Is Los Angeles's new cathedral worth the price?

Jack Miles
Commonweal, February 28, 2003

During the height of the Clinton impeachment ordeal, the president's identity as chief executive of the United States was eclipsed by his identity as Monica's playmate. Matters as large as his treaty with North Korea or his bombing of Al Qaeda targets in Afghanistan came and went from the news like baseball scores for teams not in contention. No one noticed. No one cared. Sex is like that in its impact on perception. I once heard Isaac Bashevis Singer remark that though he passed no moral judgment on writers who filled their pages with vivid depictions of sex, he was wary of doing so himself because this subject, once in view, would make his readers forget everything else he wanted them to notice. Sex made Clinton's constituency forget his political agenda. He spilt his mandate like seed on the ground.

Sex is having the same effect just now on the perception of the hierarchy of the Catholic Church, the bishops' recent letter to President Bush about war with Iraq being a case in point. Traditional in its reasoning, meticulously reliant on the moral theology of just war, the letter finally makes quite a devastating case against invasion. But no one could hear it without thinking about messed-up children and multimillion-dollar lawsuits.

For the bishops' letter to the president, substitute a $189-million cathedral, and you may appreciate the eclipse of executive identity afflicting Los Angeles's Cardinal Roger Mahony. At the dedication of the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels, on September 2, 2002, Mahony made the remarkable announcement that the edifice was paid for in full. Cost overruns, construction delays, and resulting fiscal crises are all but standard in the history of great public buildings. In Los Angeles, this has been spectacularly the case for the new home of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the Frank Gehry-designed Disney Hall, nearing completion just a block away from the cathedral. But La Catedral de Nuestra Seņora de Los Angeles arrived, as it were, from heaven -- not just paid for but also on time after only five years of construction under the kindly but firm control of the wonderfully named Brother Hilarion O'Connor, the cardinal's director of construction. In theory, this miracle of fundraising and efficiency -- never mind that some snickered at the sale of $50,000-berths in the maze-like mausoleum of the crypt -- might at least earn the cathedral exemption from any implication in the fiscal crisis that looms over the archdiocese in 2003. In practice, of course, things will not work out quite so cleanly.

This year looms as a year of fiscal peril because California has suspended the statute of limitations for claims of clerical sex abuse for one year, starting on January 1,2003. Though the legality of this suspension has been challenged, the largest Roman Catholic archdiocese in the United States still faces the prospect of a catastrophic concentration of legal judgments all crowded into a single year. If the state's action could have been foreseen, would the archdiocese have spent so much money on a new cathedral? Should it have spent so much in any case?

On September 19, 2002, just two weeks after the lavish dedication ceremony, Mahony announced that sixty jobs at archdiocesan headquarters would be cut and that many popular ministries would be scaled back or eliminated altogether. Among the programs affected: Ministry with Persons with Disabilities; Detention Ministry (for prisoners); Campus Ministry; Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs; Ethnic Groups Ministry; Ministry with Lesbian and Gay Catholics; Archdiocesan Council of Catholic Women; and the Office of Respect Life. The scale of the cuts may be seen in the fate of campus ministry. The program at UCLA was spared; those at Cal State Long Beach, Cal State Nortihridge, Cal State Los Angeles, Cal Poly Pomona, Cal Tech, and the University of La Verne were all eliminated. (Interestingly, perhaps inspiringly, a non-Catholic donor later offered to pay the cost of keeping Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs up and running. The archdiocese accepted the offer.)

According to the Los Angeles Times, the cuts were precipitated when the finance council of the archdiocese refused to approve a $4.3-million deficit in the archdiocese's $43.4-million operating budget. When making the announcement, Mahony blamed the decline of the stock market for the shortfall and said that the cost of the cathedral had nothing to do with the layoffs. This may well be true, but critics of the cathedral had warned much earlier that cutbacks would result from the building of what the critics call "the Taj Mahony." On October 30, 2002, the tradeoff question surged back into view as all five of Mahony's top lieutenants resigned at once. In a joint e-mail to employees at archdiocesan headquarters, the five said: "The announcement is made together. We didn't make the decisions together."

Just why the five left is still something of a mystery. A deeper mystery, in my view, is why the finance council could not have postponed the cuts long enough to avoid the publicity disaster that ensued. In any case, by six weeks into 2003, the budget deficit had tripled to $13.4 million.

