By Jacqueline Mainguy
Majestic, impressive, translucent, the “Crystal Cathedral” has dominated the skyline of Garden Grove, Los Angeles since 1980.
It is all thanks to an Evangelical Pastor who moved the congregation with his preaching, and who engaged the famous architect, Philip Johnson, to build a new place of worship for him, telling him: “Make it all Glass”
Robert Harold Schuller was Pastor of the American Evangelical Reform Church. He first began preaching accompanied by his wife playing the organ, while his parishioners remained seated in their cars, in the enclosure of the “drive-in Orange Theater” and close by the snack bar, and later from the roof of the neighbouring supermarket.
The Pastor became ever more popular and, a few years later he had another walk-in/drive-in place of worship built. Robert Schuller also had an elevated pulpit placed in front of a sliding glass wall, as he wanted to be able to simultaneously address the believers inside the church as well as those parked in their car outside.
As the popularity of his sermons grew, he asked the architect Richard Neutra to erect a real Church for him, to which he added, in 1961, “the Tower of Hope” surmounted by a huge Cross, which for a long time was the highest monument in Orange County.
The sermons were broadcast by television and thousands of people listened to them.
And so the Pastor wanted another, even bigger Church. Filled with enthusiasm at having been able to engage the architect Philip Johnson, and recalling his first sermons in the open air or from behind a transparent screen, he told him “make it all glass”.
In 1977, in a seismic region on the San Andreas fault, the highly acclaimed architect Philip Johnson, accompanied by the architect John Burgee, took up the challenge. After 3 years’ work, in 1980, they completed the construction of this immense and prestigious building, of which the walls and arches are entirely covered with 10,000 panes of tinted glass, which permeates the whole building with exceptional luminosity. Once it was constructed, the cathedral adopted the name “the Crystal Cathedral”.
The Consecration of the Sanctuary officially took place in 1980.
The Sanctuary is based on a star shape with four arms. Its dimensions are 40 meters high, 63 meters long and 126 meters wide.
Philip Johnson, influenced by the social and political ideals of German Expressionism, designed the nave in the shape of an elongated star, to allow a better view of the High Altar.
(During the immediate post-war era, German Expressionism was partly accepted by the tenants of “New Objectivity” or “Neue Sachlichkeit”; an architectural procedure which extols logic and scientific precision which Philip Johnson would apply to the Crystal Cathedral: pure geometrical shapes and a construction in glass and steel).
A huge nave of almost 28,000 square meters accommodating 2,800 congregation and 1,000 musicians forms the interior of the cathedral.
In the interior of the huge Nave is the organ made by Fratelli Ruffatti, the instrument is composed of 15948 pipes, 14 divisions, 302 organ stops and 273 ranks. It counts among the 5 largest organs in the world.
The Crystal Cathedral remains a symbol of the American Evangelical Movement where thousands of worshippers attend the services every Sunday. The facilities are faithful to the Pastor’s slogan “Come as you are in the family car”.
According to Robert Schuller, a congregation is a network of individuals. These individuals are “windows open to God “and “mirrors which reflect His Glory”. The Crystal Cathedral completely fulfills this vision.
Ten years later, in 1990, the architect Richard Meier acceded to another request from Pastor Schuller, and added the “Prayer Spire” to the cathedral, huge and dominating the entire Crystal Cathedral. Contrary to his former projects Richard Meier chose this time to cover the whole structure in steel, though the interior of the Tower is completely “white” and on the different levels there are an immense auditorium and different meeting places.
Finally, an International Center for “Possibility Thinking” was added transforming the whole place into a veritable Religious Campus.
The initial predicted budget for the construction was greatly superseded: the cost of the work, fixed at 6 million dollars, finally reached close to 17 million dollars.
In spite of countless worshippers listening across an immense TV Network throughout the world, impending bankruptcy forced the Pastor to put “his” Church up for sale.
The Catholic Church acquired it in November 2011 for the sum of 57,5 dollars.
The Crystal Cathedral became the Catholic Church’s “CHRIST CATHEDRAL”.
The Diocese of Orange County at the present time does not foresee any transformations, nor any exterior changes. This masterly piece of work, among the most remarkable of Philip Johnson, will therefore remain intact.
With the successful realization of a long quest for a new “modern” style of architecture, since the beginning of the 20th century, Philip Johnson has successfully adapted modern materials and new construction techniques, got rid of historical references, and the borrowing of styles from the past.
Religion and Architecture have however maintained the close bonds that connected them throughout previous centuries, and The Crystal Cathedral is a symbol of this connection.