Skip to comments.
Fashion, Design Ideology in Sacred Architecture: A Review of the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels
Crisis Magazine ^
| October 23, 2012
| Nikos Salingaros
Posted on 10/24/2012 1:49:15 PM PDT by NYer
Where to begin? Well, there are hardly any right angles in this building. Broken forms, discontinuities, and protrusions in its geometry both inside and outside characterize the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels. Such imbalance and departure from mathematical harmony is usually explained away by labeling it a postmodern-deconstructivist building, as if style were sufficient reason to violate tectonic harmony and geometrical coherence. We have here a celebration of asymmetry, which might be understandable if there were a sound reason for it coming either from design necessities, or from religion. But there is none. The buildings asymmetry serves an essentially negative purpose: to deny coherence and harmony.
Ornament is rigorously (religiously?) forbidden. The worshiper is given the nicely executed representational hanging tapestries by John Nava to enjoy. The architect, however, eschews any architectural ornamentation. You are allowed decoration in the form of tapestries but little else to connect to, for that is ruled out by the design ideology. Not outlawed by Christianity or Catholicism, mind you, but by a sort of geometrical fundamentalism responsible for this building. Furthermore, the tapestries are hung so that they appear unattached to the walls. This is a telling detail. The deliberate impression is that they are an afterthought: not an integral part of the Cathedrals essential surface geometry, but a compromise to religious art that poses no risk to the ideological purity of the architects forms.
The cement imported from Denmark defines a sparse and minimalist interior, making the naked concrete walls ultimately unpleasant. Critic Marian Horvat called this building a desacralized church because it lacks connective ornament. According to architect Duncan Stroik, its just a big space rather than a transcendent space. To counteract this empty impression, which is close to becoming overwhelming because of the size, an enormous amount of imported Spanish alabastera semiprecious stonewas used for the windows (3,110 square meters of 1.5 cm thick panels). Also, the floor is lined with 60,000 imported Spanish limestone pieces. At least these provide a natural surface that cannot be faulted. But, despite using extravagantly expensive materials, it still doesnt feel like a Catholic Cathedral. A great architect can do a marvelous job with rather modest materials: one need only look at the example of Antonio Gaudí.
The total cost of the Cathedral was $190-265 millions (according to different sources). Isnt it a time-honored tradition to use the most expensive available materials for the House of God? True, but much more basic than the materials is a sense of coherence, which not coincidentally ties into the harmony that religion bestows upon society, here largely missing. In fact, this violent style of architecture breaks forms and undoes geometrical harmony deliberately; otherwise the overall design would be too traditional. Yet in organized religion itself, what the Church teaches is firmly rooted in an evolved tradition, and thus has a natural affinity with traditional architectural expressions of coherence. Here, tradition is rejected, not for any betterment of society, but in favor of an image-based modernity.
What Modern and Post-Modern Churches Lack
This approach is typical of a major confusion from the past century that continues today. Romano Guardini and his architect friend Rudolf Schwarz adopted Bauhaus stylistic rules for Catholic Churches in the 1920s. Raw concrete surfaces are an obligatory part of the Bauhaus creed, which focused upon wiping out all of tradition, including organized religion. Was it a wise decision to adopt an anti-traditional (and anti-sacred) ideology for church architecture? Post-modernism and Deconstructivism, it can be argued, perpetuate the industrial vocabulary of Modernism while adding more details and odd asymmetries. But such details as are introduced are strictly prevented from cooperating to achieve harmony. Lets look for these in the Los Angeles Cathedral.
Emotions that I wish I could experience directly from the structure (but dont) would include a common joy shared by worshippers from all backgrounds, and not only some peculiar aesthetic imposed by an elite; a visceral love of the spaces, shapes, colors, and material surfaces; and a feeling of humility through simple harmonious forms rather than unresolved tension. None of that is found here. The Los Angeles Cathedrals stubborn insistence on horizontality in windowpanes, ceiling slabs, and articulations on the exterior walls contradicts the link between verticality and spirituality of our most glorious examples of church architecture throughout history. This, too, conforms to a modernist diktat. The conflict between the horizontal and the vertical generates incoherence.
