`Murder' of an old cathedral

Landmark for Los Angeles: Spanish architect wins $50m contract to design replacement for one of city's oldest buildings

No one claims that the soon-to-be demolished St Vibiana's cathedral in Los Angeles is an architectural jewel. It was slapped together in four years from cheap materials and is an "architecturally inferior, rather poor replica" of a 17th century Spanish baroque church in Barcelona, at least according to archdiocese spokesman, Father Gregory Coiro.

But for all its faults, St Vibiana, dedicated in 1876, is one of the oldest structures in Los Angeles and probably its second oldest church.

It was designed by one of the city's first professional architects at a time when the city's population was about 9,000. It has survived two earthquakes, though it was badly damaged in the 1994 shake.

Now, it is slated for demolition, and it has sparked an unholy row between the church authorities and stubborn conservationists.

The Spanish architect, Rafael Moneo, has been given the task of replacing it with "a wonderful sacred space in the midst of a modern city known for its ephemeral entertainment glitter".

Those were the words of Cardinal Roger Mahoney, who this week handed Moneo the $50m contract. The cathedral, it is hoped, will serve as a spiritual centre for America's largest archdiocese, and also as a magnet for the city's notoriously grimy centre.

If it happens. With Los Angeles newly sensible of its own (short) architectural history, the demolition of the original St Vibiana's was dramatically blocked by a court order after a crane pulled off the cupola.

Moneo, one of Europe's foremost architects, has spoken of integrating pieces of the old structure, including windows, porticoes and altars, into his new design. But his reputation for skillfully blending of the old and the new - such as the post-modernist Atocha railway station in Madrid - has so far failed to silence critics of the project, who are demanding an environmental review.

At the centre of the row is the outspoken 60-year-old cardinal, a Los Angeles native who is no stranger to political battles, and is now accused of throwing his weight around like the owner of a football team.

Drawing on the clout of 4 million mostly Hispanic parishioners, he has rallied formidable allies, including his friend, the Catholic mayor, Richard Riordan. He has also threatened to take his new cathedral to a site outside the city if the delays continue.

Donning a hard hat for a recent news conference against the backdrop of the old building, the cardinal said opponents would only succeed in creating one more empty and deteriorating urban eyesore, standing as "a shameful testament to a small group of obstructionists".

On Monday he and the mayor appeared at a rally of about 200 supporters, some of them nuns holding placards reading "Let the cardinal run his church". He demanded "the freedom to worship in the manner and space that we desire and need as Roman Catholics".

But leaders of the 5,000-member Los Angeles Conservancy say they were all away at an environmental conference on 1 June when the cardinal ordered demolition workers onto the site without a permit.

They voiced suspicion that the timing was no coincidence, and say that act destroyed 18 months of friendly talks. Conservancy director, Linda Dishman, said: "What is being lost here is that the archdiocese tried to illegally demolish the church."

The court battle resumes on Monday when the archdiocese will try to have a temporary restraining order granted to the Conservancy lifted by a judge. At the ceremony announcing the choice of Moneo, a devout Catholic, he described his assignment in deeply spiritual terms and pressed his lips to the cardinal's ring. He was chosen over two leading US architects including FrankGehry, listed in Time magazine this month as one of the 25 most influential people in the US.

American cities have set huge store by the building of modern churches. The imitation gothic National Cathedral in Washington DC, completed in 1990, took 86 years to build. The similarly designed Cathedral of St John the Divine in New York is still technically under construction after 94 years.

Beyond the cardinal's hints that he would like something in California's Spanish Mission style, and a building ready for use by 2000, Moneo has a free hand. Needless to say, the design must be earthquake proof, with - this being Los Angeles - parking spaces for about 3,000 cars.

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