If we liberate ourselves from the myopia that there is a single legitimate sensibility to measure the spirit of our time, we will hear a dialogue between the two cathedrals in Los Angeles. The emerging new cathedral is poised to reinterpret the city’s spiritual soul for a new age and time. The ruined cathedral, on the other hand elicits the effects of a haunted place – there are ghosts in these spaces, but they are ghosts of a holy nature – images of sacred lives and events left behind its forgotten walls.

In September 1996, the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Los Angeles proclaimed its intent to abandon the historic Cathedral of St. Vibiana and construct a new cathedral complex at Temple and Hill Streets in Downtown. Much excitement pervaded the City of Angels as the Spanish architect Rafael Moneo was selected to design the new building. [1] Simultaneously, much debate ensued over the future of the historic building, the extent of its damage from the Northridge Earthquake, and the cost of its repair. Today, almost five years after the announcement, the new cathedral complex is ambitiously progressing towards its completion, while the historic ruin faces an uncertain future. In their proximity, they engage in a complex dialogue of history, ethics, and controversies.

The new cathedral is a reincarnation. It is the social and spiritual re-embodiment of the historic cathedral of St. Vibiana. On its construction site, the bold, poured in place concrete form emerges with a bell tower that will rise a hundred and fifty feet high, a stark symbol of its spiritual ambitions. [2] It will be cool within its thick concrete walls and dark in its catacombs. But “sacred light” will diffuse into a ninety foot high holy space that will eventually seat over three thousand devotees, many of whom will be the same Angelinos that not so long ago worshipped in a much older cathedral, one whose history goes back 1859, when Los Angeles was chosen as the seat of the Monterey-Los Angeles Catholic Archdiocese.

But this first cathedral resembles a ruin. It stands today as an embalmed artifact in Downtown, inaccessible to one who may pause outside its walls to recall its significance in Los Angeles history. The initial siting of this first Mother Church was proposed on Main Street between Fifth and Sixth Streets, but its distance from the population center led to its eventual groundbreaking on Second and Main Streets, where it stands today. Built in 1876, an imposing edifice of brick and wood construction, it was modeled on the Church of the Peurto de San Miguel in Barcelona, with a basilica plan of a nave and aisles. Its tower, tripartite in organization, was designed by Ezra Kyzor, considered Los Angeles’ first professional architect. It was first altered in 1922 by the prominent Los Angeles architect John C. Austin, when the ceilings were changed, the north and south exterior side walls plastered, new art glass panels placed in the windows, the original brick façade replaced with Indiana limestone, and the front portion extended to the sidewalk with an adjoining baptistery. Limited interior alterations followed Vatican II, reflecting the new liturgy. Then following the Sylmar and Whittier Earthquakes, further repairs were implemented. Sometime before the end of the nineteenth century, a rectory was constructed on the corner of Second and Main Streets. It was demolished in the 1930’s and replaced by the current Spanish Renaissance styled rectory, cloister, and garden designed by architects Montgomery and Mullay. In 1948, architects George Adams and Burgess J. Reeves designed a new International Style Education Building, replacing an earlier built one on the site. The complex suffered damage in the 1994 Northridge Earthquake and was finally abandoned in 1996. [3]

The abandoning of this site raises significant questions about the values society attributes to historic places. In his essay “The Modern Cult of Monuments,” Alois Riegl delineates three value types to exemplify the differences – use-value, age-value and historical value. [4] Use-value is a pragmatic perception. It points to the practical advantages of re-inhabiting the special place or building, given that the place must be repaired and safe. It supports reincarnation over the ruin. Age-value is an intellectual perception. It is derived from the ideological aesthetic that the place portrays through its decomposition in time. It considers the ruin superior to the reincarnation. Historic value is a social perception. It stems when a place transcends its rhythms of use to become a symbol of special societal ritual. Here, restoration overlays authenticity.

Thus the value of the historic cathedral may be subjective. To some, it may be what Riegel calls an “intentional monument,” representing a human creation erected for a specific commemorative purpose. But to others it may have taken a new guise through the journey to its desolation. No longer measured by the rhythms of its commemorative uses, its peeling plaster and slow crumbling may make it less like a special edifice and more like a sculpture of sacred shapes and forms. It may be an abstract object that mysteriously carries the weight of the city’s history, delivering a skewed message from a bygone era. It may be perceived as what Riegel notes as an “unintentional monument,” its special status determined not so much by its makers but by our modern perceptions.