All organized religions utilized timeless geometrical principles and typologies to connect to God. There are further specialized prototypical forms that characterize Christianity, and even more particularly, Roman Catholicism. Qualities that imbue a structure with sacredness begin with Biophiliaconnecting by means of instinctively recognizable biological patternsand from applying certain spatial patterns discovered throughout human history. Those architectural typologies were developed during our long search for lifes meaning, and are not created ad hoc. Therefore, they cannot be discarded without incurring a tremendous loss. Equally important as prototypical biophilic and sacred patterns is an intuitive search for mathematical coherence. This mathematical integration of components is what is actually responsible for perceiving a form as sacred.
Some architects deny this evolved vocabulary of patterns and insist that they dont matter. Geometrical harmony is declared inconsequential to the architects free expression. But shouldnt the architect of a church understand its purpose? Isnt the liturgy a message of love, inclusiveness, communion, compassion, and nurturing? These concepts, as well as the image of the body of Christ, are served not by abstraction, but by nested subsymmetries, axiality, hierarchical scaling, polychromaticism, and scrupulous attention to the human scale; i.e. everything found in more traditional churches. Instead, transgressive messages embodied in recently built churches erect a barrier to communion. Doing violence to form and rejecting connective components are design practices antithetical to the sacraments, preventing us from achieving spiritual connection with a structure designed to conceptualize sacred space.
It pains me to give a rather negative review of the Los Angeles Cathedral, since there are so many contemporary churches that are far, far worse. Some of those have been condemned as being totally unsuitable as houses of religious worship because parishioners encounter an atmosphere of dread, gloom, and forebodingthankfully, thats not the case here. Its broken forms and lack of harmony, however, classify the architecture as solidly within a typology that violates geometrical coherence as the basis of its design. More charitable critics dismiss these violations as a harmless expression of the architect. I, on the other hand, think them not accidental. The anti-traditional orientation of the Harvard Graduate School of Design began when Bauhaus founder Walter Gropius started teaching there in 1937, and Rafael Moneo was Chair of Architecture from 1985 to 1990.
Here is an example of a Church designed by a member of that elite international club of fashionable architects, all of whom have been validated by receiving the Pritzker Architecture Prize. Moneo was the 1993 choice, and was commissioned for Our Lady of the Angels in 1996. Members of the Pritzker jury, along with past prize recipients, recommend those same architects to groups, corporations, religious institutions, and governments wishing to build a museum, art gallery, theater, or church in a fashionable style. While there is nothing wrong with this promotion, people tend to take it as a guarantee of architectural quality. I dont agree. It is more an advocacy of stylistic preferences. And it does narrowly limit new signature buildingsincluding new churches to the rather abstract look much in fashion in todays architecture schools and among the artistic avant-garde.
Fortunately, several contemporary architects in the US and elsewhere who specialize in religious buildings have built many wonderful examples using form languages ranging from Art Deco to more or less traditional styles. If the Church wishes to commission works that prioritize fashion statements over more traditional architectural values, then it is unlikely to get in return a building of lasting religious importance. Architecture critics heavily promote fashion, but it turns out to be of only fleeting interest. The critics listened to for authoritythose who praise post-modernist and deconstructivist churchesare hardly religious: they tend to belong to the atheistic avant-garde, and therefore their opinions cannot be relied upon. Nevertheless, critics influence public opinion and marginalize architects genuinely capable of designing sacred spaces, who are then excluded from major commissions.
Defenders of the typology employed in the Los Angeles Cathedral alarm me. Some Catholics and, significantly, individuals from within the Church hierarchy, do like this Cathedral. It appears to me that they are letting images of a crude mechanical modernity disguised as purity of form overwhelm their perception of natural complexity. Yet it is the latter that gives rise to life on earth, to human existence, and which is eventually responsible for the personal communion with God. We cannot ignore our deep visceral response to forms and surfaces, and both minimalist and broken forms trigger anxiety. For me, a house of worship should offer refuge from inhumanity rather than join in the assault against what it means to be human and to be alive. Furthermore, these notions can be defined in geometrical terms, not through philosophy that can be distorted to serve an agenda.
