Easter Vigil Mass in the LA Cathedral – revisions, surprises, etc.

Last year, both my readers (that would be ‘myself ‘and ‘I’) may recall that I disparaged the new Cathedral of Our Lady Queen of Angels in Los Angeles as an ugly, pretentious building only its hubris-drenched parents could love.

Well, let me here offer a partial retraction and apology: The interior is not repulsive. It’s not my style, but I can see that people put some thought into it and how it would  be used, and the results make some intrinsic sense (meaning, that unlike the exterior, you don’t need a guidebook to explain the ‘meaning’ of everything you’re looking at). Only the exterior design is an abject piece of pretentious modern ‘art’ garbage that even the other ugly buildings in the neighborhood point at and laugh:

(Lost the picture I took of this building from the artificial plaza in front of the cathedral, where it more clearly evident that this building is pointing and laughing at the Cathedral. BTW, only an uncultured rube cannot see that this building is laughing – besides, I’m the artist here, and I’m telling you it is, which, with modern ‘art’ is all you need or deserve to know.)

No, really, the building pictured above is part of an art school across the freeway from the Cathedral, and it is less baffling and ugly than the Cathedral’s exterior:

Now, this appears to be a professional photo, which we will assume attempts to capture the beauty and grandeur of the Cathedral. At least, I’ll assert that this is one of the most flattering pics of the exterior I have seen.

Now, rather than just say I hate this, how ’bout a little educated criticism:

1. The building’s design intimidates, belittles and confuses actual human beings. As you approach the building from the ‘plaza’, gigantic slabs of concrete loom ominously overhead. The weird cross box window thing and the slab roof treatment combine to produce the feeling that the whole massive thing is leaning out toward you, and could fall and crush you at any moment.

From most angles, the main entrance is not obvious, let alone inviting. Only if you approach from the first set of stairs on the left off the street are you lead directly and clearly to the entrance – if you walk up the steps more directly in front of you, you end up on the ‘plaza’ with the entrance tucked away on the far left.

So, where does the worshiper stand in relation to this building? Compare and contrast just about any famous old Cathedral – for example, here’s the Duomo in Milan:

Note a couple things in this example: despite the massive size of this building – much more massive than the LA Cathedral – it manages to invite you to any of *five* obvious doors, and makes the main doors obvious. Also notice that the plaza is natural and organic – not that vast amounts of art are not involved – they clearly are – but rather that the whole looks like an integral part of the city, the surrounding buildings are included in the whole.

Here’s another on a somewhat smaller scale:

These are the front doors to Chartres Cathedral. In addition to the absolute clarity of where the entrances are, note the abundance of inviting details, the columns and carvings. There’s a certain playfulness a bout most Gothic buildings, a childlike delight in ‘stuff’ – gargoyles perched here and there, endless details of fluting and glass – the medievals were very much in tune with human imagination and whimsy.

In both these old examples, the entrances are not only obvious, but are integral to the design, which is a little amazing when you consider how much out-and-out engineering went into a Gothic cathedral. Rather than viewing the buttresses, vaults and colonnades as necessary evils, they featured them, lavishly decorated them, made them stand out. And doors were entrances into Heaven, and looked like it.

Here’s the LA Cathedral’s main entrance, a bit of an architectural tumor sprouting from the far left side of the building:

This is a nice doorway, especially if you aren’t comparing it with the great church doors of the past. The proportions are nice, the statue is attractive (note: one of my daughters asked – who is that a statue of? which is unfortunate, as we’re talking about a Cathedral dedicated to Our Lady, Queen of the Angels. Again, shouldn’t such a thing be obvious? This seems a curious place to introduce such artistic subtleties.) The doors themselves are whacky-bronze thingies, but not offensively so.

But the key here is that the main entrance looks like it was tacked on, and afterthought. It blends not at all with the towering slabs to the right of it – not in scale, color, design. It might as well be a subway entrance as the main entrance to the actual building to which it is attached.

So, I contend that this building is an affront to the person on the ground before it. Rather than inspiring awe and wonder, it intimidates and threatens and confuses. Rather than inviting people in, it, at best, routes them around to a side door – and, even once you do go through those door, it’s still disorienting for a minute – you enter, not the church proper but a long aisle parallel to the main body of the nave – why, exactly?

2. In a couple places, one being the Cathedral’s website, it is claimed that this new design was motivated by the diversity of LA’s Catholic population.  In a place as intensely multicultural as LA, I’d suggest that among the few things you could get most Catholics to agree on would be what constitutes a beautiful church – and that the new Cathedral fails in that regard. Having grown up near LA, I’m particularly sensitive to – and, yes, a little bitter about – claims by LA’s church leadership that they’re doing something for us little people, and that their own massive egos have nothing to do with it. Right.

So, limiting myself to architectural criticism here, if this were really, as is claimed, a building designed to serve people, then it is inexcusable how unfriendly and in-your-face the exterior is. Should it not be clear who and what this building is for – without having to read the brochure? This building could just as easily be a blimp hanger, a modern art museum, or a parking garage. If there is anything about it that clearly screams ‘catholic church’, I surely missed it. Then, how does it serve the community, Catholic and non Catholic? They brag on the website about its visibility from the freeway – but what good is that if you can’t tell what it is? Or, worse, know what it is and are driven to laughing at it? Seriously, if I still lived down there, I’d feel as if – yet again – I’d been used, if in no other way than as a tool to justify somebody’s egomania.

But the interior isn’t terrible. Like the Dread Pirate Roberts said to Princess Buttercup: Well, I’m not saying I’d like to build a summer home here, but the trees are actually quite lovely.  The tapestries are really quite lovely. The lighting – Spanish alabaster windows – is lovely. And the altar is large and easy to find. Seating is nice – they have kneelers. The overall effect is sacred and respectful. The baffling stuff – for example, why they think right angles are evil or something – just don’t jump out at one. So, OK, if you can get past the exterior, the interior is not so offputting. Not that I’d have chosen it in a fair selection process.

And, frankly, Easter Vigil Mass there was beautiful, as it should be, and I just don’t want to think too hard about the setting and ruin the comfort and gratitude I experienced there.

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Author: Joseph Moore

Enough with the smarty-pants Dante quote. Just some opinionated blogger dude.

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