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Clare Melhuish reviews Rafael Moneo's verdict on religious architecture

Rafael Moneo is not known for his church work, yet it was he who was chosen to design Los Angeles' new Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels - against a shortlist of other architects equally unknown in this sphere: Frank Gehry, Thom Mayne, Santiago Calatrava and Robert Venturi.

But then, as Moneo revealed in his recent lecture, the cardinal was 'not the most intellectually sophisticated client'. Perhaps he did not realise what an immense investment of intellectual energy has been made by architects in the production of modern religious buildings. However, all this was dismissed in a throwaway sentence by Moneo himself, rejecting the entire 20th-century experience of religious architecture as 'rather poor'.

Moneo's thinking on religious architecture - 'an almost impossible subject' - does not seem to be that clear, but he has produced an interesting and possibly even inspiring cathedral for Los Angeles.

He admitted he is not a practising Catholic himself, although brought up in the tradition, but affirmed with confidence his belief that he was the best architect for the job - even though he had initially felt great reluctance about taking it on, and certainly did not do so either 'to keep my office alive, nor to feed my own ego'. In the end, he felt he was the only candidate likely 'to be able to figure out what the cardinal was talking about', whether because of his cultural background, or for other reasons.

Having written off the churches of Aalto - which 'as sacred spaces don't give the right feel' - and, conversely, stated his admiration for the ecclesiastical work of Le Corbusier (the sloping roof is a homage to Ronchamp), Lewerentz and Alvaro Siza, Moneo revealed that the churches he most likes are the 'tiny ones', and proposed that cathedrals are not really sacred spaces at all but, rather, public institutions.

On the other hand, he made many references to the idea of the sacred in his description of the building, referring at one point even to a 'sense of a heaven - a strange house'. Certainly it would seem that the building embodies a very clear idea of redemption symbolised by light, which enters the space through an elaborate system of glass and alabaster screens framed within a complex concrete structure, so that 'the entire space is a sort of lamp'. Then too, the planning of the space - which draws people through the ambulatories around the edge of the building before they step into and experience the main volume - embodies a 'sense of getting rid of everything in the world and getting back to yourself '.

This cathedral has been very controversial in LA, where it was felt that the money should have been spent on social causes. But Moneo may well be right in judging the building a meaningful gesture to the more disenfranchised (largely Hispanic) communities of the city, keeping them 'in contact with their own identities'.

Rafael Moneo was speaking about his recently completed Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels, Los Angeles, at the Architectural Association in London on Tuesday 21 January

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