Entertainment & Arts

Where do you take a New York design writer who’s seen everything? Orange County

Crystal Cathedral (now Christ Cathedral)

A view of the Philip Johnson-designed portion of the Crystal Cathedral (now Christ Cathedral) in Garden Grove. The early mega-church is part of a wild architectural campus in the heart of the O.C. — and a SoCal design must-see.

(Carolina A. Miranda / Los Angeles Times)

This week (weeks?) has been all about the Broad museum. The architecture. The art. The gala. All those Jeff Koons sculptures. Which means that flocks of national and international design critics have descended on Los Angeles to kick the tires on Eli Broad’s latest cultural venture. A lot of them are checking out other iconic L.A. architecture too -- from George Wyman’s and Sumner P. Hunt’s 19th century Bradbury Building to Frank Gehry’s 21st century Disney Hall.

But only the most intrepid make it to Orange County.

My fellow writer-in-arms, Alexandra Lange, who writes for Curbed and the New Yorker, was in town to go Broading. But she also wanted to sneak a visit to that hidden Noguchi Garden that’s tucked into a corner behind a few corporate towers near South Coast Plaza. (Lange’s dissertation was on postwar American corporate modern architecture and design, and as part of that, she’s spent an awful lot of time looking at Noguchi’s work.)

But to go to O.C. just for the Noguchi Garden is a waste of molar-grinding bumper-to-bumper traffic on the 405. So I added a few destinations to the itinerary: Welton Becket’s old Bullock’s store at South Coast Plaza, which looks like a 1970s Modernist Mayan temple, as well as the Crystal Cathedral (now the Christ Cathedral) complex in Garden Grove.


All destinations represent small pieces of O.C. design craziness, beginning with the Noguchi Garden (formally called “California Scenario”), which transforms a practically impossible 1.6-acre parcel of land alongside the 405 into a representation of various aspects of the California landscape. That includes a sculptural tribute to lima beans, which were once farmed in the area.

“Rather than finding it ridiculous that it’s behind those gridded glass towers, I think it’s a brilliant testament to his skill at setting a scene,” says Lange. “Plus, the name -- you can read all of California history into his rivers.”

And then, of course, there’s the Crystal Cathedral complex: an only-in-Orange-County campus containing more brand-name architecture than you can shake a copy of the Architect’s Journal at. This includes a 1961 church designed by Richard Neutra, a 1968 tower designed by Neutra and his son Dion, a massive glass cathedral by Philip Johnson from 1980, a shining steel tower by the same architect from 1990, and a hospitality and visitor center by Richard Meier, completed in 2003.

Not only does the site represent the dawn of the mega-church (Johnson’s cathedral was pretty much designed for television), it represents a positively mind-boggling cluster of architecture in the middle of low-key Garden Grove. (Founded by Robert H. Schuller, who was known for his drive-in sermons, the campus is now owned by the Catholic Church.)


“The height of the towers in the overall flatness reminded me of [Eero] Saarinen’s North Christian Church in Columbus, [Ind.],” states Lange. “The towers at Crystal Cathedral are a striking presence in the low-rise residential landscape -- and were clearly intended as a beacon and reminder as people went about their daily rounds.”

And the whole agglomeration? Well, Lange says she’s never seen anything quite like it: “In terms of the complex, I can’t think of an equivalent.”

Our whole design adventure is chronicled in the embedded photo essay -- down to the quesadillas. Moreover, Lange took some pretty striking Instagram images. (Here are one, two, and three great examples.)

Find me on Twitter @cmonstah

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