite being 11 stories high and only 1,000 feet smaller than the Cathedral of Notre Dame.
The cathedral’s pale sun kissed structure contrasts magnificently with the expansive blue Californian sky. My first view of the building was from the seat of a large and fast American car travelling along the equally large and fast freeway, which passes besides the cathedral and has been described by Professor Monen as “Los Angeles river of transportation, the connection of people to each other”. I was enthused by my momentary glimpse of the cathedral. This was no doubt due to my enthusiasm for all things aesthetic, as well as my cradle-Catholic roots which, since childhood, have installed in me a need to find a “good church” when abroad, within which one can pass an afternoon of free entertainment.
I entered Our Lady of the Angels on my seventh day in the city, by which time I had become somewhat disillusioned by the endless shops, despite my initially excitement and spending spree, heightened by the strength of the pound (as it was then). With over half of my stay in Los Angeles over, I had also given up the search for the all-elusive American film star in the Hollywood hills and had just about had enough of the endless gridlock of traffic for which the city is renowned. In fact, I was thankful for the opportunity to spend a few hours away from the intense midday heat in quiet contemplation of the cathedral’s magnificent structure and numerous artistic wonders.
In typical LA style the only expected mode of entry to the cathedral is by car. An underground car park supplies lifts and escalators to the main entrance and plaza. The installation of such amenities is of course a sensible insertion for a cathedral of its size. However, as a British tourist from a rural town where escalators belong predominantly inside multistorey shopping centres, it did seem rather amusing.
My pilgrimage to the cathedral by bus and on foot was less slick, but undoubtedly worth the effort. Immediately on entry to the plaza a sense of calm tranquillity was apparent. The careful instillation of water features and greenery within the medita tive area helped to promote these sentiments. Opposite the plaza gates artist Lita Albuquerque’s Gateway pool and water wall movingly represent the cathedral’s cultural diversity. Jesus’s words to the Samaritan woman in John 4:14. “I shall give you living water” are inscribed repetitively in many of the 42 different languages in which Sunday Mass is celebrated within the archdiocese.
Unsurprisingly, the cathedral’s post-modern appearance has come under much criticism from more traditional members of the Church. However, my personal experience of the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels was an extremely positive one. It seemed to me that much sensitivity and care had been taken to incorporate and promote the more traditional elements of the Church, as well as the history of LA’s archdiocese. A series of five exquisite murals in the South Ambulatory exemplify this by “depict[ing] the role of the Church in California” as “a pilgrimage through time, a story to be lived out and pictured here by further generations”. Furthermore, the refurbished altar of St Vibiana, which was rescued from the original cathedral that was damaged in the 1994 Northridge earthquake, has been installed in St Vibiana’s chapel. The presentation of the Church’s history and integration of the old within a postmodernist design is immensely praiseworthy. It is an example of the meticulous consideration paid by those who were responsible for designing all aspects of the cathedral.
Our Lady of the Angels interior evokes spiritual and emotional responses through its art, architecture and designs. All of which have been inspired by the Christian faith. It is my belief that some of the finest examples of contemporary Christian art can be discovered within the Cathedral. One particular highlight has been described as the “most important and central liturgical feature of the entire cathedral”. This is Mary Louise Snowden’s altar angels. The artist explains her four sculpted angels that adorn the base of the central altar were inspired by the scripture passage from (Revelations 8:3) which Cardinal Roger Mahony gave her to contemplate as she began to create the angels.
The cathedral’s mausoleum should also be noted. Far from the stereotypes with which the term is often associated, the cathedral’s mausoleum is minimalistic and structurally uniform. Its cleanliness and silence promote deep respect for the dead. Among those buried and memorialised are St Vibiana, the patron saint of Los Angeles’ archdiocese, Thaddeus Amat y Brusi, the city’s first bishop, members of the laity and because it is after all still LA, actor Gregory Peck and actress June Marlowe.
In short, I found little to criticise during my day at the cathedral. My visit was an enthralling and inspirational experience. The only less appealing addition to the cathedral site is the restaurant/burger bar in the plaza. However, I was personally compelled to make use of its services and it can perhaps be justified as a form of additional funding for a building that cost £100m to construct and has many daily expenses.
The Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels promotes the positive and professional nature of contemporary Christian art. Furthermore, it does much for the promotion of Catholicism within today’s western society. It is undoubtedly a feast for both the eyes and the mind.