I read of the alleged honesty of the Los Angeles Cathedrals raw concrete interior surfaces. Again, this is a propaganda slogan from Bauhaus ideology that brutally suppressed ornament and surface detail. This lie about honest materials and surfaces that are invariably depressing and unfriendly has been utilized for decades as an excuse to build brutalist buildings that nobody loves (except their architects and fellow architectural ideologues). The best thing one can say about the Cathedrals walls is that the concrete incorporates yellow pigment, thus avoiding the gray morgue impression of other modernist churches. Even so, the mustard color has also been harshly criticized for sticking out.
To conclude, the search for meaning and truth in religious architecture can lead a person to either of two antithetical positions. One path finds solace in images of a sleek mechanical and intolerant modernity, which is supported by anti-religious post-structuralist philosophers and by a trillion-dollar construction industry. It lends the additional glamor of belonging to the fashionable elite. The other path is at the same more humble and courageous, since it defies the prevailing dogma disseminated by the media. It involves rediscovering timeless truths about the mathematical relationship between human beings and life in the universe, anticipated in traditional knowledge that was made sacred by established religions. This path is one with our love for living beings and for our creator. Modern science reinforces this second viewpoint, shedding light on geometrical qualities that help to make a building sacred.
This is a revised version of an essay written for the Exhibition on New Catholic Architecture: “Genius Loci, Chiesa e Dialogo: Due Continenti a Confronto Tra Memoria e Modernità,” held at the Diocesan Museum of Milan, Italy, November 2012 to January 2013, and organized by the Brera Academy of Milan under the supervision of Leonardo Servadio.
TOPICS: Catholic; Ministry/Outreach; Religion & Culture; Worship
Navigation: use the links below to view more comments.
first 1-20, 21-40, 41-48 next last
posted on 10/24/2012 1:49:15 PM PDT
To: netmilsmom; thefrankbaum; Tax-chick; GregB; saradippity; Berlin_Freeper; Litany; SumProVita; ...
The cement imported from Denmark defines a sparse and minimalist interior, making the naked concrete walls ultimately unpleasant.
Imported from Denmark?!! Anyone else know about this?
posted on 10/24/2012 1:52:52 PM PDT
("Before I formed you in the womb I knew you." --Jeremiah 1:5)
The worshiper is given the nicely executed representational hanging tapestries by John Nava to enjoy.
Here is an example; the Saints of America:
posted on 10/24/2012 1:56:51 PM PDT
("Before I formed you in the womb I knew you." --Jeremiah 1:5)
Ive been there; once is enough; Its a large hotel business meeting room, devoid of so much! But it does have a "Rachel Maddow" Blessed Virgin Mary statue,sans slacks and pants.
posted on 10/24/2012 2:02:20 PM PDT
We've been importing cement from China, so I suppose Denmark got in on that problem. Need to mine more coal to burn lime in kilns for more cement. Plus this stuff is in different colors and there's even some variation in initial surface.
Cement is not the most expensive element here anyway.
Now, after extensive study of the 1500s in North America I realize I went through all sorts of bodies of knowledge to develop a base of understanding so if I saw a picture of some 1500s European structure in, let's say, Ohio, I would recognize it.
Looks like they hit pay dirt here ~ not with the 1500s but this cathedral is obviously two ginormous sacresties end to end ~ the very first parts of a Cathedral to be constructed. Instead of being able to ride a horse up to receive the sacraments or confess these are so huge you could drive a MAC Truck up and stand on the roof to worship.
There's literally nothing wrong with the forms ~ it's the scale of the building that's creating difficulties in understanding, and besides, it's simply not completed!
The issue is whether or not someone intends to complete it
posted on 10/24/2012 2:05:33 PM PDT
Sorry, it's ugly. Looks like a hotel lobby.
