From Crystal to Christ

Volume 48, Issue 2 :: By Scott Johnson, FAIA, and Frank Clementi, AIA, AIGA

An epic transformation of the historic Crystal Cathedral to a new cathedral for Catholic worship

Renderings by Shimahara courtesy Johnson Fain and Rios Clementi Hale Studios

The new design recognizes the unique spiritual and physical heritage of the campus while creating a new center for Catholic worship.

The new design recognizes the unique spiritual and physical heritage of the campus while creating a new center for Catholic worship.

In the late summer of 2013, our Los Angeles-based firms, Johnson Fain and Rios Clementi Hale Studios, were commissioned as a collaborative team to redesign the world-renowned Crystal Cathedral in Garden Grove, California, and re-plan its 34-acre campus to become the home for Christ Cathedral, the new center of the Roman Catholic Church in the Diocese of Orange. Johnson Fain’s task was to redesign the Cathedral’s architecture, while Rios Clementi Hale Studios was asked to plan the layout of the campus and design the landscape and cemetery of the multifaceted site.

The architecture of the original cathedral by Johnson/Burgee was considered by many to be historically important, to some, a masterwork. The campus, which for more than 30 years was the home for Reverend Robert Schuller’s evangelical Crystal Cathedral Ministries, is a disparate collection of significant buildings (by architects including Richard Neutra and Richard Meier & Partners) that lack a clear relation to each other.

Questions of Transcendence

Worshippers pass through a series of thresholds within a ‘concentric gradient of sacredness.’

Worshippers pass through a series of thresholds within a ‘concentric gradient of sacredness.’

We focused on how the essence and detail of the original building could be honored and the new cathedral and its practices be fully realized, while embracing each other in their common Christian faith. How could the campus become a cohesive site that welcomes the diverse communities and cultures that comprise the Diocese of Orange? What types of gardens and plazas could connect the landscape to the liturgy? These questions were in our minds as we began our work, and our goal was to respect the unique spiritual and physical heritage of the campus while creating an inspiring environment for Catholic worship, a center for arts and culture, and a place for community outreach, especially to the poor and marginalized. The Diocese Architectural and Restoration Committee worked closely with our team to develop a design that honors the essence and strength of the site’s renowned architecture, while accommodating the rich traditions and liturgy of the Catholic Church.

The Crystal Cathedral has been widely recognized for its dramatic exterior, but we soon realized that the building itself required significant modification to fulfill the role of a Catholic cathedral. Our charge is to convert an open, all-glass Evangelical church into a great Catholic cathedral to serve its centuries-old sacraments and ritual processions, and to reinforce the centrality of the Eucharist. Reverend Schuller, as we know, inaugurated one of the first and most successful world-wide televangelical ministries. Accordingly, the design of the original building had affinities to a broadcasting studio: tall ceilings, multiple camera angles, a broad stage that provided flexible programming, and generous natural light. Contrarily, our sense of the historic Catholic cathedrals led us to cherish controlled lighting, long and dramatic processional routes, antiphonal choir music, and the centrality of the altar over which floats the baldachin and below which lies the undercroft and columbarium. Our response is to create a virtually new building within the existing building shell. This effort represents our attempt to honor the gift and Christian legacy of the original building, while thoroughly renewing it.

A Catholic Worship Space

To accommodate Catholic processional events where clergy file into the church through a portal and up a center aisle into the sanctuary, the interior is reshaped into a cruciform plan. Fundamental to this approach is the need to rethink and reorganize the three principal entries. We began at the main entrance with the addition of two bronze pivot doors, creating a modern version of a historic “Bishop’s Door” through which processions enter. These two large panels, in material and message, recall Ghiberti’s doors in Florence’s Baptistery of San Giovanni, yet pivot to open up the narthex to the plaza and Southern California landscape. The other extremities of the cruciform plan are the Chapel of the Blessed Sacrament to the north, the Baptistery to the west and, on the east, the Pilgrims’ Entry and rotunda stair leading to the undercroft below the sanctuary floor. The Chapel of St. Callistus, Cathedral offices, a bride’s room, vesting, and support functions reside on this lower level.

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At the center of the cruciform plan is the altar, sitting atop the predella in full view of all 2,000 seats. A large, platinum-leafed baldachin and carved crucifix are suspended above the altar, the heart of the cathedral, adjacent to the bishop’s chair, or cathedra. Paving and interior walls are composed primarily of silver travertine and limestone with inlays of complementary stones and select sections of dark walnut paneling to match the material of the pews.

The cathedral is home to the Hazel Wright Organ—the world’s fourth-largest church-based pipe organ—well known for its combination of sound quality and technology. The mezzanine level showcases the organ, which is currently undergoing a complete restoration in Italy. This upper-level space is also being reconfigured to accommodate antiphonal music in multiple configurations.