The capacity of the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels is three thousand seated, but five thousand were reportedly in attendance at Christmas midnight Mass 2002, while tens of thousands more attended one of a total of six Masses celebrated on December 24 and 25. "A million-dollar plate, easy," a veteran reporter at the USC School of Journalism commented to me.

At the 8:00 Mass on an average Sunday morning, attendance is about a thousand; at the 10:00 A.M., about fifteen hundred. The flow of visitors overall is holding steady at ten thousand per week -- an impressively large number. A visiting out-of-town bureau chief for the Los Angeles Times, out for a morning run, decided to stop in at the cathedral for a quick tour, guessing that at 7:00 A.M. he would find it empty. He was mistaken.

Two factors seem to be providing the cathedral a local constituency. The first factor is the gradual gentrification of downtown Los Angeles. An area that for decades has had no middle-class residential base is beginning to acquire one, and the cathedral -- with its plaza and its restaurant -- is one of the few major downtown facilities open on weekends. A non-Catholic friend who lives in a chic West Side neighborhood told me recently that he was learning which of his friends are Catholic as he learned of their driving downtown on Sunday morning (easy to do: the freeways are clear). He was surprised that they are doing this. So am I.

The second factor is the welcome that the huge, impoverished Hispanic population of the area (median household income $14,193, according to one study) gives to any safe and stable public space that stays open for long hours without an admission fee. There was reason to wonder whether architect Jose Rafael Moneo's cool and angular temple would seem inviting to that population. There is reason no longer: they are there in numbers and subtly making their mark on the place. Backyard bouquets, notes, and cryptic ex voto objects are left at the small outdoor shrine to Our Lady of Guadalupe. Next to an official archdiocesan fundraising brochure, I found, early on a weekday morning, a small, homemade stack of leaflets in Spanish with a prayer to Saint Jude, "patron of work [as of when?] and of lost causes" {causas imposibiles) with the instruction: "Take 81 [!] copies and leave them in 9 churches. In each of them, beg the favor, and in 9 days it will be granted, however difficult it may be." On the same morning, I passed a short, dark, Zapotec-looking couple in scrubbed work clothes, looking rather romantic as they walked across the immense plaza, arm in arm, toward the little shrine.

The cathedral complex comprises three buildings: the cathedral itself facing east, and, facing west, a conference center and the cardinal's residence. The complex stands on the south bank, so to call it, of the Hollywood Freeway. Its location might in fact be called the headwaters of the freeway, whose relationship to the cathedral Moneo has compared to the relationship of the Seine to Notre Dame de Paris. On the northeast comer of the plaza, in front of the cardinal's residence, there is a small olive grove from behind which one can look outward and downward -- through windows etched with the names of donors -- upon thousands and thousands of flowing automobiles. The effect is strangely meditative.

South and southeast of the cathedral complex in downtown Los Angeles are solid but nondescript courthouses, administration buildings, and the plazas of Civic Center. Diagonally to the southwest of the cathedral, across the intersection of Temple and Grand, is the stately Music Center -- Los Angeles's answer to Lincoln Center in New York. The opening of the Music Center in 1964 announced more than any other single event the cultural arrival of Los Angeles as more than the home of the movie industry. As its near neighbor, the cathedral is undeniably in the heart of town.

The few published reviews of the cathedral have been all but unanimously enthusiastic, but none that I have seen has drawn attention to the way that Moneo's cathedral complex embraces the automobile aesthetic. What gives downtown Los Angeles its often brutal aspect is that its largest, most recently constructed buildings often present at the ground level a windowless facade built right out to the sidewalk -- when there even is a sidewalk. Most of those who people these mammoth buildings, at least during the day, arrive by car through parking garage entrances that pierce the blank facades. Once a commuter ascends from the subterranean garage to the real life of one of these buildings, the ambience can be surprisingly pleasant, with enclosed plazas, shopping arcades, and the like. The cathedral works, perhaps surprisingly, in much the same way.

Los Angeles's mode of operation has been characterized as "point-to-point." Home is point one. The monofunctional freeway -- no shops, no advertising, just green landscaping and a concrete river -- is a conduit to point two. When you leave point one, you leave a garage; when you arrive at point two, wherever it is, you typically arrive at another garage -- or at a parking lot. Architecture critics have generally had little good to say about the buildings that have been constructed to serve this point-to-point, automobile-dependent functionality. The surprise is that critics have had only good to say about the cathedral complex, whose outer aspect is fully as forbidding as that of any downtown Los Angeles skyscraper -- so forbidding that the place initially seems to have no front entrance at all.

