Transfiguring the Crystal Cathedral

Transfiguring the Crystal Cathedral February 20, 2012

It doesn’t take a doctorate in church architecture to know why every pew in every Catholic cathedral allows worshippers to gaze toward the altar.

What happens on the altar during Mass is the heart of Catholic faith.

Meanwhile, architects that design Protestant churches make sure preachers have everyone’s attention when they rise to preach. What happens in those pulpits is what matters for most Protestants.

The Rev. Robert H. Schuller, on the other hand, asked the legendary architect Philip Johnson to design the world’s first great church specifically built for use as a studio for televised worship.

Leaders of the Diocese of Orange will have to meditate on that fact as they work to turn the Crystal Cathedral into a spiritual home for Orange County’s nearly 1.3 million Catholics, according to an architect who has published an sketch of possible changes in that structure. The diocese recently completed its $57.5 million purchase of the property.

“It would be hard to imagine a more symbolic project that this one,” said Mathew Alderman, a graduate of the University of Notre Dame’s classical design program and an architect at Cram and Ferguson Architects in Concord, Mass. The firm specializes in traditional church designs.

“What we are going to see at the Crystal Cathedral is sort of like a collision between the therapeutic American Protestantism of the television age with all of the symbolism, art and ancient traditions of the Catholic Church and its worship.”

At this point, the Diocese of Orange has not taken formal steps to hire an architect and the Crystal Cathedral congregation has three years to find a new home. Acting on his own, Alderman sketched some possible changes to illustrate a piece for an Anglican periodical called The Living Church.

It would be impossible, he noted, to retroactively convert this modernist classic — a structure so open that it seems to have no true walls or interior space — into what most people would consider a normal, conventional cathedral.

“While traditional styles can often be mixed within historic interiors,” wrote Alderman, “the modernist movement was such a destructive act of self-exile that great care must be used when adding traditional elements to a dated modernist interior. Plopping down a Gothic altarpiece into a 1968 ecclesiastical wigwam usually just makes the wigwam look worse.”

The crucial decision, according to Alderman, is whether to turn the direction of the seating so the faithful will face down the 415-foot length of the sanctuary toward a newly created altar platform built inside the existing glass building. This would create a traditional nave with a center aisle for processions toward the altar and the tabernacle containing the Blessed Sacrament. Currently, the church resembles a long amphitheater in which worshippers face a stage and giant video screen in the middle of the cruciform building, which is 207 feet wide.

“Strong processional movements from the back of the church to the altar are practical, but also theological,” said Alderman, reached by phone. “We are the people of God and we are traveling somewhere — together. We are moving toward Christ and the altar. That’s the focus.”

The local Catholic leadership has already concluded that the Crystal Cathedral is “not a highly liturgical space in the traditional sense. Yet, the Diocese of Orange considers it a ‘clean palatte,’ ” wrote Msgr. Arthur Holquin, in a paper entitled “Domus Ecclesiae (House of the Church).”

“While renovations are called for, not much deconstruction would be required and the iconic personality of the original architecture and design would, for the most part, be retained.” In particular, he added, the “quality of light and its allegory is consistent with the enlightenment of Christ.”

Bishop Tod Brown recently challenged Catholics nationwide to help name the new cathedral — proposing “Christological” names linked to the person and work of Jesus. As of Tuesday morning, more than 3,500 entries had been submitted. The deadline is Feb. 20.

Alderman has already turned in his vote, proposing what he believes is a logical name for a cathedral containing 10,000 windows of silver-tinted glass — The Cathedral of the Transfiguration.

“The Crystal Cathedral is all about light and the blue sky being everywhere you look,” he said. “It’s the perfect place for dramatic images of Christ being transfigured and illuminated in divine light. … You could also say this sanctuary is about to be transfigured, becoming a real cathedral.”

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