When architect Scott Johnson was invited to help redesign the iconic Crystal Cathedral into what has become the Christ Cathedral — which will be unveiled Wednesday — Diocese of Orange officials might have been unaware of his history with the Orange County landmark.
Johnson, of Los Angeles-based architectural firm Johnson Fain, was an apprentice working alongside other designers when postmodern architectural giant Philip Johnson conceptualized the 120-foot-tall, 11,000-panel glass cathedral for Rev. Robert Schuller. The televangelist’s “Hour of Power” show reached up to 2.2 million viewers at its peak popularity in the 1970s.
“It is a remarkable coincidence,” Johnson said. “To my knowledge they didn’t know when they asked me to interview. Once I came to the interview they had just bought that 30-acre site. They were very interested in the procedural and prospect for conversion, but they didn’t know a whole lot about the genesis of that building. And I was able to explain why certain decisions were made and what Philip was doing at the time.”
Johnson is quick to point out, “I don’t claim authorship, but I claim some inside knowledge of how the building became how it was.”
The exterior of the glass marvel is mostly unchanged, but the interior has been transformed from the stage of a televangelist to the more traditional needs of a Roman Catholic service. But unlike the tradition of dark, European churches, Christ Cathedral is bright and modern.
Part of the rationale involved eliminating the heat and glare from the glass so air conditioning could function more efficiently. That was accomplished with “quatrefoils,” which are window shades that allow the light in, but also reduces the magnifying of heat from the sun.
At various parts of the day the sun can cast different shadows due to the shades, and because they are square-shaped the shadows can sometimes appear as crosses.
The quatrefoils also help with acoustics, Johnson said.
“It’s metaphorical for the skies or heavens,” Johnson said of the white shades. “Hopefully, it conveys a sense of wonder, the sense of skies… and it throws in interesting patterns on the floor, diamond shapes.”
The 11,000 quatrefoils cost $6 million.
Preserving the “landmark architecture” of the cathedral’s exterior meant the designers were “building a boat inside a boat,” Johnson said.
Schuller founded his Garden Grove church in 1955. The Crystal Cathedral was completed in 1980, but the Schuller family fell on hard times and the ministry landed in bankruptcy court, where the Diocese of Orange won the bidding to acquire it for $57.5 million in February 2012.
The final Crystal Cathedral service was June 30, 2013.
The first Christ Cathedral service will be on Wednesday morning with a special three-hour Mass.
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