One might argue that once damaged, the historic cathedral lost its authentic meaning and no restoration effort would give it back a legitimate life. Should it, therefore, be razed to the ground, or revered as a historic artifact? Consider for instance the case of the Campanile of St. Mark’s Piazza, that had, since the eleventh century, sustained the sacred, civic and symbolic values that represented Venice herself. When it collapsed in 1902, was the event to be accepted as an irrevocable historic destiny, consigning the monument to memory? Was it ethical, even obligatory for the Venetians, to restore their symbolic icon to its former glory? Or was it appropriate to stage a competition to seek a contemporary talent who would reinterpret the tower for a new age? In the case of the St. Mark’s Campanile, it was duly rebuilt in its prior form. Neither intellectualizing the gloom of the ruin, nor perturbed by the in-authenticity of its reincarnation, the Venetians simply chose to restore the missing link in their skyline. The power of a symbolic cultural icon was so embossed in their urbanity that the simple indispensable will of a people clearly overrode the intellectual dialogue about restoration and value. [5]

Thus, cultural and personal prejudices do affect the way we perceive ruins and reincarnations. The ruins of the Acropolis, Machu Pichu, Giza, and Angkor Wat may be too mythic for conventional dialogue, too archeological for casual travel, and too incomplete through their decomposition for an objective assessment. Other places may not be about their qualities of form as much as the stark memory of an event associated with them. In Pompeii, though one can trace the morphology of the townscape, the intensity of the place is more about the association of the catastrophe that struck it. In Hiroshima, the ruin is both the monument and the conscious linkage to the tragedy of World War II. Some places, however, may transcend preservation and embrace transformation through the unpredictable force of human will. At Lucca, the oval urban void is both the evidence and memory of the ancient Roman Coliseum that was transformed into urban housing. Such places retain linkages to an abandoned past, through traces of forms, materials, and symbols, but reincarnate themselves through a new use.

In January 1997, the Los Angeles Conservancy commissioned the University of Southern California School of Architecture to direct a reuse study for the damaged cathedral of St. Vibiana. [6] Sixteen participating firms produced nine scenarios, identifying a range of potential programmatically and financially feasible uses. They ranged from government and commercial uses to cultural museums and housing. The study concluded that demolishing the hundred and twenty five year old cathedral, one of the oldest structures in Downtown Los Angeles, and one of its few native nineteenth century urban artifacts, would be an irreversible loss to its history and culture. Seismically retrofitting and rehabilitating the forsaken cathedral could be both an economically viable architectural asset to the city, as well to the lives of generations of Angelinos. Today the site has been sold to a leading Los Angeles developer, state funds have been secured for the project, and its rejuvenation as a performing arts complex is under discussion. [7] The historic edifice will not be forsaken for long. It will be brought alive through a new use, retaining its historic form.

But will it retain the sacredness of its place? Perhaps urban space cannot be understood in terms of a society’s pragmatic needs alone, but as the consequence of its relationship with a past that it has to understand and perhaps even accept. The Ise shrine in Japan is famous for its thirteen-hundred-year-old reconstruction tradition, the “Shikinen sengu,” in which the sacred structures are painstakingly rebuilt every twenty years. [8] Though this renewal is remarkable for the preservation of an extremely susceptible wood construction technology, the meaning behind this ritual goes beyond notions of preservation into keeping alive the mythic linkage to the sacred forces of a culture. Ise is holy ground. Every interaction on this ground is sacred – manifested in the fact that the participating construction workers wear white, a color associated in Shinto with a sacred activity. Thus, the very nature of a profane act becomes transformed, through the perceptual sacredness of a place.

