Architects eager to begin Crystal Cathedral's renovation

Crystal Cathedral Credit Diocese of Orange CNA US Catholic News 9 24 13 Crystal Cathedral. | Diocese of Orange.

The leading architects in the massive undertaking of renovating the 'Crystal Cathedral' into Christ Cathedral for the Diocese of Orange, Calif., have expressed their excitement about the daunting project.

On Sept. 18, Bishop Kevin W. Vann of Orange announced that Johnson Fain and Rios Clementi Hale Studios had been selected to collaborate on the transformation of the landmark building and its 34-acre campus.

The Diocese of Orange purchased the 3,000-seat Crystal Cathedral in February of 2012 from the Protestant church which founded it. The purchase was made after Crystal Cathedral had filed for bankruptcy in October 2010 when some of its creditors sued for payment.

"That the Catholic Church would take on a project like this, that they would be able to move to a site with this much promise in it, both in terms of the breadth of the site itself and the possibility of a campus of multiple buildings and multiple activities…is exciting," Scott Johnson, design partner at Johnson Fain, told CNA Sept. 17.

"And, that they would take on as the site of their cathedral, and in particular, the former Crystal Cathedral, which is quite an important landmark building…(the diocese) had great regard and respect for what it means in the cultural community, and they were very thoughtful about it, as they were about the other buildings."

Johnson Fain will focus on re-vamping the interior of the cathedral to make it suitable for Catholic worship, while Rios Clementi Hale Studios will oversee the integration of the rest of the campus, including its six other buildings, into a unified whole.

"The site has three really important pieces of architecture," Mark Rios, principal of Rios Clementi Hale Studios, explained to CNA. The campus buildings "really were never collectively designed," he added: "one building was added in sequence after another, and the parking lots were modified to receive a new building, but the exterior spaces here can be really fantastic."

Rios will be focused on master planning, examining how the buildings "all sort of tie together and support each other."

He explained some of his beginning conversations with Johnson – the two have collaborated before – by saying they have discussed "how do you arrive at the site, what makes the site sacred, how do you park your car, how do you get out of your car, how do you move through that procession to the cathedral or to the school or other facilities: how it all really tells the story of the Catholic Church and the ritual opportunities which might be available."

"In southern California, a lot of the services could happen outside, or processions may start outside and end inside. Scott and I will really be looking at how to sort of make all of those (come together) from all parts of the site into the cathedral."

Johnson emphasized the importance of being able to re-vamp the entire campus, an opportunity rarely availed to architects re-designing a site.

"We can think of the carpet of the cathedral – in a sense, from the building design point of view – of the carpet of the cathedral actually extending beyond the inside of the building and out into the edges of the site."

Because American society is so automobile-driven, he said, the architects want to consider "our experience as you see it from the highway, and as you, if you will, drive onto the carpet of the property. So we want to have an entirely integrated experience: not just jumping into the building and jumping out of the building."

He said that his strategy will be "essentially to conserve and restore the exterior" of the cathedral, which is made of more than 10,000 panes of glass, and that "the new architecture will really be in the refashioning of the operational aspects and the interior elements of the shell."

Johnson was in the office of the Crystal Cathedral's original designer, Philip Johnson, when the building was being created in the late 1970s and worked on parts of it then, giving him a particular familiarity with it.

"Something of very intense interest architecturally, is that the building was conceived as an evangelical building, one of the first mega-churches…and then further it has a very unique history because of Reverend (Robert) Schuller and his beginning years of giving sermons to the out of doors."

He explained that Schuller "wanted a building that was both a building and not a building, so that in a sense he could be in an enclosure, but it would be as if he were out of doors, which is where he began his ministry: so this building was an entire shell of glass."

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"As we think now about a Catholic cathedral, our initial thoughts that it is really so different from that in so many ways, and it's meditative, it's processional, it's focused. The evangelical life it had was somewhat of a production studio, as a television ministry: that aspect really isn't relevant here."

The goal in the transformation process will be to "maintain the wonder and beauty" of the cathedral's structure and light, he said, while at the same time seeking "to modify it slightly in some ways, to make it more appropriate for Masses, Catholic devotionals, reading, hymnals."

Having maintained the glass shell of the cathedral, Johnson Fain will "significantly rework the bottom: everything from the mezzanine seating down to the ground level."

"There are some very interesting ways we might do that, and in the process we will look at how the altar and the sanctuary should be laid out. But I believe that whole bottom register will change meaningfully, all inside the shell of the original glass building."

Neither Johnson nor Rios are Catholic, though Rios' partner on the project, Frank Clement, is. Rios is himself Episcopalian, and Johnson has worked before on a Benedictine monastery. They both said they will be asking many questions throughout the design process, and it was pointed out that Brother William Woeger, director of the Omaha archdiocese's office for divine worship, is a liturgical consultant in the operation.

"The beginning of the process is listening, and that's absolutely true: there will be weeks and months of listening," Johnson said.

Among the concerns included in the re-design is the acoustics of the cathedral, ensuring that modifications "will allow people to both understand the spoken word as well as musical celebration." The cathedral is currently carpeted, and Johnson said that the existing carpet will be removed and may be replaced with an alternative floor surface.

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He concluded that the "many ways to look" at the site of the Crystal Cathedral, including its status as a tourist destination, "will also continue…which will make it an extremely exciting design problem."

Rios reflected that "we're both really excited to make this an inclusive place for the Catholic community of Orange County, and the Catholic community has a lot of wonderful, sort of diverse communities within it."

"One of the things I'm looking forward to is to really understand the slight…differences, or celebrations that may happen from one Catholic community to another, and how to find a place for those," he said.

"The Latin Catholic community may have celebrations the Vietnamese Catholic community may not have, and vice versa; so our job is to really understand all of those and look at all the overlaps, and make sure there are spaces for all those kinds of really wonderful rituals to happen."

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