Fashion and Design Ideology in Sacred Architecture: A Review of the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels

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 building’s 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 Cathedral’s essential surface geometry, but a compromise to religious art that poses no risk to the ideological purity of the architect’s 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, “it’s 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 alabaster—a semiprecious stone—was 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 doesn’t 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). Isn’t 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. Let’s look for these in the Los Angeles Cathedral.

Emotions that I wish I could experience directly from the structure (but don’t) 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 Cathedral’s 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 Biophilia—connecting by means of instinctively recognizable biological patterns—and from applying certain spatial patterns discovered throughout human history. Those architectural typologies were developed during our long search for life’s 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 don’t matter. Geometrical harmony is declared inconsequential to the architect’s free expression. But shouldn’t the architect of a church understand its purpose? Isn’t 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 foreboding—thankfully, that’s 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 don’t agree. It is more an advocacy of stylistic preferences. And it does narrowly limit new signature buildings—including new churches to the rather abstract “look” much in fashion in today’s 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 authority—those who praise post-modernist and deconstructivist churches—are 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 Cathedral’s 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 Cathedral’s 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.

Nikos Salingaros

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Nikos Salingaros is an architectural theorist, a long-time associate of Christopher Alexander, and a mathematical physicist at the University of Texas at San Antonio. In addition to publishing hundreds of articles on architectural theory in academic journals, he has authored many books on the subject, including A Theory of Architecture (2006), Principles of Urban Structure (2005), Twelve Lectures on Architecture (2010), and Anti-Architecture and Deconstruction (2008), all of which have been translated into many languages.

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