Sacred Scope

Sacred Scope

johnson fain/ rios clementi hale

After a year-long design process, Johnson Fain and Rios Clementi Hale Studios have unveiled their design for the restoration and reconfiguring of one of California’s most famous spaces: Philip Johnson’s Christ Cathedral—otherwise known as the Crystal Cathedral—in Garden Grove, California. The church was purchased by the Diocese of Orange in 2011 after its founder, televangelist Robert H. Schuller, filed for bankruptcy.

The plan converts the former Evangelical cathedral into a Catholic one, addresses several pressing technology and site issues, and makes the church the clear centerpiece of its 34-acre, seven building campus, which also includes structures by Richard Neutra and Richard Meier.

Inside, in order to make the altar the focus of the space (a necessity of Catholic mass) the team will convert the cathedral to an antiphonal layout, with the altar at the center and the congregants on either side. The move, said Johnson Fain principal Scott Johnson, not only makes sense from a religious standpoint but also spatially: “With the trapezoidal shape it’s the most intuitive thing to do,” he said.

A new plaza ringed with flowering trees will give the Cathedral a place of prominence.

Above the altar the designers are planning a dramatic baldacchino, a suspended canopy made up of glistening metallic fins with a large crucifix hanging from its open center. Around that composition, along the interior skin of the building, the architects have proposed a treatment of rigid “petals” that cover each of the cathedral’s more than 10,000 panes of glass, opening between 15 and 45 degrees. The petals will control light and heat (both are problems in the space), and will also improve the acoustics. On the exterior the team will clean the church’s windows and restore the existing shell.


Outside the cathedral, the team is surrounding the building with a new plaza intended to give it a position of centrality in its crowded campus. The space will be lined with dark and light concrete and travertine pavers, dotted with water elements, landscaping, “light pillars,” shrines, and chapels, and ringed with flowering trees. The new landscape “creates a boundary between it and the mundane,” said Rios Clementi Hale partner Frank Clementi. The transition toward the cathedral will be marked by “layers of sacredness,” he added.

The campus, with the remaining buildings now more clearly defined as support structures, will be master planned to better manage a wide array of events. “It’s a huge undertaking,” said Clementi. “One treads with caution,” added Johnson of working on such an important landmark.

Johnson’s team is focusing on the cathedral itself while Clementi’s is focusing on the surrounding area, but both are engaging in a healthy back and forth, said Clementi. That conversation also includes the cathedral’s ministry, which both architects have praised for their openness and generosity. “They’re people of faith, and they actually have faith in the designers,” joked Johnson.

The building is expected to reopen in 2017.