On the north, as noted, there is only the bank of the freeway. On the east (Hill Street), there are the blank backsides of the residence and conference center and the yawning entrance to the underground parking garage. On the west (Grand Street), there is a much higher, even more forbidding wall, the backside of the cathedral, towering over a small enclosure behind a high fence whose locked gates are opened for exit but never for entrance. The cathedral faces the other two buildings of the complex across a huge enclosed plaza, all the doors opening onto this plaza rather than onto the street. On the south, running along Temple Street between the blank sidewalls of the cathedral and the conference center, stands a high wall broken by two broad gates of steel gridwork. When the cathedral is open, the larger of the two steel gates accordion-folds open beneath a portion of the wall that is pierced by the bells in the mission style. The bells are eye-catching; the gate itself is not.

The cathedral thus has the aspect of an impregnable fortress, yet this fortress -- however uninviting to the pedestrian -- has a mysterious, cloistered beauty when seen at night through the windshield of a car westbound on the freeway or eastbound on Temple Street. It is as if Moneo, former chair of the architecture department at Harvard, chose to make virtue of necessity and to design a building whose external allure would be directed toward the driver rather than toward the walker. Rather than fight the L.A. way of doing things, he embraced it. And I suspect that the low, unprepossessing pedestrian gate may be the eminent Spaniard's way of slyly building into his formal design an oddity that, de facto, affects all the great cathedrals of Europe. I refer to the fact that the visitor never enters these monuments through the imposing main entrance but always through some undistinguished little side entrance. If this derogation from grandeur is to be anticipated in any latter-day cathedral, then why not build it in?

In any case, just inside that gate or just up from the parking garage, one arrives at a modest-sized plaza with a fountain ("I will give you living water" in all the languages of the world). Two tall, broad staircases lead up from this entry plaza to the much larger main plaza. Looking up the right staircase, the visitor's gaze is directed toward a gigantic clerestory window jutting upward at an angle from the facade of the cathedral and quadrisected by a Latin cross. Looking up the left staircase, one sees the cathedral's three-story-square entrance, which is located, unexpectedly, not in the center of the structure but at its left edge. Here stand (rather than hang) the spectacular bronze doors of sculptor Robert Graham, surmounted by a tympanum with an eight-foot statue of Our Lady of the Angels herself, the signature image of the cathedral and, eventually perhaps, even of the city: Our Lady of the Angels as Our Lady of Los Angeles (or, bilingually, Our Lady of Los Angeles).

When the design for the cathedral was unveiled, one comment made on it -- a comment offered, it seemed, as a boast -- was that it contained no right angle. In this, the all-angles cathedral seemed a riposte to Gehry's all-curves concert hall, under construction a block away. By being massive without ever being quite square, Moneo's cathedral evokes, for me, the many moments when the fortress-like Romanesque churches and monasteries of Europe, for all their solidity, seem a bit handmade and "off." In any case, once up the left staircase and through the bronze doors, the visitor is enclosed in a cool, high ambulatory running the length of the south wall of the cathedral from the front left comer to the rear. Because the floor slopes noticeably upward as one approaches the back comer, while the ambulatory itself gradually narrows, one has the faint sensation -- begun, in fact, as soon as one begins to mount the staircase from the fountain plaza -- of climbing toward a hilltop shrine, past side chapels that face outward rather than inward as in a classic cathedral.

At the far end of the ambulatory, one makes a U-turn and is immediately engulfed in the huge interior space of the nave, a cavern lit by natural light filtered through alabaster panels high above the floor and, during services, by electric lights on mountings shaped like forty-foot trumpets with their narrow ends rooted in the ceiling. These universally disliked chandeliers (even Moneo, who designed them, turned against them) may be replaced eventually. For now, though they are a distraction, they are no more than that.

The up-slope that one traverses in the ambulatory becomes a down-slope in the nave. Sudden arrival in this space has the visual effect, to make a profane comparison, of entry into a ballpark from a shadowy entrance tunnel. The space is, in a word, theatrical. The rows of pews are raked as in a theater. The shallow wings of the transept feel like banks of box seats. (It was in the transept that most of the VIPs were seated during the dedication.) The organ and choir, placed in full view behind the pulpit and altar, create a kind of stage. The backdrop is not altogether unlike what one sees in services broadcast from the Philip Johnson-designed Crystal Cathedral of televangelist Robert Schuller. All the same, and contrary to what I had expected from viewing only the design and the model, the effect of the whole is clearly not so content-free that it could be turned overnight to secular functions. As I discovered during the four-hour-long dedication ceremony, the cathedral is not just a huge auditorium under church auspices.

