The transformation of the Crystal Cathedral into Christ Cathedral calls for the conversion of a Protestant, non-sacramental mega-preaching space into a Catholic consecrated liturgical space.

The project aims to correct some of the unintended effects of Vatican II as realized in many churches built since the 1960s in which the area for seated congregants was made strongly visible while the presence of the altar area (the sanctuary) was weakened. These modern churches are lit rather brightly and lack a sense of mystery.

The transformation of Crystal Cathedral into Christ Cathedral is not only about what is made visible. It is about fostering an experineve of gathering around the table, the altar. The table is for sharing communion, the locus of sacrifice. In order to become a sacramental, holy space, the essential aim must be to articulate the presence of divinity. In the former Crystal Cathedral, Schuler preached God’s world through reason and light illuminated reason with technology, expressed in structure and glass.  In order to reconceive the space as Catholic, light must recolor the space and the arrangement of elements must revolve around the altar. For, the central idea of the Catholic Church is the resurrection of Christ symbolized by Christ as light.

The plan of the Crystal Cathedral, with its longitudinal axis running perpendicular to the axis leading from entrance to apse, inherits concepts that date to the historical period when the building was entered from the side. This was prior to the emergence of the Christian Basilica which was frontal and precessual with an entrance on the end of the longitudinal axis leading to the alter. Trancepts created the image of the cross. Side chapels lined the nave.  The Crystal Cathedral, considered as a Catholic church, represents the compression of the Basilican type.  Our interest is to introduce an experience which implies decompression and reintroduces the spatial depth which is fundamental to the spiritual character of traditional Catholic churches. 

The Crystal Cathedral does not have an apse and therefore we must define a sanctuary space. The existing stage will be replaced with a sanctuary platform, which can be understood and walked around as a spatial episode in its own right, a world unto itself. The sanctuary is an irregular octagon, raised, and is related to the geometry of the entire church, but independent of it.  Stairs to the platform are flanked by low walls which, seen combined with the edges of the platform, recollect a chancel barrier. 

The problem is that the existing organ and choir stalls define the interior as belonging to the Baptist (i.e. Protestant) tradition which is what we are trying to replace. Our intention is to isolate the choir and conceal the organ keyboard by creating a ground level walkway between them and the sanctuary platform and by creating a screen wall. The new walkway allows the priests to process down the center aisle, around the sanctuary platform and then to come up onto the platform from behind the altar, facing the congregation.  This is how they process in St.Peter’s.

We propose two schemes in which the iconographic idea is centered on the notion of the glory of God: light-filled clouds.  The first transforms the entire space of the church into a cloud like firmament and the second treats the building as a crystal inside of which is glory, a light-filled cloud which encourages the eyes of the worshipers to look down to the altar.

The concept of the cloud will mitigate not only the overwhelming visual presence of the structure and glass, but also the effect of the evenly-lit space which tends to make the church feel big and empty and to dilute its spirituality.  The existing space frame will be clad in light weight translucent material, ETFE, a pre-stressed material that maintains its shape over time. The panels of surface material are 10’ wide. Another possible material is a tephlon coated fiberglass. The goal is to use these surface treatments as a means to recolor and refocus the light. Fabric will also attenuate sound. Combined with hard surfaces, it will reverberate. Thus, the concept of the cloud involves sculpting both light and sound.

The guiding premise is that the most effective way to focus attention on the sanctuary is to reduce the lighting throughout the congregation space.  In the first scheme, the idea is a cloud pressed up against the surfaces of the crystal in such a way that the interior surfaces crease and become pleated. The people will feel as though they are inside a cloud. The second scheme maintains the Crystal Cathedral largely as it is but dramatically transforms it with the color of light, the shape, contrast, and darkness of the sanctuary platform and the luminosity of the cloud hovering above. This scheme concentrates the lighting and the iconography over the altar.

The lit Cloud would accompany and express the meaning of the liturgy. In contrast to a fixed image of the crucifix, for example, the Cloud is a living, light-filled presence.

Client: Christ Cathedral, Garden Grove, CA

Schedule: shortlisted proposal, 2013

Design team:  Preston Scott Cohen, Carl Dworkin, Collin Gardner

Liturgical consultant: Christine Smith