One of the most complex design elements of the new cathedral is the interior treatment of the building shell, currently an expansive steel space frame that supports more than 10,000 individual glass panes. We have spent the past year designing a highly engineered interior system that will resurface this space frame and is at the heart of resolving the many symbolic, aesthetic, environmental, and technical challenges the existing building presents. In our effort to create this new layer, we are attempting to address issues of acoustics, day-lighting, artificial light, solar heat transmission, ventilation, visibility, and environmental comfort. Today’s standards for comfort are much more advanced than those of three decades ago; fortunately, the digital technologies allowing us to achieve that comfort have kept pace. In the end, as the new stone floor and the lower walls recall the earth, so the glass vault overhead recalls the heavens. Resolving these many challenges must be both comprehensive and intuitive.

To devise the optimal solution, the team digitally mapped the sun’s path of travel across the building exterior over every hour and every day of the year and studied acoustic reverberation within the building’s volume. Using this data, we proposed an innovative ceiling system designed as an algorithmically complex series of triangular metal sails that are in variously open or closed positions based upon their solar orientation. This system of “petals” on the inside surface of the space frame modulates natural light throughout the day, reduces glare, and creates rich translucent patterns that define the interior shell by day and by night.

Groundscape Vision

While Christ Cathedral is the heart of the campus, the surrounding grounds are central to Catholic life. A new landscape has to honor the history of the site, its architecture, and its worshippers, while also enabling its renewed life as a cathedral. One of the master planning principles we developed is to focus on people rather than cars. We are more intent on moving worshipers from the street toward the altar in a procession that transcends them from the mundane secular city to sacred spaces within the church, that is, from the edge of the site at Chapman and Lewis, through the building, to the altar.

Churches conventionally have frontal approaches, with plazas that accommodate assembly and procession in front of the building. Our approach is omnidirectional, and while we couldn’t actually move the church, we could re-center it by surrounding it with celebratory space. Locating the cathedral on the plaza, not just in the plaza, suggests that the glass structure is of the sky, with the ground extending throughout.

The approach to the building comprises a series of thresholds that worshippers pass through within a “concentric gradient of sacredness.” This progression starts in the outside world of the city that surrounds the site, and moves closer, through the green space between the outside world and the parking, then the parking, then the filter space of the grove of trees surrounding the plaza, then the plaza, then the outside of the cathedral, on through to the seating to the altar.

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While the geometric formal clarity and legibility of the rectangular plaza serves to support the primacy of the cathedral building, this strident simplicity is reinforced but also mitigated by a humanizing margin of 250 trees around the perimeter. This garden margin forms a liminal condition, a habitable threshold separating the sacred plaza supporting the cathedral from the mundane context of streets, parking lots, and the secular city.

The plaza’s singular uniform tableau is divided by the central location of the cathedral into four equal quadrants surrounding the building, each with purpose and symbolism:

Festal Court: location of the Paschal brazier; serves celebratory and sacred functions with the adjacent cultural center and arboretum; acts as the “formal living room” of the site.

Pilgrim’s Court: a lively arrival space with interactive water element; a secular space that recalls the arrival of pilgrims as they prepare to enter the sanctuary.

Marian Court: includes a shrine to the Blessed Virgin Mary, patroness in many cultures of the community; an intercessional space open to the public corner and civic lawn.

Court of the Catechumens: spiritual gateway for rites of baptism and burial, with connection to the cemetery; represents initiation and commendation of members of the church

The flat, unencumbered flexibility of the surface of the plaza allows for collective uses for large groups of people. Its monolithic nature is sublimated by paving details at a more personal scale. Variegation in the paving pattern is achieved through the encryption of verses from the Gospel of John, which starts: “In the beginning was the Word.” Working from a lectionary provided by Monsignor Arthur Holquin, we transcribed the gospel readings into lines of paving. Each letter of each word is represented as a single stone in the paving, rendering sections of the plaza as “pages” in a foundational manuscript.

The cemetery is formally linked and overlapped with the Court of the Catechumens, both integrated and discrete. The visitor entry to the existing cemetery is preserved, while a new entry from the Court of the Catechumens will be created for funeral processions from the cathedral. Connecting these entries creates a route that links the cemetery spaces together in a contemplative promenade back to the plaza. The expanded cemetery features a variety of spaces that address the diverse preferences of cultures comprising the Catholic community in Orange County. An added mausoleum building with burial halls links sight lines to the cathedral.

Designing this transformation of the cathedral and grounds has been an extraordinary life experience for all involved. Some of us were raised in Christian faiths, but others not, giving the team a diversity that deepens understanding with the opportunities for educational discussions. Our patrons have been generous with their knowledge and their time, and our goal has always been to fulfill Bishop Kevin Vann’s vision of a cathedral as a unifying presence for all peoples in the heart of one of the most diverse communities in the US.

Scott Johnson directs architecture and interior design at Los Angeles-based Johnson Fain, which he co-founded in 1987 with William Fain, FAIA. Prior to this, Johnson worked with architect Philip Johnson (no relation). Frank Clementi, AIA, AIGA, is partner at Rios Clementi Hale Studios, a multi-disciplinary design firm in Los Angeles. He is a member of the City of Los Angeles Mayor’s Design Advisory Committee.


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