The Holy Rosary Cathedral in Toledo, Ohio is gorgeous as so many traditional cathedrals are. Holy Rosary
posted on 10/24/2012 2:07:58 PM PDT
Assuming that the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels is in the City of Angels (Los Angeles) I'd have to ask the author what the heck he expected?
posted on 10/24/2012 2:14:59 PM PDT
The tapestry ~ there are some people on there who were roasted and eaten out on the remotest of frontiers.
So, why were they there? That's when it's time to read through the lives of the saints which various Roman Catholic organizations make available on the internet.
An awful lot of saints were truly heroic.
But back to this interior surface issue ~ when the ancients built cathedrals they left the surfaces alone because by the time the bells went up in the towers the communities for hundreds of miles around were bankrupt.
Over the centuries others came along to provide decoration ~ whether marble walls, or mozaics, or statuary, carved stone pieces, better lights, or whatever, and any trip to Europe to see half a dozen cathedrals will definitely give you an idea of what "whatever" can be ~ I can only suppose the sexton who wrapped up the initial plans and put out a bid for contract pretty much knew what he was going to see in this building in the here and now, and this is it. What it will be like 500 years from now is different ~ first, the scaffolds, second the brand new surfaces, third, some art appropriate for the time, fourth, improved LED lighting flowing directly from surfaces, almost invisible, eliminating all the points of light so typical of the last couple of centuries.
It's coming ~ but it really does look like a cathedral in progress, and that is customary.
posted on 10/24/2012 2:15:02 PM PDT
The tapestries are beautiful; I enjoy studying them, as many other people do. Yes, I know the models were ordinary people, but so much the better: that ordinary people could become saints reminds us that we are all called to holiness and even sainthood, and the ordinariness of our lives is no impediment.
The cathedral itself is an atrocity, of course. It is dehumanizing, depressing, totalitarian, just like the Bauhaus roots from which it sprang. It is a shame and a sorrow that uninformed committees allow themselves to be talked into projects like this by the architectural firms who bid.
Modern architecture does not have to be ugly. I submit for consideration St Louis in Clarksville, MD. It's not all that attractive on the outside, but inside it's lovely. Polished beige marble reflects old stained glass windows that were acquired when the National Shrine was updated. I could be wrong about the origins of the windows, but the point is that they are old, colorful, and beautiful, and their detail is a counterpoint to the simplicity of the rest of the cathedral. The whole effect does move one to reverence. So if a parish absolutely must must must have a modern building, it's possible to have this without ugliness.
But there are design-build firms that will put up a glorious church in the traditional taste. New construction doesn't have to consist all of hard lines and shiny surfaces. It can be beautiful in the ways that millions find comforting and inspiring. For example: Institute for Sacred Architecture
We must recall the Holy Father's injunction to seek "a new epiphany of beauty" in art, architecture, music, and other pursuits that should glorify God and draw people into a closer relationship with Him.
posted on 10/24/2012 2:29:54 PM PDT
(The OTTB Mare)
posted on 10/24/2012 2:33:46 PM PDT
"Sorry, it's ugly. Looks like a hotel lobby."
Looks like the set of Logan's Run.
posted on 10/24/2012 2:35:54 PM PDT
by Joe 6-pack
(Que me amat, amet et canem meum)
I’m going to the conference on sacred architecture at Mundelein tomorrow. Will you be there?
It’s a hard place to get to and a very short conference, but the presenters are great and I really need to be reminded (in my art desert here) that there are good things going on. Not that I think Our Lady of the Angels is one of them...although the tapestries are truly beautiful.
posted on 10/24/2012 2:37:16 PM PDT
Except that these aren’t saints of America: Elizabeth Seton, Isaac Jogues (one of the partially eaten ones), Rose of Lima, etc.
posted on 10/24/2012 2:39:40 PM PDT
It looks cold to me. And it doesn't look... the only word I can think of is Grand.
