Column: The Crystal Cathedral redesign: Why tasteful updates add up to architectural disappointment

The Crystal Cathedral is undergoing a major transformation in both design and ownership.

Architecture Critic

When the Rev. Robert H. Schuller decided in the mid-1970s that his congregation was outgrowing the drive-in, low-slung Garden Grove church that Richard Neutra had designed for him 15 years earlier within earshot of Interstate 5, and that he needed a purpose-built cathedral to accommodate his increasingly popular “Hour of Power” televised sermons, he flew to New York to visit the architecture firm run by Philip Johnson and John Burgee.

On the face of it, Schuller and Johnson were a very strange match, the self-made Orange County televangelist and the smoothly moneyed New York architect who was also an atheist and gay. But at heart they were both salesmen.

Johnson, who always knew how to make headlines, once said, “Whoever commissions buildings, buys me. I am for sale. I am a whore. I am an artist.” Schuller described his Garden Grove compound as “a 22-acre shopping center for Jesus Christ.”

Together, between 1977 and 1980, they produced one of the triumphant landmarks of Southern California kitsch, at 415 feet wide, 207 feet deep and 128 feet high bigger than Notre Dame in Paris. A giant asymmetrical mirrored-glass iceberg of a building, equal parts Bruno Taut’s 1914 Glass Pavilion in Cologne, Germany, and Superman’s Fortress of Solitude, it was immediately dubbed the Crystal Cathedral.

So maybe it was oddly fitting, a kind of historical rhyme, when in the wake of the Schuller ministry’s messy bankruptcy, the buyer that came swooping in to pick up the remains of his empire in 2012 turned out to be the Roman Catholic Diocese of Orange.

For the fire-sale price of $57.5 million the diocese acquired a property that had grown in the intervening years to 36 acres and that included not only the Neutra and Johnson buildings (and their adjacent towers) but a cylindrical, four-story visitor center from 2003 by Richard Meier & Partners.

It then hired Scott Johnson of the L.A. firm Johnson Fain to lead a redesign of the cathedral. Though he’s not related to Philip Johnson, he did work in the Johnson Burgee office as a young architect and was assigned briefly to the Garden Grove project.

Here, to put it mildly, was another classic odd-couple pairing: the Catholic Church cast as architectural savior for a building whose power flows directly from its cheekiness, its irony, its willingness to flout convention, its telegenic savvy and perhaps most of all its understanding of what postwar Southern California was making possible in terms of cultural innovation and individual freedom. It would be an understatement to say that those are not qualities one associates with many chapters in the long history of Catholic architecture.

I was surprised, amused and briefly heartened when I arrived for a news briefing a few weeks ago inside the stripped-down, renamed Christ Cathedral to find diocese media officials handing out virtual-reality headsets. Were Johnson Fain and the Catholic Church ready to embrace the same kind of trippy futurism that Philip Johnson and Robert Schuller had? Was this another strange combination of client, building and architect that would in the end pay exhilarating dividends?

No such luck. What we all saw when we strapped those headsets on was a digitized version of the remade cathedral interior that is heavy, earthbound and handsome to a fault. It is a design more suggestive of the offices of a high-end law firm than the kinds of early experiments in postmodernism — including the AT&T tower on Madison Avenue in Manhattan, with its pediment famously copied from a Chippendale chest of drawers — that Johnson was beginning to pursue when he met Schuller.

The Christ Cathedral proposal, which is expected to cost $72 million and be completed in 2019, is a streamlined version of one floated a few months earlier with a price tag of $108 million.

Though the mezzanine that fills three corners of the cathedral’s original four-pointed design will be maintained, at ground level Johnson Fain plans to change quite a bit. Schuller’s pulpit will be replaced by an altar. The new pews, in dark walnut, will be aligned in a radial pattern.

The fountain that ran through the center of the cathedral, splashing audibly until it died down just as Schuller began to speak, is already gone. New interior walls, 14 feet high, will be wrapped in fluted limestone. Other details will be in brushed stainless steel, dark bronzed steel, marble and cherry wood.

