Notes on Los Angeles, Part II: Mostly Architecture

Sir Barken Hyena writes:

The L.A. visit continued with a walking tour of glorious, or at least much photographed, Downtown Los Angeles. We had some highs and some lows with this one.

One “high” was certainly the LA City Hall, a 1928 Art Deco skyscraper that rates only lower than the Empire State and Chrysler buildings for instant recognition. Though for different reasons: it’s had many TV and movie appearances, the advantage of the home team I suppose. Still, nothing becomes iconic from mere exposure, it must have that memorable quality, and the LA City Hall certainly has that:


Yep, Sgt Friday and Martian invaders spring to mind, right? But when you get beyond that in the presence of the real building you see a monument that perfectly encapsulates a moment in California’s history. Part of this is in obvious ways, such as the tile mosaics celebrating the young city’s industries: film, oil, aviation, agriculture. This is standard civic architecture stuff, though the vaguely Moorish style is interesting. Part of it is a more subtle symbolism: it’s an Egyptian obelisk topped by a Babylonian ziggurat supported by Greek columns, a kind of sampler of symbols of muscular state power and legitimacy. Modernist architects (we still call them that 100 years later!) would certainly connect that statement with Fascism, and maybe they have a point in a way. As pure art it doesn’t rate with the masterpieces of the style but it’s as expressive as a building can be. It radiates confidence, optimism, power, and most of all, the future.

What a gulf that separates this proud optimism from the cynical doubt that is Our Lady Catholic Cathedral just a few blocks and worlds away.


This building expresses, well, not much really besides confusion and a pathetic “me too-ism”. It’s as though the church leaders who green-lighted this impressionistic fertilizer factory were trying to keep up with the hip and in crowd. Never mind that that crowd stands for the opposite of everything that’s central to the religion. Never mind that there’s a 2500 year history of sacred building design that’s at the center of Western culture. Never mind that a building that celebrates timeless truths has no need for innovation. Never mind that the people who are actually supposed to be served by this building have no clue about architecture, or modernism and probably wouldn’t care any way. This building was made for everyone who never will go there. It projects not optimism but a crushing lack of faith, in a building that exists to support faith.

Some redemption is found by entering the building. The space is still dominated by Brutal concrete but manages a semblance of the feeling of a true cathedral. But mostly it’s the tapestries that redeem. These depict a procession of saints portrayed with great realism, all facing to the central crucifix. Here’s one sample:


There are about 20 of these, each face has a very distinct personality to it, and a unique expression of reverence. It’s a much needed human touch, perhaps made more powerful by the concrete horror that surrounds, though I doubt that was the intent. Other artworks, particularly the magnificent Italian carved altar and a powerful statue of Mary, only serve to embarrass our modern attempts at sacred art.

Just as futuristic as the City Hall but for different reasons is the Bradbury Building, fixture of Science Fiction. It’s two most famous uses were in Blade Runner as the home of J.F. Sebastian and his toys, and in the Outer Limits episode Demon With the Glass Hand, where Robert Culp hunts aliens in it’s cavernous atrium. In the flesh it’s more gay 90s than LA 2019 but no less spectacular for all that, with the iron work, carved filigree and glazed brick really dominating the space. We could only hang around the ground floor atrium because the building has actual tenants, so we couldn’t go hunting for Pris. Probably better that way…

Sir Barken on his way to retiring a few replicants

Sir Barken on his way to retiring a few replicants

Last on the list was the Walt Disney Concert Hall, by Starchitect Frank Gehry. Blowhard, Esq. advised that we see it in spite of my disparaging remarks from having seen it from a distance, and recommended taking the tour. Sadly we were too late for that but did walk around the building and to my surprise I found it quite a different thing when seen that way. It lost all of it’s “sheet metal shop floor” look and became a kind of trippy funhouse in chrome. Particularly nice was the rooftop garden featuring lots of exotic plants and trees, the colors of the vegetation glowing against the chrome. Here was a fitting contrast: organic against artificial, but also with an odd unity because the Gehry’s artificial shapes defied the grid and t-square for a kind of echo of the organic.

Sir Barken contemplates mortality and evanescence after icing a few miscreant replicants

Sir Barken contemplates mortality and evanescence after icing a few miscreant replicants


  • Notes on Los Angeles, Part I is here.

About Sir Barken Hyena

IT professional and veteran of start ups. Life long musician and songwriter. Voracious reader of dead white guys. Lover of food and women.
This entry was posted in Architecture, Travel. Bookmark the permalink.

12 Responses to Notes on Los Angeles, Part II: Mostly Architecture

  1. I’ve got a bunch of interior shots of the Disney Concert Hall. Maybe I should put them up?


  2. After long and careful thought, the Manolo has come up with the simple three step process to vastly improve the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angeles:

    1. Take out all of the useful things inside of the building (including the tapestries)
    2. Bring in the dynamite.
    3. Hire the stone masons to build the real cathedral from the rubble.


  3. Great posting. Plus: “This building was made for everyone who never will go there” isn’t just the funniest line I’ve read all week, it sums up 99% of what’s wrong with most contempo chic-atecture.


  4. Did a little research on the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels (known as COLA). This building replaced the 1876 Cathedral of Saint Vibiana which was damaged in the 1997 Northridge earthquake. That building was a traditional structure which became a fought over piece of real estate between the archdiocese which wanted to demolish and rebuild a new cathedral that was better able to handle the rapidly growing parish, versus the preservationist whom wanted to maintain it as a historical structure. Both reached a compromise – the former cathedral was restored and is now a performing arts and event complex.

    COLA was constructed under the approval of Cardinal Roger Mahoney. It was opened in 2002 and is also referred to by it’s critics as “Taj Mahony”, not only cause of it’s unconventional modern design, but also because of its extremely high cost of $190 million, which many argue could have been put to better use in the church’s city social programs.

    Love it or hate it (I personally prefer the traditional) I will say the ornate, 17th-century baroque retablo, taken from a chapel in Ezcaray, Spain is stunning. Also note worthy is the statue of Our Lady, and the crucifix of Jesus by the altar. All worth the visit for these pieces alone, not to mention the tapestry Todd mentioned above.


  5. Pingback: Inside the Walt Disney Concert Hall | Uncouth Reflections

  6. agnostic says:

    Bradley Building => Bradbury Building.


  7. agnostic says:

    “only serve to embarrass our modern attempts at sacred art.”

    Art Deco to the rescue again. One of the few styles that can amaze the viewer no matter what type of building it is. Check out the National Shrine of the Little Flower, from the early ’30s:


    It’s in suburban Detroit, over 90% white, so hopefully it won’t get reclaimed by the wild.

    Here’s a picture of a crucifixion sculpture that I saw in a book but can’t remember the name of the church (the webpage doesn’t say so either, and I couldn’t find any other pictures of it). Somewhere in New York City:

    Art Deco religious architecture and design would be a cool topic to explore in more depth…


  8. Pingback: Revisited: Kraftwerk Live in LA 3.20.2014 | Editions 100

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