Los Angeles, CA
Saint Basil Catholic Church
One of the most unique and iconic pieces of Catholic architecture in Southern California rises from the corner of Wilshire Boulevard and Kingsley Drive in Los Angeles. St. Basil Catholic Church is a formidable structure resembling an ancient fortress with little decoration on the exterior. The rectangular plan used for the body of the church is enclosed by undulating exterior walls of massive concrete slab forms, which are separated by full-height shafts of three-dimensional, ornamental iron grids of colored glass shards frozen in time. The angular concrete towers, numbering twelve, speak to the permanence of the human condition. These screens of glass evoke the infinite nature of human life with its joys, fragility, brokenness, and enduring resiliency.
The interior of the church is cavernous and imposing. The weight of concrete shelters those who worship within its walls. Panels of curved teak wood soften the rough textured walls and ceiling.
St. Basil Catholic Church successfully incorporates a timeless feel of past and present linked together in a sacred space of monumental scale.
The current church building was designed by A.C. Martin and Associates and constructed by the Pozzo Construction Company. Construction began in 1967 and completed in 1969 at the cost of $3 million. Angelinos received the new church with a mixed reaction. Nothing like it had been built to date. Albert C. Martin told the Los Angeles Times in 1967 that "the fortress-like composition of towers was suggested by 3rd and 4th-century Christian church design and features of early monastic buildings." The firm described the building as "a marriage of early Christian with contemporary to recall the time when the church often served as a place of refuge. It is devoid of external embellishments as early churches were, but it is not a carbon copy of early churches. It, at one time, retains, the feeling of the past and present." He accomplished this in a Brutalist style by creating a minimalist large-scale structure of exposed concrete and rough textures.
Los Angeles Times religion editor, Dan L. Thrapp, described the concept in June 1969 as follows: "The church is patterned after a third century Roman basilica with massive concrete towers in a seemingly random placement, but well organized so that the sanctuary, lighted through the shafts of three-dimensional colored glass windows, can seat 900 in stylish comfort."
The church was consecrated in 1982 and is one of only a handful in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles.
Landscape architect Emmet Wemple designed the landscape for St. Basils. Jacaranda trees in the wall-like planters surround the perimeter and accentuate the base of the building and soften the lines of the building while drawing the eyes up to the tall towers.
The twelve towers each measure 80 feet high and are irregularly designed. Some are thicker at the top than at the bottom, others taper from the base up, and some are perpendicular. They are separated by full-length irregular screens of stained glass. The total height of the spire is 177 feet.
The stained-glass sculptures were designed by artist Claire Falkenstein (1908-1997). She referred to them as “endless screens.” Critics consider her work at St. Basil’s as some of her finest.
The main doors of the church are of clear glass behind an intricate design of bronze that mimics the veins on a leaf.
Falkenstein said in a 1995 interview:
The Cardinal [McIntyre] asked me, "Are you religious?" when I presented my idea to him for the windows and the doors. And I said, "Oh yes. I'm very religious." But he didn't ask me what religion. If he had asked me, I would have said nature, because through nature I came to the never-ending screen.
The same Brutalist style of the exterior carries through to the interior. Contemporary sculpture and artwork complement the colossal structure. The soft-light streaming through the shafts softens the interior. St. Basil’s seats 900 worshipers.
Statues of Sts. Peter and Paul by Richard “Rafe” Affleck (1908-2015) greet visitors in the vestibule of the church. The fiberglass statues are each over 12 feet tall.
The fourteen Stations of the Cross were created by Italian sculptor, Franco Assetto (1911-1991). Each station was integrated into the concrete walls through bas-relief technique.
A 13th-century Romanesque-style crucifix is suspended above the altar.
Bozidar Murkovic von Serda (1922-1985) carved the teak statues on either side of the altar. One portrays Mary and the Infant Jesus, while the other is of St. Basil, patron saint of the church, preaching the Word of God. Each weighs approximately 1,500 pounds.
Statues of Mary and Joseph decorate the side altars.
The baptistry was once set off to the right where the nave and sanctuary meet. That space now serves as storage, and the baptismal font and sculpture of the Baptism of Jesus were moved to the Marian side altar.
Undulating panels of teak run the length of the nave on the ceiling. The same pattern repeats on the reredos behind the 13th-century Romanesque-style crucifix.
The altar, chairs, and sanctuary appointments are also carved from teak.
This church combines the power and order of historic churches with the abstraction of the contemporary era. It has an elegance of means, a restraint, and a timelessness that few buildings in Los Angeles possess.
Construction of the church was met with resistance from ethnic groups who felt the price tag was a blatant extravagance when poverty in the archdiocese was so widespread. Chicano Catholic students formed “Cátolicos por la Raza” to protest the “monument to opulence” and the lack of response of the Archdiocese to social concerns, especially during the Chicano Movement and the Civil Rights Movement. Cardinal James McIntyre was known to sanction priests who openly defended the voice of social activists. At the end of his tenure, he was often met with protests by African Americans, Latinos, and even his own priests. McIntyre retired in 2001 and took residence at St. Basil’s where he served the parish until his death in 2001. His coat of arms is incorporated into the terrazzo of the sanctuary. His red galero hung from the ceiling of the church until it was removed and suspended from the ceiling of the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels.
Monsignor Benjamin Hawkes, the formidable churchman who oversaw the rise of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, was pastor of St. Basil's from 1969 until his death in 1985.
St. Basil's is located at
3611 Wilshire Blvd
Los Angeles, CA 90005
Exploring the Sacred
Beholding the Sacred