Deane Madsen


The Crystal Cathedral in Garden Grove, Calif., designed in 1980 by Philip Johnson (with his partner John Burgee) for Christian televangelist Robert H. Schuller, was both a destination for the faithful and a broadcasting studio for the pastor’s weekly Hour of Power television show. Reverend Schuller was an architectural connoisseur (the AIA named him an honorary member in 2003), and the 78,000-square-foot steel-and-glass-building attracted thousands of congregants, including some local architects, who would drive south to Orange County for The Glory of Christmas, a spectacular holiday pageant on the scale of a Broadway show, with music, lights, and even live camels.

Aerial rendering of the new campus
Courtesy Johnson Fain Aerial rendering of the new campus

In 2010, after Crystal Cathedral Ministries filed for bankruptcy and sold the campus to the Roman Catholic Diocese of Orange for $57.5 million, many wondered about the fate of the diamond-shaped, made-for-TV building. In addition to the cathedral, the 34-acre campus is home to the 22,000-square-foot Arboretum, a sanctuary designed by Richard Neutra (1961); the 13-story Tower of Hope (1968), also designed by Neutra and his son Dion; and Richard Meier’s International Center for Possibility Thinking (2003), a four-story visitor center designed around the time the architect was working on the Getty Center.

The diocese has restored both the Arboretum and the Tower of Hope in recent years, and a new liturgical pageantry will also soon fill the cathedral. Los Angeles–based architect Scott Johnson, FAIA, and his firm Johnson Fain will preserve and reconfigure the sanctuary to serve the needs of the Catholic Church. The estimated $72.3 million project will begin this year, and the re-dedicated Christ Cathedral will open in 2019.

The tower and arboretum
Deane Madsen The tower and arboretum

Remarkably, Scott Johnson played a small part in the original design of the cathedral. A design associate at Philip Johnson (no relation) and John Burgess’ firm in New York for five years before moving to California in 1983, he helped to detail the Crystal Cathedral’s window wall system. He recalls that the interior of Reverend Schuller’s ministry was an ideal broadcasting studio: a grid of cameras hung down from the space frame, the magnificent 16,000-pipe Hazel Wright Organ served as a dramatic backdrop to the choir, and the reverend stood high on a dais in front of a 90-foot-tall door, which would swing open so he could also deliver his sermon to the congregants who had gathered outside in their parked cars. Indeed, Schuller got his evangelical start preaching in a rented drive-in theater in the mid-1950s, and the radial pattern of parking at the cathedral reflects that history.

A view of the cathedral and tower (right) from the arboretum courtyard
Deane Madsen A view of the cathedral and tower (right) from the arboretum courtyard

Schuller and Johnson, an atheist, might have had their differences, but both men shared grand visions and ambitions that went beyond the “glass tent” they were constructing in Orange County. In his book Philip Johnson and Texas (University of Texas, 2000), Frank D. Welch quoted the pastor: “I think Philip had the same quality Walt Disney had: the enthusiasm of a boy who’s never grown up. Philip and I are just like peas in a pod, I found. Although he says he’s not a religious person, I feel that Philip Johnson and I are on a very harmonious wavelength, and one that is transcendent enough to be labeled a spiritual relationship.”

The cathedral during Easter in 2005
Wikimedia Nepenthes The cathedral during Easter in 2005

“Philip and Reverend Schuller’s levels of enthusiasm were well-matched,” Scott Johnson says. “My observation was that there was much legitimate back-and-forth between the two of them, as can be the case with strong personalities. Philip wanted a diamond shape with a folded glass roof over stone walls, Reverend Schuller wanted an all-glass building. So the scheme was revised.”

Rendering showing the quatrefoils
Courtesy Johnson Fain Rendering showing the quatrefoils

The unmitigated flood of sunlight that pours through the façade has proved tricky in converting the building into a Catholic cathedral. Philip Johnson’s spaceframe was constructed out of more than 12,000 rectangular panes of glass that were glued with a silicon-based adhesive to the structure. Over three decades, the glue and sealants deteriorated, resulting in leaks and safety issues. Restoration and repair work is underway, and is being carried out by Southern California–based contractor Century Building Solutions, which specializes in waterproofing and restoration.

Still, Johnson Fain needed to devise a method to filter the sunlight both for aesthetic and climate-related reasons. “One thinks of all the Catholic cathedrals of Europe and one thinks of the stone buildings that are sedate and have a lot of gravitas,” says Scott Johnson. “They might have stained glass or rose windows, and the light comes through in kind of mysterious shrouded ways. This is the opposite of that.”

Rendering of the altar
Courtesy Johnson Fain Rendering of the altar

At Crystal Cathedral, the firm designed a system of translucent panels—quatrefoils—that will be hung from the structure and modulate the direct light and glare. The panels will also modulate heat gain and act as a noise baffle. The architects used software that could model the seasonal movement of the sun so, although the panels will be set in a fixed position, the quatrefoils will filter sunlight throughout the year.

In the sanctuary, which was originally designed as more of a stage for performance, Johnson Fain devised a plan for Catholic worship. The new arrangement will place the predella (a raised altar that’s sheltered by a metal baldachin and ornamented by a suspended crucifix) at the center of the plan surrounded by a radial pew arrangement of pews. The mezzanine will be reconfigured to hold chorale and instrumental music as well as the dramatic organ.

The Diocese of Orange is one of the fastest growing Catholic communities in the United States, and serves 1.2 people across 62 parishes and centers in the county, according to its website. It holds mass in multiple languages—Spanish, Vietnamese, Cantonese, and Mandarin, a reflection of the growing Latin and Asian populations in Orange.

Rendering of the baptistry
Courtesy Johnson Fain Rendering of the baptistry
Rendering of the new chapel
Courtesy Johnson Fain Rendering of the new chapel

According to Christ Cathedral’s Reverend Christopher Smith, the new scheme for the cathedral, with wide aisles and ambulatories for processions, will accommodate all kinds of services and events. “The design for the renovated cathedral will allow for much flexibility that is necessary for the many diverse celebrations that will be held,” he says. “The monotone color of the space will lend itself to giving prominence to all color palettes, again, allowing for diversity in the use of liturgical colors and other symbolic colors representative of various cultures. The sacred art used in various parts of the cathedral, both inside and out, will be specifically reflective of the diverse ethnic groups who are part of the life of the cathedral.”

Rendering of the cathedral at night
Courtesy Johnson Fain Rendering of the cathedral at night

In development, but without a construction date, is a new campus landscape site plan by Rios Clementi Hale Studios. The hope is that this scheme will help soften the large plazas and unite the architectural icons. Initial renderings show allées of blooming trees framing the cathedral as well as added water features. The design will also reckon with some of Schuller’s relics: marble plaques and larger than life-size bronze sculptures depicting scenes from the scriptures. Reverend Smith suggests a more modest, while still respectful, redesign—the artworks will be grouped together on site. “There are plans for a future legacy garden that will specifically honor all those whose generosity and presence created the campus in the first place,” he says.