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New stars changing L.A.'s look

Published Sep. 4, 2005

Three new cultural landmarks may change the way nonresidents view this city.

The 4-year-old Getty Center, the recently opened Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels and the Walt Disney Concert Hall, set to open in fall 2003, offer artistic expression in widely differing forms.

However, there is a common thread: Private money paid for them all.

The Getty, a $1-billion glass and marble museum and arts research center, is set atop the Santa Monica mountains within gawking distance of Interstate 405 commuters. It already bills itself as one of the world's premier cultural attractions.

That's a bold claim, but since it opened, about 5-million people have navigated the funicular (you get there by tram from a parking lot at the base of the mountain) to the museum.

Next to another downtown freeway, the $200-million Our Lady of the Angels is reportedly only the second Roman Catholic cathedral built in a U.S. metropolitan area in the past century. Its sand-toned concrete exterior is almost humble in its Mission-style simplicity, but its 27,600 square feet of alabaster windows make the interior a spectacle of light.

Though it is primarily a house of worship, plans are for it also to be a community gathering place.

A few blocks from the cathedral, the $274-million Walt Disney Concert Hall is causing a stir well before the first note is played.

It looks like a fleet of huge, shiny yachts, beached amid a comparatively boring backdrop of downtown skyscrapers. The designers want it to be architecturally and acoustically equal to what they believe is one of the world's finest symphony orchestras. They would also like to see it become the new postcard symbol of the city.

The Getty

The way you can tell that the Getty's art exhibits must be really good is that so many people leave the center's exterior spaces to go inside to view the exhibits.

Inside and out, the center functions as a work of art. Its stated aim: provide people with a delightful educational and artistic experience.

The setting provides breathtaking views of the surrounding mountains and downtown Los Angeles. Architect Richard Meier's design is distinctively modern, yet it also makes the classical art seem comfortably at home.

The center's five main exhibition pavilions are laid out along spacious open-air plazas and walkways, making the place a sort of mall for the intellect and spirit.

Below the main buildings, gardens designed primarily by artist Robert Irwin provide more fun than most museums would allow. On the descent, visitors follow a path that traverses a man-made stream four times.

Navigating the central gardens at the base of the stream means walking through a maze of natural color. The blooming season is long and strong, so the pathways are usually lit by masses of cannas, roses, azaleas and hundreds of other varieties. There are also "trees" of bougainvillea vines, with trunks and branches made of steel reinforcing rods.

For artistically rendered cuisine, the center has a first-rate restaurant, again with views that make the patrons want to order extra coffee, just to be able to stare out the windows longer.

The exhibition halls must work hard, though subtly, to re-engage the senses of visitors who've been outside for a while. The halls are easy to navigate and lit mostly by natural light.

Also, most of the buildings have "Access Art" rooms, where visitors can learn more about the works they've seen by searching computers and books.

The center is a gift to the public from the trust set up by oil magnate J. Paul Getty. Admission is free; parking in the lots at the base of "Museum Mountain" is $5 per car.

Our Lady of the Angels

Many of the monumental cathedrals of Europe are built beside rivers.

In arid Los Angeles, a river of traffic is about as close as they can get. So, the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels overlooks the Hollywood Freeway.

Nevertheless, Spanish architect Jose Rafael Moneo does not hesitate to compare the site of the church to that of Notre Dame in Paris, on the banks of the Seine.

Though the structure's dimensions and aspirations may be similar to those of the great cathedrals, most comparisons stop there: Just about everything speaks of the new millennium. Little stained glass or religious art of the Middle Ages can be found.

The cathedral plaza serves as a buffer between the sacred and secular places. A conference center at one edge of the plaza will be used for meetings. Downtown office workers can bring a lunch and find solitude in the plaza-level meditation garden.

Also on the plaza is a 156-foot campanile, or bell tower, topped by a 25-foot cross.

The main statue of the cathedral's patroness, the Virgin Mary, is nothing like the ethereal Madonnas common to Western art. This Mary, as depicted in a glowing, gold-ensconced sculpture by Robert Graham, is a plain woman, bare-armed, with thick, braided hair.

She stands above Graham's magnum opus, the 25-ton bronze doors. On them is a grapevine that symbolizes the church, entwining 40 religious and mythological symbols taken from ancient and modern cultures.

Inside, the floors of the main sanctuary are polished stone, which created a bit of a problem for artist John Nava, commissioned to create artwork for the walls.

He started out thinking frescoes, a medium with which he's familiar. But because the acousticians needed more sound dampening, the frescoes became tapestries, something Nava had never tried.

The tapestries depict a procession of 135 saints and a dozen unnamed figures, meant to suggest that anyone can walk with the saints. The artist used modern people as models, including some of his family, to make the tapestry figures more familiar to worshippers.

The alabaster, though, is what sets the cathedral apart. Nearly 12,000 panes of Spanish alabaster, slightly more than a half-inch thick, were used. Special coatings and window configurations combat deterioration of the translucent material.

During the day, the cream-colored alabaster with rusty veins suffuses the cathedral sanctuary in light, unlike the often-dark European masterpieces. At night, when the sanctuary is lit, the cathedral seems to glow.

Worshippers can get their parking-garage tickets validated at church offices. During the first Sunday after the Sept. 2 dedication, an estimated 25,000 people attended services; nearly 1,000 people come on weekdays for the noon Mass.

Hundreds of tour buses have booked visits, and thousands of pilgrims are expected to visit the cathedral's shrine to Our Lady of Guadalupe, the patroness of Mexico, over the next year.

In this cathedral, it is hard to find a right angle anywhere. The floors slope, and the walls curve. This suggests an imperfect place, masterpiece though it may be, in an imperfect world.

The Disney Concert Hall

It looks like something out of Fantasia. So perhaps it's fitting that it's named for Walt Disney.

The exterior of the nearly 300,000-square-foot hall is constructed almost entirely of gracefully curved panels of stainless steel. Architect Frank Gehry's forms suggest boats to some, flowers to others.

The idea is to be eye-popping and engaging. Whereas most monumental opera houses or performing arts centers are set apart from their environments by staircases or plazas, the Disney hall will have its main entrance at street level. People will be attracted into a lobby with walls of turquoise glass and a grand stairway.

The interior design of the main auditorium will be equally striking. Rather than the traditional arrangement of seats facing in one direction toward the orchestra, this hall will have sections of seating that virtually wrap around the musicians. There will be about 2,200, relatively few for such a grand setting.

And the walls and ceiling of the main hall will be paneled with Douglas fir, the wood often used for the backs of cellos and violas.

The complex also will include two outdoor amphitheaters, a smaller performing space for events such as chamber music recitals and a 250-seat theater and adjoining art gallery.

The downtown project started with a $50-million gift from Lillian Disney, Walt's widow. Subsequent gifts put the Disney family contributions close to $100-million.

Los Angeles County donated the square block of land and financed the attached underground parking garage.


The Getty Center, 1200 Getty Center Drive; call (310) 440-7300; the Web site is

Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels, 555 W Temple St.; (213) 680-5200;

Walt Disney Concert Hall, Grand Avenue and First Street;;

For general information, vist the Web site for the Los Angeles Convention and Visitors Bureau, The site has detailed tours and suggested itineraries for the city's cultural attractions.