The Cost of Modern Architecture

$189.7 million for the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels, Los Angeles, CA (opened in 2002)

$190 million for the Cathedral of Christ the Light, Oakland, CA (opened in 2008)

This a preliminary architectural rendering. Pics from the completed building can be found here.

The Cost of Classical Architecture:

$23 million for Our Lady of the Most Holy Trinity Chapel, Thomas Aquinas College, Santa Paula, CA (under construction)

$25 million for Our Lady of Guadalupe Shrine in La Crosse, WI (opened in 2008)


People don’t know what they’re talking about when they argue against the viability of classical architecture because “it costs too much.” Even with all of the imported Italian marble and thorough craftsman’s detail, the new shrine in La Crosse costs $25 million, while the concrete monstrosities in LA and Oakland cost $190 million each. Ridiculous.

Wondrous and mysterious vs. slick and sanitized — God help us when we choose the latter. Christianity without the cross, now reflected in our architecture.



  1. Kevin,
    I would like to preface my comment by saying that I enjoy your posts and that I am in no way looking to be overtly critical. But I have found myself taken on the burden of defending modern architecture (especially in front of the church). So take it for what it is worth. -Jacob

    It seems like you are making two distinct arguments within your analysis, the first being a counter argument to those who would champion modern architecture because it is cheaper. Your second is the notion that modern architecture does not (cannot?) contain the wondrous and mysterious.

    My first question: Are the programs (the square footage, number of people being served, the way in which they are being served, land value, labor value, etc.) of your examples compatible? On first glance I doubt it. The two modern examples are for monstrous congregations, are fully functioning churches, and are smack dab in the middle of the city. The two traditional examples are a chapel and a shrine, both built for mid size congregations, and seem to be built on university land or in Wisconsin. You would be surprised at how much factors like this raise the cost of buildings. In regards to your first argument I would say that traditional architecture (depending on the design and construction factors) costs no more than modern design (but it doesn’t always cost less either).

    So we come to the style argument. Modern architecture (the truly modern kind) has deep roots in the traditional styles of the renaissance and the classical. It sees a rational world and likes to highlight this order with natural light, honest structure, and purity of form. Sometimes this has manifested itself in a sanitized way but that doesn’t mean it has to. In fact, when used properly modern style is conductive to the principles of Christianity.

    Take Corb’s Notre Dame du Haut for example. It is one of the most powerful examples of a mysterious intimate space in the world. It is also designed by the father of modern architecture. Other examples: Novy Dvur Monastery, Sagrada familia, Cistercian Abbey in Irving, thorncrown chapel, chapel of the holy cross, Church of the light. My point is not to crush traditional styles but to show that modern can produce God glorifying architecture that is on par with the chapels and cathedrals of yesterday.

    • Jacob,
      I enjoyed reading your “defense of modern architecture” as it relates to sacred spaces. My advice to you is to examine your own argument, and come to the realization that I came to years ago…and that is that modern architecture is by its very nature unsuitable for sacred architecture. Kevin is right.

      “Less is More”, “Form follows function”….these are the famous mantras of “modern architecture”. “Form follows function?!!”…you tell me how your human soul functions and then maybe…maybe we can start to “program” for it…go ahead, I’ll wait the twelve years of non-stop theological inquiry you will need for that.

      Corb’s Notre Dame du Haut? (first name basis with ‘ol Corb, eh?)….Ever actually been there? because I have to tell you, in person it comes off a bit aseptic, I don’t care what your architectural history teacher told you. The building has zero visual queues which tie it to the 2000 years of church design that came before it. Without history, we are not addressing the metaphysical…the soul, so it cuts off your relationship with the metaphysical before you ever step foot in it…it is therefore de-facto not sacred.
      Novy Dvur Monastery? Ha! In order for an architecture to address the soul, it needs to first be habitable by real-world human beings. We are not robots, and buildings are not “Machines for living” as your friend “Corb” famously said.

      Now, Sagrda Familia…you have an point there, only its not really “modern architecture” is it? That church is simply a gothic church with Gaudi’s thumb-print on it…beautiful yes, “modern”, no. Same goes for “Fay’s” thorncrown.

      I think it is time that church architects stop trying to “beat a dead horse”…modern architecture, by its very idiom, cannot address the metaphysical, in trying to do so (or trying to defend its ability to do so) you are only adding to confusion which has tormented sacred architecture for the past 93 years…spit out the kool-aid my friend! Modernism has be tried, and everywhere it is found wanting.

      …Unless you are designing a “Chuck E. Cheese” of course.

  2. It’s nice to have a real artist/architect reading this blog (and theology in general).

    I welcome your comments and truly appreciate your perspective, but I honestly cannot find N.D. du Haut or Novy Dvur Monastery attractive. It sparks my interest for a moment but quickly dissolves. I’m not an architect or artist, so I don’t know the language or categories to critique it intelligently — all I can say is that its boring, uninteresting, slick, etc. Maybe that sounds barbaric and I don’t truly appreciate what is being done (which I’m sure is true), but I have that naive notion that art should be readily apprehended by the common Christian as beautiful, mysterious, glorious, and any other sort of divine analogy we can think of. I wish I could offer a more substantive critique, but all I can do is love God and my neighbor, carry my cross, and hope that good artistic sensibility will fall in place. A slick interior/exterior, where the lines dominate, does not reflect the interplay of tragic and beauty in my existence — classical art, by and large, does.

    As for the comparison between the sizes of my modern and classical examples, the chapel and shrine are quite large, judging from interior pics. But even if it cost twice (or three times) as much to make them accommodate the size of the LA and Oakland cathedrals, we’re still talking less than half of the cost of the cathedrals. Even the National Cathedral in D.C. cost only $65 million, albeit over the course of decades when costs were lower. It would probably cost about $200 million if built today; the same as the LA and Oakland cathedrals, yet with all the masonry and detail of York Cathedral, which it was modeled after.

  3. Do you really think it’s fair to compare the costs for a cathedral seating 4,000 on some of the most expensive real estate in the nation (downtown Los Angeles) to a shrine seating 400 people in a rural area? Or comparing a cathedral seating 1,350 people on lakefront property in downtown Oakland, a large California city, to a small college chapel also built in a rural area?

    So the multiplier is not “twice or three times” as you say, between the shrine in La Cross and the cathedral in Los Angeles, it’s a factor of 10, just in the square footage required, to say nothing of land.

  4. Did either of your two classical examples need to be built to withstand earthquakes? The LA cathedral is built upon about 200 floating springs for just such a reason…its predecessor cathedral, St. Vibiana’s, was nearly destroyed by an earthquake. Moreover, the new cathedral grounds include a massive parking garage, a very large Archdiocese conference center and the rectory, which is the Archbishop’s and other priests’ household. Combined they cost $190 million. Check your facts…mine are correct.

  5. I´m sorry but that picture above is not the actual Oakland Cathedral, this picture is the project of the spanish architec Calatrava who was considered first for this job but at the end he wasn´t appointed

    • Thanks, Arturo. I’ve made a link to pics of the actual building. When I did this post back in 2008, the cathedral had just opened and pics were hard to find.

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