Some of this updating is to be expected, of course, given the differences between Catholic services and the kind Schuller led (and the fact that the cathedral no longer operates as a giant television studio). According to Scott Johnson the toughest challenge was to make Catholic services, which rely heavily on a processional choreography along a lengthy axis from the main entrance to the altar, work in a building that is much wider than it is deep. It’s also true that some regular churchgoers found the interior a bit stuffy on hot days.

But some of the alterations are unnecessary even given the pressures of what the church refers to as “liturgical compliance.” The redesign put the fundamental spirit of the building at risk, aiming for the sort of well-appointed tastefulness that Philip Johnson spent much of his career, especially in its latter stages, gleefully skewering.

The biggest change is the proposed addition of a new fixed layer of translucent panels, each in the shape of a quatrefoil, hanging from the cathedral’s existing space-frame of white-painted steel tubes. The system is an effort to bring additional shade to a piece of architecture that was already kept from being excessively bright by the reflective mirrored-glass panels on the exterior.

What Johnson created inside the cathedral, as he and Burgee put it in a monograph of the firm’s work published in 1985, was “a hushed, underwater atmosphere.” Going from that treatment of light to an imitation of a dark European cathedral is an impossible journey. The whole point of the building is to be a container for sunlight — muted sunlight, but sunlight nonetheless.

As Schuller once said, referring to the importance of an interior washed in sunlight, “If a two-by-four comes between your eyeball and the changing edge of a cloud, something is lost.” The quatrefoils will blot out not just some of the sunlight but any clear picture of what Johnson and Schuller wanted the cathedral to suggest architecturally.

Which, when you consider the new ground-level look of the building, is likely part of the point; to sit on Johnson Fain’s dark-walnut pews and look up directly into the white tubular space-frame dreamed up by Johnson and Burgee would have been in essence to occupy to two different works of architecture at the same time.

The redesign aims for the sort of well-appointed tastefulness that Philip Johnson spent much of his career gleefully skewering.

Still, it’s worth remembering that the original version, soon to be covered up, is one of the great ceilings in postwar American architecture, the seemingly endless Jeffersonian grid lifted off the map and into the air and made luminous by the California sun. It was the kind of ceiling a structural engineer and a seeker of God could admire in equal measure. It was aerospace, Walt Disney, a revival tent and Joseph Paxton’s Crystal Palace in London spun into one.

To their credit, both the Diocese of Orange and Johnson Fain think about the additions they are proposing not as major surgery to an existing building as much as a new container of space that can be slipped inside the cathedral’s mirrored-glass shell without damaging or radically restructuring it.

As Scott Johnson puts it, “It was unimaginable to consider any significant change to Philip Johnson’s exterior design.”

All the same, it’s clear that a central goal of the redesign is to bring some gravitas to the sanctuary — a sense of weight underscored by expensive and muscular materials. It’s hardly shocking that the Diocese of Orange would ask the architects to try to move in that direction. It’s also possible that the church never looked particularly deeply into the unorthodox architectural history of the cathedral when it decided to buy the compound, never truly understood what it meant as a cultural as well as religious landmark.

The reasons for the purchase, after all, would seem to have had mostly to do with demographics. Orange County represents a growth opportunity for the Catholic Church, especially among Latino and Asian parishioners, at a time of declining membership around the country; the Diocese of Orange, with 1.2 million members, is the 10th largest in the country and the second-biggest west of the Mississippi.

But it is surprising that any architect — and especially one with as much understanding of Philip Johnson’s basic philosophy as Scott Johnson — could support the idea that gravitas and the Crystal Cathedral are even the slightest bit compatible. The building has far more in common with the nearby Matterhorn at Disneyland, the Biosphere in Arizona or the domes of Buckminster Fuller than with any cathedral in Europe.

Quite simply it is gravitas-proof.

Twitter: @HawthorneLAT


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