posted on 10/24/2012 3:00:40 PM PDT
by Harmless Teddy Bear
(Fate plays chess and you don't find out until too late that he's been using two queens all along)
To: ottbmare; muawiyah
Ottbmare: The cathedral itself is an atrocity, of course. It is dehumanizing, depressing, totalitarian, just like the Bauhaus roots from which it sprang. It is a shame and a sorrow that uninformed committees allow themselves to be talked into projects like this by the architectural firms who bid.
muawiyah: Over the centuries others came along to provide decoration ~ whether marble walls, or mozaics, or statuary, carved stone pieces, better lights, or whatever, and any trip to Europe to see half a dozen cathedrals will definitely give you an idea of what "whatever" can be
You both have provided excellent observations. IMHO, the issue today, as alluded to by muawiyah, is the insistence on completing construction within a short period of time. The French medieval Cathedral of Our Lady of Chartres was mostly constructed between 1194 and 1250 - a span of 56 years. In contemporary society, communities are not willing to wait that long. They want instant gratification.
The closest I have come to a similar scenario, is my current parish of St. Ann in Troy NY. Their very small church burned to the ground back in the 1960s. In order to keep the community together, an outdoor shrine became the footprint for a 'temporary' church (they erected walls and a roof). The intent was always to rebuild the church but, as often happens in small immigrant groups, family members relocated to other states and the community continued to shrink. In 2002, on the brink of closing the church, a new priest was assigned. After hearing learning the history of this parish, he assured them that he would resurrect the parish. One year later, he found a 160 y/o Methodist/Episcopal church that had been boarded up when that community fell apart. Using a generous donation from a distant supporter, he purchased the property and began the process of rehabilitating the church and parsonage.
In 2004, I joined the parish. It was apparent that they were financially struggling to move this project forward. Working through the state, we applied for historic recognition of the ME church. Once it was granted, we then applied for a grant to restore one of the most costly aspects, the historic stained glass windows. Despite 350+ applicants with only 16 grants, we were awarded a matching grant. Two years ago, our priest was reassigned to another parish and we were sent a young monastic priest from Lebanon. Unlike the previous priest, he knows little about historic restoration but assembled a group committed to seeing this project through to its conclusion.
8 years after joining this parish, the vision of one priest will soon be fulfilled. A committee is working on a 3 phase plan for the transition from our 'temporary' church to the renovated ME church. The entire parish is now involved. It will begin with a Final Mass at the former shrine, followed by a procession of cars carrying statues, icons, sacramentals, et al, lead by a truck holding the Tabernacle and the priest holding the Book of the Gospels, to the new church. The bishop has given our priest a special prayer and permission to temporarily bless the church for our use. In May of 2013, the bishop, using chrism, will consecrate and dedicate our new church. The prayer that began in the 60s will finally be answered.
It has taken a tremendous amount of personal, financial sacrifice and great patience on the part of the parishioners. It took the vision of one priest, the donation of a silent partner and a "God given" grant from NYS, to reach this moment time. How many parishes are willing to undergo such a lengthy process?
posted on 10/24/2012 3:09:27 PM PDT
("Before I formed you in the womb I knew you." --Jeremiah 1:5)
The other beautiful part of Our Lady of the Angels is the catacombs. Lots of beautiful marble.
The last time I visited the cathedral most of the tourists ended up down there. It was a welcome relief to the eyes to see so much more beauty crammed underground than all that was available soaring overhead outside.
To: Harmless Teddy Bear
It’s at the corner of Grand and Temple, and doesn’t appear to be either.
Are we playing word games?
Ishtaar, Ashteroth, Astarte, Asherah
The LA Archdiocese Catholics have Cardinal Roger Mahoney to thank for that abomination. Its nickname is The Taj Mahoney. Hopefully, our new Archbishop Jose Gomez will work toward making it a less ugly structure.
posted on 10/24/2012 3:44:50 PM PDT
Navigation: use the links below to view more comments.
first 1-20, 21-40, 41-48 next last
Opinions posted on Free Republic are those of the individual
posters and do not necessarily represent the opinion of Free Republic or its
management. All materials posted herein are protected by copyright law and the
exemption for fair use of copyrighted works.
FreeRepublic.com is powered by software copyright 2000-2008 John Robinson