The religious function of the cathedral radiates outward most powerfully from its altar, an enormous, highly polished, vividly crimson slab of granite so placed that the already mentioned cross window, which juts upward when seen from the outside, pours cross-shaped light downward upon it when seen from the inside. The effect is more than just a moving realization in stone and light of "Let our prayers arise unto thee, O Lord." It is also a complex invitation to think of the sacrifice re-enacted on the altar, of the original sacrifice, and of the Resurrection that followed and completed it -- the cross of blood and the cross in light. (Simon Toparovsky's bronze crucifix, standing behind the altar, further fosters the association.)

In any case, sitting through the four-hour dedication, as the altar and the cathedral walls were anointed, as Vietnamese nuns danced down the center aisle carrying smoking vessels of incense, as hymns were sung, prayers recited, and a sermon preached, and, finally, as thousands shuffled up for Communion, I was never bored. When the service dragged, the building itself seemed to put on its own subtle, endlessly changing performance. The interplay of light, shape, and space was consistently surprising and quietly beautiful.

The Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels was conceived when Cardinal Mahony, encouraged by Sir Daniel Murphy, a papal knight who would become the lead donor, decided to build a new cathedral rather than repair the century-old, earthquake-damaged Saint Vibiana's Cathedral. Preservationists howled, but the cardinal would not be deterred. No doubt, for its size and sumptuous appointments, Saint Vibiana's was a wonder when it opened its doors in the dusty little pueblo that was late-nineteenth-century Los Angeles, but at the end of the twentieth century it had become a wonder that no one loved and no one was prepared to restore or maintain. (After, one must assume, some minimal earthquake repair, a theater group is using it now.) But the case for preserving Saint Vibiana's could have been weak without the case for a $189 million replacement being necessarily strong.

Interestingly, at least to me, since I have been an Episcopalian for a generation, the Episcopal Church in Los Angeles faced just the same situation several years earlier. Like Saint Vibiana's, Saint Paul's Episcopal Cathedral was beyond saving after an earlier earthquake; and like the Catholic Church, the Episcopal Church faced the questions of whether to rebuild at all and, if so, whether to rebuild in downtown Los Angeles. The Episcopal solution, under the direction of then-bishop Frederick H. Borsch, was to build the Cathedral Center of Saint Paul on the site of (and incorporating) an existing parish whose frame church overlooked Echo Lake in a lower-class Hispanic and Korean neighborhood just outside downtown. Less than half as large as the Our Lady of the Angels complex, the Cathedral Center of Saint Paul differs from it as well by approximately reversing its proportions. At a rough estimate, the Episcopal complex is one-quarter worship space, three-quarters service space (retreat center, education office, meeting spaces, and so forth), while the Catholic complex is three-quarters worship space, and one-quarter service space. On weekdays, thanks to modular architecture, the worship space at the Episcopal center is chapel-sized; it expands to church size only on Sunday and for special functions. If the Episcopal proportions had been implemented at the Catholic site, downtown Los Angeles would have had a $150-million facility dedicated to education, community service, and spiritual retreat as well as a more modest but perhaps still striking $50-million cathedral.

Comparisons, however, besides being odious, are tricky. A fairer comparison would probably be not between the two cathedral centers but between the Episcopal center plus the Episcopal bishop's home, on the one hand, and, on the other, a combination of the Catholic cathedral complex and archdiocesan headquarters on Wilshire Boulevard, miles away. Moreover, the existing conference center at Our Lady of the Angels is impressive enough in its own right, including a second-floor auditorium with a capacity of seven hundred and a kitchen capable of feeding a thousand. In late January 2003, when the Pew Hispanic Center, the Kaiser Family Foundation, and USC's Annenberg School for Communication were looking for a venue for the release of the 2002 National Survey of Latinos, they chose Our Lady of the Angels

And it matters that the cardinal is in residence. On the morning of my early visit, as I sat alone in the cafe awaiting a friend who was to meet me there. His Eminence happened by and chatted for five minutes with a black man mopping the floor. There is, so to speak, somebody home at this cathedral. Just a week after its dedication, the cathedral hosted on September 11 an interfaith memorial service. A comparable interfaith memorial service was held for the crew of the shuttle Columbia. The archdiocese is trying hard, and not without some success, to make this temple serve all of Los Angeles rather than just Catholic Los Angeles.

