Friday, April 13, 2007

A Counter-Proposal for the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels, Los Angeles

Hypothetical Work by Matthew Alderman

I've been thinking for a long time now how I might have handled what could have been the commission of the century, Los Angeles' proverbially bad cathedral, ever since I visited Our Lady of the Angels two Decembers past. I don't think I have shared these drawings with you yet, but my memory may be slipping. In any case, our new readers may enjoy a taste of my designs.

The so-called Yellow Armadillo has become a benchmark for all that is hideous in the ecclesiastical realm, and it certainly looks more like an upscale parking garage on the outside. The inside is problematic, though its much-vaunted bent lines and odd angles are not as irritating as one might suppose. While hardly ideal, the interior could be improved substantially with a few simple changes, such as a real reredos, taking the slope out of the floor, and a more prominent crucifix.

An alternate proposal in a free style for the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels, Los Angeles, California. Perspective from Grand Avenue. August 2006.

I can understand, to some degree, the desire to opt for a less self-consciously historical style. Los Angeles is, despite its mission roots, essentially still a comparatively young city, and its collective unconscious is bound up less in old California than the gaudy, giddy, sunny days of the 1920s. Deco, rather than Spanish Baroque, is to me the real indigenous architecture of the place. Admitted, many fine neo-Churrigueresque designs can be found there--St. Vincent de Paul, for instance, may well be the finest church west of the Mississippi--but something about the site where the great lumpy mass of Our Lady of the Angels now sits calls out for something a bit more massive and muscular, in order to hold its own against the towers of the Financial District. Were it to be placed elsewhere, on Wiltshire Boulevard for instance, where one bishop had hoped to raise a replacement cathedral, I could easily see Baroque as the most suitable choice.

I began to consider the problem in more depth after one reader posed the challenge to me to undertake the design of this counterproposal in a nonhistorical style. My definition of historical and nonhistorical may be a bit different from everyone else's, but the result was a modernised Gothic with deco elements in it, with a strong dose of Giles Gilbert Scott's Liverpool Cathedral, the greatest church raised in modern times.

An alternate proposal in a free style for the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels, Los Angeles, California. Perspective of East End from Freeway. August 2006.

The basic shape of the complex--a church with a massive central crossing tower with a high nave, raised up on a very high podium composed of a series of crypts and subbasements housing church offices--is a development of some experimental notions I've had about city cathedrals and city churches. The immense height of most civic buildings necessitates a lofty spire or dome at the crossing, and a sufficiently low precinct of parish buildings around the church to create the void necessary to give context to such a monument. Such tall towers can also be used, in the manner of the high-rise steeple at Riverside Church, New York, to house the diocesan curia, the cathedral rectory, and the cardinal's residence.

This would not be the first time a Catholic church used this solution; on a smaller scale it is quite common to see rectories and school-buildings above churches in my own Manhattan. Wrapping some portion of the volume of the church's nave with such auxiliary functions--as proposed by Lutyens in his design for the other (Catholic) Liverpool Cathedral, and as was done to some degree with the clergy housing at Westminster Cathedral--could also serve to give increased height and mass to the church proper so it might stand out against its gigantesque surroundings.

The language of the design might be described as astylar or free modern traditional, and includes aspects of Charles Rennie Mackintosh's own Liverpool design, Bertram Goodhue's Nebraska capitol, and of course Los Angeles' indigenous art deco. The structure could be built of the same mellow honey-colored stone as the new cathedral, with bronzed verdigrissed sculptures, or even something as bold as the greenish-grey stone seen in other parts of the city, highlighted with gilded details flashing in the sun. The upper part of the tower would be predominantly metal and glass rising from the solid stonework of the middle register of the crossing with its monumental Christus Rex on the liturgical west side, visible from the principal entrance, and Our Lady of the Angels on the liturgical east, visible from the highway. At night, it would shine from atop its hill over the whole of the city. Four winged beings representing the evangelists guard the four corners of the great tower.

From the highway, we can see the great window behind the high altar, and one of the two domed chapels off the liturgical north and south transepts, one housing the baptistery and the other the Eucharistic Chapel traditional to cathedrals. A smaller window below the eastern terrace marks the site of the large crypt chapel dedicated to St. Vibiana and accessible, in one option, from a confessio stairway in the chancel. Given the long linkage between the bodies of the martyrs, the ancient custom of the confessio, and altars, this is an appropriate gesture back to our Roman and ancient past.

I developed two schemes for the sanctuary, both in a loosely-adapted Deco style. One optimistically imagines a wall-altar with a reredos, with a large stained-glass window of the Assumption behind it and an expansive chancel with ample room for concelebrants and clergy assisting in choir.

An alternate proposal in a free style for the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels, Los Angeles, California. View of Sanctuary from nave, scheme no. 1, with reredos and wall altar. August 2006.

The second scheme, more developed, but slightly inconsistent with the exterior, imagines a large domed apse with a mosaic of Our Lady as Queen of Angels, an even larger chancel with elaborately canopied choirstalls, and a confessio with the tomb of St. Vibiana and a small auxiliary altar below the principal, free-standing high altar under the baldachin. Alternately, the stairs leading down to the tomb could connect with the proposed chapel dedicated to the saint in the crypt, allowing easier access to the tomb for pilgrims, with the saint's bones resting in a massive bronze shrine crowned by a smaller symbolic glass-sided coffin containing a recumbent effigy of the martyr.

An alternate proposal in a free style for the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels, Los Angeles, California. View of Sanctuary from nave, scheme no. 2, with confessio and tomb of St. Vibiana. August 2006.

Elsewhere in the church, side-aisles would be lined with altars dedicated to the saints of the California missions and chapels dedicated to Our Lady of the Angels and the Seven Sorrows would flank the chancel and the principal altar. The upper church would contain a total of twenty-eight separate altars, a baptistery, two chapels dedicated under titles of the Virgin, a Reservation chapel accessible from the main body of the church and from the street, and a double-tiered chancel with separate spaces for clergy in choir and choristers.

Regarding the Reservation chapel, it has long been customary to reserve the Eucharist apart from the main altar in churches where pontifical masses are common; however, such a course should only be undertaken presently in places where it is not likely to give scandal or detract from belief in the Real Presence, and so long as it is made abundantly clear that such a layout is not traditional for parish churches. The current cathedral's separate Eucharistic chapel is, incidentally, far too hard to find to be considered ideal under the circumstances.

An alternate proposal in a free style for the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels, Los Angeles, California. Plan. August 2006.

This is, admittedly, a fanciful scheme, far more ambitious than many of the extravagant fantasies I have relayed to you before, but with the millions upon millions that were sunk into the existing cathedral, you could have whatever you desired--or rather, you could have had the best of everything, as the builders clearly did not desire beauty. His Eminence should instead have gotten his money's worth.

For more examples of other speculative projects I've done--some a bit more realistic--see here and here. The latter was my thesis for my Bachelor of Architecture degree, and also won me that year's Rambusch Prize for Religious Architecture.

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