NEON: Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels Entry and Photographs by Katrina Virbitsky

Location: Downtown Los Angeles, California
Architect: Rafael Moneo
Opened to the public: 2002

As the summer sun stretches in a narrow beam across the floor and out the back door, we look up to catch other sources of light. This month we explore the narrow beams cast, reflected, and illuminating architecture from the sun-bleached streets of DTLA to the far reaches of eastern Europe, and back again to the West Coast, but first let’s look at the elemental differences in the this month’s theme – neon.

Neon lights, characteristic of advertisements in the commercialization of the post World War II society, are glass tubes filled with a gas – neon, typically, or argon or krypton. When a high voltage is applied to the metal on either ends of the tube, the gas inside ionizes, enabling electrons to flow. Depending on the composition of gases, the neon light will emit different colors. Fluorescent lights are similar, with the addition of a phosphor coating inside the glass. Phosphor is unique, it can accept energy in one form, and emit it back to the human eye in the form of visible light – thus highlighting what is most interesting in the light emitted by classic neon tubes of olde: direct reception by the human eye.

Light matters: it has the ability to heighten human perception. Some say the Golden Age of neon has faded in contemporary America (source), and architecture once again looks to the transformative power of daylight – as transmitted through the sun

Natural light (Light with a capital ‘L’) is the central element to Rafeal Moneo’s Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels, next to the Walt Disney Music Center in Los Angeles. Light reflects from the chapels, and is used along the ambulatories, guiding visitors into the nave. The yellow-tinted concrete cathedral is meant to reflect the glow of the Spanish limestone floors. Walking into the nave, light floods the space through the east windows. Like Romanesque churches, light emanates from the altar, creating a heavenly glow, and light also enters the Cathedral space and its separated chapels through angular concrete shafts, 20-30 ft above, similar to lightwells employed in the California Missions by the early Franciscans (source).

16 - 0802 Cathedral-4

The space is illuminated by windows set in angular coves of colored concrete – the windows allow light to enter from the outside, filtered through 24,00 feet of thinly veined Spanish alabaster. Alabaster is unique for its translucency, which comes from its composition of moisture, oil, and various mineral deposits. The natural light filtered through the alabaster creates a faint, diffuse glow, lit from another dimension somewhere behind the floating concrete elements. The impression is that of a Byzantine church, and afternoon light plays with the angular, polished concrete interior and steel chandeliers – adorned with blown glass orbs.

16 - 0802 Cathedral-2

The alabaster panels were cut to a thickness of 1 ½ centimeters, and vary in size from 2 ½ to 6 feet wide. Because of the stone’s low-heat capacity, each window is shielded by an exterior layer of glass, to protect the stone from ultra violet rays and heat.

The Cathedral is the third largest in the world, and the structure was built to last a minimum of 500 years. The concrete was meticulously prepared by Morley, utilizing early morning placements, using chilled water and a fly ash 15% substitution for strict color consistency. To execute this order in today’s design world, the building sits on base isolators, allowing the structure to withstand an 8.4 Richter scale earthquake throw flex-movement: 24 inches in each direction.  

Until the light takes us,