Could $200 million have been raised for a facility devoted three-quarters to social services? I doubt it, but in any case, over the early and eloquent objections of the likes of Jeff Dietrich of the Los Angeles Catholic Worker, the archdiocese now has, instead of some such superfacility, Our Lady of the Angels. After hours, when the gates are lowered over the parking garage entrances and the grate is drawn across the pedestrian entrance, the cathedral can seem a perfect expression of the "siege complex" of the 1950s. But from within -- from the plaza or from a pew in the cathedral -- it bears a very different aspect. Perhaps this is Moneo's view of the church: fierce without, peaceful within.

I was drawn rather early into the gestation of Our Lady of the Angels Cathedral when (and because) sculptor Robert Graham invited me to talk to him at a time when he was still competing for the commission to produce the cathedral doors. The visual and theological density of Graham's imagery makes his design far more traditionally Catholic and Latin than Moneo's design for the cathedral. The sculpted panels of the doors link classic Spanish images of the Virgin with their New World realizations, the latter often amazingly transformed by indigenous influences.

As for Graham's bare-armed Virgin Mary (see cover), she is a daughter of Los Angeles in a new way every time you see her. She is ethnically indistinct -- an Afro-Eurasian, you think, but then you recall classically noble photos of Native Americans of the Southwest. Could she be part Navajo? And there is something else about her that I have only begun to appreciate.

I drove down to the still-under-construction cathedral on the morning when the tympanum containing Graham's Virgin was to be hoisted into place. Dalton Trucking had delivered the seven-ton construction of steel and bronze oh-so-carefully during the night. The trucking crew was still there. So were a crane crew and a third crew from the manufacturer, Ride & Show, a firm that ordinarily manufactures amusement-park rides and parade floats. There were photography crews. There were Brother Hilarion and a couple of his people, looking on from a distance. Across the street, not allowed onto the site proper, were several television crews from local stations. The cardinal stopped by briefly. Somewhere, I'm sure, there was a catering truck.

The scene duplicated one familiar to Angelenos -- namely, an on-location neighborhood movie shoot; and in retrospect this association now seems a clue. Graham, with his cigar, his coppery skin, his wavy white hair, and his invincibly artistic air was like the director. Always, at movie shoots, there are scores of workers responsible for you know not what, just standing around until they are needed -- and so it was here as well. Finally, at a shoot, there is often enough -- above it all, goddess-like, seeing no one, seen by everyone -- the star.

There was a star here as well. Mary, (that day, in her unseeing bronze perfection, was the star. "She looks so peaceful," I heard a plump, short woman say behind me -- someone from one of the diocesan offices, I guessed. "She looks like Julia Roberts," a sophisticated art historian would comment to me weeks later at the Getty with a certain faint indignation. Well, no, but then again yes-and-no. Graham had told me that he did not want to create yet another madonna who "looked like Mary Pickford." He has certainly not created a Mary Pickford, but America's sweethearts, these days, do not look like her anyway. Graham's Mary is a star with a different physiognomy and a radically different demeanor. Call her Stella Matutina, if you like.

The excitement that morning was palpable among the hard-hatted, occasionally pot-bellied veterans of the crane crew. They burst repeatedly into laughter like boys off on a high-spirited excursion, a school outing. They were superb at what they did. It was stunning to see thousands of pounds of metal lowered onto two spike-like shafts as neatly as a hat descending upon a head. But beyond the usual pride of hands-on competence, something else seemed to bubble over in them that morning.

What was it? I can only suggest that in the presence of a celestial celebrity, they had gone just a little giddy. Among the other local materials that the genius of Robert Graham has subdued and integrated into the signature image of this edifice, one is the ephemeral, inescapable, reprehensible but undeniable excitement of celebrity. His Mary radiates a kind of holy glamour.

No mean feat, that, and, for all the controversy, no mean achievement, this newborn house of worship, built, we are assured, to survive the worst earthquake known to Richter and to last five hundred years.

Five hundred years! But watch out: The first year may be the hardest.

Jack Miles, recently named a MacArthur Fellow, is the author, with Peggy Fogelman and Noriko Fujinami, of Robert Graham: The Great Bronze Doors for the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels (Los Angeles: Wave Press, 2002).