Thus, one may add to Riegl’s three “value types” a fourth ? “Holy value.” For religious man, space is not homogeneous – it is experienced through the qualitative difference that distinguishes the “sacred” from the “profane” that surrounds it. The conscious act of consecrating a “sacredness” to a place is one of the most instinctive and ancient acts of human will, a revelation that makes it possible to obtain a fixed point, and hence acquire a perceptual orientation in the chaos of urban homogeneity. A sacred place may be deemed inviolable through its “Holy value.” It may engender a meaning so strong, that it may determine the basic environmental images of a people, making them feel that they belong to that one same place. Hence, the genius loci in many cases has been a sacred center powerful enough to dominate any political, social and cultural change. [9] For example, Florence, Istanbul, Jerusalem, Srirangam – cities characterized by a particularly pronounced sacred genius loci

For Los Angeles, then, is the ground where its first cathedral stands sacred space – the meanings of which might transcend the subjective “monumental value” of its buildings? What if there had been other scenarios? What if the St. Vibiana Cathedral had been painstakingly restored and ambitiously expanded to generate new sacred space? What if the new cathedral had been built on the historic cathedral’s holy site in such a way that it would neither compromise the historic status of the existing building, nor the sacredness of its place? What if both the old and the new cathedrals together acknowledged that the land they stood on had attained a sacred significance that would transcend urban ambitions?

The dialogue is thus fraught with cultural and ideological dilemmas. Amidst them, the new cathedral will be complete and Los Angeles will enter a new phase in its urbanity. Perhaps the historic cathedral will still be remembered, perhaps not. But through this transition, Los Angeles has acknowledged the dictum that for a city seeped in its own culture, it grapples between the predicaments of the historic and the sacred. The two cathedrals are symbols of this urban phenomenon. The historic cathedral embodies a mythic sacredness. The new cathedral represents a subconscious resurrection of the city’s spiritual soul, in a new form, for a new time. The old cathedral awaits a new future. Though the scepter has been passed, they will continue an urban dialogue about the dilemmas that have made, and will continue to make the city – Los Angeles as a ruin of what it once was, Los Angeles as a reincarnation of what it had once been.


[1] Following the announcement of a new cathedral project, several potential sites were considered both within and outside Downtown Los Angeles. After the selection of the site along the 110 Freeway on Temple and Hill Streets in Downtown, an invited competition was held leading to the eventual selection of Rafael Moneo as the architect for the new cathedral complex.

[2] Comments on the new cathedral are the result of information gathered during a guided tour of the construction site in May 2001 with the project’s Executive Architect Nick Roberts of Leo Daly.

[3] Between 1994 and 1996, the historic cathedral was still in use. The Downtown Strategic Plan for Los Angeles prepared by Moule & Polyzoides and Robert S. Harris and adopted by the City of Los Angeles and the Community Redevelopment Agency in 1994 proposed that a revitalized St. Vibiana Cathedral complex serve as the anchor for a new residential community in Downtown. After the announcement to abandon it in 1996, the Los Angeles Conservancy initiated the historic building’s preservation and reuse effort.

[4] See Riegel Alois, ‘The Modern Cult of Monuments : Its Character and its Origin’ in Oppositions 25 (Fall 1982), 25-51.

[5] For an elaboration on this episode, see Porphyrios Demetri, ‘Restoration and Value’ in ‘Porphyrios Associates ? Recent Work’ (Andreas Papadakis Publisher, 1999

[6] See Jeffery M. Chusid, AIA ed., ‘A Reuse Study for the Cathedral of St. Vibiana’ (Architectural Guild Press, University of Southern California School of Architecture, 1997). This publication was prepared following a public exhibition of the nine conceptual design reuse scenarios for the historic Cathedral of St. Vibiana, at the USC School of Architecture in March 1997.

[7] Thank you to Ken Bernstein of the Los Angeles Conservancy for this information.

[8] For an elaboration of this tradition see Adams Cassandra, ‘Japan’s Ise Shrine and Its Thirteen-Hundred-Year-Old Reconstruction Tradition’ in Journal of Architectural Education, Vol.52, Number 1, September 1998, MIT Press. ‘Shikinen sengu’ literally means the ceremonial year of moving the ‘kami’s’ ( deity’s) body to a new shrine. Scholars believe that these rituals developed either from the pragmatic need for periodic repairs or from the religious desire to show reverence to the deity by revitalizing her abode.

[9] ‘Genius Loci’ is a Roman term implying ‘The Spirit of a Place’ (Genius ? Guardian Spirit, Loci ? Place). It also extends into philosophical notions of ‘what a thing/place is’ and ‘what it wants to be’.

Photographs by Chaitanya Peshave. Illustrations of Latino Museum of History, Art, and Culture – a reuse scheme for the historic cathedral of St. Vibiana – courtesy of Moule & Polyzoides Architects and Urbanists.
Back to Forum Issue 2: Gehry and Moneo Under Construction