This spring religious architecture lost one of its high-profile patrons, Dr. Robert H. Schuller, who for years headed the Crystal Cathedral in Garden Grove, California. Schuller was an innovative minister in the Reformed Church in America. Sixty years ago he arrived in Southern California looking for a place to plant his church. He ended up redefining what a religious building could be. He bought an old drive-in movie theater in Garden Grove and started a “drive-in” church where his congregants sat in their cars as he preached from the roof of the refreshment stand.
The makeshift drive-in church idea was given concrete form by Richard Neutra, whom Schuller commissioned in 1959 to design a house of worship that could serve congregants in pews as well as bucket seats. Neutra’s design included a 20-foot-high glass wall that rolled back to reveal a pulpit/balcony from which Schuller could preach simultaneously to those inside the church as well as those in lawn chairs and cars. The doctor’s walk-in/drive-in church was consummated.
Schuller truly understood the power of architecture in the service of ministry. As his congregation grew, Schuller envisioned a larger church that would serve as a spectacular backdrop for his “Hour of Power” live television program, which started in 1970. Schuller hired Philip Johnson to design the stage set. Johnson created the Crystal Cathedral—a glazed space-frame with seats for more than 2,700 worshippers that was completed in 1981 (and is now being transformed into a Catholic cathedral, as described in an article starting on page 11). The Crystal Cathedral was the original “shard”—a big glass tent, star-shaped in plan, with 90-foot-high hinged glass walls that swing open to the parking lot beyond—allowing car-bound congregants to see Schuller in his pulpit inside. A more perfect marriage of architecture and ministry is hard to imagine.
Schuller never faltered in carrying his torch for architecture. He later commissioned Johnson to design a bell tower, and in 1990 Richard Meier completed a welcome center for the Garden Grove campus (a little clunky). Schuller served as a Public Member of the AIA Board of Directors and in 2003 was made an honorary member.
Schuller was proud of his architectural patronage, and felt slighted when Faith & Form failed to mention him as a megachurch pioneer when we did a special issue in 2005 on the genre. When Thomas Fisher wrote a postscript to the issue, “Megachurch Madness,” and overlooked Schuller’s role, it was just too much for the preacher. He contacted Fisher and myself, inviting us to Garden Grove to set the record straight. While in Los Angeles for the 2006 AIA Convention, Tom and I drove out to the church, pulled into an empty parking lot, and headed toward the Tower of Hope—the Neutra-designed administration building. As we approached the reception desk an elevator cab opened and the man inside it asked us by name to step in. We were whisked to the top floor and stepped out into Schuller’s private, glass-encased office, which occupied the entire story. Schuller greeted us and took us on an extended tour of his office, festooned with mementos. At some point we noticed Schuller was wearing a George W. Bush Presidential tie bar. Sensing our displeasure, he fixed us with a smile, removed the clip, reached into his pocket, and replaced it with a Bill Clinton Presidential tie bar.
Like all great architectural patrons, Schuller knew that God is in the details.