LA's Triumph of the Modern

What is it about modern church architecture that drives so many Catholics to distraction? Admittedly, there are some real clunkers out there in Catholicland. Typically, when I’m driving through a new town I can often spot the Catholic church if it’s been built somewhere around the 1950s or 1960s and looks like (a) an undistinguished blond-brick box; (b) a sort of Eero Saarinen-inspired swooping, curvy concrete monstrosity; or (c) a glass Kleenex box. So, granted, some of our experiments with modernity are failures or near-failures. But the clean lines of modernism are often just right for a Christian worship space. Witness the power of the stripped-down lines of some of the most distinguished Carthusian and Trappist monasteries in Europe. Or witness one of the newer ones: the simple renovation in the 1960s by William Schickel to the Abbey of Our Lady of Gethsemani, the Trappist monastery in Bardstown, Kentucky. Schickel took the structure down to its original wooden beams and stucco walls, and takes the believer into a via negativa of a church. Perhaps the most recent successful example of modern liturgical architecture is here in Los Angeles. (Like your other blogger, Tom Beaudoin, I’m here for the enormous and enormously fun Los Angeles Religious Education Congress, which this year will be attracting some 46,000 participants.) Every time in Los Angeles (which is not all that frequently) I make a mini-pilgrimage to the newly built Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels. Of course the justly famous tapestries of the saints, by John Nava, are what most people come to see. They are a signal gift to the American church. But Rafael Moneo’s stunningly simple use in the building of stone, tile and alabaster, and his confident use of an austere style make this church one of the most successful worship spaces in this country. Yesterday, I passed a small knot of high school kids, who gathered in the grand plaza in front of the massive cathedral, holding hands in a circle, along with their youth minister. They stood silently praying while the tourists eddied around them. And today I went back again with a friend, who, when he entered the nave of the church, wept. So tired of all those "bad" modern churches? Okay, fair enough. But try to give modern churches a chance, places whose underlying goal is not only to express a sense of spirituality but to do it in the "idiom," as architects like to say, of our times; as much of an "inculturation" of a sensibility to a culture as the Gothic and Romanesque styles were to their times. James Martin, S.J., from Los Angeles
9 years 3 months ago
The Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels is one of two new architectural structures recently added to the downtown LA skyline, the other being the Walt Disney Concert Hall, a few blocks away where the LA Philharmonic now resides. The two edifices together give the city a union of art and religion that had not existed in such magnificence before. As for penny-pinching, as described above, that is a new one to this observer, as it was the priority of the LA's Cardinal Roger Mahoney to the said exclusion of other archdioces needs. The Cathedral is also infamously called Rog Mahal by various pundits.
9 years 3 months ago
Thanks for this post. Sacred art and architecture have never ever been an American strong suit. The post-WWII years in particular for Catholic architecture, especially in new parishes set up with the school first and the place of worship as an afterthought. When looking at modern architecture, one has to be able to separate out structures designed for reasons of economic pragmatism. While I have nothing against the cathedral in LA as a piece of architecture, there are better cathedrals of its generation, notably Dodge City, and much better work being accomplished in parishes where liturgy is a priority above penny-pinching.
9 years 3 months ago
I drive down to Our Lady of the Angels multiple times each year, and every time have found myself greatly blessed by the experience. Frankly, I think there's a certain segment within the church that is dedicated to deriding all things connected in any way, shape or form to Cardinal Roger Mahony. Certain Catholic commentators would have hated this church even if it had been built to look exactly like St. Peter's Basilica.

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